Jonathan Edwards, 18th Century Terrorist

     A few weeks ago Baptist minister Rob Bell broke ranks with his flock and presumably the great majority of his denomination by writing a book in which he proclaimed that salvation is not a Christian prerogative only. He endured the appropriate vilification for this broad-minded transgression, including a chastising letter in USA Today in which Kathy McFarland observed that Jonathan Edwards, 18th century minister famous in particular for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, “had it right.” It just so happened that I had re-read that sermon less than a year ago—but even in high school, God “hold[ing] you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider” over a flame, was memorable.

     Edwards’ sermon might be more properly titled “Sinners in the Hands of a Solipsistic, Bloodthirsty, and Contemptible God.” Why, Reverend Edwards, is God so angry? Apparently, like some mewling child, he can’t tolerate not getting his way; he is outraged by anything less than total adoration and obeisance; he is furious that you might not fully appreciate his throwing you into a world in which the sole responsibility of his prized creations is to thank him for the privilege of adoring him. And if you, his wretched, undeserving creation, who never asked to be created, neglect to adequately perform this lifelong requirement of adulation, you are doomed to the literal flames for all time: you “must suffer it to all eternity.” Edwards’ cruel, vain God consigns you to “no end to this exquisite, horrible misery.” Nor are children exempted from the wrath that the Reverend so admires and justifies: “And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night?” Yet still you have the chance, Edwards simultaneously coos and threatens, to appease this tyrant and avoid an infinity of flames for your few years of unbelief by divesting yourself of your capacity for rationality, by denying yourself and others freedom of thought, by choosing to live on your knees, and by choosing to worship and adore a monster. That is all that is required—no kindness to others, no virtue, no compassion, no forgiveness is necessary. All the monster requires is adoration, sycophancy, and hourly gratitude; and for their absence you will be tortured everlastingly, and out of all proportion to your crime.

     Nor does Edwards’ God see himself as being under any obligation to keep his side of the bargain. As a Calvinist, Edwards subscribes to the view that the “elect” are saved from infinite torture through predestination, a decision his dice-throwing God made long before these few, fortunate souls were born—a doctrine, he claims elsewhere, which “appears exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet.” So the bargain God offers—I will not torture you endlessly provided that you surrender everything in order to meekly adore me—he can capriciously ignore after your lifetime of abject submission. You are not free to violate your agreement, but he is totally free to violate his and for no reason. He is entitled to be wholly arbitrary, throwing you into “hell’s wide gaping mouth” on a whim, no matter your lifetime of devoted servitude. Conveniently Edwards does not mention this in his sermon, cowing all his congregants into a false and corrupt bargain. As with the kidnaper who kills his victim after receiving the ransom, only one side is required to honor the agreement. Melville must have read this sermon. This was Ahab’s private war.

     What honorable human could say such things to anyone, but especially children? Here lies evil; and if there were a hell, Edwards and all the legions of godly hate-mongers and fear-mongers of all faiths would be the first to feel the flames. No, Ms. McFarland, Edwards most certainly did not have it right.

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