Comparing the Messages of Edwards and Piper
This is a review (part three) of a famous sermon called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Read part one, The Suicide Sermon, a synopsis of the sermon, and part two, Slippery Slope.
In part two, Slippery Slope, I examined the introduction to Edward’s sermon and concluded:
The problem with Edwards’ intro is that he takes the idea of destruction, within the context of unbelieving Israel, and equates it with eternal torment in hell. This is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. But begin I will…
Today, we’ll examine the main body of the sermon:
II. It is God’s sovereign pleasure to NOT preserve or protect them from falling at the appointed time.
1. God has the power “to cast wicked men into hell at any moment.”
2. You deserve to be cast into hell.
3. You are presently condemned to hell.
4. The wrath of God presently burns against you.
5. The devil is ready to seize you, once God gives the okay.
6. The “seeds” of hell fire are presently in you.
7. You are on the brink of eternity, and your very next step could send you straight to hell.
8. You can do nothing to secure yourselves.
9. You have fooled yourselves into believing you are not going to go to hell.
10. God is under no obligation to keep any person from hell, even for a moment.
First, recognize that when Edwards talks about “destruction” or “falling,” he isn’t talking about the natural consequences that accompany negative or immoral thoughts, decisions, or actions — he’s talking about eternal torment in hell, as is evidenced in the following quotes from his sermon:
We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. […]
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.
Obviously, Edwards moves way beyond his sermon introduction, the Old Testament context of unbelieving Israel, and applies those scriptures to all “unsaved” humanity. Three major problems with this approach are first, the concept of eternal torment in hell was completely foreign to unbelieving Israel; second, we know the fate of unbelieving Israel, and it is NOT even remotely close to what Edwards suggests; and third, the concept of eternal torment in hell is just plain erroneous.
Hell and Unbelieving Israel
Examine all of Moses’ laws and the consequences of breaking them, and you’ll not find any clear indication of eternal torment in hell. It simply wasn’t part of the Hebrew belief system. While it is true that you might find the word “hell” in modern translations of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “sheol” simply means “grave” or from the viewpoint of those still living, the “realm of the dead,” as is evidenced in this and other Old Testament scriptures:
And [Jonah] saith: I called, because of my distress, to Jehovah, and He doth answer me, from the belly of sheol I have cried, Thou hast heard my voice.(Jonah 2:2)
It is also noteworthy to compare, for example, in the New International Version, “hell” in the New Testament, translated from the Greek word, Gehenna, to Old Testament translations of the same word in Hebrew, Gai Ben-Hinnom, meaning the valley of the son of Hinnom, where people sacrificed their children in fire to the god Molech:
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22)
They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded–nor did it enter my mind–that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. (Jeremiah 32:35)
Do you see how a concept like the grave or a place like a valley is translated in two completely different ways?
Israel, whether they were believing or unbelieving, had a concept of a place where anyone who dies goes, and a concept of a place where people participated in “detestable practices,” but had no concept of a place of eternal torment called hell.
The Fate of Unbelieving Israel
Concerning not only the fate of unbelieving Israel, but the fate of every person, Paul wrote to the believers in Rome,
For I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, of this secret — that ye may not be wise in your own conceits — that hardness in part to Israel hath happened till the fulness of the nations may come in; and so all Israel shall be saved, according as it hath been written, “There shall come forth out of Sion he who is delivering, and he shall turn away impiety from Jacob, and this to them is the covenant from Me, when I may take away their sins.” As regards, indeed, the good tidings, they are enemies on your account; and as regards the choice — beloved on account of the fathers; for unrepented of [i.e. irrevocable] are the gifts and the calling of God; for as ye also once did not believe in God, and now did find kindness by the unbelief of these: so also these now did not believe, that in your kindness they also may find kindness; for God did shut up together the whole to unbelief, that to the whole He might do kindness. (Romans 11:25-32 YLT)
Eternal Torment in Hell, an Erroneous Concept
1. It negates the idea that everything God does is a reflection of Who God is.
If God is love and the concept of eternal torment were true, this means that God operates in contradiction to His own character. Most believers accept the idea that we never asked to be born, in other words, we have no part in deciding whether we come into existence; we are inherently predisposed to sin (it’s in our nature); and we live in an environment conducive to sin (the world). Yet most believers think that God is operating according to His character (doing what is good, acting in love) by subjecting the majority of His creation to infinite punishment for finite (70 years, give or take) unbelief or sin. This kind of disproportionate punishment cannot possibly be an act of love.
2. It exalts and glorifies the power of sin and death.
Orthodox theologians, preachers, and teachers have to do some major spiritual gymnastics to resolve this problem. And even then, I’ve never truly seen it resolved, only avoided. Consider, for example, a very convoluted blog post by John Piper called, For Whom Did Jesus Taste Death? He basically starts with the idea that Christ died for those He came to save, and then asks, “For Everybody?” He explains,
But to say what the Bible says and to mean what the Bible means are not necessarily the same thing. Which is why I said that there is something unhealthy about answering the question, “For whom did Jesus taste death?” by simply saying “everybody.” What’s unhealthy about it is not, first, that it’s wrong. It might not be wrong. It depends on what you mean by saying that. What’s unhealthy is that it stops short of asking what Jesus really accomplished when he died. It assumes that we all know what he accomplished and that this he accomplished for everybody in the same way. That is not healthy, because it is not true. My guess is that most of those 95% who say Jesus died for everybody would have a hard time explaining just what it is that the death of Jesus really, actually accomplished for everybody—especially what it accomplished for those who refuse to believe and go to hell.
The obvious question, then, is why is everyone not saved? In other words, why did the death of Christ accomplish so little? After some very self-serving gibberish, like a “precious and unfathomable covenant love between Christ” and those who believe (compared to those who don’t believe), Piper ultimately concludes,
And when you believe as you ought to believe, you will discover that your belief—like all other spiritual blessings—was purchased by the death of Christ. The sin of unbelief was covered by the blood in your case, and therefore the power of God’s mercy was released through the cross to subdue your rebellion and bring you to the Son. You did not make the cross effective in your life by faith. The cross became effective in your life by purchasing your faith.
So glory in this, Christian. Glory that your sins really were covered when Jesus tasted death for you. Glory that your guilt really was removed when Jesus tasted death for you. Glory that the curse of the law really was lifted and that the wrath of God really was removed, and that the precious faith that unites you to all this treasure in Christ was a gift purchased by the blood of Christ.
Christ tasted death for everyone who has faith. Because the faith of everyone who believes was purchased by the death of Christ.
What this amounts to is that for the majority of humanity, the sin of unbelief was not counted among those sins done away with by Christ. Piper directs our attention away from the idea that sin and death is NOT conquered for the majority of humanity and redirects it — never mind that THEIR sins were not covered, just be happy yours were. Never mind that THEIR guilt was not removed, just be happy that yours was. Never mind that the curse of the law remains for so many others. The blood of Christ secured YOUR gift of salvation, and that’s all that really matters.
3. It stands in contradiction to other scriptures.
Can you imagine opening up your Bible and reading:
But the angel said to them, “Be very afraid; for behold, I only bring some of you good news…”
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of a small minority of people, and only of those who believe…
Even though in Adam all die, in Christ all will not be made alive. And this happens all at once…
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, but just can’t make it happen. That’s why the one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, gave himself as a ransom exclusively for the people He knew would believe…
I could go on, but I won’t. You can do your own homework. Look these up and ask yourself whether sin and death are completely conquered and “swallowed up in victory” in your current interpretation/understanding: Genesis 12:3, 28:14; Psalm 22:27 & 29, 65:2, 145:8-9; Isaiah 40:5, 45:22 & 23; Joel 2:28; Acts 3:21; Colossians 1:20 & 23; 1 Corinthians 11:3, 15:23 & 28; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:9-11; Galatians 3:8; Hebrews 1:2, 2:9, 8:11; John 1:9 & 29, 3:16, 4:42, 8:12, 12:32-33 & 47, 16:33, 17:2 & 21; 1 John 2:2; Mark 9:49, 16:15; 2 Peter 3:9; Philippians 2:10-11, 3:21; Revelation 4:11, 5:13, 21:5; Romans 5:17-18, 8:21, 11:26 & 32 & 36; Titus 2:11.
Next week we’ll look at the Edwards’ sermon conclusion.