On Sunday, 8 July 1741, in Enfield Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards delivered one of the most famous sermons of history. “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” painted a vivid picture of the unending and unbearable torments of hell. It is said that as Edwards preached the members of the congregation were so terrified that they repeatedly interrupted with cries of “what must I do to be saved?” An excerpt from the sermon gives an idea of its tone.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
It’s a terrifying image. God, says Jonathan Edwards, is filled with revulsion for us. God finds us abhorrent and abominable. So offensive is our sin that he cannot bear our presence and he sees us as worthy of nothing than eternal torment.
It is rare to hear preaching such as this today, yet the legacy of centuries of such preaching still lingers. As a young teenager I remember being struck through with fear every time we celebrated communion. The person leading the communion service invariably quoted selectively from 1 Corinthians 11, that “whoever eats and drinks in an unworthy manner, eats and drinks damnation upon himself”. I was taught to take this seriously, and would rack my memory for any unconfessed sin, convinced that if I did not come in a spirit of genuine, heartfelt repentance I would be subject to God’s judgement. I had no idea what that might look like, but I did not want to find out.
The classic evangelical response is to argue that, yes our sin does make us offensive and abhorrent to our Creator, but that in dying for us on the cross, Christ took the penalty we deserved for our sin upon himself, and critically, transferred to us his righteous standing in the eyes of God. So when God looks upon me, he sees not Scott Higgins’s unrighteousness, but the righteousness of Christ and so is favourably disposed towards me.
I never found this terribly satisfying. It gave me righteous standing before God on the basis of what seemed to be a legal technicality, and created an impossible tension between God actually seeing me as I was, which was to be thoroughly disappointed, offended and aghast at my sinfulness, and God seeing me as I was in Christ, which was to be thoroughly pleased, delighted and excited at my righteousness. This left me with a God who may well have loved me deeply, but who did not like me, could never be pleased by anything I did, and could only bring himself to look upon me by actually looking at Jesus and pretending it was me.
There was a time I was deeply thankful for this, but as the years have gone by I have become convinced that this is a hateful, vengeful, psychopathic God, who bears no resemblance to the God revealed to me by Jesus.
To begin with, take the notion that God is so pure that he cannot stand to be in the presence of sinners. Surely the incarnation of God in Christ puts paid to that. Unlike the Pharisees, whose obsession with holiness saw them separate themselves from anybody who was “unclean”, Jesus surrounded himself with notorious sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes. He did not recoil from their presence, but on the contrary appeared to thoroughly enjoy them. He surrounded himself with disciples who repeatedly failed to understand his mission and at times even opposed it, yet John is described as the disciple Jesus loved. Not tolerated. Loved. He had friends outside the disciple group, such as Lazarus, Mary and Martha, whom he loved with such depth that he wept when Lazarus died.
Or take the assumption that God is perpetually angry with us. When the Pharisees muttered about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and other “sinners” he told them three parables: the parable of the lost sheep; the parable of the lost coin; and the parable of the lost son. The God Jesus knew was one who was grieved that his sons and daughters had wandered from him, who longed for their return, and when they did return embraced them with wide open arms. The prodigal son had broken almost every social taboo of his culture, yet the only angry person in the story is the older brother who is offended that his father welcomes his scandal plagued sibling.
As I read the Gospels I struggle to find the rage filled God of Jonathan Edwards. I certainly see religious figures who are grossly offended and angered by sin. When an angry mob of them drag a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and stand ready to stone her to death, it is Jesus who shames them and says to the woman “neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus certainly is opposed to sin, but he doesn’t appear to be offended by either sinners or their sin. It leads me to think that God gets angry at the ways we destroy and harm one another, but the notion that he is somehow personally offended seems to be off the mark.
When I read the story of the crucifixion of Christ I don’t see an angry God pouring his vengeance upon Christ in order that he may not need to pour it upon me. I see God present in Christ being subjected to the most violent, abusive behaviour and rather than striking back in anger, absorbing the very worst that is done and then crying “forgive them”. I don’t see a God who merely tolerates us because of some abstract, impersonal legal technicality, but a God who longs for us so deeply that he will go to hell and back in order to bring us to himself.