Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Comprehensive Theological Exploration

Categories: ReligionSinners

Jonathan Edwards, a prominent figure in the first half of the 18th century during the "Calvinistic Great Awakening" in North America, delivered a sermon that would become iconic in American history. His sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," delivered in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8, 1741, remains a powerful expression of religious fervor and theological depth. This essay delves into the profound impact of Edwards' sermon as it explores the theological themes of impending judgment, the vivid depiction of hell, and the concepts of the sovereignty of God, original sin, and salvation.

Impending Judgment: "Their foot will slip in their time"

Central to Edwards' sermon is the biblical verse from Deuteronomy 32:35, "Their foot will slip in their time... when their foot is shaken." Edwards uses this passage to convey the imminent threat faced by unbelieving individuals. The verse speaks of the peril of God's wrath upon the wicked, even those who were chosen people living under His mercy. Edwards emphasizes that their apparent stability is deceptive, akin to someone standing on ice.

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The only reason they have not fallen is the appointed time by God, and when that time comes, they will slip into destruction.

This verse also suggests the danger of a slippery slope, symbolizing the precarious position of those who oppose God. Edwards argues that, once God withdraws His support, they will inevitably perish. Through vivid imagery and biblical references, Edwards succeeds in evoking a sense of urgency and the need for repentance among his listeners during the Great Awakening.

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To further unpack the significance of this biblical warning, it is essential to delve into the historical and cultural context of the 18th century. The Calvinistic Great Awakening marked a period of intense religious revival, with preachers like Edwards seeking to awaken a sense of sin and the need for salvation among the masses. Edwards, through his careful selection of words and dramatic delivery, aimed not only to convey the biblical truth but to make his audience feel the impending judgment in their very souls.

As we reflect on the verse from Deuteronomy, the notion of slipping and falling becomes a powerful metaphor for the consequences of sin. Edwards masterfully uses this metaphor to instill a deep-seated fear of divine retribution, urging his audience to recognize the fragility of their spiritual standing. The imagery of a slippery slope, ready to plunge the unrepentant into the abyss, creates a vivid mental picture that lingers in the minds of the listeners, driving home the urgency of seeking redemption.

Image of Hell in the Sermon

Jonathan Edwards, a staunch opponent of Arminianism, embraces compatibilism in his theological stance. His definition of "free will" emphasizes that human freedom is not the ability to do as one pleases but to act in accordance with one's desires. Edwards' depiction of hell is a central element in his sermon, serving both as a warning and a call to salvation.

The preacher vividly describes hell as a looming abyss, with God holding all the unconverted over its fiery depths. Edwards contends that all individuals, by nature, deserve this fate, emphasizing God's anger towards sinners. The emotional appeal in Edwards' descriptions, employing pathos, creates a palpable fear of the horrors awaiting the unrepentant. For instance, he paints a vivid picture, stating, "The devil is waiting for them; hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up." This use of imagery appeals to the audience's emotions, encouraging them to seek salvation through God.

To fully grasp the impact of Edwards' portrayal of hell, it is crucial to examine the theological underpinnings that informed his views. Edwards, deeply rooted in the Calvinistic tradition, saw hell not merely as a punitive realm but as a manifestation of divine justice. His emphasis on God's righteous anger and the inescapable nature of hellfire served to awaken a profound sense of accountability in his audience.

Moreover, Edwards' description of hell as a place where the devil eagerly awaits the arrival of sinners adds a layer of psychological intensity to his sermon. The notion of hell not only as a realm of punishment but as a destination actively sought by malevolent forces heightens the urgency of repentance. Edwards strategically employs this aspect to strengthen the moral appeal (ethos) of his message, portraying salvation as the only refuge from the imminent and malevolent clutches of the devil.

Furthermore, Edwards asserts that God possesses the power to cast sinners into hell at any moment. The rebellious, no matter how strong, become helpless before God's wrath. This portrayal of the immediate and inevitable consequences of sin amplifies the urgency for individuals to turn to God for salvation, a persuasive technique that blends emotional appeal (pathos) with logical reasoning (logos).

Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Salvation in the Sermon

The Sovereignty of God

Edwards weaves the themes of the sovereignty of God, original sin, and salvation into a comprehensive theological framework. The doctrine of God's dominion is pervasive in Edwards' teachings, emphasizing God's predestination and control over all things. The Reformed tradition views the paradox of God's sovereignty and human responsibility as incomprehensible but not contradictory.

God's sovereign purpose extends to creation, providence, and all His actions, creating a world entirely dependent on Him. Edwards presents this as an essential truth, shaping the theological landscape of his time. Despite the paradox, Edwards contends that God's sovereignty and human responsibility coexist, challenging the prevailing optimism of the era before the Revolution.

As we delve into Edwards' exploration of the sovereignty of God, it is crucial to grasp the theological tensions of his time. The 18th century witnessed a growing debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, with Edwards firmly aligning himself with the former. His emphasis on God's predestining power and absolute control over all events sought to counter the emerging notions of human autonomy and free will.

Edwards' theological position on the sovereignty of God was not merely a doctrinal stance but a response to the shifting intellectual currents of his era. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and human agency, posed a challenge to traditional Calvinistic views. Edwards, in crafting his sermon, aimed to reaffirm the divine authority and challenge the emerging human-centric narratives, thereby contributing to the theological debates of his time.

Original Sin

Edwards subscribes to the belief that the entire human race inherits sinfulness, guilt, and moral corruption due to Adam's fall. The rupture from original righteousness leads to humanity's alienation from creation and a distorted image of God. Edwards paints a bleak picture of human nature, asserting that the sinner's heart is hardened, and violation of the law enslaves them, fostering open opposition and disrespect towards God. This pessimistic view sharply contrasts with the prevailing optimism in the colonies, establishing Edwards as a dissenting voice.

To comprehend the gravity of Edwards' views on original sin, it is imperative to explore the broader theological landscape of his time. The 18th century witnessed a tension between the optimistic Enlightenment ideals and the Calvinistic doctrines emphasizing human depravity. Edwards, firmly entrenched in the latter, sought to counter the prevailing optimism by underscoring the deeply rooted sinfulness inherent in human nature.

Edwards' portrayal of original sin as a universal condition, inherited from Adam, challenged the emerging notions of human perfectibility. His sermon aimed to dismantle the optimistic narratives that downplayed the severity of human sinfulness, presenting a stark contrast that resonated with the Calvinistic emphasis on total depravity.

Salvation is Only in Grace

Central to Edwards' theology is the absolute necessity of God's grace for salvation. He argues that human nature, tainted by sin, renders individuals incapable of saving themselves. Edwards contends that, since the fall, human motives are marred by sin, making salvation dependent on God's special, effective, and irresistible grace. The sinner, by nature, cannot choose God unless God intervenes.

Edwards uses his sermon to communicate the dire state of fallen humanity and the need for divine intervention. The infernal principles reigning in the souls of sinners, without God's limitations, would lead to their eternal damnation. Edwards emphasizes that salvation lies solely in faith in God, offering a message of hope amidst the grim portrayal of the consequences of sin.

To fully appreciate Edwards' perspective on salvation, it is essential to delve into the theological intricacies of his concept of grace. Edwards, influenced by the Reformed tradition, rejected the idea of human merit in salvation. His emphasis on irresistible grace underscored the belief that God's intervention is the sole determinant of an individual's salvation.

Furthermore, Edwards' notion of salvation as a divine act that transcends human agency contributed to the ongoing debates between Calvinism and Arminianism. The question of whether human beings have any role in their salvation or if it is entirely predetermined by God remained a focal point of theological discussions. Edwards, through his sermon, positioned himself firmly within the Calvinistic camp, advocating for the absolute sovereignty of God in the salvific process.


Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" stands as a monumental piece in American religious history. Through the strategic use of biblical references, vivid imagery, and persuasive rhetoric, Edwards communicates the imminent threat faced by sinners and the urgency of seeking salvation through God's grace. The sermon delves into theological themes such as the sovereignty of God, original sin, and the absolute necessity of divine intervention for salvation. Edwards' contribution to the Great Awakening reverberates through the ages, leaving an indelible mark on American religious thought.

This comprehensive exploration provides a nuanced understanding of Edwards' theological perspectives, the historical context that shaped his views, and the lasting impact of his sermon on the religious landscape of 18th-century America. Edwards, in crafting a narrative that blended vivid imagery with doctrinal depth, not only addressed the immediate concerns of his audience but contributed to the theological discourse of his era.

As we reflect on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," we are invited to engage with the complexities of theological thought that animated the 18th century. Edwards, as a theologian and preacher, navigated the intellectual currents of his time, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire contemplation and scholarly inquiry.

Ultimately, the sermon transcends its historical context, inviting readers and scholars alike to grapple with timeless questions of divine sovereignty, human nature, and the quest for salvation. Jonathan Edwards, through his eloquent and fervent proclamation, beckons us to confront the eternal realities encapsulated in the phrase, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God."

Updated: Dec 15, 2023
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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Comprehensive Theological Exploration. (2016, Mar 20). Retrieved from

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Comprehensive Theological Exploration essay
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