Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued For The Rationality Of Hell -- By: Bruce W. Davidson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 38:1 (Mar 1995)
Article: Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued For The Rationality Of Hell
Author: Bruce W. Davidson

Reasonable Damnation:
How Jonathan Edwards Argued For The Rationality Of Hell

Bruce W. Davidson*

Controversy about the existence and nature of hell is not new, but recent years have seen a revival of it, such that even U.S. News and World Report carried a cover story on the topic.1 It is especially surprising to see some prominent evangelicals coming forward to dispute the traditional, orthodox understanding of this doctrine, among them J. R. W. Stott and C. Pinnock. Accordingly various popular volumes have appeared, some of which Christianity Today reviewed under the title “A Kinder, Gentler Damnation.”2 Encountering these discussions, the student of theological history experiences something like déjà vu. He has heard it all before. As in many great theological controversies, including the free-will/predestination debate, opponents have once again appeared to wage the same ideological battles, making use of many of the same arguments. Modern controversialists may have little new to add to a very old debate. That becomes clear when we examine the thorough treatment of the doctrine of damnation by the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose incisive defense of the traditional view has perhaps never been successfully answered.

New England pastor, theologian, and a leader of the great awakening, Edwards (1703–1758) is probably best known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. An excerpt from this sermon is often found in American literature textbooks and anthologies, the selected passage usually being his comparison of the sinner to a spider being held precariously over the flames of hell.3 As a result, most people who know Edwards probably think of him as a crude fanatic trying to terrify his poor parishioners with lurid images of eternal fire. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.4 Edwards is considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophical minds that the English-speaking world has ever produced. Paul Ramsey and Perry Miller concur in describing him as “the greatest

* Bruce Davidson is a lecturer at Hokusei Gakuen University, 2–3-1 Oyachi-nishi, Atsubetsu-ku, Sapporo, Japan 004.

philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene.”5 Calm and analytical, he delivered his sermons without any oratorical flourishes. What impressed his listeners was the power of the ideas themselves.6 He never...

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