I don’t remember when I first encountered Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But I do remember the effect of its imagery as a pointer to the kind of critical urgency that often-accompanied appeals to come to Jesus to avoid the wrath to come.
The sinner dangling by a thread held by God over the fires of hell could be quite persuasive to the hesitant soul whose anxiety about eternal destiny was being fanned by an energetic preacher.
If the sinner could be persuaded to walk the aisle with such a threat, so much the better. Never mind the concept of God that accompanied such efforts. Theology has been known to sometimes become secondary in religious efforts to get results.
I also remember subsequently studying this sermon in a seminary class. I learned that it was an early expression of what became a tone and emphasis of the Great Awakening of the 18th century. We also learned that its fiery imagery was not characteristic of Edwards’ contribution to the theology of the Puritan tradition.
Most memorable was the professor’s suggestion that in some circumstances there was value in looking at the theology behind certain evangelical appeals—specifically the concept of God reflected therein. He proposed that if Edwards were preaching in our time, his title might need to be “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.”
The context of that suggestion was the turmoil of the 1960s. Notable strides were being taken on many fronts to address the injustices of racial oppression, with pushback in many religious quarters in the name of a God of privilege and the status quo. Religious voices portrayed God as the creator and sanctifier of an order of society that confined half the population to inferior treatment and servitude. It was reminiscent of the “pro-slavery arguments” of the 30 years before the Civil War.
The fear and accompanying anger that rose in defiance of the quest for civil rights claimed God as companion and guide for efforts to protect society from the evils of integration. “Christian” schools sprang up across the South to protect white children from the harm that would surely come to them if they were subjected to proximity in the classroom with children of another race. Churches developed plans for dismissing services if Black persons showed up seeking entrance.
At the church on my college campus, church leaders had a young student from Nigeria arrested when he attempted to enter for a Sunday morning service. He had come to the school with the help of a Southern Baptist missionary as its first Black student. For those who may be interested, that story is told in a book by Thomas Holmes titled “Ashes for Breakfast.”
But that was a long time ago, of course, and the progress that has been made has put all that into the background of our history, right? Maybe not.
There are a number of indications that the theological climate of our time is experiencing similar challenges. A sizable portion of the faith community is embracing, in the name of God, perspectives, policies, and practices that are at variance with what those same parts of the faith family affirmed only a few years ago.
An alliance of fear, anger, and a passion for control has transformed many faithful people into religious caricatures that would have been hardly imaginable a generation ago. The God of self-disclosure in Jesus Christ is difficult to reconcile with hateful rhetoric and patterns of intentional injustice that undergird much faith-fueled, right-wing extremism.
It is not hard to imagine an Amos-like Bethel prophetic sermon— “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners”—addressing the assemblies of the various groups who cater to this fear and anger and exploit it for their proposes, all in the name of a God they proudly proclaim.
The peril of a “sinner in the hands of an angry God” is clear and vivid— turn or burn. It’s effective enough to persuade a hesitant would-be pilgrim, perhaps. The peril of a “God in the hands of angry sinners” is perhaps less vivid and more subtle, but more a threat to the community of compassion, mercy, and justice of the kingdom of God that is within and among us.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).