Are Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?
Dr. Jim Denison
Arguably the most famous sermon in American history was preached at its infancy. On July 8, 1741, at Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards delivered the message for which he is best known, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Imagine yourself seated on a wooden pew in that colonial congregation, hearing these words with which Edwards closed:
“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 this very moment….
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”
Is this true? Are sinners in the hands of an angry God? I assume we each admit that we have committed sin. How does God feel about us now?
The simple fact is that some of us fear God’s judgment too little, while others fear it too much. Today let’s learn what to do when we fail ourselves and God.
Why don’t we fear God more?
Ours is no theoretical problem today.
The Bible is very clear: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Each of us—no exceptions.
When I stole a pack of gum at the age of five, I entered for the first time in my memory into the ranks of sinners. I’m just like you. As a child I melted crayons into the teacher’s hair, locked a girl in a coat closet during lunch, and shook eraser dust into the window air conditioner, thus coating the classroom with it. My mother earned every gray hair she owns.
We laugh at such transgressions, but sin is serious. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible warns us (Romans 6:23). Seven times the Bible commands us to “fear God.” Yet most people don’t. Why not? Several reasons come to mind.
One: scientific progress has made the power of God irrelevant.
Diseases which used to kill us are now cured by medicine without God’s help. How many parents today pray against polio, or tuberculosis, or bubonic plague?
Technology now controls weather which used to destroy and devastate us. We know hurricanes are coming and have remedies for drought. What only God could do, we think we can do.
And this scientific march has removed much of the mystery from life. The solar eclipse of June 21 didn’t frighten us as it used to ancient peoples. We don’t need to ask the gods to give us back the sun. We don’t need Baal to give us rain, or Zeus to explain lightning, or Neptune to understand the tides.
We think we have progressed beyond needing the power of God.
Two: naïve morality has made the fear of God irrelevant. We think we’re good, moral people, and that we’re all going to heaven.
God is a kindly grandfather who loves us all and will bring us all to heaven when we die. We’re better than the “bad” people—the Hitlers and the McVeighs. We all know someone worse than we are. And so only 2% of Americans are afraid of going to hell. We’re good people, we think.
Three: secular materialism has made the punishment of God irrelevant. We believe in what we can see, and we can’t see God.
We are more afraid that our friends will reject us than that God will judge us. We are more afraid of losing that business contract or that boyfriend or girlfriend than we are of displeasing God. After all, we can always confess our sins to God later and he’ll forgive us. It’s that simple, or so we think.
Why do some people fear God too much?
So many of us fear God too little. But some people fear God too much. They cannot believe that God has actually forgiven their sins, pardoned their failures, cleansed their souls.
A psychologist recently said he could dismiss 90% of his clients if they could heal their guilt over the past or fear about failing in the future. Why is this a problem for so many?
Some of us grew up with a God of anger and wrath, more like Zeus throwing thunderbolts than a Father sending his Son to die for us. We picture God with gigantic scales, hoping to send us to hell for our sins. If your father was judgmental and unloving, you’ll especially tend to see God in the same way.
Some of us practice “Baptist penance.” We’re self-made, and cannot accept grace. We must pay it back. If God won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll hold onto our guilt, our pain, our failure, until we think we’ve paid our debt.