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Jonathan Edwards: Preach on Hell

May 25, 2009

Again, Jonathan Edwards, in his Distinguishing Marks:

If there be really a hell of such dreadful, and never-ending torments, as is generally supposed, that multitudes are in great danger of, and that the bigger part of men in Christian countries do actually from generation to generation fall into, for want of a sense of the terribleness of it, and their danger of it, and so for want of taking due care to avoid it; then why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should not they be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it: if I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.

I appeal to every one in this congregation, whether this is not the very course they would take in case of exposedness to any great temporal calamity? If any of you that are heads of families, saw one of your children in an house that was all on fire over its head, and in eminent danger of being soon consumed in the flames, that seemed to be very insensible of its danger, and neglected to escape, after you had often spake to it, and called to it, would you go on to speak to it only in a cold and indifferent manner? Would not you cry aloud, and call earnestly to it, and represent the danger it was in, and its own folly in delaying, in the most lively manner you was capable of? Would not nature itself teach this, and oblige you to it? If you should continue to speak to it only in a cold manner, as you are wont to do in ordinary conversation about indifferent matters, would not those about you begin to think you were bereft of reason yourself? This is not the way of mankind, nor the way of any one person in this congregation, in temporal affairs of great moment, that require earnest heed and great haste, and about which they are greatly concerned, to speak to others of their danger, and warn them but a little; and when they do it at all, do it in a cold indifferent manner: nature teaches men otherwise. If we that have the care of souls, knew what hell was, had seen the state of the damned, or by any other means, become sensible how dreadful their case was; and at the same time knew that the bigger part of men went thither; and saw our hearers in eminent danger, and that they were not sensible of their danger, and so after being often warned neglected to escape, it would be morally impossible for us to avoid abundantly and most earnestly setting before them the dreadfulness of that misery they were in danger of, and their great exposedness to it, and warning them to fly from it, and even to cry aloud to them.

When ministers preach of hell, and warn sinners to avoid it, in a cold manner, though they may say in words that it is infinitely terrible; yet (if we look on language as a communication of our minds to others) they contradict themselves; for actions, as I observed before, have a language to convey our minds, as well as words; and at the same time that such a preacher’s words represent the sinner’s state as infinitely dreadful, his behavior and manner of speaking contradict it, and shew that the preacher don’t think so; so that he defeats his own purpose; for the language of his actions, in such a case, is much more effectual than the bare signification of his words. (from Yale-Works 4:246-48).

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