One of the interesting things about Jonathan Edwards is how he thinks. Biblical authority plays a much more definitive role in his thought processes than in many who claim to be Christian. Let me illustrate.
I began this series of studies because of what many perceive to be a problem with the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. If hell exists forever, so they say, it would spoil the joy of heaven. Therefore, hell doesn’t exist at all, or only temporarily.
In other words, people often begin, not with the infallible truth of Scripture, but with what they believe on other grounds to be “just” or “fair” or “right” or “true”. Their sentiments or emotions or personal predilections are given greater weight than Scripture itself. When this prior conviction or disposition is found to be in apparent conflict with the Bible, they labor to reconcile the two. Sadly, for some, the “solution” is found either in the modification of what Scripture clearly teaches or its outright denial. Or they yield to Scripture but live in perpetual doubt about God’s goodness or his wisdom, or both.
Edwards approaches the issue differently. For him, there is no problem to solve, no mystery to fathom. He never doubts that hell exists, because the Bible says it does. He never doubts that heaven is the experience of eternal joy, because the Bible says it is. There is for him no tension to be resolved.
Of course, Edwards goes to great lengths to explain why those in heaven will know of those in hell and yet retain, unmitigated, their joy and happiness. But he never gives any indication that he is tempted either to minimize hell’s suffering or heaven’s bliss because the two are allegedly incompatible. The Bible teaches them both, and that is enough for Edwards. Would that it were for everyone.
Enough of that for now. Let’s move on to Edwards’ arguments.
Edwards contends that the joy of the righteous in heaven is not due to any malicious or vengeful disposition towards those in hell. “The devil,” he says, “delights in the misery of men from cruelty, and from envy and revenge, and because he delights in misery, for its own sake, from a malicious disposition.” In other words, the devil enjoys the misery of others for no other reason than the satisfaction he derives from watching others suffer.
But the judgment of the wicked will be an occasion for rejoicing of the saints “not because they delight in seeing the misery of others, absolutely considered. The damned suffering divine vengeance will be no occasion of joy to the saints merely as it is the misery of others, or because it is pleasant to them to behold the misery of others merely for its own sake.” Rather they will rejoice because God’s justice is being executed on his enemies.
Edwards’ next point may be hard for some to swallow. He argues that the reason why the suffering of the lost will be no occasion for grief in the righteous is that the latter will no longer love nor feel pity for the former. They will realize that “it is not fit that they should love them, because they will know then, that God has no love to them, nor pity for them.” Since the saints in heaven will be perfectly conformed to God in their will and affections, loving what he loves and hating what he hates, they will view the lost in hell the same way God does. And Edwards is convinced that God does not love the lost in hell.
I realize how unpalatable this is to modern evangelical ears. We are awash in the idea that God loves all equally and eternally. Edwards, on the other hand, argues that Scripture teaches that God’s love is sovereign and distinguishing, that some are its objects in such a way that they are eternally chosen for life and happiness, while others are passed over in a well-deserved judgment.
He also argues that the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the lost because therein will the glory of God appear. God’s glory is manifest in all his works, not simply in his saving of souls but in his pouring out of eternal wrath on those who hate and despise and disbelieve him.
The saints in heaven, says Edwards, “will be perfect in their love to God: their hearts will be all a flame of love to God, and therefore they will greatly value the glory of God, and will exceedingly delight in seeing him glorified.” In heaven, far more so than now on earth, God’s people will “greatly rejoice in all that contributes to that glory,” and one such contribution will be the full revelation of his just and eternal wrath against sinners.
Again, we may recoil in thinking of such matters, but the teaching of Scripture is that the suffering of the unrighteous in hell is “what justice requires.” Although it may be unclear and ambiguous in the present age, in the age to come we will see “how perfectly just and righteous their punishment is, and therefore how properly inflicted by the supreme Governor of the world.” Indeed, “the sight of this strict and immutable justice of God will render him amiable and adorable in their eyes.”
Divine justice in the destruction of the wicked will then “appear as light without darkness, and will shine as the sun without clouds, and on this account will they [the saved, in heaven] sing joyful songs of praise to God.”
Often times in Scripture the manifestation of God’s power in judgment is spoken of as glorious. In the Song of Moses in Exodus 15:6 we read, “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.” Moses “rejoiced and sang when he saw God glorify his power in the destruction of Pharaoh and his host at the Red Sea. But how much more will the saints in glory rejoice when they shall see God gloriously triumphing over all his enemies in their eternal ruin!”
Edwards appears to be thinking along these lines: If we find it good and right and honoring to God that we worship and praise him when he defeats his enemies in this life, bringing them to naught while exalting his power and name, how much more so will we see it and rejoice when this occurs in the life to come, forever.
Not only this, but when the saints see God’s justice satisfied in the punishment of the wicked they will evermore treasure his favor. “How will they rejoice that they are the objects of his love! How will they praise him the more joyfully, that he should choose them to be his children, and to live in the enjoyment of him!”
As the saints consider the well-deserved misery of the lost, it will serve to increase their gratitude for their own undeserved bliss. Perhaps this is our problem, that we do not really believe that the misery of the lost is well-deserved, that it is an expression of justice and righteousness and holiness. Nor do we really believe that our bliss is utterly undeserved, that it is an expression of sheer grace, wholly because of what Christ has done and not something from ourselves.
If we fully grasped the perfect justice of hell and the perfect mercy of heaven, we would neither be disturbed by the former nor deficient in gratitude for the latter. Edwards put it this way:
“When they [the saints in heaven] shall see the dreadful miseries of the damned, and consider that they deserved the same misery, and that it was sovereign grace, and nothing else, which made them so much to differ from the damned that, if it had not been for that, they would have been in the same condition; but that God from all eternity was pleased to set his love upon them, that Christ hath laid down his life for them, and hath made them thus gloriously happy forever, O how they will admire that dying love of Christ, which has redeemed them from so great a misery, and purchased for them so great happiness, and has so distinguished them from others of their fellow creatures! How joyfully will they sing to God and the Lamb, when they behold this!”
May I suggest that we all go back and prayerfully and carefully read those last two paragraphs. There is more to come, but I can think of no better way to conclude Part Three than by a solemn, yet joyful, meditation on this great truth of the sheer undeserved mercy of eternal life.