Jonathan Edwards was keenly aware of the objections to his perspective on this difficult topic. For example, he acknowledges that now, in this life, we are fearful and apprehensive concerning the eternal destiny of those in unbelief. We lament and weep for their spiritual plight. It is proof of “a senseless and wicked spirit,” he notes, to look upon the lost condition of another and not feel sorrow.
Nothing more perfectly illustrates this than Paul’s words in Romans 9:1-3, where he describes his “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (v. 2) over the lost condition of his fellow Jews. This being the case, how can Edwards suggest that in heaven such sorrow and anguish will disappear?
Edwards gives five answers, only three of which I’ll note.
(1) First, although it is our duty to love all men now, in this life, it will not be our duty to love the wicked in the age to come. We are repeatedly commanded to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute and slander us. “But this command,” he contends, “doth not extend to the saints in glory, with respect to the damned in hell.”
The reason we are to love all men now is that “we know not but that God loves them.” No matter how wicked someone might be in this life, “yet we know not but that he is one whom God loved from eternity, we know not but that Christ loved him with a dying love, had his name upon his heart before the world was, and had respect to him when he endured those bitter agonies on the cross. We know not but that he is to be our companion in glory to all eternity.”
But such is not the case in heaven. There and then we will know that God did not set upon them his electing and redemptive love. There and then we will see that they are objects of God’s eternal wrath.
It is fitting to the saints in heaven, says Edwards, that they “fully and perfectly consent to what God doth, without any reluctance or opposition of spirit; yea, it becomes them to rejoice in every thing that God sees meet to be done.” Edwards’ point is this: If you and I now think that in heaven we will be sorrowful and grieved by the plight of the lost, we are confessing that we intend to disagree with God and be at odds with his attitude and affections and at cross purposes with the display of his attributes of holiness and wrath and justice. This alone should give us pause before we quickly conclude that heaven’s bliss will be soiled by hell’s misery.
(2) Second, we are to love and show kindness to the lost now because in this life they may yet be saved. Christ is still “calling upon them, inviting and wooing them” to turn from their sin and put their trust wholly in him.
“But it will not be so in another world; there wicked men will be no longer capable subjects of mercy. The saints will know that it is the will of God the wicked should be miserable to all eternity. It will therefore cease to be their duty any more to seek their salvation, or to [be] concerned about their misery. On the other hand, it will be their duty to rejoice in the will and glory of God.”
(3) Finally, the vengeance inflicted on the lost in hell “will be a manifestation of God’s love” for the saved. In other words, “one way whereby God shows his love to the saints is by destroying their enemies.” Jesus himself declared that God would avenge his elect (Luke 18:7) and that if anyone harmed one of his little ones it would be better for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and he be drowned in the sea (Matthew 18:6).
Thus “the saints in glory will see the great love of God to them in the dreadful vengeance which he shall inflict on those who have injured and persecuted them; and the view of this love of God to them will be just cause of their rejoicing.”
We see this reflected in Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9. There he writes: “since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
Likewise, in Revelation 6:9-11 the martyrs under the altar pray that God would “avenge” their blood on those who killed them. The many and varied judgments of Revelation (Seals, Trumpets, Bowls) are in large measure God’s answer to that prayer. As we saw earlier in this series, the judgment against unbelievers described in Revelation 18 is “for you,” i.e., on behalf of believers and in righteous response to the wicked for their having shed the blood of God’s children.
Edwards concludes his sermon with a lengthy appeal to the unsaved to repent and believe the gospel. He urges them to consider that if they remain in unbelief a day is coming when none will pity them: neither parents nor friends nor God himself. “However here they loved you,” notes Edwards, “and were concerned for you, now they will rise up in judgment against you, and will declare how your sins are aggravated by the endeavors which they to no purpose used with you, to bring you to forsake sin and practice virtue, and to seek and serve God; but you were obstinate under all, and would not hearken to them. They will declare how inexcusable you are upon this account.”
Perhaps we today find Edwards’ language and imagery a bit too harsh for no other reason than we have failed to take seriously the biblical reality of eternal punishment. We balk at the biblical texts on hell. We close our eyes to the gravity and horror of sin. We have humanized God and thus find rebellion against him to be of minimal importance.
Not Edwards. If his rhetoric is strong and unwavering and politically “incorrect” it is only because his view of God is high and unequivocal and theologically “correct”.
Perhaps you still struggle with this issue. If so, rest assured that in the age to come we will have redeemed minds, devoid of all errant thought and cleansed of all selfish motivation. We will then have, fully and in consummate expression, the mind of Christ. We will see as he sees, feel as he feels, love what he loves, hate what he hates, and rejoice in whatever brings him greatest glory. Amen.