Back to issue


Jonathan Edwards provides subsequent generations of theologians and ministers with one of the most influential versions of the traditional account of hell. However, his account of hell has its detractors. Those who oppose Edwards’s account argue that it is morally appalling and philosophically problematic. As such, I attempt to defend Edwards’s account by addressing one of its most philosophically pressing objections: the issuant account objection. In order to do this, I turn to Edwards’s doctrine of the blessed state of the redeemed in heaven. This is a doctrine the resources of which can help provide a redeemed “Edwardsean” account of hell, one that is both traditional and issuant.

Among recent trends in evangelicalism, one of the most prominent has been the resurgence of interest (especially within the “young, restless, and reformed” segment of the church) in all things Jonathan Edwards. One sees this in the vast quantity of recent books,1 blogs,2 and conferences3 dedicated to Edwards’s life and thought. These works have done much to lift him up as a pastoral, homiletical, and theological example to be emulated.4 The result is that certain Edwardsean themes and theological views have begun to exert greater influence upon evangelicalism, for instance: the importance of revival, preaching in order to change religious affections, the New Testament use of the Old, and even Trinitarian theology. One can certainly appreciate the positive influence that Edwards the exemplar has had upon the contemporary evangelical church. However, one aspect of Edwards’s theology that we may want to question the value of following his example is his account of the doctrine of hell.

Many Americans are familiar with Edwards’s account of hell through his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he depicts one of the most horrific, ghoulish, and even terrorizing portrayals ever presented. In particular, his depiction of hell in this sermon is cited by many as evidence why we ought to abandon the traditional account.5 It has been said that Edwards’s doctrine is morally intolerable and that we should abandon it.6 Those who are interested in defending the traditional account and more specifically Edwards’s account have reasons for mining his works in order to find resources within it to defend not only his account but the traditional doctrine of hell as well. This essay aims to accomplish those two tasks.

In this essay I will show that Edwards’s account of hell, which is one of the most influential versions of the traditional account of hell, suffers from not being an “issuant account” of hell.7 I will proceed to argue that there are resources within Edwards’s theology which will allow us to formulate an “Edwardsean” account of hell which is issuant.8 By doing this I hope to show that an Edwardsean account of hell is not simply a topic of historical interest, i.e. an interesting but irrelevant account. Instead, I will argue for the defensibility of the traditional account by taking one the most influential understandings of the traditional account, modifying it, and making it defensible. Further, I will show that we can continue to follow Edwards even when it comes to his doctrine of hell. But before we begin a defense of the Edwardsean account, and by implication the traditional account, we shall begin by defining terms. What is the traditional account of hell?

1. Edwards and the Traditional Account of Hell

In The Problem of Hell Jonathan Kvanvig presents one of the clearest and most concise definitions of the traditional account of hell. He summarizes the traditional account (at times he also calls this the “strong account”) by saying, “it maintains that hell is a place where some people are punished eternally with no possibility of escape.”9 He then separates this account into four separate components:

(H1) The Anti-Universalism Thesis: Some persons are consigned to hell.
(H2) The Existence Thesis: Hell is a place where people exist, if they are consigned
(H3) The No Escape Thesis: There is no possibility of leaving hell, and nothing one can do, change or become in order to get out of hell, once one is consigned there.
(H4) The Retribution Thesis: The justification for and purpose of hell is retributive in nature, hell being constituted so as to mete out punishment to those whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it.10

Kvanvig stresses the fact that there are many different pictures of hell which may comport with this particular account. For instance, one could hold to the view that retribution comes by means of active torment by fire or that retribution is simply the separation from the blessings of heaven. One could hold that the scriptural language of fire and darkness literally refers to fire and darkness or one could hold that such language is figurative. Holding on the the traditional account does not commit one to a particular picture of hell, rather it means that one is committed to these four theses. One theologian who holds to a distinctive, and particularly strong, version of the traditional account is Jonathan Edwards. In what follows I will give a brief account of Edwards’s version of the traditional account.

The first thesis of the traditional account is the Anti-Universalism Thesis, according to which there are some persons who are consigned to hell. Neither universalism nor hypothetical universalism obtain. It is guaranteed that some persons will be in hell at the eschaton. That Edwards holds to this position is made clear in several of his sermons on hell. In the application of sermon on John 8:44, “That Wicked Men Are the Children of the Devil,” Edwards warns his congregants that if they are the children of the devil, they will doubtlessly be involved with their father in his destruction. He says, “The devil and his children God will put together. They will have the same habitation. They shall be one miserable company. They shall be treated alike at the day of judgement. They shall stand together and they shall be turned away together in the same everlasting fire…”11 In another sermon, titled “The Wicked Hereafter Will Be Cast Into a Furnace of Fire” (Matthew 13:41–42), Edwards makes his case even more explicitly. He says that the wicked will be gathered out of Christ’s kingdom and shall be cast into a furnace of fire. Not only does Edwards argue that hell obtains for some, it obtains for many. He says, “There are many men that are gone to hell. There are many of all sorts: kings and beggars, rich and poor, old an young, wise and unwise, bond and free.”12

In addition to holding to the Anti-Universalism Thesis, Edwards also holds to the Existence Thesis. Once again, the Existence Thesis states that given the fact that hell is populated, people are consigned there. More specifically, we ought to say that those in hell exist forever in that state, they are not temporarily consigned to hell. Using Revelation 9:6 and 22:11 Edwards makes the case that all change after death is “expressly denied” and that there will never be any end or death by annihilation.”13 However, Edwards does not simply believe that the reprobate’s existence in hell is miserable and eternal, that is unceasing, but he also believes that this miserable existence will never be diminished, rather the misery will increase.14

Besides targeting opponents who argue in favor of annihilation Edwards also targets those who believe “the punishment of the wicked shall consist in sensible misery, yet it shall not be absolutely eternal, but only of a very long continuance.”15 In other words he argues against those who believe that hell will not be an eternal state for some, i.e. those who deny (H3). Now this claim that hell will “not be absolutely eternal, but only of a very long continuance” can be read in various ways. One way to read this is to read it as saying that the reprobate will endure a time of sensible misery then this misery will end and they will no longer be in a state of torment because they have repented and turned to God. Edwards emphatically denies this possibility. Speaking of those in hell Edwards says, “There never will be an end to their torment by any change or alteration in their state. Their state will never be changed for the better.”16 He also says, “there shall be no end to their misery by their being brought into a more happy state and condition, for their remains no more sacrifice for sin, as ‘tis appointed to men once to die, so Christ is but once offered, Hebrews 9:27, 28.”17 The possibility of a change that will lead a person out of hell is unthinkable in Edwards’s mind for according to him “all change after death is expressly denied.”

Finally, Edwards also affirms the Retribution Thesis. Much has been written showing that Edwards understands the justice of hell lies in the fact that it is retributive.18 Thus I will not spend much time arguing for the fact that Edwards sees hell as being retributive. It suffices to say that Edwards believes that it is consistent with the God’s justice to inflict eternal punishment19 and that there is a proportion between evil committed and the punishment inflicted.20 Furthermore, he believes that hell “was made and prepared by God on purpose that it might be for … the infliction of his wrath,”21 the wicked experience retributive punishment in two forms,22 and the biblical language of fire in hell may be either figurative or literal.23

Thus far we have seen that Edwards firmly holds to all four theses of the traditional account. However, there are some significant philosophical problems with Edwards’s account of hell, the biggest being that it is not an issuant account of hell.

2. The Problem of Hell

In recent years there have been various philosophical treatments of Edwards’s conception of Hell. Most of these have attempted to show that his doctrine of hell, especially (H4), suffers from some major problems. Jonathan Kvanvig has argued that Edwards does not sufficiently justify his understanding of retribution. Kvanvig points to Edwards’s use of the “status principle” as the primary means for justifying the infinite punishment of hell, yet argues that the status principle is unsatisfying.24 Kvanvig also attempts to make sense of the infinite punishment of hell in Edwards’s account by making use of Edwards’s claim that all sin is against God, but he argues that this claim also suffers from some serious difficulties.25 William Wainwright is more optimistic about Edwards’s account of the fittingness of retributive punishment but does not think that Edwards has sufficient reasons for rejecting annihilation as the means proper form of eternal punishment.26 These objections need not detain us for they have been addressed elsewhere.27 However scholars have not sufficiently addressed the objection that Edwards’s account of hell is not an issuant account.

2.1. An Issuant Account of Hell

What is an issuant account of hell? In The Problem of Hell Jonathan Kvanvig begins his description of an issuant account of hell by presenting what he takes to be a problem with the traditional account. He says,

[The] traditional Christian accounts of hell begin by characterizing God’s fundamental desire in relation to humanity as a desire for union with human beings, but in the discussion of hell, this portrayal is abandoned. No longer does love seem to be a part of the picture at all; instead God’s dominant motive is portrayed in terms of justice (at best) or vindictiveness (at worst).28

According to Kvanvig the problem with this is that it offers a segregated account of God’s action and motivations. God’s primary motivation when talking about God’s goals for humanity is love, but God’s primary motivation when talking about hell is something other than love (i.e. justice). This position, that God’s justice can be a more fundamental motivation than love when it comes to hell, seems to be in direct opposition to the heart of Christianity, which claims that love is God’s primary motivation, thus making it an inadequate account of God’s action.29 Kvanvig believes that the solution to this problem would be to offer an “issuant conception of hell,” in which heaven and hell both flow from one motivation generated by God’s loving nature.30 Thus we may say that an issuant account of hell is an account in which,

(IH): The characteristic of God’s nature which motivates the generation of hell is the same characteristic which generates heaven.31

Although, Kvanvig wants to say that God’s loving nature is the characteristic which generates both heaven and hell, an issuant account as we have defined it need not be explained by appealing to love as that primary characteristic. We may say that God’s motivation to love might be that characteristic which motivates an issuant account or we may decide that any one of God’s characteristics (justice, benevolence, beauty, glory) may be the motivation for it. All we are required to say is that heaven and hell flow from the same motivation. Having defined what an issuant account of hell is, we may now ask, does Edwards holds to an issuant account? Consider the following account of God’s motivations regarding heaven and hell which use commonly accepted Edwardsean premises:

  1. God’s primary motivation is love to “being in general.”32
  2. God manifests his love to being in general by the communication of his glory ad intra and ad extra.
  3. God’s glory is communicated ad extra when his attributes (love, justice, majesty, goodness, etc.) are manifested before his creatures.
  4. God manifests his love towards creatures by sending some persons to heaven where they will have a greater sense of God’s love and grace.
  5. God manifests his justice towards creatures by sending some persons to hell.33
  6. God’s glory is communicated to persons through sending some to heaven and some to hell.
  7. Therefore, God’s primary motivation, love to being in general (through the communication of his glory), is achieved through assigning some to heaven and hell.

Does this account satisfy the conditions of being issuant? At first glance it certainly seems to do so. Here the characteristic of God’s nature which motivates the generation of both heaven and hell is God’s desire to communicate his glory ad intra and ad extra. However, upon closer examination it fails to be issuant. Wainwright says that permanent exclusion from God’s presence might obscure the saint’s grasp of an equally important divine attribute other than justice, namely God’s benevolence, or love to being in general. Wainwright suggests that the saints’ sense of God’s goodness would be tainted by their pity for the damned and horror at their fate. If this is the case, as Wainwright certainly believes, then “God won’t have succeeded in fully manifesting his love and goodness in which (according to Edwards) his glory principally consists.”34 Should this objection be taken as conclusive? Does the damnation of the wicked really obscure the saints’ sense of God’s benevolence? Edwards would say that it does not. In fact, Edwards argues that it increases the saints sense of God’s benevolence. In his sermon, “the End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous,”35 Edwards reasons that when the saints in glory see the wrath of God executed upon the ungodly it will be no occasion of grief to them, rather it will be the cause of their rejoicing and praise. Why will the saints rejoice? Holmes suggests that when they see what they have been saved from, the saints will have a “greater sense of their own happiness and a greater sense of God’s love and grace.”36 So it seems, given Edwards’s account of God’s self-glorification, that the objection that the permanent exclusion of the damned from God’s presence obscures the saints’ sense of God’s goodness is off base, the saints seem to “see” God’s goodness towards them in the presence of the damned in hell. However, we may want to strengthen Wainwright’s argument regarding the saints’ sense of God’s benevolence. We may wonder whether the Edwards’s account of hell is compatible with God’s benevolence, or love to being in general. If Edwards’s account of hell has God denying benevolence to those in hell, then we would have God glorifying himself in two equal and opposite ways, one which displays his justice and lacks love towards being and another which displays his grace and is grounded his love towards being. And if this is the case, then Edwards’s account is not really issuant because heaven displays God’s fundamental characteristic of love towards being whereas hell does not.

2.2. Does God Love the Damned?

If Edwards is to overcome the issuant objection it will have to be shown that God in some way continues to show love even towards those in hell. Can this be shown? Quite simply the answer is no. Anyone familiar with Edwards’s doctrine of hell is familiar with the fact that Edwards thoroughly believes that God hates the damned. In his sermon, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” Edwards argues that if God were overcome by the misery of his creatures in hell and decided to express a hint of mercy towards them (even in reducing their misery), God would not be just. Thus God cannot show a hint of mercy towards those in hell. Yet a lack of mercy need not need be interpreted as God lacking any love for those in hell. One could say God loves those in hell but cannot show mercy because it would be unjust. However, this is not what Edwards says. He explicitly states that God hates those in hell. Consider the following sections of Edwards’s sermons on hell:

See and own therefore, that it would be just with God to hate and loath you, and curse you, and damn you for all you are or have done.37
They receive these testimonies of the hatred of God as assurance that he never intends to deliver them. They know that God is not only angry with them, but hates them; that he hates them with perfect hatred. They know his hatred from what they feel – from the misery that he inflicts.… They know that he hates them with an eternal hatred.38
If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favor, that instead of that he’ll only tread you under foot: and though he will know that you can’t bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he won’t regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he’ll crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you in the utmost contempt; no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet, to be trodden down as the mire of the streets.39

Given what he says in these and other sermons, it is clear that there is no love whatsoever for those who are in hell. Because this is clearly the case we cannot say that Edwards’s account of hell is motivated by, or even includes, the notion of love towards being in general (which is central to the notion of God’s communication of his glory), whereas Edwards’s account of heaven clearly is motivated by this notion. Thus, given what we have seen we must conclude that Edwards’s own account of hell does not meet the requirements necessary to call this an issuant account of hell.

Edwards’s failure to provide an issuant account should be seen as problematic for those who desire to hold on to the traditional account and view Edwards’s account as a paradigmatic account of the traditional account. Yet we may wonder, does the fact that Edwards fails to meet the issuant account requirements mean his account of hell should be abandoned? I suggest that we can in fact redeem Edwards’s doctrine of hell, even though it is not an issuant account. There are resources elsewhere within Edwards’s theology which can help us say that God’s tendency towards love to being in general is displayed in the existence of both heaven and hell. To see how this is the case we must briefly look at Edwards’s doctrine of the blessed state of the redeemed in heaven.

3. An Edwardsean Account of Hell

An Edwardsean account of hell begins with Edwards’s account of heaven, and central to Edwards’s account of heaven is the concept of the blessed state. Edwards’s understanding of the blessed state has recently become somewhat of a hot topic.40 However perhaps more than anyone else, Kyle Strobel has helped make clear what makes Edwards’s doctrine of the blessed state distinctive. In his essay, “Jonathan Edwards’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis,” Strobel argues that the theosis tradition has two strands: the first emphasizes the communication of divine attributes, whereas the second focuses on a participation in the relationship among the divine persons. Strobel argues that what is distinctive about Edwards’s account of theosis is that in Edwards’s account it is impossible to pull these two notions apart. “To partake in the divine attributes simply is to partake in the relationship of the divine persons.”41 Thus in Edwards’s schema we ought not ask “how is the human ‘nature’ divinized” rather we should ask “how is the human person ushered into the life of God?” According to Strobel the answer to this question is that “the saints ascend in the person of Christ.”42 He goes on to say that “the union and communion they share with God entails a partaking in his personal attributes of understanding and will (i.e., the divine nature). The saints share in the same beatific gazing that defines the inner (uncreated-life) of God.”43 This experience of the beatific vision is how the saints experience a finite participation in the life of the infinite God. Through this experience of the beatific vision the saints are infinitely united with God and ascend further into the life of God. This is what Edwards seems to indicate in his sermon, “The Excellency of Christ.” There he says that the saints being, in Christ shall, partake with Christ in the infinite intimacy that occurs between the Father and the Son.44

For the purposes of this article it is important to stress the fact that Edwards envisions participation in the relationship among the divine persons and the communication of divine attributes as asymptotic; “in eternity glorified creatures eternally increase in union and communion with God but never arrive.”45 Although this becomes clear in his sermon, “The Excellency of Christ,” it is even clearer in The End for Which God Created the World.46 For instance, Edwards says that the union experienced between the saint and God becomes more firm and close while the saint becomes more conformed to the divine nature. There is an increasing union and conformity through eternity, one of infinitely strict and perfect nearness, which “will forever come nearer and nearer to that strictness and perfection of union which there is between the Father and Son.”47 Edwards summarizes his understanding of the infinite, progressive, asymptotic understanding of the state of those in heaven as follows:

Both regards are like two lines which seem at the beginning to be separate, but aim finally to meet in one, both being directed to the same center. And as to the good of the creature itself, if viewed in its whole duration and infinite progression, it must be viewed as infinite and so not only being some communication of God’s glory, but as coming nearer and nearer so the same thing in its infinite fullness. The nearer anything comes to infinite, the nearer it come to an identity with God. And if any good, as viewed by God, is beheld as infinite, it can’t be viewed as a distinct thing from God’s own infinite glory.48

At this point one may wonder, what does the infinite, progressive, asymptotic character of the blessed state of the saints in heaven have to do with an Edwardsean doctrine of hell? From what we have seen above, it seems as though God’s intended end for the saints is union (a union in the divine nature and divine life) which is eternally progressive. But we may wonder, what is the future for those who have rejected God’s intended end for them? It seems reasonable to suppose that the rejection of God’s intended end would actually be the opposite of that intended union.

In the Edwards’s scheme one may think about heaven in the following way: Heaven is a post-mortem state in which a person comes nearer and nearer to an identity with that which is God, that is, if a person is “in heaven” then that person is on an infinite trajectory being conformed more and more with Being itself.

If we reverse this conception of heaven, then it seems logical to define hell as the opposite: Hell is a post-mortem state in which a person moves further and further away from union with Being itself.49 As the person moves away from being they progressively lose some of their being which comes in virtue of being united to the source of all being. However, because the trajectory away from Being itself, or away from God, is infinite, that person will never actually completely lose being.50 The reversal of the Edwards’s own understanding of heaven gives us an Edwardsean doctrine of hell, that is an understanding of hell in which the person who is “in hell” or is on the infinite trajectory away from God, never in fact loses communion with Being itself.51 The person in hell never experiences complete separation from God.

Thus far we have defined an issuant account of hell and have seen that Edwards’s own account of hell does not meet the conditions necessary to be called issuant. At the same time, I have suggested that there may be a resource within Edwards’s theology which may help us formulate an Edwardsean account of hell which is an issuant account. This “resource” is Edwards’s infinite, progressive, asymptotic account of heaven in which heaven is the eternal progression of the saint into the very life, or being, of God himself. I have suggested that it is reasonable to believe that hell might be the very opposite of this notion, namely that hell is an infinite, progressive, asymptotic movement by the reprobate away from the very life, or being of God himself. This seems like a plausible account of what hell might be in an Edwardsean scheme. However, we have yet to see whether this account is issuant and whether it allows us to maintain the traditional account of hell that Edwards and the majority of the church throughout history has affirmed. These two issues will be the focus of the next section.

4. A Defense of the “Edwardsean” Account of Hell

4.1. An Issuant Account

The first object of our concern for this Edwardsean account of hell is whether or not this account meets the condition for being an issuant. Earlier we defined an issuant account as one in which,

(IH): The characteristic of God’s nature which motivates the generation of hell is the same characteristic which generates heaven.

Thus in order for this Edwardsean account of hell to be called an issuant we would have to show that the motivation which generates hell is the same motivation which generates heaven. When examining Edwards’s account, we discovered that it was impossible for Edwards’s account to meet this criterion. The motivation which generates heaven in Edwards’s account is God’s love to being in general, manifested as God’s desire to communicate his glory. Edwards’s motivation for hell is also rooted in God’s desire to communicate his glory. However, this desire to communicate his glory is only directed towards those who “see” the damned in hell. Those who are in hell do not experience God’s love toward being, rather the damned in hell are the objects of God’s hate. So in Edwards’s own account the motivation which generates heaven is love, but the motivation which generates hell is hate.52 This clearly does not meet the necessary conditions posed by IH. However, we may ask, “Does the Edwardsean account fair better?” I believe it does. Consider the following premise, which we can call the “Being Thesis”:

(E) Existence (or being), all things being equal, is always a good, especially when compared to non-being.

This is a premise which has a long history within the theology of the church. Consider Anselm’s work in the Monologion. Anselm argues that there are various degrees of existence, with the supreme being possessing maximal existence being God himself. He says that “a nature’s comparative existence is the comparative similarity of its essence to the supreme essence, in just the same way as its comparative excellence is its comparative proximity, through its natural essence, to superlative excellence.”53 Anselm goes on to say that “for any essence to exist more, and to exist more excellently, is precisely for it to be more similar to that essence which exists and excels supremely.”54 He concludes this section about degrees of existence in relation to the essence of being itself by saying that “it would seem that every created nature stands at a higher stage of essence and worth the more it approximates to the Word.”55

What Anselm says in this section of the Monologion is very similar to what we have seen in our Edwardsean account of heaven and hell. Existence, or being, which infinitely approaches the Being of God, as manifested in union with the Word of God is the ultimate end for created being. This is the ultimate good. However, in the Edwardsean account of hell we know that there will be some humans who do not approach the ultimate good. These people will be moving away from Being. This means that they are moving further and further away from the ultimate good. However, because this is an infinite trajectory, they never will actually lose the good of possessing being or existence. To use Anselm’s language, “for any essence to exist less, and to exist less excellently, is precisely for it to be less similar to that essence which exists and excels supremely.” Those who are in hell exist less, and less excellently, because they are moving away from Being. However, it should be noted that they still possess the good of existing, or possessing being, even though it is in an impoverished manner. So how does this Anselmian understanding that possessing being, even in an impoverished manner, is a good make for an issuant account of hell? It makes for an issuant account because it is based upon Premise 1—God’s primary motivation is love to being in general—and Premise (E)—existence or being is always a good, especially when compared to non-being. Given (1) and (E) we may say that even in sending some persons to hell, and even though they may experience an infinite trajectory away from being, they are always experiencing the good of existence, which finds its source in its relation to God, the source of all being. To summarize this position, we may say that since possessing being is always a good, even though the person is on an infinite asymptotic trajectory away from Being, this person still has being. In other words because this person will always posses existence, there will never be a time when they will not experience God’s loving benevolence towards them.56 This is clearly an issuant account of hell.

We have said that God’s motivation for heaven is based upon God’s love toward being in general. Our Edwardsean account of hell is based upon the same motivation, namely that even in hell the damned continue to experience God’s love toward being in general. The reason why hell exists in this account is because the damned have separated themselves from God, i.e. they have rejected his intended end of union, yet God in his love towards their being maintains their existence. Hell in this account is a way for God to show love even towards those who have rejected his loving end of union with them. Thus, heaven and hell are motivated by God’s love; this Edwardsean account of hell is an issuant account. But does this account meet the conditions for being a legitimate expression of the traditional account?

4.2. The Traditional Account

This Edwardsean account meets each of the four criteria of the traditional account. First, it can affirm the Anti-Universalism Thesis and still claim that hell will be populated. Second, it can also affirm the Existence Thesis. However, the way the Existence Thesis is explained in the Edwardsean account differs from Edwards’s account in that Edwards’s account says nothing about diminishing being. This is actually a strength of the Edwardsean account. To those who argue that eternal suffering is a cruelty not befitting to God and thus the Non-existence Thesis should not be affirmed,57 the Edwardsean may reply that even though the damned may suffer eternally she still has being. Given the Being Thesis we can say that God is actually more compassionate by subjecting them to eternal punishment as opposed to annihilation because the damned still possess a good, namely being or existence. To remove the property of existence from the damned would be to remove the final good thing which they possess.58 In addition to these two thesis of the traditional account we can also easily affirm the No Escape Thesis. Finally, in regards to the Retribution Thesis, not only can we affirm it, but we can affirm it in such a way that is more compelling than Edwards’s own account. Much like Edwards’s account we can affirm that those in hell still suffer an active punishment at the hands of God and they also suffer passively, that is, they are shut out from experiencing God’s glorious presence. However, this account avoids some potential objections to Edwards’s account because maintaining that God grants existence even to those in hell allows us to affirm that God retributively punishes the damned all while maintaining that God’s character is still gracious even towards the damned. In Edwards’s own account of hell grace is replaced with hatred, but in the Edwardsean account God is always a God of grace, even in relation to the damned.

5. Conclusion

For various theological and philosophical reasons Jonathan Edwards’s account of hell is often seen as something repulsive by many theologians, pastors, and laypersons. This does not bode well for those who follow Jonathan Edwards’s lead in this particular doctrine. However, in this essay we have seen that resources exist within Edwards’s own writings to counter some of the objections to the traditional account. By capitalizing upon these resources, we have ended up with an account of hell which is not necessarily Edwards’s own account, but is Edwardsean in spirit. Thus, those who desire to follow Edwards’s lead in doctrinal issues and are also concerned with contemporary objections to the traditional account have good reason for adopting the constructive account put forth in this essay.

However, those desiring to follow Edwards’s lead in doctrinal issues may wonder, “Is this truly Edwardsean?” In other words, “Would Edwards himself affirm this account?” How one answers this question depends on what we mean by saying that Edwards would have affirmed it. If we mean that Edwards would have affirmed it as his own, then the answer would certainly be no. This is not Edwards’s own position. However, if by this question we are inquiring into whether Edwards would have recognized it as attempting to affirm his same core ideas, then yes, Edwards may have affirmed it.59 In fact, it is likely Edwards would have seen this sort of account as a legitimate expression of the traditional account he strongly believed in. It is likely he would have applauded the fact that this account allows us to affirm that in both heaven and hell God is simultaneously a God of glory and a God of grace. And if this is the case, as we have argued it is, then we have provided a redeemed account of the Edwardsean doctrine of hell.60

[1] Some of these books include Sean Michael Lucas, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011); Dane Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014); John Piper, God’s Pasion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006); John Piper and Stephen Nichols, eds., A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004). Perhaps the most influential recent work on Edwards has been George Marsden’s biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2004).

[2] Largely trafficked websites which have devoted significant attention to Edwards over the years include Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, The Cripplegate, Mortification of Spin, and Ligonier Ministries.

[3] For instance: 1) The 2003 Desiring God National Conference, “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things,” 2) The Jonathan Edwards for the Church Conference Series in the UK, 3) The Jonathan Edwards Lecture Series at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and 4) The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards Lectures at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[4] For example: Patricia Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006); Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2009); Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford, 2011).

[5] For what constitutes the traditional account see section 1 below.

[6] Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 58. Although he attempts to present an account which is sympathetic to the traditional account Walls objects to Edwards’s account of hell because it embodies what he calls “traditional Calvinistic view.”

[7] Briefly, an “issuant account” of hell is one in which the characteristic of God’s nature which motivates the generation of hell is the same characteristic which generates heaven. For a detailed discussion see section 2 below.

[8] Here the term Edwardsean is used in a similar way to how Oliver Crisp uses the term in his chapter “John McLeod Campbell and Non-Penal Substitution,” in Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 92–115. In this essay, he distinguishes between Edwards’s doctrines and Edwards-inspired doctrines (termed Edwardsean). He adds a caveat lector in which he says, “This is not to suggest Edwards endorsed this doctrine, only that it is consistent with his reasoning” (p. 101) I will be using the “Edwardsean” in this same manner.

[9] Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 19.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jonathan Edwards, “Wicked Men Are the Children of the Devil,” in The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation, ed. William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006), 14.

[12] Jonathan Edwards, “They That Are Gone to Hell,” in The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation, ed. William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006), 206.

[13] Ibid., 207.

[14] Edwards makes a stronger case against the possibility of annihilation in his sermon “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” in The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation, ed. William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006), 111–12.

[15] Ibid., 112.

[16] Jonathan Edwards, “That the Torments of Hell Will Be Eternal” in The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation, ed. William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006), 101.

[17] Edwards, “They That Are Gone to Hell,” 207.

[18] See Bruce W. Davidson, “Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued for the Rationality of Hell,” JETS 38 (1995), 47–56; John Gerstner, Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983); Stephen R. Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 199–240; Jonathan Kvanvig, “Jonathan Edwards on Hell,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, ed. Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 1–11; William Wainwright, “Jonathan Edwards and the Doctrine of Hell,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, ed. Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 13–26

[19] Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” 112.

[20] Ibid., 114.

[21] Edwards, “That the Torments of Hell Will Be Eternal,” 232.

[22] Ibid., 232, 235. These two forms are the sensus poena and the poena damni. For an in-depth discussion of how these two forms of punishment play out in Puritan theology of hell see Carl R. Trueman, “Heaven and Hell: 12 in Puritan Theology,” Epworth Review 22 (1995), 75–85.

[23] He concludes that while it is orthodox to believe that it may be figurative, “tis very probably that wicked men after resurrection shall be cast into a furnace of fire in a literal sense.” See Jonathan Edwards, “The Wicked Hereafter Will Be Cast into a Furnace of Fire,” in The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation, ed. William C. Nichols (Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006), 29.

[24] Kvanvig, “Jonathan Edwards on Hell,” 2–4.

[25] Ibid., 4–11. Kvanvig concludes: “For even if it could be shown that all sin is against God, and sinning against God is the most serious wrong that could be committed, there is still the issue of mitigating factors in the theory of punishment to be considered … the strong view of hell ignores such mitigating factors, and is problematic for that reason” (p. 11).

[26] Wainwright, “Jonathan Edwards and the Doctrine of Hell,” 17.

[27] On the appropriateness of the Status principle see William J. Wainwright, “Original Sin,” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas Morris (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press), 31–60. On why annihilation is not fitting we must remember that Edwards is not simply making a philosophical case for a doctrine of hell rather Edwards is trying to provide a doctrine of hell which he takes to be the doctrine explicitly laid out in Scripture.

[28] Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, 110.

[29] Ibid., 118.

[30] Although Robin Parry does not use the term “issuant account” and does not give a philosophical case for why we should purse such an account, he makes a similar point in arguing that our account of hell ought to make sense in light of the plotline of the Bible and in the context of the God of the gospel. He says that in articulating our doctrine of hell, “We have to show how it is a manifestation of the loving justice of the God who cares for unworthy sinners. If your theology of hell is not compatible with God’s love for the damned, then your theology of hell is wrong.” For more on his reasoning, see Robin Parry, “A Universalist View” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 101–27.

[31] The way Kvanvig articulates IH can be problematic for those who desire to hold to divine simplicity. In order to make IH plausible for those who hold to divine simplicity we may reformulate IH as (IH*): God’s aim which motivates the generation of hell is the same aim which generates heaven.

[32] It should be noted that throughout the paper is use the term “Being” (capitalized) to refer to what Edwards would refer to as the ground of all being, i.e. God. I use the term “being” (lower cased) to refer to existence and things which exist. For discussion of “God as Being in General,” see William Wainwright, “Jonathan Edwards,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Palo Alto, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University: 2016), §2.3,

[33] For a clear explanation of Edwards’s rationale behind this position see Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory, 222 in which Holmes states that “God’s justice is glorified in that he does not shrink from delivering the damned to what they deserve.” Elsewhere Edwards says, “But this one way wherein God will glorify himself, as in the eternal destruction of ungodly men, he will glorify his justice” (“The Eternity of Hell Torments,” 126).

[34] Wainwright, “Jonathan Edwards and the Doctrine of Hell,” 17.

[35] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 207–10.

[36] Ibid., 214. Holmes also suggests that the saints will rejoice at the sight of hell first because they have no love and no pity for the damned, namely because they love only what God loves and God does not love the damned. Second because, God glorifies himself in the punishment of sinners and saints will rejoice in any display of his glory manifested in his justice against the damned.

[37] Edwards, “Wicked Men are the Children of the Devil,” 13.

[38] Edwards, “They That Are Gone to Hell,” 211–12.

[39] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, eds. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 414.

[40] See Michael McClymond, “Salvation as Divinization: Jonathan Edwards, Gregory Palmas and the Theological Uses of Neoplatonism,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, ed. Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 142–55; Oliver Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 275–85; Kyle Strobel, “Jonathan Edwards and the Polemics of Theosis,” HTR 105 (2012), 259–79; and Kyle Strobel, “Jonathan Edwards’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis,” HTR 109 (2016): 371–99. In recent literature Edwards’s doctrine of the blessed state of the redeemed in heaven has been equated with the doctrine of theosis. Whether or not Edwards held to a proper doctrine of theosis is a controversial topic. Some have even argued that calling Edwards’s doctrine of the blessed state theosis is misleading. In order to avoid this controversy, which is beyond the scope of this paper, I will use the terms theosis and blessed state interchangeably. In addition to addressing the doctrine of theosis there is an increasingly large amount of literature on the topic of union within Edwards’s theology. For two examples, see Robert Caldwell, Communion in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit As the Bond of Union in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2006) and W. Ross Hastings, Jonathan Edwards and the Life of God: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

[41] Strobel, “Jonathan Edwards’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis,” 390.

[42] Ibid., 396.

[43] Ibid.

[44] See “The Excellency of Christ,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 19: Sermons and Discourses, 1734–1738, ed. M. X. Lesser (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 591, in which Edwards says, “The exaltation and honor of the head is not to make a greater distance between the head and the members; but the members have the same relation and union with the head they had before, and are honored with the head; and instead of the distance being greater, the union shall be nearer, and more perfect. When believers get to heaven, Christ will conform them to himself; as he is set down in his Father’s throne, so they shall sit down with him on his throne, and shall in their measure be made like him.”

[45] Hastings, Jonathan Edwards and the Life of God, 314.

[46] In Appendix III of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8: Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989) Paul Ramsey argues that Jonathan Edwards believed that heaven is a progressive state in two sorts of ways. First, the happiness of heaven is progressive, that is the joys of heaven are ever increasing. Second, the perfection of the saints is progressive. That is, there is an eternal increase of the knowledge and love of God and joy in him in heaven.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 459.

[49] This Edwardsean position has many affinities with Kvanvig’s position on hell. Kvanvig says “The choice of heaven or hell is not a choice of residence, as if one were picking between two new countries in which one might wish to reside. The choice of heaven or hell is rather a choice between ultimate union with God and ultimate independence from God. Choosing to aim against ultimate union with him is choosing ultimate independence from him, which is to choose nonexistence” (The Problem of Hell, 148).

[50] Once again Kvanvig is helpful for seeing how hell may be an infinite trajectory away from being. In The Problem of Hell, he distinguishes between the teleological character of hell and the mechanical character of hell. According to him, the teleological character of hell is properly described as annihilation. Since to choose against heaven is to be headed for nonbeing. However, the teleological character of hell tells us little about implementation, i.e. the mechanical character of hell. Unlike this Edwardsean account of hell Kvanvig believes that some, though very few, may possibly complete there move towards the destination of nonbeing.

[51] In addition to Kvanvig, there are others who hold that hell may be a progressive state, e.g. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, reprint ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001); N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2008), 182–83.

[52] In one sense, he can still say that hell is generated by love, however this love is only directed at the saints. The damned are objects of hate.

[53] Anselm of Canterbury, “Monologion,” in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and Gillian Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 47.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] For a similar position, motivated by the existence thesis and other slightly different considerations see Eleonore Stump, “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theory, and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16 (1986): 181–98. There she says: “To annihilate them is to eradicate their being; but to eradicate being on Aquinas’s theory is a prima facie evil, which an essentially God God could not do unless there were an overriding good which justified it. Given Aquinas’s identification of being and goodness, such an overriding good would have to produce or promote being in some way, but it is hard to see how the wholesale annihilation of persons could produce or promote being. In the absence of such an overriding good, however, the annihilation of the damned is not morally justified and thus not an open option for a good God.”

[57] This argument goes something like this: 1) Eternal suffering is cruel, 2) To inflict eternal suffering would make God cruel, 3) God is not cruel, therefore 4) God would not inflict the cruelty of eternal suffering.

[58] Assuming the Being Thesis, it is indisputable that those in hell experience a good. However, it could be argued that this account still has a major shortcoming, namely that it is an asymmetrical account of hell. By this I mean that existence in heaven is not only a good, but it is good for that person, whereas existence in hell is merely a good and not good for that person. One can certainly give some sort of account how being in hell is more than just a good, it is actually good for a particular person. For example, consider someone who is so depraved that they have absolutely no conception of what justice is. Being in hell may be good for them in that it is only through the firsthand experience of retributive justice that they come to understand what justice actually is. In that case, existence in hell would not only be a good but it would be good for them.

[59] There is precedent for making this claim. Consider the relationship between Edwards’s theory of atonement and that proposed by his protégé, Joseph Bellamy. There are significant differences between their accounts, yet as Oliver Crisp points out, “It would appear that Edwards thought that there was sufficient similarity or family resemblance between his doctrine and that of Bellamy for him to endorse Bellamy’s work…. He was willing to do so [endorse Bellamy’s work] because he saw Bellamy’s work as a Reformed cousin to his own, with the same aims and equivalent outcomes, but different accounts of the mechanism by which atonement obtains” (Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015], 141). I am suggesting that if Edwards would recognize this account of hell as a “cousin” to his own, having the same aims and equivalent outcomes, yet a different mechanism for explaining the character of hell.

[60] I would like to thank Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology for Theological Formation team (Oliver Crisp, James Arcadi, J. T. Turner, Jordan Wessling, and Jesse Gentile) for their helpful feedback on this essay.

comments powered by Disqus