The Hands of an Angry Deity

I first drafted the following essay in late October, 2011, a few days after the first of the earthquakes in Van, and a few weeks after moving to Istanbul from Ankara. I rediscovered the essay recently by chance. It seems worth revisiting now, in the spring of 2017, given the political upheaval in the United States last fall, and the potential for more around the world.

Above Mehmetçik Caddesi in Şişli, one of the most densely populated of Istanbul’s 39 boroughs; 2017.04.02

Living here in Istanbul, I am frequently conscious that a serious earthquake can shake this city at any moment (over the next 30 years). The bookshelf that might fall on me if the quake happened right now is bolted to the wall; but I am the one who bolted it, and I don’t know how good a job I did. The big hardware store in our local shopping mall (“largest in Europe”) does not seem to have the appropriate brackets for all of the rest of the shelves. (The brackets that I have already used came from Ankara with the shelves themselves.)

We are assured by the owner of our flat that our building is safe. Evidence for this is that the builder actually lives in the building.

Still, I have been moved to reread “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the sermon by Jonathan Edwards that I first read in a high-school course of American literature.

Edwards’s sermon is about how we are held up from the abyss as if by a spider’s silk, and there is no reason in the world why God does not just let us fall. I am conscious of this, without having any sense that accepting Jesus Christ as my personal savior (were it possible) would solve the problem.

Before continuing, let me clear one thing up. By the term “God,” I myself do not necessarily mean anything more than “the object of metaphysical thought,” as described by Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933). Here Collingwood takes up the Ontological Proof of the existence of God. He observes that the proof is valid, but not as a proof of the god of any particular religion:

Students of philosophy, when once they have learnt that the Proof is not to be dismissed as a quibble, generally realize that it proves something, but find themselves perplexed to say what exactly this is. Clearly it does not prove the existence of whatever God happens to be believed in by the person who appeals to it. Between it and the articles of a particular positive creed there is no connexion, unless these articles can be deduced a priori from the idea of an ens realissimum. What it does prove is that essence involves existence, not always, but in one special case, the case of God in the metaphysical sense: the Deus sive natura [“God or nature”] of Spinoza, the Good of Plato, the Being of Aristotle: the object of metaphysical thought. But this means the object of philosophical thought in general; for metaphysics, even if it is regarded as only one among the philosophical sciences, is not unique in its objective reference or in its logical structure; all philosophical thought is of the same kind, and every philosophical science partakes of the nature of metaphysics, which is not a separate philosophical science but a special study of the existential aspect of that same subject-matter whose aspect as truth is studied by logic, and its aspect as goodness by ethics.

I may note by the way that Collingwood’s view of metaphysics had perhaps become refined by the time he published An Essay on Metaphysics in 1940; here metaphysics was the science, not of being as such, but of absolute presuppositions concerning what beings there are in the world. But this is not my present topic.

In “Sinners,” Jonathan Edwards warns his listeners not to end up like those who are now in hell. Those damned souls regret their failure to save themselves while they had the chance. I suppose we have all had such regrets. For a simple example, I think of the time when I broke a glass tube of an expensive still in the school laboratory where I was working one summer. I had been pushing too hard with the hose I was trying to attach. If only I could have taken back that moment! But the moment drifted irrevocably further away, in the wake of the passage of time, like a log thrown from a moving ship. Thus do I imagine life on earth, to the soul in hell.

Once when I was in college, I overheard three first-year students discussing whether to drink that night.

“Let’s not,” said one; “you know how we feel bad the next day when we do it.”

“But that doesn’t matter: we live for the moment!” said another.

Thus was the problem of life laid out. Insofar as Edwards’s sermon is an exhortation to think carefully on this problem, it is fine.

Edwards begins his sermon with a part of verse 35 of Chapter 32 of the book that the Hellenistic Jews called Deuteronomy:

Their feet shall slide in due time.

I have italicized “due” in accordance with a print edition of the King James Bible; I understand the italics to be used for words with no actual correspondent in the original text. The italics do not appear in the editions of Edwards that I have consulted, but Edwards does seem to treat the word “due” of “due time” as if it should be italicized for emphasis.

I shall look more carefully at the Deuteronomy passage later on. Meanwhile, apparently referring to this passage, Edwards says:

The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this.

There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.

By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty.

I am willing to entertain Edwards’s notion that God is under no constraint. However, it will appear later that even Edwards does not believe it.

I want to look at a few other passages from his sermon, taken in order. I rather like this one:

The souls of the wicked are in scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isa. 57:20. For the present, God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;” [Job 38:11] but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable.

Sin is destructive in its nature. One should follow moral laws, not because of the external authority that imposes them, but because one recognizes the desirability of calming the stormy sea within oneself.

The following is good to remember:

It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances.

We can be laid low at any time. It worthwhile to keep this in mind. But it doesn’t matter whether we are wicked or not. Anybody can be struck down by disaster. Edwards himself seems close to admitting this:

Natural men’s prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, do not secure them a moment. To this, divine providence and universal experience do also bear testimony. There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? Eccles. 2:16. “How dieth the wise man? even as the fool.”

In referring to “natural men,” Edwards may be alluding to verse 2:14 of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians:

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Something amusing to me about this passage is that, if we stayed closer to Paul’s Greek in our English, then the distinction between the natural and the spiritual man would be between the psychic and the pneumatic man. At the article on Psyche, the Oxford English Dictionary says Paul developed his distinction from a Jewish distinction between ruach (pneuma) “spirit” or “breath” and nephesh (psyche) “soul.” The Hebrew words have their cognates in Turkish (via Arabic): ruh and nefes. However, it is normally nefes that refers to breath, or a puff (perhaps a toke), while a ruh doktoru is a psychiatrist: a “soul doctor.”

What is the Jewish distinction? The Wikipedia article “Soul in the Bible” makes quotations from Genesis 2:7 and 2:19:

“The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life, and the man became a living being/soul [nephesh].”

“Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air … And whatever the man called each living creature [nephesh], that was its name.”

A lot of theology unknown to me may have gone into this matter; but in the original Biblical sense we would seem all to be “spiritual.” We are all dust and spirit, which together make a living thing. It is not as Jonathan Edwards seems to suggest, that we are all “natural,” but some among us—there’s no telling who—are also “spiritual.”

God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen …

Not believing that the words of an old book, as such, put any restriction on the supreme power of the universe, I can agree with Edwards that God is under no obligation. But there is an old book called Genesis, revered by Edwards, in whose Chapter 9, God is supposed to have said,

9 And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;

10 And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.

11 And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

It sounds as if God is laying himself under the obligation never again to create hell on earth.

When Edwards argues that salvation does not come from observing external forms, I am in sympathy. I have been annoyed when, with forty lives in his hands, a bus driver thinks he is doing God’s will by keeping the Ramadan fast and driving while mad with hunger. So I have some inclination to cheer on Edwards when he says:

Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.

With Nicodemus though, I have to question what it means to be born again.

The following is where Edwards admits that God is not a psychopath:

Consider this, you that are here present, that yet remain in an unregenerate state. That God will execute the fierceness of his anger, implies, that he will inflict wrath without any pity. When God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much in any other sense, than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires.

“You shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires.” There is order to the universe.

Edwards’s general use of holy scripture is questionable. He takes his Deuteronomy 32:35 epigram—

“Their foot shall slide in due time”

—as referring to the “wicked unbelieving Israelites.” I think he has got it wrong, and the reference is to the enemies of Israel. God has allowed those enemies to have the upper hand for a while, as a punishment for the wicked unbelieving Israelites; but in the end the enemies will not prevail, since otherwise, in their foolishness, those enemies would think that it was their own virtue that had given them victory. This reading seems to be in agreement with the Wikipedia article “Haazinu,” on the Torah portion constituted by Deuteronomy 32:1–52. This portion seems to be a lot more complicated than Edwards allows.

Edwards generally seems to be pretty free with scripture. He says for example

[The wicked] deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down; why cumbreth it the ground” (Luke 13:7).

How he concludes that “infinite punishment” is called for is beyond me. As for the Divine justice in Luke 13:7, it seems in fact to be tempered:

6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.

7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?

8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:

9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

On the same theme, Edwards writes,

The devil stands ready to fall upon [the wicked] and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion. The Scripture represents them as his “goods” (Luke 11:21).

However, in Luke 11 we have

20 But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.

21 When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace:

22 But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.

The implication seems to be that the devil will not have eternal possession of souls, but God, who is stronger, will come to free them.

In high school I was evidently impressed by Edwards’s violent imagery. At least the images of hell were what stuck in mind. Now Edwards seems to be one more example of how people adapt their religions to their purposes.

A remaining peasant house in Şişli, 2017.04.02


  1. The Bible. Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Oxford World’s Classics, 1997.

  2. R. G. Collingwood. An Essay on Philosophical Method. New Edition, with an Introduction and additional material edited by James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

  3. Jonathan Edwards. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Anthology of American Literature. George McMichael, general editor. Volume I: Colonial Through Romantic. Second edition. New York: Macmillan, 1980. Quotations have been cut and pasted from Wikisource, but I may have edited them to conform to the print edition.

Corrected May 5, 2020

4 Trackbacks

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