Imagery of Hell in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards

literature analysis

The sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was written and presented to the audience for the first time in 1741 by Jonathan Edwards, an American preacher who supported the ideas of the Reformed theology. This sermon is a highly expressive and thought-provoking text full of powerful stylistic devices. The paper will be devoted to the analysis of a enormous range of impressive imagery used by Edwards to explain the feelings of sinners in Hell, show that Hell is realistic, and add more terrifying details to the description of Hell.

The imagery for the descriptions of Hell as offered by Edwards can be roughly divided into three groups – diverse tools utilized to show the terrifying position of sinners in Hell, imagery aimed at presenting Hell close and realistic, and devices related to the detalization of the location. The first group is probably the most considerable as the primary aim of Edwards was not to realistically describe the place but to persuade people to experience a deep fear of God’s anger and the possibility of being thrown in Hell. Therefore, he focused on rendering the emotional and psychological aspects of transgressors’ existence in Hell. Edwards argues that Hell for sinners is imminent if, of course, God would not prefer to be merciful to them, but this prospect is out of discussion in details. He adopts powerful metaphors to demonstrate that their fate is waiting for them – “The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads” (Edwards). This and a range of other devices are supposed to prompt people to lose the perception of comfort and assuredness in their future as almost everyone is aware that he or she has committed some sins in their lives, especially taking into account the severe norms of Protestant religious ethics.

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Another group of imagery related to Hell is the devices that are supposed to intensify the closeness and realistic nature of Hell and display the shaky position of the sinners as they may become doomed to it at any moment. Furthermore, the sermon attempts to demonstrate the audience that the transgressors are already in Hell even though they may believe that they are on earth as their chance of reaching Hell is so realistic that they perceives almost no difference whether they are in their routine life or not. One of the most vivid and impressive images used by Edwards to depict this uncertainty is the idea of comparing a sinner with the spider. He writes, “The God… holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or… loathsome insect over the fire” (Edwards). Moreover, he draws the audience’s attention to the fact that all these diverse horrors of Hell have been already prepared for transgressors, thus further decreasing the metaphoric distance between the current reality and Hell. In addition, Edwards constantly states that sinners in Hell would not possess any physical or emotional stability and would have “nothing to take hold of” (Edwards). Therefore, the position of transgressors is dangerously shaky both in the literal and metaphoric sense. This imagery leads the audience to the conclusion that the only reliable and stable thing is their faith in God and they should exert every effort to build their life on this basis.

Edwards avoids devoting the entire passages to the actual description of Hell but rather distribute this imagery throughout the sermon. This strategy allows him to keep the audience in suspense during the whole sermon. However, it is essential to mention that the imagery related to the details of Hell as a location is not original and inventive. Edwards relies on the traditional understanding of Hell as an extremely hot place in the form of a huge pit. He writes, “The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them” (Edwards). Such elements as fire, furnace, or pit have been always presented in Christianity to describe Hell, but Edwards’s aim is the emotional impact rather than originality. The above-mentioned distribution of this horrifying imagery throughout the sermon has one more goal – to escalate the audience’s emotional response. There is no evidence in what manner the sermon was introduced by Edwards, but it would be entirely logical to assume that such an escalation should be also accompanied with the alternations in the speech tempo and volume. In addition, while describing Hell Edwards offers numerous examples of destruction that happens to everything and everyone who resides there. This imagery is the result of the assumption that any sin is destructive. Therefore, Hell as the place of concentration and accumulation of all sins is able to destroy not only the physical form of an individual (body), but also exert the same impact on their souls. However, to create definite links between the above-mentioned idea that sinners are already in Hell on earth and the concept of the powerful and imminent destruction, he often argues that they have already stepped on the path of demolishing their souls by committing sins in their current life.

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To conclude, this sermon is an impressive illustration of Protestant Christian literature of the eighteenth century. It abounds in powerful imagery adopted by the preacher to focus the audience’s attention on the suffering of sinners in Hell, metaphoric closeness of Hell and some psychical descriptions of this place. Edwards utilizes metaphors and associations that are supposed to create the image of Hell and the emotions of the transgressors there as realistic as possible. This imagery is remarkably efficient for creating the atmosphere of horror and persuading the audience in the imminent probability of being doomed to Hell as, according to Edwards, the God is extremely angry with sinners.

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