Edwards and an Argument for the Eternity of Hell (Miscellany 279)

Assuming you believe in the eternity of hell, how would you go about arguing for this position? Would you go to Scripture? Would you look back at what some historical theologians have said about the matter? Would you try to make some argument based upon your intuitions about justice and the heinousness of sin before God? The 18th century Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, doesn’t take any of these routes. He makes a move that many people today would find quite shocking….

jonathan-edwards-preaching-facebook
Jonathan Edwards Preaching or Jonathan Edwards walking like a Zombie? Take your pick.

First let me give you the context. I am currently writing two essays for a book on Edwards’s miscellanies. The book will hopefully come out early in 2019. I will be writing an essay on the Trinity in Misc. 96 and Hell in Misc. 279. In Miscellany 279 Edwards makes an argument for the eternity of hell based on happiness/love/thankfulness. Basically its this:

  1. The happiness of the blessed in heaven is eternal.
  2. Knowing that God has chosen to make them vessels of mercy instead of making them vessels of wrath would make them happy at time X.
  3. Without a “lively sense” of the opposite misery they would have faced had God not saved them the saints would not know that God has chosen to make them vessels of mercy instead of vessels of wrath.
  4. In order for the saints to be happy eternally they need to know God has chosen to make them vessels of mercy at time X1, X2, X3,….X∞.
  5. Therefore the lively sense of opposite misery needs to occur t time X1, X2, X3,….X∞.
  6. Therefore the damned must eternally exist in hell.

Mind you this is just one of Edwards’s arguments for the eternity of hell. Personally, I think it’s a bad one. If the point of this argument is that the happiness of those in heaven is eternal and this is secured by knowing that God has chosen to make them vessels of mercy instead of wrath then there are certainly other ways in which God could have accomplished giving them a “lively sense” of the opposite misery they would have faced. For example, and this is absurd, God could have a daily showing on a really big screen TV viewable everywhere in the New Creation that shows the moment God judged the reprobate. That scenario is a bit absurd, but it would accomplish the “lively sense” Edwards is after. This absurd scenario would be compatible with annihilationism. Or perhaps if one takes a more Barthian stance on things maybe God could constantly present the saints with a vision of the cross, by seeing Christ crucified they would see the misery they would have faced had not Christ died for them. This again would be compatible with annihilationism.

Please don’t take me to be arguing for annihilationism here – I have elsewhere written defending the traditional doctrine of hell (Themelios). I’m just pointing out – this is a pretty bad argument for the eternity of hell.

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2 thoughts on “Edwards and an Argument for the Eternity of Hell (Miscellany 279)

  1. Hi there! Thanks for a fascinating post. Edwards’ argument is interesting, although I’m not entirely convinced that everlasting hell is necessary in order for people to appreciate heaven. I think I would be happier in eternity knowing that God is merciful to everyone than that God damns certain people to eternity in hell.

    In any case, I’m pleased to have discovered your blog and will look forward to future posts 🙂

  2. // Please don’t take me to be arguing for annihilationism here //

    OK, but it’s worth pointing out that insofar as “hell” stands for final punishment, Edwards himself conceded that annihilationism is eternal, and that’s what contemporary proponents do assert (i.e. it’s not merely temporary).

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