Monday, August 22, 2016

A Summer Sunday Traffic Jam Reminds Me of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, so give her a like measure of torment and grief. Since in her heart she says, ‘I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief,’ therefore her plagues will come in a single day— pestilence and mourning and famine— and she will be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
Revelation 18:4-8

Yesterday after church I drove north and east to Georgetown, Maine, for a week of vacation.

In  our part of the northeast corridor there is always some traffic but on a Sunday afternoon most of the traffic was headed south and although I had some slowdowns, there were no delays.

At the northern end of Route 128 the southbound lanes were stop and go. And then from the Merrimack River north into the Maine Turnpike the southbound lanes looked more like a parking lot.

Mile after mile of bumper to bumper.

I thought about how frustrating it must be. I wondered whether it would be better or worse for the folks in those cars to know exactly how far the road would be clogged.

And then.

Although I knew it was not right, I could not help feeling an unreasonable delight in the contrast of the open road heading north in front of me and the parking lot heading south in front of them.

It reminded me of the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’s perverse contention that, “When the saints in glory shall see the wrath of God executed on ungodly men, it will be no occasion of grief to them, but of rejoicing.”

The major difference being that what I saw as a moral failing he counted as righteousness. The righteous, he argued, rejoice in the punishment of the ungodly precisely because they are righteous. It is not a vice in them, it is a virtue.

Edwards meditates on this in a sermon titled, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous” and subtitled, “The Torments of the Wicked in Hell, No Occasion of Grief to the Saints in Heaven.” In his reflection, those verses from Revelation cited above should be understood as good news. Although the wicked might stand back in alarm, the righteous should rejoice at God’s judgment.

He tells of the righteous in glory observing the fate of those who are damned.
“When they shall see it, it will be no occasion of grief to them. The miseries of the damned in hell will be inconceivably great. When they shall come to bear the wrath of the Almighty poured out upon them without mixture, and executed upon them without pity or restraint, or any mitigation; it will doubtless cause anguish, and horror, and amazement vastly beyond all the sufferings and torments that ever any man endured in this world; yea, beyond all extent of our words or thoughts. For God in executing wrath upon ungodly men will act like an Almighty God. The Scripture calls this wrath, God's and the fierceness of his wrath; and we are told that this is to show God's wrath, and to make his power known; or to make known how dreadful his wrath is, and how great his power.
 “The saints in glory will see this, and be far more sensible of it than now we can possibly be. They will be far more sensible how dreadful the wrath of God is, and will better understand how terrible the sufferings of the damned are; yet this will be no occasion of grief to them. They will not be sorry for the damned; it will cause no uneasiness or dissatisfaction to them; but on the contrary, when they have this sight, it will excite them to joyful praises.”
In glory, the righteous will joyfully praise God’s righteous judgment.

What he calls virtue is at the center of the very worst in so-called Christian thought. The people who study Jonathan Edwards tell me that he was a genius, and for the most part I take their word for it. But on this point I think he has it upside down.

Sadly, for many Christians, this is where we are. We embrace the image of God’s judgment and are skeptical of God’s grace. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

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