Many people in the United States are familiar with the famous sermon Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and scholar in the Massachusetts of the 1700s, preached on the 8th of July 1741. The title of his sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As was his custom, Edwards read his sermon out loud. An utterly boring routine for a spiritually inert congregation. But something weird happened. People started shaking and trembling. Some fell to the ground sobbing and moaning. Edwards’ sermon is a good example of the theology of the Great Awakening, a movement of religious fervor and repentance that swept through the thirteen colonies of America and left a permanent mark on the Protestant faith in the North American continent.
Few today would be enamored with the vivid portrayal of a God who is so angry with humanity that he wants to surrender them to eternal torment. But the religious imagination in the 18th century was very different from what it is today and it worked in spite of Edwards’ boring preaching style. As an ex-evangelical, I feel uneasy whenever hell is used to whip people into repentance so as to avoid damnation. Yet, I appreciate the sentiment of sincere soulsearching of the time and the desire to live lives worthy of God and society. Complacency and a self-defensive posture made room for honest conscientious introspection.
A Sovereign God
American Christianity, as it developed under the influence of the successive revival movements, has, to a large extent, been inspired by the Puritan imagination with its Calvinistic vision of a sovereign God who sits on his throne on high from where he governs the world and from which he will one day descend to judge the wicked.
The Christianity that emerged from the religious fervor of the 18th and 19th century traditionally ambiguates on the relationship between Church and State. Until the seventies, most evangelicals were marked by a focus on inner holiness, separation from the world, missionary zeal, and the vertical dimensions of faith. Many evangelicals strove for an ethically pure community that was somewhat at odds with the world.
Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority changed all that. Evangelical Christians were increasingly unhappy with the changing morals in society at large. Church and state may be separated realms of existence but if God is ultimately Lord of the whole world something had to be done. A society that runs away with abortion, wants to give women the same rights as men, and seeks to legalize homosexual marriages needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Or so the Moral Majority thought. If evangelism and mission did not help stem the tide of increased liberal influence, political power might. And so they got into politics and were wooed by the GOP into its fold. The idea was that the sovereign God who angrily holds sinners in his hands also holds America accountable as God’s special nation on earth. Sadly, the movement’s morality floundered on single-issue politics and turned out to be less of a majority than hoped for.
Somewhere along the line, something went horribly wrong. Evangelicals became a mere extension of the Republican platform. With a trick out of the hat, hard-nosed capitalism functioned as a faithful representation of Jesus’ teachings. The watershed moment was, of course, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the presidential elections in November 2016 with the support of 81% of the evangelical vote, although the evangelical crisis has been a long time in the making. Since that time it seems that God and sinners exchanged places.
As someone with close ties to the evangelical movement, I’ve looked in horror time and again as evangelicals continued to stand by their president ignoring and even condoning his inappropriate language, his misogynist slurs, his racism, his blatant lies, his attack on the press, his meanness toward undocumented foreigners, and his disastrous unreliability on the international stage. Liberty University, a bulwark of fundamentalists support for Trump, whose president, Jerry Falwell jr., is one of his most vocal allies, has announced its collaboration in the making of a movie that traces an alleged “movement of faith” from a humble firefighter’s prophecy about Trump to the victory for God and country in November 2016. Perseverance in prayer has brought God’s man to the White House! A closer tie between religion and government is unthinkable.
The blindness, the callous attitude, and the irrational behavior of evangelicals have baffled me. It is plain that Trump is a horrible president who presidency is not only harmful to non-Western nations, the ecological well-being of our planet, USA’s allies in the West, or even minorities in the US itself. Trump is in the process of destroying the very nation he promised to make great again.
It made me realize that evangelicals are a bunch of angry sinners. It’s not an “angry God” we are dealing with here, but angry evangelicals. The emphasis here is not so much on “sinners” as this is what all people are according to the Christian tradition. No, evangelicals are angry; very angry. In their anger, however, they reject the very foundations of the evangelical movement. What has come of being anchored in Jesus’ teachings? What has come of the self-searching honesty before God that characterized the earlier iteration of this movement during the awakenings?
Rather, today’s evangelicals seem to deny the very God they claim to worship. Indeed, the phrase “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” can be flipped around. The God evangelicals worship as sovereign is paraded around as a statue. The Biblical God has become a tribal god who goes to war against the enemies of evangelicalism and the alleged enemies of America. The evangelical God has thus become “A God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.”
The doctrine of inerrancy that teaches that the words of the Bible are the very words of God without any mistake or flaw, so cherished by evangelicals has always been a trap. After all, whoever claims an inerrant Scripture can also claim infallible knowledge. And whoever claims infallible knowledge can make God say anything they want. But when this infallible God enters the political arena, things become potentially volatile. Have we learned nothing from Europe’s history? Apparently not, because we are now in a situation in which God is now the state-sanctioned idol in whose name children are separated from their undocumented immigrant parents.
It is very disconcerting to see how the claims of a so-called infallible God have made their way into the political arena in support of a calculating liar who will say anything in praise of this God as long as he gets his way. My concern is not primarily the way God is abused but to what abuse of minorities, vulnerable groups, state institutions, this kind of misconstrual may lead.
It is amazing to see how theology has become relevant again for public discourse. But that’s not my main takeaway, even though I’m a theologian myself. Rather, if Edwards’ angry God could throw sinners in the depths of hell, the angry sinners of today’s evangelicalism may yet, together with Trump and his administration, plunge their God together with the rest of the world into an abyss of chaos, violence, and destruction in comparison with which the biblical hell will look like a picknick.
After all, visions of hell are always more about what’s happening in the here and now than in an unearthly hereafter. Detention centers are a good place to see what that may look like. Unlike the people of the Great Awakening who repented in order to avoid hell, today’s angry evangelicals are the harbingers of their own apocalypse. And potentially ours as well.
The fuse is already burning.
The image is a rather hellish duotone variation of a painting depicting Jonathan Edwards preaching in the open air in Bolton, June 1750. Courtesy Bolton Library and Museum Services.