For my PhD dissertation, I am studying the American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards, who lived in the 1700s.
To me, one of his most interesting writings is "Concerning The End for Which God Created the World" (sometimes shortened to End of Creation). It was one of the last works Edwards ever wrote.
Here, Edwards tries to answer the question of why God created the universe.
This is an interesting question for Christians, because we don't want to say that God needed to create the universe (as if God is dependent on the universe, or as if God would not be complete or happy without it). Instead, most Christian theologians (including Edwards), say that God was perfectly happy and complete in His eternal self-existence before He created anything at all.1
So then, what possible motive could God have to create anything?
Edwards's solution in End of Creation is to say that God created the universe for whatever purpose is the highest and most worthy. Edwards then says that since God is the highest and most worthy thing there is, God creates the universe for God's own self.
Specifically, God creates to reveal God's own glory, which is perceived by intelligent creatures, who then praise and love God eternally. And to avoid portraying God as selfish or prideful, Edwards has to explain how God's glory is identical to the happiness of His intelligent creatures.
Note: In this article, the term "elect" or "the elect" refers to all the humans that will be eternally saved and will live forever in heaven as well as any angels who have not rebelled, and the term "reprobate" or "the reprobate" refers to all humans who are not saved and rebellious angels who will therefore be thrown into hell to be tortured forever (according to Edwards). In this article I will refer to both humans and angels as God's "intelligent creatures" as Edwards does.
Edwards says, "God's seeking Himself in the creation of the world, in the manner which has been supposed, is so far from being inconsistent with the good of His creatures, or any possibility of being so, that it is a kind of regard to Himself that inclines Him to seek the good of His creatures".2
So we could say God is kind of like an artist, who creates the universe as a piece of artwork in which God expresses Himself and reveals His own inner character. God then creates His own audience of intelligent creatures who admire God's creation and find their own happiness in worshipping God and enjoying God and God's creation (i.e. the New Heaven and New Earth) forever.
This looks like it's got some potential.
I also think Edwards is absolutely correct in his sermon "Heaven is a World of Love", when he says that heaven will be a society full of perfect love between saints, angels, and the members of the Trinity.3 Thus, God's elect intelligent creatures find their eternal happiness by participating in these mutually loving relationships.4
So based on the above, Edwards should say that both God and the elect would be even more happy in heaven if more people are eternally saved, for then there will be more loving relationships possible in heaven to participate in. Therefore, both God and the elect should want as many people as possible to be saved, for it will increase their eternal happiness in heaven.5
So far, so good!
One Problem with Reprobation in Edwards' Theology
Unfortunately, Edwards says that seeing the reprobate being tortured in hell is another source of happiness for the elect.6
Why? Because all of God's attributes must be eternally demonstrated in order for God to be completely and eternally worshipped by the elect.7 That includes God's wrath at sin and His justice in punishing sin, which is shown by having the reprobate suffer in hell for all eternity.8 (Apparently, Jesus' death on the cross and the constant reminder of the cross that the elect will see forever in the permanent wounds on Jesus' resurrected body are not enough for this?)9
But this is bizarre, because it means that, somehow, the elect in heaven observing God torturing the reprobate in hell for all eternity must bring the elect more joy than the joy they would have gained from participating in the larger number of loving relationships which would have been possible if the reprobate had been saved.
Because if the elect truly gained more joy from more people being in heaven, then if God truly cared about maximizing the happiness of the elect (and thus, simultaneously maximizing God's glory), then He would save more people.
Now, this scheme might work perfectly fine if the only reason people end up in hell is because of their own free choice to reject God's offer of salvation. We could say that while it would have been better if more people had accepted God's offer, the happiness of the elect which comes from seeing God's justice and wrath at sin in hell is a sort of second-best outcome, a way that God redeems even the rejection of God's offer of salvation and turns it into something that serves God's glory.
But sadly, in Edwards' point of view, God is fully in control of who is saved and who is not, because if God wants to save someone, He will give them the necessary divine and supernatural light which will irresistibly and effectually guarantee that the person who receives it will turn to God in faith and love.10 Therefore, God could, if He wanted, give this divine light to everyone, thus saving everyone. After all, God is omnipotent, and no one is forcing Him to act the way He does.
So if God could irresistibly guarantee that everyone would be saved, but he does not, then it implies that some number of people in hell is necessary for God's maximum glory and the eternal happiness of the elect. Thus, God must have in mind some sort of ideal ratio between the number of elect and the number of reprobate which maximizes the happiness of the elect. (And unfortunately, Edwards notes that only very few are elect).11
But if so, this means that God could not save one more person because it would decrease the happiness of heaven! This is an absurd thought!
We can't even say that the joy gained by the elect from seeing the reprobate in hell is equal to the joy that could be gained from the elect participating in the equivalent number of loving relationships in heaven if the reprobate had been saved, because then there would be no reason for God to predestine anyone to hell. For the happiness of the elect would be the same regardless of how many people end up in hell, whether that is billions or zero. God might as well save everyone then, so that at least He would get more praise from more people being in heaven.
Thus the only conceivable reason why God would predestine anyone to hell is because it makes the elect more happy than if He did not, and makes God more glorious than if He did not.
So ultimately it seems that in Edwards' theology that - contrary to his earlier claims - God's maximal glory is not compatible with the ultimate happiness of His intelligent creatures, for many of them end up suffering in hell forever. (If you're interested in what Edwards says hell is like, you can read his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God").
And of course, the reprobate never had any real ability to believe in Jesus and be saved, because again, the only reason anyone is saved is because of that irresistible divine and supernatural light which God only gives to the elect.12
In fact, if, as shown above, the happiness of the elect actually depends on there being a specific number of people in hell to be tortured by God forever, then God indeed must want and intend for people to sin and want and intend for them to not believe in Jesus, so that they can be "justly" damned.
All as part of God's plan for glorifying His perfect love and holiness forever.
I hope I'm not the only one seeing problems here?!
Rehabilitating Edwards' End of Creation
Therefore, I firmly believe that Edwards' theology here is seriously flawed.
But, I think it can be rehabilitated if we make a few changes to it, so that we can present God as actually fully good and loving, and affirm that God doesn't want anyone to go to hell (as per 1 Tim. 2:3-4).
I think we must start with the fact that God IS LOVE (1 John 4:8).
The doctrine of the Trinity is how Christians can understand God as being love in his very being. The three Persons within the single Triune Godhead all know and love each other perfectly, and so God in his most inner being actually is the most perfect and loving relationship. Edwards admits this in his own dissertation on the Trinity.13
But Edwards also claims that God has a variety of semi-independent attributes that occasionally conflict and oppose one another, such as Grace vs. Justice.14 In fact, he even says that these conflicts or "complexities" are what makes God's character beautiful - more beautiful even than if God did not have such conflicts in his own character!15
However, in the Religious Affections, Edwards notes how all other "holy affections" can be derived from the one principal affection of love to God. Also, love for God will necessarily produce in the elect a hatred of sin16, and a hatred of any being who is opposed to God.17 I do not know why he doesn't apply this same logic to God, where God's only real attribute would then be love, which then accounts for and is the source of all of God's other "attributes", such as Grace and Justice.18
For example, instead of Justice or Wrath being separate attributes from Love, we could say Justice and Wrath are actually expressions of God's perfect holy Love when it encounters sin. For example, a parent who loves their child will become angry and seek justice if their child is harmed by someone else. Or a parent may even become angry if their child is ignorantly or persistently harming itself and will desire to discipline the child, due to the parent's love for that child's well-being.
So then, if God is Love, I think it makes most sense to say that what God loves most, is Himself; that is, love (i.e. perfect loving relationships).
So what is the most loving thing that God could do? And what would make God even more happy than His own internal loving relationships within Himself?
Answer: Creating and participating in even more loving relationships!
Therefore, my view is that God chooses to create intelligent creatures with genuine free will in order to enable the possibility of loving relationships between God and these creatures, and between these creatures themselves, because this is what God loves most.
The rest of the universe is then created to allow for the existence of these intelligent creatures, as well as, I think, a way for God to have fun creating all sorts of wonderful things for his creatures to enjoy and then praise God for. Just as a parent enjoys giving gifts to their children for their enjoyment.
Therefore, for all these reasons which can be found in Edwards' own work (i.e. God's only attribute is love, God exists as a Trinity of loving relationships, and God takes pleasure in loving relationships between Himself and intelligent creatures) it makes no sense for Edwards to claim that God actually wants to send people to hell, or that this makes God and the elect more happy than if those in hell had been saved.
Instead, I'm convinced God never predestines anyone to hell; the only reason why people will be eternally destroyed is because they do not want to live in loving relationships with God and everyone else forever. They reject God's prevenient grace, given to all, which enables everyone to have a real opportunity to say Yes to God's love shown through Jesus Christ by trusting in Christ as their personal savior (or in some other way, for those who never heard of Christ).
And love cannot be forced but must be freely chosen. This, means rebellion, sin, and hate are all possibilities that could not be precluded in this temporary world, if God's goal was to create the possibility for genuinely loving relationships in eternity.
The main purpose of this world, then, is to give people the opportunity to make that free choice of whether they want to live in a perfect mutually-loving society forever with God - or not!
Although Adam and Eve sinned and all humanity became trapped in bondage to sin, God loves people so much that He would rather bear the consequences of our sin Himself as Jesus Christ on the cross, than be God without us. God works in our hearts and minds through the Holy Spirit, to restore the ability to respond to God's love and His offer of eternal salvation.
God truly loves everyone, and wants everyone to be saved, and Christ's death means that all can be saved, if we only do not reject this offer.
- 1. Jonathan Edwards, "Concerning The End for Which God Created the World", in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 420.
- 2. Edwards, "Concerning The End for Which God Created the World", 452.
- 3. Jonathan Edwards, "Heaven is a World of Love" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008).
- 4. Edwards, "Heaven is a World of Love", 373-374.
- 5. Edwards writes "One that loves Being in general will necessarily value good will to Being in general, wherever he sees it. But if he sees the same benevolence in two beings, he will value it more in two than in one only. Because it is a greater thing, more favorable to Being in general, to have two beings to favor it than only one of them." So the elect should be happier if more people love God, because they value love of God.
Jonathan Edwards, "True Virtue" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 548.
- 6. Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 22, Sermons and Discourses 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 415.
- 7. Edwards, "Concerning The End for Which God Created the World", 429-431, 442-443, 528-529.
- 8. Edwards, "Concerning The End for Which God Created the World", 495, 498, 509, 536.
- 9. Stephen R. Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 234, 247-249.
- 10. Jonathan Edwards, "A Divine and Supernatural Light" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 17, Sermons and Discourses 1730-1733, ed. Mark Valeri (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 424.
- 11. Jonathan Edwards, "Original Sin" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 3, ed. Clyde Holbrook (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 161-162.
- 12. Jonathan Edwards, "Freedom of the Will" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 1, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 435.
- 13. Jonathan Edwards, "Discourse on the Trinity" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 21, Writings On the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 113-114, 121-128.
- 14. Jonathan Edwards, "The Excellency of Christ" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 19, Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738, ed. M. X. Lesser (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 567 ; or Jonathan Edwards End of Creation, 429, 528.
- 15. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 59, 208. He refers to Edwards' essay "EXCELLENCY" in his notebook The Mind, entry no. 1 (WJE 6:332-333)
- 16. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 2, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 107-108.
- 17. Edwards, True Virtue, 545.
- 18. Amy Plantinga-Pauw notes that "Edwards never tried to argue that all these attributes of Christ are really identical and identical to the divine essence." Amy Plantinga-Pauw, The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 84.