It’s truly unfortunate that, for most Christians and non-Christians alike, “America’s Theologian” Jonathan Edwards has now become synonymous with only one sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). In reality, Edwards’ now infamous sermon was delivered to the church at Enfield in order to “let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.” Remarkably, the “Sinners” sermon is arguably second or third on Edwards’ list of most graphic depictions of Hell, each with a specific purpose. One of his most vivid, oddly enough, comes at the end of his sermon entitled “Heaven is a World of Love” (1738). In order to illustrate the intensity of the “holy pleasure” and the “perpetual spring” of love in heaven, Edwards contrasts this “Canaan of rest” with the horrors of Hell. What ensues is one of Edwards’ most detailed portraits of human misery:
“It is a world flowed with a deluge of wrath, as with a deluge of liquid fire, so as to become a lake of fire and brimstone. There are none there but what have been haters of God, and so have procured God’s hatred on themselves. And they shall continue to hate him. There is no love to God in hell. Everyone there perfectly hates him, and are continually, without restraint, expressing their hatred to him, blaspheming and cursing him, and, as it were, spitting venom at him. And though they all join together in their enmity and opposition to God, yet there is no union among themselves. They agree to nothing but hatred and expression of hatred. They hate God, and hate Christ, and hate angels and saints in heaven. And not only so, but hate one another…As they promoted each other’s sin, so now they will promote each other’s punishment.”
The division, torture, and enmity in Hell throw the unity, pleasure, and love of Heaven into beautiful relief. Edwards’s theme of union equally informs his doctrines of Heaven and Hell. In short, in Hell there is no union. In fact, there is perfect disunity. Conversely, for Edwards, the doctrine of union with Christ isn’t simply our means of salvation. It’s our access to every heavenly blessing (e.g. faith, hope, love). As people grounded in the vine, built upon the foundation, wedded to the groom, and attached to the body, Christians are incapable of experiencing or even articulating the joys of heaven without recourse to union with Christ. For Edwards, while the actual content of heaven will remain unknown to those on earth (1 Cor. 2:9), what is equally clear is that Christians everywhere “being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (Eph. 3:18-19) In other words, just like Christians on earth who continue to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus, heaven is an eternal exploration into the “breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love and in the limitless knowledge of Him. Because God is an infinite ocean, Christians will never find the bottom. In a nutshell, this is heaven.
Today the church is often plagued with a low view of God, and this often precipitates an extremely low view of heaven. However, in mathematical terms, for Edwards the joy of our union with Christ isn’t merely a linear experience without growth or change:
And this heavenly experience isn’t parabolic in the sense that we could somehow reach our peak of heavenly joy, coming back down or becoming bored after we had somehow plumbed the depths of God and his preparations for us:
Instead, for Edwards, heaven was an endless godly experience without end or pinnacle, something he called a “garden of pleasures, “river of love,” or “a perpetual spring.” Just as the earthly Christian continues in pursuit of Gospel love in the midst of his or her trials, that godly pursuit will never alter its trajectory in heaven, now uninhibited by sin. As Christ’s love in the Gospel is endless, so our experience in His love and in our love to others is also endless. According to Edwards, “Holy love makes them long for holiness. Divine love is a principle, which thirsts after increase. It is an imperfection and in a state of infancy in this world, and it desires growth.” Ultimately, love is a “holy fire” in heaven that is never put out; it only burns hotter and brighter. Thus, for Edwards, the heavenly experience of love is somewhat asymptotic:
For those found “in Christ,” heaven is an exponential conforming to the image of Christ in increased love of His holiness, eternally approaching godliness without ever becoming God Himself. “Love desires union,” and that’s precisely what occurs in heaven: an endless uniting in divine marriage. He is, after all, infinite. Therefore, for Edwards, heaven is not mystical absorption or deification, but rather an eternal increase in Trinitarian love through the Spirit of Christ. Christians are “in a sort admitted into that society of the three persons in the Godhead.” We eternally and increasingly participate in God without actually becoming divine. This is the plan before the foundation of the world: the limitless heavenly joy of sinners in union with God. And for Edwards, it has practical application for the suffering Christian today: “As heaven is a world of love, so that way to heaven is the way of love.”