By Elizabeth Prata
Heaven and Hell: Jonathan Edwards on the Afterlife by John H. Gerstner
Dr. Gerstner was an enthusiastic student of the famous Jonathan Edwards. He spent a good deal of his professional life studying Edwards and his theology. In this book, he examines the teaching of Edwards on the subjects of heaven and hell.
A short work, at times felt more like Cliff’s Notes, but it is such a weighty subject, particularly the way Edwards deals with it, that I don’t know if my heart and soul could stand the pain of reading about hell any more deeply that was already presented.
I didn’t agree with all Edwards had to say on the subject (i.e. earth being the location of hell after the conflagration, or that devils torment us in hell) but alternately, Edwards did raise interesting points. Like this one: are men punished for sins IN the state of punishment as well as in the state of trial?
One comes to appreciate Edwards’ attention to the doctrine. His pleas, constant and earnest as they were, to avoid hell ran consistently with the Bible’s frequency on the subject (3-to-1 in favor of threats and warnings vs comforts and lovelies). Here is one excerpt from an unpublished sermon where Edwards remarks on his own frequency of hell’s mention-
And indeed when I went about preparing this discourse it was with considerable discouragement. I thought it was now some time since I had offered any discourse of this nature. But so many had been offered with so little apparent effect that I thought with myself I know not what to say further.
But however because I must warn you from God whether you will hear or whether you will forbear I have warned you again. It has now been told once more, whether you will yield to the power of God’s Word, to the force of the awful warnings and threatenings which the Word of God sets before you [or not]. If you will not hear now you may possibly solemnly lay these things to heart when you come to die. And if you continue in your stupidity to the last, being given up of God to a dreadful degree of hardness that is beyond the alarm of approaching death, which is the case with some, yet as soon as ever you are dead you will be fully sensible of all.
Edwards’ motivation for the frequency of hell’s mention stems from a vivid understanding of God’s character, his wrath and His grace. His sermons are clear on the wondrous character of God and his unchangeableness in dealing with sin. Edwards fervently wanted his hearers to spend eternity in grace, not wrath. Some were converted, some were not. Some even stayed on the fence, Edwards says that “they were neither awakened, nor at ease.”
Gerstner uses copious amounts of quotes from Edwards’ sermons and writings, and many footnotes for further study.
Edwards once remarked that the only way for men to have ease on earth is to delete the doctrine of hell, and so it is the same to this day. Recommended.