Good ole Jonathan Edwards, Puritan preacher from back in the 1700s, one of the most influential persons of the Great Awakening in American religious history---preached his most famous sermon that had the title of today's blog entry. Historians say that as he preached, people would moan and cry out, asking how they could be saved. His sermon, and it was a long one....you can read the entire text in Wikipedia if you desire...depicted God as being angry at sinners, and especially wicked sinners, and having great desire to cast sinners into Hell for all eternity. Edwards preached with great fervor and his listeners could just see themselves being dangled over the flames of Hell as God contemplated dropping them at any moment. He concluded by urging people to "get right with God" (as more modern theologians of a conservative bent have been willing to say.)
I felt the flames of hell surrounding me when I was a mere lad of eight or so. My mother decided that our family needed to attend a very conservative fundamentalist church in the area where we lived, a church of pentecostal-charismatic fervor with plenty of Gospel music and action. The church suited my mom's personality so we were dragged to this church and subjected to their style of religion for all of my formative years, until I could drive and take myself elsewhere, and that happened when I reached college age. Anyway, back to hell fire and damnation---so, one Sunday evening the church we attended decided to put on a play. Now, this was not a Christmas play with angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill to men, no this was a scare the living bejabbers play that depicted the doom of humankind. It started out fairly harmless....a mom and her kids are dressed to go to church...she asks her husband to go with her but he does not want to go; he would rather stay home and watch television (a exceedingly terrible sin in the 1960s in ultraconservative circles--our pastor's name for television was "the hell box"---I still call it that today to be funny now and then when nothing good is on it to watch.) So, the mom and kids go off to church and the dad stays home to watch tv and read the paper. So far, so good....but suddenly Jesus returns to take all the righteous people to heaven and the dad does not go because he did not go to church. Instead, the devil (or an actor in a devil suit, but I was an 8 year old, how did I know that?) comes to the house of the dad and picks him up and throws him literally into the hell they prepared behind the altar rail with one of those Christmas spinning lights we had in the 1960s that would shine on aluminum Christmas trees. It was covered with red cellophane paper to make it more red than other colors. The dad being thrown into hell yelled out in pain and cried for mercy but no one would come to his aide, all because he chose to stay home and watch tv rather than go to church. How wicked he was!
So, I remember as the play ended and the pastor pleaded for people to come forward to be saved that I had to go. Everyone thought I was going forward because I loved Jesus and wanted him to save me from my sings. The fact was that I was scared out of my socks and traumatized for years by that experience. I was like the Puritan audience who had to sit through Jonathan Edwards' long sermon, hearing him talk about how God would find great delight in dropping each of them into the fires of hell because of their great sin. I remember being so scared when I went home that I pulled the covers over my head and prayed repeatedly for God to spare me from the fires of hell.
To this day, if I see a church advertising such an event (and there are churches who have them--a popular name is "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames" in case you see it on a sign), I cringe and want to charge the church with abusive tactics. Mostly, this form of evangelism is popular in the deep South and in very conservative and literal congregations.
I wrestled with the terms "sinner" and "wicked" for many years. I figured I was pretty wicked because I always wanted to do all the things that our church told us we should not do. We were taught not to drink, smoke, curse, dance, watch television, go to movies, go to plays, go bowling, play board games that included dice, play cards, or associate with sinners. So, as a teenager there was little that I could do that was not forbidden by someone. By the time I was 16 and wanted to do all the things that I could not do, I was convinced that I was about as wicked as they came and gave up trying. I sneaked out with my friends and went to movies, lying to my parents about what I had gone. I danced at school dances until I got caught. I said bad words (at least bad for our day). I played cards and games with dice when I stayed over at the homes of friends and my cousins. I did not drink or smoke though because I figured I would have been thrown out of the house if I got caught doing that and had no where else to go. So, I became a wicked teenager, at least in my mind.
Having been away from that church now for many decades, my view of the terms "sinner" and "wicked" has changed. Being a sinner does not have to do with not doing things that a church or pastor forbids. It has more to do with not desiring a better way of life when one knows one exists. A wicked person is far worse then simply one being a "sinner" if one is one. To be truly wicked implies a total disregard for whatever is good or right or noble in life. There are wicked people in the human family and we may ever hear about them on the news now and then. Most of us would not fit in that category though. We know the way to live a good life and we aim at it but we just miss the mark now and then. When we do, we are sorry and try to start over. That is not being wicked....that is being human.
Our world and society is much different from Puritan society of the 1700s. It is ever much different from society of the 1960s. In today's world, individuals decide what is right and appropriate for their lives and the Church and organized religion have little authority in the lives of most people. Some people grant the church some authority in their lives in certain instances but most people, especially in America, want to decide for themselves how to live and what to believe and they are not nearly as liable to have someone scare the hell out of them...or into them as I was at 8 years old.
"Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked; or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night." (Psalm 1:1-2)