Fear in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

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“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries”(Bukowski). In this quote, the American Poet and Novelist Charles Bukowski succinctly explains the major difference separating the believers from the non-believers; The observation that theists are certain of their knowledge, while atheists are subject to skepticism and doubt. However, he does not comment on how this singular difference affects the two peoples and their mental and emotional states. When comparing the opposite theist and atheist, it is evident that the emotional comforts and certainty provided by Religion in contrast with the existential uncertainty that comes with its absence, leads people to live generally happier lives than those without a belief in a higher power.

The fear enticing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edward has always been played off as merely a super religious zealot instilling fear into his congregation at a time of uncertainty. This idea is reinforced through his powerful imagery regarding God and his counterpart, the Devil, comparing him to “greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it”(Edwards). “However, “the precariousness associated with [the damned images he uses] … although identified by most critics as “the emotional product of uncertainty” in reality exhibits a “terrifying account of the logic of certainty” and how it applies to people’s lives (Lukasik 222). The author makes it appear as if life without religion is uncertain in order to coax the public to find comfort in the certainty of happiness that religion provides. As a religious person following the major monotheistic and religions dominating this world, there is no surprise as to where one might end up. Of course, there are different options depending on religions, but all organized religions have a set book or rules that state what to do in order to achieve salvation and additionally sets up the guidelines to morality. However, a non-religious person, not abiding by the theories of these books would have to derive their moral compass in a much more organic way of trial and error. They begin to explore the gray areas surrounding morality, which leads to confusion and doubt. Religious people are comforted by the fact that they know, at least according to their Gods, what is considered right.

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During the time in which “Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God” was written, the discoveries and theories of Isaac Newton and other theorists made many begin to lose their faith in their personal religious systems. The curiosity and doubt in the physical world that they were living in created a very fearful and unknowing society and culture at the time. In response to this fearful reality for many, Edwards preached that “it doesn’t matter how religious the man is or how many prayers he makes. Until he believes in Christ, God is not obligated in any way to protect him”(Edwards). When one looks at it this way: if there is no harm to be had from believing in Christ, but there could possibly be a quite serious consequence to not believing, then the answer is quite clear. In order to “revive [these] demoralized congregations,” Edwards had to utilize “the sheer power of his preaching”(Lukasik 231). When listening to a pastor as emotional and powerful as Edwards was, the atmosphere that surrounds the congregation becomes one of understanding and togetherness. This helps create a community, which allows people to feel as if they are a part of something as well as fulfill the human need for companionship. When attending church, a place filled with people who share beliefs identical to yours, it is almost impossible to not develop a sense of closeness and friendship with them. If one was to start questioning the beliefs that they share with these people, then they would automatically feel alienated from the majority of the population, and therefore unhappier.

In addition to the emotional ramifications of certainty and doubt, the actual psychological manipulation that organized religions foster can in itself prove to be happiness inducing. Emerson, an avid transcendentalist urged people in his essay “Self Reliance” to “accept the place the divine Providence has found for you,” arguing that “great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age”(Emerson 1). With this, Emerson confides that those who are good always do good and are therefore rewarded with good, so therefore those who are bad do bad and receive bad in return. This type of reasoning runs rampid in many churches, most notably the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, convincing people that they must be happy because they have succeeded in following the teachings of their church; To be unhappy would be to admit that they have sinned and brought it upon themselves in some way. Emerson also began developing his theories towards religion in his time, imagining “a ‘real religion’ which held, simply, that ‘God is in man”(Malachuk 414). Even this being a revolutionary way of thinking, specific to transcendentalism theory, it still establishes the same notion. If God is truly in everyone, then to be anything but good would mean to not have God in us or to be corrupted. If people believe that they are good, then they are more likely to act as such, helping to encourage Emerson and his followers to take on the mannerisms of God, which would in turn lead to a happier state of mind, knowing that you are following in this benevolent, loving being’s actions. In this way, the environment of religion often psychologically convinces people that they are happy in order to uphold the rewards of following the church and being a good person.

While one does not usually hear nonreligious people complaining about how unhappy they are without a belief in a higher power, those that do not believe are most likely willing to sacrifice happiness for curiosity and developing knowledge. It is a matter of priorities and levels of comfortability within people’s own lives. According to Emerson, “for nonconformity, the world whips you with its displeasure”(Emerson). Being so that all throughout history, the majority of people have been religious, this leaves the non religious as the nonconformists. Being the minority, it is likely that they will always be misunderstood by the majority, leaving them further isolated. Every man on this planet has the “divine Reason,” or mental capacity, that “few men since the creation of the world live according to the dictates of Reason, yet all men are created capable of doing so”(Malachuk 415). If all people are capable of exercising the curiosity and rationale to doubt what they have been taught since they were born, then why is it that so few actually do? Perhaps it is because they are unwilling to venture out past the safety and comfort of their bubble. However, bubbles are extremely fragile and can pop, so people who value happiness over knowledge stay as far away from it as possible. It is also important to address that atheists overall have a higher IQ than others by a few points; Furthermore, this intelligence is said to be linked with lower life satisfaction, while stupidity is linked with happiness. This plays back to the heavily acknowledged notion that ignorance is bliss, a cliche, but founded on actual scientific observation and genetic predisposition.

Although there is no definite “better” way of life, it is reasonable to say that those that believe in a higher power and participate in organized religion tend to lead happier lives than those who do not. The factors that contribute to this notion are widespread and intermingled, creating a theory that is difficult to deduce due to this fact. However, the environmental component of happiness through community, the mental component of the comforts of certainty, The psychological factors that force happiness, and the genetic factors that leave some people predisposed to lead happier lives together illustrate a detailed and many faceted fenomena that will intrigue generations to come.

Cited Works

  1. Edwards, Jonathan. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God a Sermon, Preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741, at a Time of Great Awakenings, and Attended with Remarkable Impressions on Many of the Hearers. Printed by Riggs & Stevens, 1980.
  2. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882. Self-Reliance. White Plains, N.Y. :Peter Pauper Press, 1967. Print.
  3. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Daniel S. Malachuk. “The Republican Philosophy of Emerson’s Early Lectures.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 3, 1998, pp. 404–428. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/366851.
  4. Lukasik, Christopher. “Feeling the Force of Certainty: The Divine Science, Newtonianism, and Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 2, 2000, pp. 222–245. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/366801.

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Fear in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. (2022, Jan 12). Retrieved from


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