Hellfire and the Puritan premise
By David Heleniak
Online Journal Guest Writer
Sep 7, 2007, 00:38
Beginning in 1740, a religious revival movement led by
Jonathan Edwards spread through New England. This movement, the Great
Awakening, was, according to Perry Miller (Errand Into the Wilderness, 13th ed.),
dismissed by the religious establishment as mere "enthusiasm," an
"excitement of overstimulated passions" (p. 154). It was, in fact,
reflective of Puritan culture as a whole.
Puritan culture could not escape its Calvinist roots. The
Puritans never questioned the core premise of Calvinism, the premise that is,
as Miller states, "[t]he essence of Calvinism and the essence of
Puritanism" (p. 93). This premise, which I call "the Puritan
premise," is that God exists and He is hidden, unknowable, and
unpredictable. And like the Calvinists, all of the Puritans' thoughts, words,
and actions were driven by one overriding emotion, the fear of hellfire.
Reflect for a moment on Edwards' description of hell:
How dismal will it be, when you are
under these racking torments, to know assuredly that you never, never shall be
delivered from them; to have no hope: when you shall wish that you shall be
turned into nothing, but shall have no hope of it; when you shall wish that you
might be turned into a toad or a serpent, but shall have no hope of it; when
you would rejoice, if you might but have any relief, after you have endured
these torments millions of ages, but shall have no hope of it; when, after you
shall have worn out the age of the sun, moon, and stars, in your dolorous
groans and lamentations, without any rest day or night, or one minute's ease,
yet you shall have no hope of ever being delivered; when after you shall have
worn out a thousand more such ages, yet you shall have no hope, but shall know
that you are not one whit nearer to the end of your torments; but that still
there are the same groans, the same shrieks, the same doleful cries,
incessantly to be made by you, and that the smoke of your torment shall still
ascend up forever and ever; and that your souls, which have been agitated with
the wrath of God all this while, yet will still exist to bear more wrath; your
bodies, which shall have been burning and roasting all this while in these
glowing flames, yet shall not have been consumed, but will remain to roast
through an eternity yet, which will not have been at all shortened by what
shall have been past (p. 176).
This picture of eternal torment weighed on the Puritans'
souls from the moment they arrived in America.
The Puritans of early New England were Calvinists, despite
their protestations to the contrary. As Miller puts it, the Puritans
"honestly believed that they were reading the Bible with their own eyes.
Yet in the historical perspective, their way of interpreting the Bible must be
called Calvinist" (p. 49).
John Calvin, arguably the most influential figure of the
Reformation, realized the logical implications of the Christian doctrine of the
justification by faith. Because Adam disobeyed God, the theory goes, God
declared, in His infinite justice, that Adam, Eve -- and every generation
following them -- should go to a special place created just for them: hell.
Moreover, since human nature has been corrupted because of this "original
sin," there is nothing any one of us can do to redeem ourselves in God's
eyes. Our every action is tainted by our corrupt nature. We all deserve
damnation. The only thing that can "save us" is grace arbitrarily
bestowed upon a lucky few by God Himself. This grace, once bestowed, allows
"the elect" to have faith that by allowing Himself to be executed by
crucifixion, Jesus Christ (who is, at the same time, a man, God, God's son, and
an entity called "the Holy Spirit") atoned for their sins, satisfying
God's thirst for vengeance enough for Him to spare them eternal hellfire.
Either you have this faith or you don't. If you have it, you are among the
elect. If you don't, you're damned. Either way, there's nothing you can do
Rather than dismiss Christianity by this reductio ad absurdum,
Calvin embraced the above as a theological discovery. Calvin, in all
likelihood, had some sort of religious experience which satisfied him that he
was one of the elect. As the Reformation boiled at a fever pitch, similar
emotional experiences were enough to assure Calvin's followers that they too
were saved. The absurdities inherent in this doctrine (for example, an all-just
God committing the injustice of punishing children for the crimes of their
parents) were explained away by Calvin and his flock by the Puritan premise.
Reason, as Ethan Allen stated, is our only oracle. If God is
truly beyond reason or nature, then on what basis can we believe in His
existence or know His nature. Revelation? "The Bible is true because the
Bible says it is" is a completely circular argument, and thus appeal to a
supposedly revealed text does not solve the riddle of how we can know anything
about an entity beyond human reason and understanding. Thus, the premise that
God exists and is hidden, unknowable and unpredictable is flawed. If left
unchallenged, however, it can justify belief in any theological machinations
one can think of, no matter how absurd.
Neither the Calvinists nor the Puritans could shake the
Puritan premise because of their overwhelming fear of eternal damnation. Once
the idea is firmly rooted in someone's head that he will burn in hell for all
eternity unless he is one of the elect, he will likely do everything in his
power to convince himself that he is, indeed, saved. Pyrophobia, when combined
with either a "religious" experience of "salvation," a
theological system complex enough to seem reasonable, or both, can usually do the
trick. Whichever method one uses entails, of course, avoidance on a grand
The original Calvinists lived in a time of extreme emotional
fervor. This allowed them to overlook the holes in Calvin's bare-boned
doctrines. The Puritans, however, coming as they did after the heat of the
Reformation had subsided, could only conjure up in themselves moderate
conversion experiences, and therefore could not convince themselves of their
salvation without a much meatier theology. And, as the emotional experiences
became less and less dramatic through the years, more and more meat became
The Puritan theology is known as "federal" or
"covenant" theology. It is based on a peculiar view of history in
which God, though the ages, has struck various bargains with humanity. As
Miller expresses it, "man has not only been in relation to God as creature
to creator, subject to lord, but more definitely through a succession of
explicit agreements or contracts, as between two partners in a business
enterprise" (pp. 60-61).
The first was a disaster. God promised eternal life in the
Garden of Eden to Adam, his wife Eve, and every successive generation that
sprang from his loins (Where would they all fit?) if only he would follow one
peculiar command: Don't eat the apples! Of course, Adam and Eve couldn't help
themselves. They ate an apple, thereby damning themselves and most of their
legacy to hell. For the Puritans, as Miller notes, "Adam had stood as the
agent, the representative of all men, the 'federal' head of the race. When he,
as the spokesman for man in the covenant, broke it and incurred the penalty for
disobedience, it was imputed to his constituents as a legal responsibility . .
." (p. 81).
Skipping over God's covenant with Abraham, God came to
strike a deal with humanity called "the covenant of grace," which
allowed some people to avoid hell if only they believed in Jesus Christ as
their Lord and Savior. Miller states:
the covenant of grace, God, observing the form, contracts with man as with a
peer. But since the Fall, man is actually unable to fulfill the law or to do
anything on his own initiative. Therefore God demands of him now not a deed but
a belief, a simple faith in Christ the mediator. And on His own side, God
voluntarily undertakes, not only to save those who believe, but to supply the
power of belief, to provide the grace that will make possible man's fulfilling
the terms of this new and easier covenant (pp. 61-62).
Pursuant to this third and controlling contract, the
Puritans envisioned, "if . . . [a man] can believe, he has fulfilled the
compact; God must redeem him and glorify him" (p. 62). Although the covenant
"spin" may seem, as Miller puts it, "an unnecessarily
complicated posing of the same [Calvinist] issues, for the grace which gives
salvation even in the covenant comes only from God and is at His
disposing" (p. 62), the extra layer of detail to Calvin's ideas to
rationalize away, for a time, the tensions brewing in the Puritan mind.
Over time, more and more layers of rationalization were
added, and lower and lower levels of the experience of "grace" was
declared necessary. As the house of cards was built up, however, its foundation
-- the premise of a hidden, unknowable, unpredictable God -- became ever more
shaky, and the framework ever less convincing. The Enlightenment came to
America, and the Puritans' attempts to participate in it highlighted their
dependence on a thoroughly anti-Enlightenment premise. While Anglican writer
Jeremy Taylor could theorize that "[t]here cannot be one justice on earth
and another in heaven" (p. 94), the Puritan writers were barred from
reaching this conclusion. The difference between them and the Enlightenment
thinkers was qualitative. Though the covenant theory allowed them to believe
that by entering into a covenant with man, God voluntarily curbed his arbitrary
and capricious nature so that humans could understand him, God could not be
counted on to act predictably. A man could go through life jumping through all
the hoops the Puritan religious establishment set up for him, so that he could
keep up his end of the bargain, and God might nonetheless send him to hell. The
Puritans, Miller notes, "might say that God's justice was for all intents
and purposes the same as human justice, but they could not say that it was
invariably the same" (p. 94). There was always the one in a million chance
that He would not act as predicted.
By 1740, the "high probability of salvation" that
the federal theologians promised became unsatisfactory to a great number of
people. People needed absolute certainty to ease their troubled minds. The
stakes were just too high. One in a million odds are not good enough when
losing means an eternity in hell. Thus, conditions were ripe for Jonathan
Edward's brand of neo-Calvinism. Complex theology was swept aside, and in its
place Edwards delivered earth-shattering emotional experiences by his expert
manipulation of latent pyrophobia. The absurdities were exposed, and people
believed all the more. While it may appear that with the Great Awakening,
Protestant thinking had come full circle, in the ultimate analysis nothing had
changed at all.
In a way, I can understand the Puritan's predicament.
Emotion-laced beliefs are hard to shake, even when logic tells you that they
are baseless. I can relate somewhat to the Puritan's pyrophobia. If I ever have
a child, I will make sure that he gets baptized . . . just in case. And
believing as I do after 13 years of Catholic school that there is an off chance
that committing suicide wins you a one way ticket to hell, I shudder when I
imagine myself in the predicament of the people in the World Trade Center who
had to choose whether to jump to their deaths or passively submit to being
burned alive. Happily, though, in my day-to-day life, I am able to put my
pyrophobia aside and think logically and critically, due in part, I must
believe, to the thinkers of the American Enlightenment. These thinkers, such as
Thomas Jefferson, taught us to "Fix reason firmly in her seat and call to
her tribunal every fact, every opinion" and to "Question with
boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve
of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
Pyrophobia can be overcome. We must strive to do so.
Note: This article was previously published on the
Secular Web. This file and many more are available at the Secular Web.
Heleniak is a full-time attorney and part-time student. In 2004 he received his
MA in Theological and Religious Studies from Drew University. He lives in New
Jersey with his wife Donna and their dog Daisy.
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