Most people know Jonathan Edwards as the guy who preached hellfire and brimstone sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But fewer realize that the pastor from Northampton, Massachusetts also preached sermons like this one, called “Heaven is a World of Love.”
The Apostle tells us that God is love, 1 John 4:8. And therefore seeing he is an infinite Being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love, Seeing he is an all-sufficient Being, it follows that he is a full and overflowing and an inexhaustible fountain of love. Seeing he is an unchangeable and eternal Being, he is an unchangeable and eternal source of love. There even in heaven dwells that God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is or ever was proceeds.
There dwells God the Father, and so the Son, who are united in infinitely dear and incomprehensible mutual love. There dwells God the Father, who is the Father of mercies, and so the Father of love, who so loved that world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life [John 3:16].
There dwells Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the Prince of peace and love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for it. There dwells the Mediator, by whom all God’s love is expressed to the saints, by whom the fruits of it have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all the church. There Christ dwells in both his natures, his human and divine, sitting with the Father in the same throne.
There is the Holy Spirit, the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is shed abroad in the hearts of all the church [cf. Rom. 5:5].
There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love. (The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, 245)
Jonathan Edwards was one of those rare persons who saw the terror of hell and the extraordinary beauty and loveliness of heaven. He understood that we do not worship a cartoon deity. God is not a one-dimensional character out of a summer blockbuster. He’s not some petty, insecure despot with lightning bolts who nurses a grudge against the human race. But neither is he a souped up version of American Ninja Warrior’s uber-supportive audience, a feel good god eager to cheer on anyone no matter their failings so long as they have a back story.
These are not biblical images of God. The God of the Bible is a God of unswerving justice and boundless mercy. And never can the two be divorced from each other.
One of the striking things in reading the excerpt above is to see just how much this depiction of heaven rises out from the most foundational elements of Christian theology. The love in Edwards’ vision of heaven cannot be reduced to sentiment, sympathy, and bumper sticker notions of acceptance and affirmation. The love that awaits the saints in heaven is far different, not because it is something less, but because it is so much more.
The love Edwards extols is rich with theological reflection on the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, substitutionary atonement, Christ as Mediator, the importance of the church, and the immutability of God. Edwards’ heaven is full of a love that only makes sense in the world of thought shaped by the whole counsel of God. Cheap imitations of biblical love never plumb the depths of the Christian tradition. Instead they plunder the booty of Christian vocabulary and employ in such a way so that everyone from Donald Trump to the Dali Lama can nod in agreement. Edwards tells a different story, reminding us that heaven is a world where Trinitarian-wrought, cross-bought, sorrow-easing, wrath-appeasing, Christ-centered, church-focused, overflowing, inexhaustible, incorruptible love wins.