By Alan Bean
“Young man,” a grizzled Presbyterian cleric asked a harried candidate for ordination, “would you be willing to be damned for the greater glory of God?”
Uncertain how to respond, the young man blurted out , “Yes, and I’d be even more willing to see the entire Presbytery damned for God’s glory.”
The story (no doubt apocryphal) was inspired by the theology of Samuel Hopkins (d. 1803), the New England divine who attempted to systematize the theological musings of Jonathan (Sinners in the hands of an angry God) Edwards.
The bit about willing to be damned for the greater glory of God was hotly debated in eighteenth century America. Thomas Jefferson opined to John Adams that Hopkins belonged in a straight jacket. The reformed theologian was either an atheist or he was preaching the religion of “Daemonism”.
“It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all,” Jefferson asserted than to worship such an atrocious deity.
Hopkins stands at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Victoria Osteen, the contemporary American theologian who sparked a firestorm of indignation by opining that:
“When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
Hopkins saw the kind of self-love Ms. Osteen has in mind as the very essence of sin. Coming to God with the selfish ambition of escaping hell, Hopkins taught, is to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Instead, we should be willing (following Paul’s argument in Romans 9) to be damned if that’s what it takes to further God’s gracious work in the world.
It should be noted that Hopkins applied his logic of damnation to the slave trade. American Christians who endorse human bondage while pretending to seek the blessing of a holy God are deluding themselves, he said.
In other words, Hopkins wanted Christians to do the right thing for the right reason with no regard for personal advancement.
John Milton (d. 1674), was getting at a similar point when he probed Lucifer’s motivation for wreaking chaos in God’s good creation. Cast out of heaven with a rabble of reprobate angels, Lucifer told his comrades to pick themselves up and make the most of a bad situation:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Samuel Hopkins was reversing this logic, “Better to serve in hell than to reign in heaven.”
American evangelicals have more in common with Milton’s Lucifer than we would like to admit. (more…)