The Uses of Wrath
For many modern people, the concept of God's wrath tends to be a pretty unattractive idea. Yet the Bible is never embarrassed to speak about God's anger against evil in the world. In fact, God's anger against evil is a really good thing - it's a sign that God intends to bring a final justice and final healing to the pain of this world.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Having outlined the theme of the letter in Romans 1:16-17 – the gospel as God's antidote to the human problem – Paul now turns to explain the nature of the problem more fully. Drawing on the Old Testament law and the universal human experience of evil, Paul chronicles how the human race has rejected the righteousness of God. This catastrophe is unlimited in scope: both Gentiles (Romans 1:18-32) and Jews (Romans 2) have descended into the crisis of sin and, consequently, face the wrath of God.
God's wrath, his righteous anger against sin, tends to be a repellent concept to many modern people, but properly understood it is actually a vital, even life-giving doctrine.
In the December 22, 2012 issue of The Economist, a British news and culture magazine, the cover story addresses the doctrine of hell. The article lampoons the idea of divine wrath and judgment as something unworthy of the modern age: 'To many in the West, Hell is just a medieval relic ... The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been cleared away, rather as a mad aunt might be shut up in the attic.'
One panel of the article includes a twelfth-century image called 'Hellmouth' – hell depicted as a gaping mouth consuming lost souls and locked by an angel. Underneath the sarcastic caption reads, 'And throw away the key.' The author's point is clear enough: 'the wrath of God' does not even deserve a counterargument, only mockery.
However, just a few pages later in the same issue, The Economist reports on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It remains the worst school shooting in American history: twenty-year-old Adam Lanza slaughtered twenty first- and second-graders and six teachers in five minutes using semiautomatic weapons. The article calls the event 'Evil Beyond Imagining'; it is an angry, despairing lament over such a horrific tragedy. The names of all of the deceased children are listed – kids taken in the bloom of youth – in memory of how much was lost that day. The author gestures toward the deep longing for justice we feel when we encounter grave evils like this.
In light of these two stories, critics of God's wrath need to face an important question: Which way would you like it? Do you want the universe to have a final justice or not? Would you like to mock God for preparing his perfect judgment on evil, or would you prefer that the children of Newtown will never be vindicated?
To descry horrors like Newtown as 'evil beyond imagining' – and so much of our world can be characterized this way – is to speak the language of judgment, indeed to long for judgment upon evil. According to Paul, this moral sense is itself God's gift to us:
'For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature [which includes justice and goodness] have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.' (verses 19-20)
If we are familiar with our own moral outrage against evil, then how much more is God right to be angry over the evils of the human race? The 'wrath of God' that Paul describes is simply what the goodness of God looks like when it encounters evil – our righteous Father responding like a father must respond to the destruction of his children.
And so, the problem of our sin cannot be dismissed, let alone ridiculed. As Paul continues to diagnose our condition, it becomes clear that we are all implicated in evil, all guilty of mistreating one another, and all in need of an antidote for the rightful wrath of God.