is the “wrath of God” wrath?

is the “wrath of God” wrath? November 5, 2014

Here is Luke Timothy Johnson’s comment on what Paul means by “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” in Romans 1:18.

…it is precisely the sort of expression that would have been instantly grasped by Paul’s first hearers but seems puzzling and off-putting to present-day readers.

 The “wrath of God” (orge tou theou) is not a psychological category but a symbol (widely used in Torah) for the retribution that comes to humans as a result of their willfill turning away from God; indeed, it is a concept that derives precisely from the prophetic warnings against idolatry (see Isa 51:7; Jer 6:11; 25:25; Hos 13:11; Zeph 1:15).

Although it plays a thematic role in Romans (2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19), it is used elsewhere by Paul as well for the eschatological (“final”) threat that looms over those who oppose God. 

God’s wrath is therefore the symbol for the destruction that humans bring on themselves by rebelling against the truth. For those alienated from the ground of their own being, even God’s mercy appears as “anger.” It is a retribution that results, not at the whim of an angry despot but as the necessary consequences of a self-distorted existence.

Here is what I think Johnson is saying. Wrath is not psychological on God’s part but symbolic of the destructions humans bring on themselves. He seems to be saying that wrath is not something God does to anyone out of anger, but “retribution” in the sense of consequences experienced because of alienation, i.e., of God “giving them up” to live with the consequences of their actions.

Do you think I am grasping what Johnson is saying? FYI, I have no agenda here. I read this first several years ago and came back to it last year in my Romans course.

 Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, p. 33

(my paragraph divisions)

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  • Ryan

    I think that’s right. To put a finer point on it, wrath isn’t psychological on God’s part, it’s psychological on sinful humanity’s part. That interpretation comports with the immediate context and with the traditional polemic against idolatry. God “gives them over” rather than actively smiting sinful humanity. The punishment is intrinsic to the act of counterfeit worship. By withdrawing from God and exchanging God’s glory for idolatrous devotion, humanity becomes futile and devoid of understanding. So radical is this darkness that humanity perceives even God’s mercy as punishment.

  • Bonnie Kristian

    Yes, that interpretation seems fair. It’s similar to the way Greg Boyd talks about God’s wrath: It’s not so much an action God takes as it is the natural result of sin. From a sermon summary on the subject:

    God’s wrath is best described as a judgment boomerang. When someone throws a boomerang, it comes back to them. Last week, we learned that when we act outside of God’s intentions for our lives, we encounter decay and suffering through the natural consequences of our actions. When we sin, it acts like a boomerang that will eventually come back and hit us in the face. If we commit affairs, it will break up marriages. If we hurt others, hurt will come back to us.

    God does not personally rage against us when we sin. We see this when we look at Jesus. Jesus never raged against his enemies, and God wasn’t raging against Jesus on the cross. God never lifted a finger against Jesus. Rather, God withdrew his protection and handed Jesus over to those who acted violently against Jesus. Standing in our place as sinners, Jesus experienced the God-forsaken quality of wrath. God withdrew his protection and let evil run its course. In the same way, we experience God’s wrath when evil is allowed to run its course. Instead of stopping the boomerang from coming back, God allows it to smack us in the face, and this is how God’s judgment works.

    In that sermon he’s preaching out of Colossians, but I believe he also uses verses like this one to support the argument.

    • Nj voter

      The problem with the line of thinking that says that sin causes alienation, which in essence leads to bad things, is that there is absolutely no difference between the quality of life between Christians and non-Christians. Good and bad things happen to good and bad people, there is no correlation.

  • Michael Anderson

    I agree that you seem to be reading Johnson correctly, and I can sympathize with that idea, but I just don’t see it represented that way in scripture. The wrath of God does seem to be a punitive and corrective response from God for covenant disloyalty. It is gracious punishment, to be sure, as God is long-suffering and ensures that a “holy seed” remains, but it is an active decision by God nonetheless. I do not see how you can read something like Amos as listing various nation’s destruction as a natural consequence of Judah’s alienation from God.

  • I think that’s right, Peter.

    I’m not sure that the denial of it being ‘psychological’ really works or is justifiable since it seems clear that God does have a particular disposition toward sin and sinful man. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what Johnson means, but I’d say that rather than denyingI this, we should say that God ‘acts’ by ‘withholding’. I did a two part sermon ‘series’ on the wrath of God and the death of Jesus this the fall. The first part was based on this Romans text and was called, ‘the passive wrath of god revealed.’ In it, I laid out how God’s wrath throughout the entire Bible is primarily passive in nature.

  • I’ve been working through this idea as well.. It has to be that way in Romans. Paul seems clear, God intended for His kindness to cause us to repent, but when we reject it we reveal the wrath of God.

    God’s wrath is the mistaken love of God.

  • Justin B.

    Doesn’t that same chapter present God “giving up” sinful humanity as an expression of His wrath? “Giving up” may not be the entirety of wrath, but I think it’s safe to say that wrath includes this.

  • ChuckQueen101

    I agree, though perhaps a better word for “retribution” is “projection.” What we tend to project as God’s wrath is our own sense of alienation and separation from God, others, and our true self (which is God within).

    An interesting text that highlights “wrath” is the lectionary reading for Nov. 16 — 1 Thess. 5:1-11. In his closing remarks about the spiritual implications of the Parousia Paul says, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep (alive or dead as in 4:13-18? or spiritually awake or asleep as in 5:4-8? – probably both) we may live with him.” Us hopeful universalists really like that passage.

    • Cleveland Dawsey

      Your use of the word “projection” in place of “retribution” is interesting. This sense of alienation brought on by ourselves seems to be exactly what Paul is referring to in Colossians 1:21″ …you were strangers and enemies (against God) IN YOUR MINDS”. The fleshly mind is at enmity with God. This is what Paul is talking about in Colossians : reconciliation.: We are the ones who need to be reconciled with God.

  • Johnson seems to be arguing that wrath is wrath if it’s on a whim and it’s something else if it’s justified. I don’t know about that. Since when does “wrath” mean anger without good cause?

    • I don’t think that is what LTJ is communicating.

      • Doc, from the fragment of LTJ we have here, it’s hard to know what to conclude. The fragment says, don’t think about psychology, think about symbols. That’s not terribly helpful. Is LTJ being anti-anthropomorphic? If “wrath” is how we anthropomorphically deal with actions we attribute to God that seem punitive to us, so that “wrath” is not really wrath but a “symbol” of something else … then by that approach, God’s “love” is also symbolic of something else.

        I suspect that some want to see God as always loving, never angry. That’s great, but it doesn’t strike me as very biblical.

        • Wait – so God can’t be always loving and be angry? That’s great, but it doesn’t strike me as very biblical.

          • Doc, I said “always loving, never angry” doesn’t strike me as very biblical. I didn’t address the possibility of “always loving, sometimes angry.” I think it’s at least possible to argue from the Bible that God might sometimes be loving when God is angry. But I don’t see how a loving God hardened the hearts of the Canaanites “so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.” (Joshua 11:20) I don’t see how a loving God has seven bowls of wrath prepared to pour on us. (Revelation 16)

            I think that imagining an always-loving God requires us to take a critical stand towards the Bible, both OT and NT. An always-loving God would not have done many of the things ascribed to God in both canons.

  • On wrath not being psychological, here’s Isaac the Syrian, for what it’s worth:

    “That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable.” [p. 162-163]

    “It is not (the way of) the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction (in punishment) for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, (aware) how they would turn out when He created them – and whom (nonetheless) He created.” [p. 165]

    “Just because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His (true) nature. And just as (our) rational nature has (already) become gradually more illuminated and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in (Scripture’s) discourse about God – that we should not understand everything (literally) as it is written, but rather that we should see, (concealed) inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all – so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in (our) supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind.” [p. 171]

    [from Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian). ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI . Translated by S. Brock]

    All that said, what Isaac or any post-biblical interpreter thought is not indicative of what the biblical authors or original audiences thought. That’s not to say it isn’t relevant or important, though.

    • Frank McManus

      Wow, that is great stuff. Do you know if these texts have ever been published in an accessible edition?

  • I think he means Isa 51.17 rather than Isa 51.7 and Jer 25.15 rather than Jer 25.25.

    He says ‘God’s wrath is a symbol’. Hmm… Really, is that all?
    He says ‘God’s mercy appears as “anger.”’ What, putting them out of their misery? I’m not sure this is biblical. God’s ‘mercy’ in the scriptures is his mercy. I would have thought its a good thing when he shows mercy.
    He says ‘not at the whim of an angry despot’. Yes. He has not described God as the righteous judge, setting his kingdom right. Establishing justice, etc.

    Generally he seems to move away from taking about God, to talking about people.

    You say, ‘Wrath is not psychological on God’s part but symbolic of the destructions humans bring on themselves.’ Yeah, I think you read him well here.
    You also say, ‘He seems to be saying that wrath is not something God does to anyone out of anger, but “retribution” in the sense of consequences experienced because of alienation, i.e., of God “giving them up” to live with the consequences of their actions.’ He might mean that. Not sure. I think if it says God’s wrath, then God is angry.

    • Well, that is sort of LTJ’s point. You equate the phrase “wrath of God” with God being angry. LTJ is saying that 2nd century readers wouldn’t have.

      • Hmm. Interesting idea. How would you go about proving the expression ‘God’s wrath’ would not be heard as God expressing his anger?

  • Lars

    Then how do we distinguish between God’s wrath and merely ‘sleeping in the bed we made’? God’s presence in this scenario is completely superfluous unless somehow he’s going to intercede and keep us from slamming into that tree after an evening of drinking and trying to drive home. This seems analogous to seeing the hand of God at work wherever and whenever you want. You make it home from that party, God’s mercy; you don’t, God’s wrath. Unless I’m missing something, I’m just not seeing how God’s wrath is any different than being lucky or unlucky. But as long as God’s wrath doesn’t mean I go to hell, it seems pretty commonsensical to me.

    • Suggestion:

      … because God built justice and consequences into His creation:
      Cause and effect = wrath as commissioned by the creator.

      This got heightened at The Fall, in which the curses were the consequence of the disconnect from God, and which then embedded, predicted and warned about further consequences in normal life, relationships and toil. Hence by the time we get to Romans Paul is describing the same downward spiral of action/consequences in the system God created, further damaged by sin/disconnect from God.

      • Lars

        Jez, are you saying that ’cause and effect’ is not the natural order of things, but that it needed to be built in by God? My point is that ’cause and effect’ is the default setting and needs no assistance, Fall or no Fall. I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke God when God’s not necessary. Nor do I think karma is the default, and it’s certainly not instant. Too many bad people succeed and too many ‘good die young’ to think consequence is divine.

        • Carlos Bovell


          I think you have it right. God should not be thought of as “looking out for his own,” at least not in the way we like to think. What he is looking out for is the purification of our souls, by way of repenting of our sins and manifesting his love toward others. This is what God is interested in, not how good we have it. The allotment of suffering can be construed as dumb luck, as you say, but I think the point is that suffering is to be used by people for the purification of their souls or, as that’s accomplished, for the sins of the world.

          Jesus, having his soul purified, endured suffering for the sins of the world, showing love and forgiveness to everyone, most poignantly to the one’s bringing on the suffering: “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” This is the example Christ gave all humans to follow.

          Grace and peace,

          • Lars

            Thanks for your reply, Carlos. Unless I’ve misunderstood you, I have to say I do not find this view of God comforting. In fact, I would imagine God to be just the opposite, that he would be very interested in how good our lives are and that he would want our suffering to be minimal. That is exactly how I feel toward my children and it seems God would want something similar. Too often, the amount of suffering or soul purification we endure is out of our control and a function of where we’re born, when, and to whom. So much abuse occurs so early in life, scarring its victims into adulthood, and often perpetuating the next generation of abusers. This happens within Christianity and in places that have no concept of Christ so I don’t see how his suffering could be an example to all humans.

            Nor do I see the necessity of Christ’s death and suffering since God could just unilaterally decree forgiveness for his creation and right all the free-will wrongs in the next life and our limited cognitive abilities and a priori knowledge of God would not be a factor (which is as far as I can get rationally). But, if a sacrifice is necessary for that to happen, Christ has taken care of that for everyone who has ever lived and his purification is truly and wholly substitutionary.

            Unfortunately, a degree of suffering is baked into existence but it seems we should be trying to minimize its impact whenever possible vs glorifying it. Again, if I’ve misread your intentions, I apologize (and always appreciate your interaction on this blog).

          • Carlos Bovell


            Thanks for your response.

            The last thing I want to do is glorify suffering. And I agree that the immensity of God’s goodness –God in heaven, as it were– should bring overwhelming comfort to people. But I wonder whether the idea of God-with-us-in- this-world, or God-being-with-us-where-we-are (God incarnate?), is as comforting. I mean in terms of understanding that we should be able to live a life with minimal suffering, I think it’s a big mistake to equate the idea of God-with-us with a life that has minimal suffering, especially when I look at what happened to Jesus.

            It goes without saying that I don’t have real answers to offer for the problem of evil, but I will say that I have often wondered about how God can try to “manage” humanity collectively while at the same time interact with us lovingly on an individual basis. For example, I once read an African visionary explaining that the Lord has two “end of days” in store, one involving the individual human’s death and another involving the end of humanity’s existence on this planet. The more important of the two for us, he clarified, is the day of the individual’s death, because everyone living before the last times will experience it, whereas only the people living at the end of humanity will experience the latter.

            I often find myself speculating on how this insight might be made to relate to the problem of suffering in meaningful ways:

            A person’s death puts an individual soul in a position where it can be “judged” (I believe by Jesus). If it is a soul that is full of love and that has repented of sin, it will be found worthy of heaven. The soul itself will be given the opportunity to see the life that it has lived –every single “work” done, especially how it has treated others– and judge for itself where it belongs, where it wants and deserves to go. At this point, the soul can cry out for and choose God’s love and mercy. But unrepented sins we are resurrected with become part of us and will have an impact on what we naturally choose. I can imagine it being the case that some people will be so filled with hatred and evil that God’s love will seem repugnant to them, and at that point might not even be willing to repent (following the example of Satan, according to Christian tradition).

            At this level of individual suffering, I believe that God
            always has our spiritual, emotional and physical well-being in mind and is entirely committed to our good. But his good always has our restoration in view (a day where there will be minimal or no suffering) and this takes effect after death, which is what Christians have in mind, I think, when they teach that this world is not our home. We pray for the time being that insofar as possible God’s will be done on earth as it is already (or will be, for us) done in heaven and that he give today some of that spiritual bread today that he promises to give us always in heaven after we die.

            At the same time, however, God is having to deal with
            humanity—presently, all seven billion of us, including all the systemic, cumulative, historical effects we’re having on each other and on the planet. From these effects, we are not shielded. A brother can succumb to drug addiction, a loved one can be randomly shot in a drive-by shooting, a friend or family member can wind up with cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s and experience a terrible death, and even worse can happen. Here, biological and societal ills impinge upon individual lives, random accidents happen, along with things that have no meaning, but that doesn’t mean that God’s not watching over us or that he doesn’t love us. I don’t want to glorify such tragedies. I wish they never happened. But as they do happen, we can, individually, try as best we can to take up our cross, follow Jesus and get as close to God as possible.

            Just here at this intersecting point, the point where individual lives connect with the collective systemic/cultural/ecological world that we’re all a part of, is where I think we have a difficult time tracking what’s going on and I find myself relying on faith and looking for resources to understand it better with the help of the Gospel story, trusting that God is working toward the good both of the individual and of humanity, and that in the end of days (for me being my time of death), things will be made right.

            At the end of humanity sometime in the future, the earth will not be able sustain human beings any longer. Even if no one knows how long it will actually take for things to get this bad, I cannot see how this time period could possibly be a pleasant one to live in, but this is also a time where biblical writers claim that (and I admit I don’t understand this part, but I have some ideas) Jesus Christ will return to deliver humanity from it. One way to understand Christian teaching is to say that creation is not eternal, it was made to decay so that it would eventually come to an end. Somehow Jesus’ “return” is wrapped up thematically into this end and this is depicted as climatically restorative.

            But in the meantime, we live our lives, and as we do we all prepare both for the end of humanity and our own personal end. Given what knowledge we have (whatever that knowledge may be), we should all be working to make the world a better place to live so that as it comes to an end (however long that takes), the ending is as humane as it can be. But while working toward this end, we cannot forget about the individual end, so that when we breathe our last, we can be in a position where we will embrace the love of our Maker and not be repulsed by it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their very life?

            Grace and peace,


          • Lars

            And thank you for your economical and pithy reply, Carlos!

            Can a soul be both full of love and full of sin? Or will the scale always tip one way or the other? And is a kind, loving soul enough to get you into heaven? If not, what happens then? Eternity in hell or instant annihilation? Or do we get a “time-out” to reconsider if we say ‘no, thanks’ to heaven initially? Or do you think this a one-shot, take-God’s-love-or-leave-it deal? I have to admit to being somewhat obsessed with the topic of God’s wrath because it is so foundational to belief in God and to how that God is viewed, or at least it is in the south where I was raised. In this view, there is no second chance. You are judged at death but your fate was sealed beforehand. You may consider this view a distortion but most pastors and churches there would say the same about your view. And it’s this sort of interdenomiminational dichotomy that is representative of why it’s so hard to know truths beyond the ‘do unto others/love thy neighbor’ varieties. Truths I would argue that require no religion but simply to live with others to arrive at.

            While we can’t eliminate the tragedies inherent in life, we can offer solace and sympathy, and work ever harder to cure or minimize the suffering these things cause. It’s my own interpretation of these events, the randomness and inequality of suffering, but I see God at best, as a spectator because, in my personal experience (so far), I don’t see any evidence of God’s direct involvement or any difference between intervention and chance. And that may very well be by design. I imagine I would go insane if I thought the laws of physics were constantly and unfathomably being divinely interrupted (which I almost did because I did!). It’s a door that’s wide open if it’s only slightly ajar because reality becomes illusory and highly individual, and I’m sure many would argue that’s exactly what it is. Still, to see some prayers answered (getting that dream job) and others not (a child’s fatal brain tumor) requires more faith in an divine intervener than I can muster because that intervention, or lack of it, just seems so capricious. I can’t live in that world until I have no other options, whether that’s at my first end of days and face-to-face with Christ, or till I see prophecy fulfilled leading up to the second end of days. The good news is that we will probably get some definitive answers to this theodicy conundrum at the time of Jesus’ review and it will all make sense.

            When you say “…that creation is not eternal, it was made to decay so that it would eventually come to an end,” do you believe that God always intended for Creation to have an expiration date? That it would need to come to a slow, agonizing death so that it could be restored at the very end? Or is this relentless decay a result of The Fall? If so, what was the point of the mess in between? Why not go straight there and spare all that suffering? I just don’t understand what God could get from that particular process (or detour). I agree, these are difficult concepts, but when I try to think through them without a religious worldview, I don’t get to God. Or at least the God I was raised to believe in. But if there was a God I could get to, that God would be merciful and loving, would realize how heavily stacked this world is to hide its existence, much less any understanding, and it would, at last, ‘make everything right.’ So we do share that supernatural hope, at least! I also agree that we should always try to make this world a better and more humane place, however long that also takes. Alas, the very places I see things getting better (marriage equality, immigration reform, etc.) are same things others see as moral decay hastening our destruction.

            I am grateful for this dialog, and for Pete’s indulgence. Thanks again for the thought, the time, and the courtesy you put into your responses.

          • Carlos Bovell


            Thanks for your response. And yes, thanks Pete, for providing an opportunity for us to talk.

            I do believe that God made the creation with an expiration date and that the decay is not a result of any “Fall.” I don’t think there was ever any such thing as a Fall. That said, I do think humans’ sin (both collective and individual) inexorably leads to our spiritual death. This is the problem Jesus was sent to make us aware of. He is seeking followers to help him address it.

            I do not know why God bothered making our universe. The best answer I have at the moment is that it was an experiment in love. I guess this is something we may understand better when we meet him face-to-face, but in the meantime, it seems clear to me that everyone everywhere has been called to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Gospel message is that we (humans individually and collectively) are reaching/have reached a critical point where we need to repent (and that we are not going to do this properly without his help and, more amazingly, he is ALWAYS more than willing to help us if we ask him sincerely from the heart).

            Lastly, I do believe that a loving and sincere heart is enough to get people to heaven. Jesus will find those people and provide a way for them to heaven, be they Christian or non-Christian. But that said, Jesus is the judge as to what qualifies as “loving and sincere” and he judges fairly, seeing our sins for what they really are and seeing our lives for how they were really lived.

            I am thoroughly convinced that God always prefers a loving and pure heart with little to no (theological) knowledge to one that has plenty of knowledge and zero to no love. Better than either would be to strive for both, but put more provocatively, love that lacks faith can yet save, while faith that lacks love is not something that saves.

            Grace and peace,

      • Andrew Dowling

        Jez, this explanation falls flat because many horrible things happen to innocent people while wicked people concurrently get away with doing horrible things.

        • True.

          But God’s got Eternity to right every wrong.

        • J. Inglis

          An observation also made by the author of Ecclesiastes.

    • Frank McManus

      Perhaps your question contains an assumption not shared by biblical writers, namely that God is absent from the world of experience unless the contrary can be explicitly demonstrated. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that all biblical writers started with the assumption that the world of experience is God’s world — it’s the first premise, not the conclusion. Therefore they can use symbolic phrases like “wrath of God” to describe certain aspects of that experience. The extent of their theologizing about their use of the phrase is probably not consistent from one book to another; I doubt they all had a carefully thought-out theodicy. My sense is that Johnson’s point is that “wrath of God” as symbol of what we in the modern world might call something like karma is a common starting point for biblical writers. So for the biblical writers, being lucky or unlucky, with no reference to God, would be unintelligible.

      • Lars

        That’s a good point! If we make assumptions about the assumptions of others, we run the risk of being doubly far from the truth. In the next chapter of Romans (2:1-11), a face value reading, or at least mine, doesn’t imply that wrath = karma/bad luck, but rather wrath = divine judgment followed by punishment. There may be usages where something like karma is meant but in most usages I looked at, God’s wrath seems to be something far more serious and intentional than simply “giving us up” to our own devices. Is there academic/scholarly consensus on a particular definition of wrath or does the definition vary by institution and/or denomination??

        • Frank McManus

          I don’t think it’s at all easy to figure out what Paul is saying in these early chapters of Romans. In 1:18-32 he seems to be saying God’s wrath is seen in the state of sin itself: human beings refused to accept knowledge of God, and God in his wrath judged and condemned them by allowing them to live in sin. Then in ch. 2, Paul starts by seeming to condemn this judgment as a human judgment, which he regards as the true sin, and he projects judgment/wrath into the future. And then he shifts again and starts talking about how the sinful acts of ch. 1 will be punished by that same future wrath! One interpretation I’ve seen lately thinks Paul is literally debating a theological opponent here, and some of these words are Paul quoting that opponent.

          In any case, clearly the image of God’s wrath is literally an image of condemnation and punishment stemming from God’s righteousness. And various parts of the Bible are exploring what that means, and I think ultimately working towards a theodicy that addresses the problem that the punishment of the wicked doesn’t happen very consistently.

          But in the quote from Johnson, he’s isn’t dealing with that; he’s just pointing out how “the wrath of God” is a fluid symbol that doesn’t have a clear theology attached to it. So in Rm 2:1-11 the image does have the meaning of intentional divine punishment, but Paul seems to be using it to make a different point. He seems to be using the language and imagery of law/wrath/punishment to undermine the accepted meanings of those words.

          I don’t know if there’s an accepted definition of wrath by academics or particular churches, but it doesn’t seem likely — though no doubt some churches put more emphasis on it than others. I believe Westboro Baptist has a special fondness for it, LOL.

  • sanctusivo

    Is this Paul’s equivalent to “the day of the Lord” language in the prophets?

  • The “Wrath of God” is simply Karma? Eastern philosophers were right? “the destruction that humans bring on themselves by rebelling against the truth.”

    • Oh, no, no, no, no. No. That is not what he is saying at all. Although to be fair, the quote shared here is a small fragment.

  • Caio Peres

    I guess much of it should be understood in light of the Genesis narative, where “death” is not something God inputs in humanity, but the consequence of their own acts. In that tradition, God even cares for them, provinding means for them not to be totally “exposed” (that’s even true about Cain). Of course that’s not the only tradition in the Bible (no doubt some prophets understood the enemies’ destruction as an active act of YHWH), but it seems like Johnson’s interpretation of Paul is in accord with the Genesis account.

    • Lars

      Adam and Eve’s concern about their nakedness strikes me as very Puritanical! Once they were convinced to eat of the forbidden fruit, thereby attaining the knowledge of God, it just seems odd that the first thing they’re aware of is that they’re naked. They’re married, for God’s sake! And, ostensibly, completely alone in their very own nudist garden. Why wasn’t the first thought, ‘OMG, we just disobeyed God! And not only that, we’re both buck naked!’ Magic fruit and talking snakes indicate, to me anyway, that this is folklore and not a literal account.

  • copyrightman

    This was a common way of understanding God’s “wrath” during the Patristic period. In part it is tied to the notion of God’s “impassibility.” If God is impassible — that is, God does not change in His essence — then the use of a term like “wrath” in relation to God can only be analogical, because for us as humans “wrath” suggests a change in our state of being. Though Divine impassibility is out of fashion now in many theological circles, I think it is an important concept, properly understood, and this is one reason why.

    We might think about it this way: if God is absolutely good then what God creates is only good. God is not the author of evil. Evil is not just the violation of an arbitrary command but is a form of violence against created goodness: a kind of de-creation. As this sort of de-creation is in utter opposition to God’s being, God, in virtue of being God, is in utter opposition to it. Part of the folly of evil, of course, is that God is God, the only Creator, and thus de-creation will de-create itself. But this does not render God “passive” — that is not what divine “impassibility” means. God is God, in active Triune relationality that gives only good gifts. If God’s good gift of creation is to achieve its proper end in returning to its relationality with God, it must fill up everything, or rather God must fill up everything (1 Cor. 15:28), and in filling up everything evil, which would empty things, must be destroyed.

    All of this suggests another classical theological concept that is out of fashion, but shouldn’t be: Divine simplicity. This just means that God doesn’t have “parts.” God’s “goodness” is also God’s “wrath.” If God were not actively opposed to evil, He would not be “good.”

    Obviously all of this raises a theodicy question: why did God allow evil in the first place? But that is another question.

    • AlanCK

      This is a can of worms. A recent reassertion of divine impassibility and simplicity among certain theologians (like John Webster) has led to the downplay of the homoousias. What is to be the priority in theology?

      • copyrightman

        I think the priority for a theologian is to do the best we can to hold the fullness of God’s revelation of Himself together. We can’t do away with divine simplicity, nor can we do away with the real difference among the persons of the Trinity. But of course we can’t really expect to understand what “three persons in one essence” actually means other than by analogies and negations. It does _not_ mean God has “parts.” It does _not_ mean there are divisions among God’s perfections. It does _not_ mean there are divisions in God’s will. And, it does _not_ mean the Father _is_ the Son _is_ the Spirit. We can try to use analogies from philosophy to express all this, like _prosopon_ and _ousia_, but those just hint at the mystery.

    • If you take the philosophical concept of Divine Impassibility out of its crucible of Hellenistic/Greek metaphysical philosophical context, you end up with Trinitarian relational categories (instead of substance categories) for understanding all that.

      More fruitful, and IMHO, more Biblical.

      • copyrightman

        Not sure why “relational” categories and “substance” categories are an either/or. Certainly the Cappadocian Fathers had both “relational” and “substance” elements in their thought.

        • I’d say Cappadocian Fathers were far more “substance” oriented then “relational”. Not sure where you’d see “relational”.

          “Substance” categories have roots in Greek/Hellenistic metaphysics, Platonism, Aristotle, and so on. It conceives of a god, and nature of a god, that’s in almost complete contradiction to the God you find in the Bible.

          For that reason, amongst others, do I think you need to get rid of “substance” categories. Whatever shadow of truth there is on those categories, can still be retained in “relational” categories.

          • copyrightman

            Well, Zizoulas and other Orthodox thinkers certainly read the Cappadocians as having a “relational” element, and Sts. Paul and John certainly drawn on Greek metaphysics, so I don’t really buy what you’re saying here…

          • But see, that’s my point: you can extract those “relational” elements from it, take them out of the Hellenistic crucible, and take them for the signposts of a more accurate reality and description of God than Hellenistic thought could possibly get right, let alone conceive of.

            You end up with relational categories, over and against substance.

            So, not really buying what you’re saying here, either 😉 (said in good spirits, not to be mean).

  • Well, whatever the Bible means by “wrath” it has to be something of an analogy because God doesn’t have a quickening heartbeat, adrenaline, or any of the other things we normally associate as “wrath” as a psychological condition.

    However, I’d say the Scriptures depict the wrath of God most of the time in pretty concrete terms, i.e. destruction of a nation typically at the hands of an outside nation (the heavenly perspective being the power/permission of God). I would also argue this is the eschatological “wrath to come” where it appears in the NT. I don’t think wrath is defined psychologically either on God’s part or humanity’s part. It’s defined historically.

  • Al Cruise

    Interesting article. However certain high profile Church leaders have also claimed that natural disasters were God’s wrath. Tornadoes that killed people in the mid west for example. God’s wrath for many of the religious is “If you can claim it name it”.

  • Frank

    Whatever the personal interpretation is of ‘God’s Word,’ the danger of ALL ‘holy books’ is that Divine Command Theory gives fundamentalists psychological justification for their ‘holy wars,’ ‘jihads’ and other appalling non-humanist actions. Can we say that such bloodguilt can be justly laid ONLY at the feet of ‘sinful’ humans?

  • Nj voter

    I think that Johnson is on to something, but maybe not how many people look at it. I think that when Paul speaks of God’s wrath he has an eschatological mindset and does believe that humans will bring on their own destruction.

    But, and this is a big but, I doubt Paul was looking at this through the modern prism of individuals and personal salvation or happiness. I think Paul anticipated the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, a literal early kingdom that would be kicked off by some action from YHWH that would dispense of the Romans and put Jews (led by the Messiah) in charge of earth.

    Paul, like Jesus and Peter and the first set of followers, clearly saw this as something to come in their lifetime. That’s precisely what the Jews of his day expected or hoped for. That imminent eschatological focus would make sense of the passage. The powers of the world did not adhere to God’s standards and therefore would be displaced as judgement.

    How is that applicable today? Well, that’s a lot less clear. If you want to argue that not following God brings misery, well, I don’t think Christians are unusually happy or don’t suffer the same problems everyone else has. I think Paul had an opinion, turned out what he expected didn’t happen, which is why

  • The most helpful thing I have read on this is by Beverly Roberts Gaventa in her article, “God Handed Them Over: Reading Romans 1:18-32 Apocalyptically”. Australian Biblical Review, 2005. Here is her abstract of her article:

    “Discussion of Romans 1:18-32 has paid insufficient attention to the repetition of the phrase “God handed them over” (vv.24,26.28). Consistent with its use in the LXX and elsewhere, “handed over” here refers to the surrender of someone or something in a context of conflict. In Romans 1, God surrenders humanity to the anti-god powers in response to humanity’s refusal to acknowledge God. God concedes humanity to these powers for a time, a confinement that is powerfully brought to an end by another handing over, that of Jesus Christ (8:32), a handing over that culminates in the resurrection. This reading of Romans 1:24, 26 and 28 results in a more consistent understanding of Paul’s comments about sin in Romans, as well as a more thoroughly apocalyptic interpretation of the letter.”

    I like this because it paints a picture of God handing humanity over for the purpose of saving us from the wrath to come – or at least that is my take on it. I think of this in connection to the passage in Acts 2: 23: “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death,* because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” God is at work in the cross to defeat the anti-god powers so that even those who put Jesus on the cross (human culpability) are invited to die with him on the cross and be saved from the wrath to come. I think I got this idea from something I read by Charles Cousar, or it may have been Gaventa, or both.

  • Some may hear the word wrath as implying capricious, unpredictable flares of anger. Given the other teachings of the prophets. that is certainly not how they understood the wrath of God.

  • Gsaseeker

    Something I have been toying with: In many scenarios, we see the prophets speaking against idolatry and its consequences in this way, associating the same with, among other things, sexual immorality, inhospitality/greed, etc. I would not be surprised to see that this is accompanied by an increase in market activity, which would in many cases be accompanied by greed and inhospitality.
    Take the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, assuming that they were actual cities. They are consistently portrayed as both rich and violently inhospitable; the rabbinic tradition contains horrifying stories about Lot’s daughter and a a friend, for example: When they give a poor man bread, the Sodomites respond by burning Lot’s daughter and covering the other girl with honey until she is consumed by bees, her outcry being the event that brings divine judgment.

    Now whether the cities were actually this evil is debatable; I have a hard time believing that a civilization this wretchedly evil exists as more than an allegory. I think it is far more likely that the cataclysm, assuming one took place, was later interpreted as a divine judgment on certain behavior. If Tall El-Hammam is as compelling as the excavators think it is as a probable site, it shows clear signs of being a socioeconomic powerhouse before its destruction and/or abandonment. There are all sorts of interesting disputes about historicity with the excavation site, and I don’t know if their findings are truly consistent with a cosmic air burst which might make the entire thing moot, but I find the interpretation of divine wrath interesting in that is has a possible sociological correlate.

    In any case, I think that the reading of Johnson reflects an aversion to supernaturalism that is absent in the Sodom account but does more or less correspond to later experiences. God grows distant with time, as one might expect as the oral traditions are written, redacted and compiled as a unit. The Christian tradition of miraculous accounts is, to me, explicable as midrash and pesher, but not historical accounts of actual events. In Romans Paul seems to be clearly attempting to articulate a Judean interpretation of divine wrath that mirrors, for example, the criticism of Philo and Josephus. But the Sodom story, as well as Noah, is unmistakably one of divine judgment and wrath and direct intervention; it seems to reflect more than symbolic interpretation of God allowing people to condemn themselves. In both cases Yahweh is acting cosmologically: Letting fire “rain” on Sodom and water rain over the Earth (Y), or removing the barriers that separate the waters and reversing the creation (E).

  • kent hartmann

    What if you approach it this way: God is infinite. Therefore, whatever he is; he is infinitely. In applying this to God being love it looks like this: If God is love, then he is love infinitely. Is there room for hate within infinite love? Is hate something that comes from love? No. Can God be both love and wrathful? Not if wrath involves violence and hatred. Why? Because infinite love cannot not be love, and violence and hatred are not being love. Therefore, we at least know what the wrath of God isn’t – violence, hatred, etc… because we know what love isn’t.

    • Jordan

      Love and hate are not mutually exclusive. If you love your children, you necessarily hate the things that would destroy them. Herein God’s wrath would be defined as “Love’s fiery opposition to (hatred of) our destruction.”

      • kent hartmann

        yes, but is that hatred to the person doing the destruction or the destruction itself?

  • I think the same can be said for “the smoke of their torment.” People want to put the fulfillment of this in the afterlife when it may be speaking entirely of life here on earth before death as a result of taking the mark of the beast (whatever that is).

  • Jeff Y

    Have you read Fretheim’s Creation Untamed? He has a very good discussion there (in a phenomenal book). Makes a similar point from the OT that there really isn’t any true punishment in the OT but only the consequences (built in, if you will) for actions that are ultimately self-destructive.

    • If you liked it, read his longer (and a bit more thorough) work “God and World in the Old Testament”. He goes into more depth, and it’s paradigm-changing.

      Just found a quote that I can’t get enough of:

      “While the understanding of sin-consequence in these texts could be expressed in language such as “your sin will find you out,” or “you reap whatever you sow ” (Num 32: 23; Gal 6: 7), God is not removed from the connection between sin and consequence; Israel’s understanding of God is not deistic. But, generally speaking, judgment is not something that God introduces into the sinful situation, such as imposing a penalty specified in the law; rather, God mediates the consequences that are intrinsic to the wickedness itself. God thereby sees to the moral order —a reality that God has built into the very structures of creation. In other words, given the interrelatedness of all creatures, Israel’s sin generates certain snowballing effects or negative “fallout.” At the same time, God is active in the interplay of human sinful actions and their effects, and “third parties” may be used by God as agents for that judgment (e.g., the Assyrians). Both divine and creaturely factors are interwoven to produce the judgmental result. In more modern terms, our own sin and the sins of our forebears press in upon us, but no less the hand of God. For history is our judgment and God enables history— carrying the world along, with a personal attentiveness in view of a relationship of consequence. God’s salvific will remains intact in everything, and God’s gracious concern is always for the best; but in a given situation the best that God may be able to offer is burning the chaff to fertilize the field for a new crop. This moral order does not function in any mechanistic, precise, or inevitable way; it is not a tight causal weave. And so it may be that the wicked will prosper (Jer 12: 1), at least for a time, and the innocent will suffer for unknown reasons (Job) or get caught up in the effects of the sins of others, as we have noted. Ecclesiastes 9: 11 even introduces an element of chance or randomness in relating human deeds to their effects: “time and chance happen to them all.” God is to some degree subject to this just order (see Abraham’s question in Gen 18: 25), though this cannot be factored out except to say that the looseness of the causal weave allows God to be at work in the “system” without violating or (temporarily) suspending it and, in these terms, God is certainly an agent. This point leads back to Israel’s understanding that roots its own law in a creation theology. And so Israel’s violation of matters relating to social justice, and God’s wrath related thereto, cannot finally be reduced to matters of covenant. God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God.”

      Fretheim, Terence E. (2010-08-01). God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Kindle Locations 3564-3575). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

      • Jeff Y

        Just now seeing this. Phenomenal stuff from Fretheim! I actually have that book but have not had a chance to read it yet. Thanks for the motivational recommendation and the great quote.

  • Ashley ARC

    Just covered this in my church growth group tonight. We’re struggling with Moses in the desert. I think this adds another perspective.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I would humbly suggest it could be a both/and and need not be an either or…. There seems too much in the Bible to completely dismiss the idea of God actively repaying sinners, both OT & NT, the son of man separating sheep an goats, etc… but perhaps at least in large part the way that God brings about said retribution is in fact by God “giving them up” to live wi the consequences of their actions.

    This is largely the theme of C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce”, and his idea that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.

  • Yancy W. Smith

    I wonder if the problem here is to mistake Paul in mid-argument for where Paul ultimately lands (say, Romans 11:32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”) Could it be that theologians too often fail to see Paul as a dialectic theologian himself? Perhaps he introduces topics, sometimes in the voice of an antagonistic or ignorant person, and then proceeds to redefine or undermine what would otherwise appear to be his own statements: e.g. 1 Cor 6:12, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all are expedient.”) In this he brings his audience along through fits and starts to where he wants them to land. So, it seems to me that what Paul sets up in Romans 1:18-32 he deconstructs in Romans 5:1-11, and then he proceeds to go over similar ground, featuring “death” (1:32, i.e. “they know that such things are worthy of death”; compare 5:12 “as a consequence of sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned”). In this way he resembles Athanasius in the first book of On the Incarnation. “What was God to do when he saw his creation headed for corruption?” In Romans, the “Wrath of God” in 1:18 appears to become simply “the wrath [problem].” It is law that generates wrath, thus we can speak of the wrath as a problem generated by the law (Rom 4:15). Paul explores the wrath problem in chapter 5 by turning it on its head. God is an enemy lover! And that deals with the problem of wrath. The translators of the ESV and NRSV could not help themselves and obscure the dialectical development when they insert “of God” in 5:9, though they were right to see it referring back to wrath in Romans 1:18-32, only now wrath has been profoundly denatured in the process. Now it is God’s mercy and love toward sinners and enemies that has taken the forefront! Paul is twisting the traditional concepts of divine wrath and retribution beyond the breaking point. The stark fronting of the Wrath of God in Romans 1:18-32 had already begun to be deconstructed by the stunning statement in 3:25 that God himself put forward Christ Jesus as the “propitiation” for his own wrath! That rhetorical move is one of the sharpest oxymorons in theology and should not just be taken in stride, but should arrest us as unbelievably non-congruent. That is not your daddy’s wrath! Paul signals in this way that we are going to have to hold to the traditional notion of wrath in both Judaism and, especially, Greco-Roman religions, rather loosely in trying to assess “his gospel.” The other references to God’s wrath, the hypothetical in 9:22, are resolved in the bald statement of 11:32 and the doxology that follows. Ultimately the supposed conflict of goodness and severity are swallowed up in mercy and mystery. For Paul the last word on the wrath problem is not some systematic statement, but doxology, awe and pure delight.