Romans 1:18-32 is a long section on the wrath of God. What is the wrath of God? There are two views, and I’d like to propose that the two views are not as “two-fold” as a lot of folks think.
Here’s what Paul says:
Rom. 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
For some, “wrath” is personal. It is God’s holiness reacting to all that is not holy, it is God’s holiness reacting to sin, it is God’s anger and fury directed against that which defiles his name and dishonors his glory. This wrath, for some, is directed at each human being, personally and individually, because of both original sin and actual sins.
For others, and many of them find the above description unworthy of the God of the Bible or the God that the Bible redemptively reveals in a progressive manner, and so they see “wrath” as impersonal. It is a system of consequences: if you jump from the hill and break your leg, you deserved it; if you run around on your spouse and your life turns miserable, you deserved it; if you make bad decisions, bad things happen. It is, in other words, a rough and ready expression, a theological one to be sure, of the law of cause and effect/affect. Wrath is little more than that.
I find this personal vs. impersonal breakdown to be incredibly naive, in spite of the fact that some erudite scholars have made such proposals and shown how frequently we can see “wrath” in impersonal terms. And I don’t want to deny that “wrath” is connected to this “law of cause and effect.”
What I want to say is that making wrath impersonal doesn’t get God off the hook. One simply has to ask this question to see why: Who made the law of cause and effect? Did not God? If God made this, then we are right back to where we started. The wrath of God is the response of a holy God to human beings (and the world and the systemic injustices etc etc) when they walk from God, head east of Eden, and choose not to do what God wants.
Let’s be clear: this is not about God being “pissed off” as is the case with Zeus and the Olympians up in Greece who got all huffy about their status and starting tossing thunderbolts into the plains of Troy; this is not about God’s violence or God’s arbitrariness. It is not God flying off with rage and anger. That misses the whole Creator and covenantal origins of God’s grace. And it does no good to the debate to characterize wrath in extreme fashion in order to make a case look better. The Bible is filled with this language, not the least of which is Deuteronomy 28.
I make this proposal: wrath has to be seen in the context of God being a Jealous God (Exod 34:14), and it has to be seen in the context of relationship. God made us as his Eikons, he gave us a responsibility to “eikon” all over the place, but we chose to crack the Eikon and we can either live as cracked Eikons or we can return to God in his grace and find forgiveness, healing, and restoration. If we choose to live as cracked Eikons we will be choosing to live with God’s Jealous wrath that is simultaneously a yearning for us to return and a diminishment of our Eikonic vocation.
At some point we have to decide if we will let the Bible story be our story or not. Let’s not mess around with the poppycock, though, that wrath is somehow impersonal. That is dualism, and that is not the way God made things. Wrath is the experience of humans when they come to know the yearning Jealousy of God.