Years ago, I listened to a grandfatherly scholar who explained God’s wrath in Romans as His turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want Him (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). I loved this man’s eloquent depiction of a wrath that so many preachers describe as being harshly spewed. He depicted a God who would never abandon us but turn every rock and exhaust every rescue effort. In his massive book The Deliverance of God, Professor Douglas Campbell presents a new and exciting take on the harsh language used to describe God’s wrath in Romans 1:18–32, arguing that it is not the gospel Paul believed but rather a rebuttal to a troublesome teacher in Rome who insisted that God was angered by human wickedness (Deliverance of God, pp. 530, 534). Campbell argues that Paul was using the Socratic method, assuming a different persona to present his opponent’s views. In his fresh and insightful commentary The Letter to the Romans, scholar Sigve Tonstad explains how the wonderful message of God’s righteousness is contrasted by the speaker who insists on God’s wrath (The Letter to the Romans, pp. 98). Tonstad shows that these competing dialects and scenes pivot from a friendly voice of assurance and righteousness (Romans 1:16–17) to an angry voice that emphasizes wrath and punishment (Romans 1:18–32).
Those who think Paul’s concept of God’s righteousness depicts an unattainable standard of holiness fail to recognize Paul’s thesis or the power that energizes his gospel. God is traditionally portrayed as an exacting judge who demands that laws be upheld and penalties paid as He punishes sinners with His righteousness and holy anger. New theological studies on Paul, however, portray God’s righteousness as faithfulness that includes His liberating justice. Renowned scholar N. T. Wright defines righteousness as God putting the world to rights (Paul: Fresh Perspectives, 2005, pp. 25–6). Tonstad similarly describes God’s righteousness as His faithfulness to make things right but casts it against the backdrop of the prophetic voice of God’s apparent absence (The Letter to the Romans, p. 17). The problem is not God’s detachment from or wrath against humanity but His apparent absence, though Paul argues that God has intervened as promised, for He is faithful. God’s intent to be faithful and make right is most clearly revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus, who seeks justice and healing for all His creation. This is Paul’s predominant message.
Most Christians assume that salvation means being saved from God’s wrath and His divine judgment of their bad deeds. This view mimics the voice of the counter-missionary Paul addressed and the harsh voice I often hear in theological discourses on the validity of God’s unrelenting love. Paul rebuts his opponent’s views, showing that they lead to absurd results (Romans 2:1–3). Equally absurd is the notion that an all-loving and forgiving God would condemn people to eternal suffering for failing to believe.
So, is the gospel about a loving God who wants to assist us or an angry God who punishes those who fail to meet His conditions? I firmly believe the former, but some challenge this reading of Paul, sensing a weak definition of God’s wrath. Is there a plausible view of God’s wrath and future judgment that is consistent with Paul’s theme of God’s right-making as revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus? Did Jesus ever get angry? If so, what kinds of things made Him angry, and what did His anger look like?
In the gospels, Jesus reveals that God feels the pain of the human condition and responds to human needs. He is not indifferent to pain or to the evil in the world. He isn’t silent in the face of our brokenness; He responds vocally. As Paul says, God “groans” in ways that are too deep for words (Romans 8:26). His sigh may be impossible to convey with language, but it communicates something to us. It expresses the displeasure, pain, distress, and agony that God experiences when His creation is oppressed by sin and injustice. We hear this guttural groan when Jesus sets out to heal the deaf man in Mark 7:31–37. His deep sigh at this poor man’s brokenness is God’s response to set things right for a suffering person. We hear this tone in Jesus’s voice as He stands before the tomb of Lazarus, weeping and groaning with those who are grieving (John 11:38). He sheds tears, for He too is shaken at the distress of humanity. We also hear this divine sigh—a deep, breathy groan emphasizing disapproval—when Jesus confronts His opponents (Mark 8:12).
“Groaning” is an emotionally charged word that describes people beside themselves with anguish (Romans 8:21). In Gethsemane, we hear such unmistakable gasps of distress and agitation, and Jesus’s loud moan on the cross can be read as a cry, a howl, or a lament (Hebrews 5:7). Whatever word one uses, however, it expresses pain. As Jesus takes up the cause of liberating a broken world, God hurts so much that we can hear His groans and cries.
As in the beliefs of Paul’s unseen opponent, God’s wrath is often misrepresented. God does not sprint into action, wielding lethal weapons and blazing them against idolators, heathens, and enemies. God’s justice and opposition to evil are revealed in the same acts as His love and righteousness. Instead of giving sinners up to their sin, God gives Himself for the ungodly—even those who are enemies—because He cannot let us go (Romans 5:6–10). This is what God looks like when He gets angry at sin and brokenness. He lays down His life to make right all that has gone wrong in the world. It is an unexpected expression of God’s co-suffering and rescuing love.
While I realize other passages by Paul describe wrath and a coming judgment, they likewise do not present an angry God against a needy world but a God groaning for a broken and resistant world. God responds to set things right, but He also must expose the inevitable and awful consequences of our rebellious choices. Our sin, anger, judgment, and violence were all unmasked on the cross along with a God who loves sinners despite their sinfulness. Consequences are terrible without God’s rescue; as Paul says, “there will be wrath and fury,” but these come as the ultimate expression of freedom (Romans 2:8). In the apocalyptic vision of Revelation chapter 6, we see the cosmic results of misbeliefs about God. Terrified people run and hide from the wrath expressed in Jesus’ own suffering when God finally unmasks evil’s lies and pretense, but those who view the “wrath of the lamb” as sourced in the character of Jesus see it as God’s right-making response against the evils of our world, which turns selfish, angry, and violent people into loving people who stand to reveal God’s love to everyone (Revelation 7).
For Paul, the gospel is not about being saved from an angry God but a message grounded in God’s rescuing love for the world and fully revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus. Now that’s a game changer!
Craig Ashton Jr.