It is perhaps in his assessment of the human condition that Paul (and Jesus) differ most fundamentally from modern secular (and even some popular religious) thinkers. The secular mind tends to think of oneself as innocent, and of others as guilty. People want to believe themselves innocent; it is easy to assume that if one can see that there’s something wrong with the world then “I” am not part of the problem. But Paul insists that the whole world is sinful.
What Paul offers is a verdict of guilty on the whole human race, but with the possibility of forgiveness for all: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth (1:18). One problem in the West is that many people are (still) reacting to forms of Christianity which over-stressed guilt and sin, so that their claim to be innocent is made in some way against the Church and even (so they think) against God. It is essential to realize that what Christ offers is the forgiveness of sins and not a declaration of innocence. The fact that we begin each Mass by repenting of our sin is an acknowledgment of the universal truth of Paul’s insight about the human condition.
Perhaps the problem is that we imagine God’s love as a bland, colourless benevolence, whereas the Bible is full of God’s passion for human beings. If God is “angry” with people it is not because they have ruffled his feathers by breaking rules, but rather because they have chosen to be far less than he intended them to be. Psalm 8 says of man: You have made him little less than a god, but so often man chooses to be little more than an animal.
Biblical “wrath” may be better understood, therefore, in terms of people experiencing the consequences of their actions. Three times in that first chapter of Romans Paul writes: God abandoned them. It is a way of saying that God allows people their freedom. One of the problems of sin is that it lessens our sense of how bad we really are. We see in our own society the breakdown of all sorts of standards and the chaos that brings in its wake and at the same time a wholesale denial of the reality of sin. As Kierkegaard says: “To have a weak understanding of sin is part of our being sinners.” It is only when people face the painful consequences of sin that they can begin to make the choice (freely) to do something about it. Paradoxical as it sounds, the “wrath” of God really does work toward our salvation.
What would you say to someone whose life has fallen apart and is convinced that God is angry with them and that they are being punished?
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.