The question as to whether God’s wrath could possibly be righteous was raised by Paul in the middle of the first century. Paul sets out his intention to describe God’s righteousness in Romans 1.17. He then immediately begins describing God’s wrath in Romans 1.18. The parallel is striking: “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed (1.17)…For the wrath of God is revealed (1.18). Key is the causal connective “for” at the beginning of 1.18, which indicates that the latter verse (18) is substantiating the claim made in the previous verse (17). The revelation of God’s righteousness is substantiated by the revelation of God’s wrath. So, did Paul think that God’s wrath is righteous? If his letter to the Romans is any indication, he certainly did. In fact, not only did he think of God’s wrath as righteous, he considered God’s wrath to be exhibit A of the evidence that substantiates the revelation of God’s righteousness. There is other evidence as well, not least the putting forward of Jesus as a propitiating sacrifice, but that is beyond the scope of the present question. The point here is that God’s wrath is not only righteous, it is an essential element in the manifestation of God’s righteousness.
James Dunn makes the interesting point in his massive book The Theology of Paul the Apostle that Paul’s understanding of God’s righteous wrath is typical of his Jewish context:
Not least of importance for Paul at this point are two fundamental axioms of the Jewish concept of divine justice: that God “will render to each according to his works” (2.6) and that God’s judgment will be impartial (2.11). God’s wrath must be just, “otherwise how will God judge the world?” (3.5-6) [41-42, emphasis added].
This raises the question as to why it was axiomatic to Paul’s second temple Jewish sensibilities that God’s wrath was distinctly just while to our modern sensibilities God’s wrath seems distinctly unjust. We don’t want God to judge justly; we want him to look the other way. Could it be that there is a bias characteristic of modern Western sensibilities that wrath and justice are antithetical when taken as attributes of God? And could it be that this is one reason we have so much trouble coming to terms with what scriptures say about these things? That Paul was on the same page as his Jewish contemporaries with regard to the compatibility of wrath and righteousness suggests that the current struggle with this issue is a matter of cultural tunnel vision. We have difficulty seeing things any other way.
In all these things we must remember that the scriptural imperative is to have our thoughts and biases shaped by scripture. We must endeavor to see the world the way the Bible sees the world, even if it means casting off some of our cultural presuppositions.
What do you think? Do we have a cultural bias against righteous wrath? Do you think Paul has the same bias? Or is there other evidence that he thinks righteousness and wrath are incompatible? Why might we think God unjust to punish sin and simultaneously think governing authorities unjust when they fail to punish lawbreakers?