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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)

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.