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In writing Romans, before Paul gets to the good news of the gospel (Romans 3 and following), he lays out the bad news: the wrath of God is breaking in from heaven. For Paul God’s wrath is a present reality not some distant, future threat. We are living in “the present, evil age” (Gal 1:4), where the proliferation of idolatries, perversions and corruption are the ambient human condition (Romans 1). It’s just the way things are even as we know things are not the way they are supposed to be. Evangelicals use “the Roman road” to highlight the threat of hell, but Paul doesn’t do that. The bad news is not the threat of fire and brimstone in some afterlife; it is the fact that God’s wrath is already evident in the world in what is effectively God’s hands-off policy. God has stepped back and given us up to idolatry, disillusionment, strife, sexual sins, fractured families, and wicked minds. For the apostle, sin and depravity may be the cause of God’s fury, but they are also the effect. The presence and spread of human vices throughout the earth make life miserable and wretched. Perhaps we can say it this way: we are not only punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins.
If salvation for Paul consists primarily of God’s invading presence, then divine wrath consists ultimately of God’s silence and absence in the midst of a counterfeit world. God doesn’t step in and smash us with his powerful right arm; he steps back and says, in effect, “if that is what you want, that is what you will get.” That is heaven’s wrath. Now we are not saying that Paul completely ignores any threat of future judgment (e.g., 2 Thess 1:5-12); what we are saying is that the threat of fire and brimstone is not the only way to frame the human plight.
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop with the bad news; he has good news too.