06.18.20

Racism and the Wrath of God

The recent killings of black people have once again brought conversations about race and racism to the forefront of the global conscience. On the one hand, racism is abnormal in that it wasn’t part of God’s original creation in the Garden of Eden (). On the other hand, after the Fall, racism is normal. It’s part of the everyday rhythm of life because of sin’s individual and cosmological power over the entire creation (; ). As Christians pursue a robustly biblical and theological vision for ethnic reconciliation and racial conciliation, we must remember that racism in all of its forms and expressions is demonic, evil, and perhaps displays that “the wrath of God” has come upon “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” ().

God’s wrath in the NT is complex. In , Paul argues with force the righteous God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of fierce and unrelenting wrath and that he will display this wrath both within history and at the end of history against those who live in rebellion against Jesus Christ. Paul describes God’s wrath both as a present reality, experienced by all who live in rebellion against the gospel of Jesus Christ (), and as a future Day of eternal judgment, reserved for those whose works will prove in the judgment they lived in rebellion against the gospel ().

In , Paul’s remarks about the current revelation of God’s wrath in the present age speak to God’s act of giving disobedient and hardened sinners over to his wrath now to commit the sinful desires of their own hearts because of their unrighteousness. Paul states three times God gives them over “to the lusts of their hearts” (), “to passions of dishonor” (), and “to an unapproved mind to do things that are not fitting” and to be filled with various forms of disobedience () because they’re disobedient to the truth (; cf. 2:2).

Paul mentions a selective litany of vices to which God gives over the rebellious. These vices pertain to both idolatry and broken relationships (; cf. ). Paul doesn’t specifically mention the sin of racism here since race and racism as we understand these things are modern social constructs. Interpreters, however, can infer from the text that racism, ethno-centrism, and racial prejudice are manifestations of God’s wrath because they are deeds of unrighteousness that are antithetical to the truth of the gospel (cf. ; cf. ). These sins fit under Paul’s statement that God gives the unrighteous over to “all unrighteousness” ().

Race and racism are complex. Yet, many have known for some time now that race is a social construct and that race and racism are connected to power and to both individuals and systems. Because Christians read Scripture and believe its doctrine of sin, we, of all people, should know the numerous unjust killings of black bodies throughout US history support that racism fundamentally exists because of sin, that sin uses racism to create numerous racialized experiences, structures, and narratives in the real world, and that sin uses racism to assault beautiful image-bearers historically perceived as a threat because of the color of their skin.

NT authors describe sin as both personal transgression () and as a cosmological power that rules and reigns over the entire creation as an evil tyrant (). In Scripture (the murder of Jesus) and in our history (slavery, Jim Crow, and its aftermath), sin has used individuals to create structures of power to traumatize, victimize, and scandalize those whom those in power viewed to be the so-called threat. One way that God manifests his wrath in the present evil age is by giving rebellious people over to the sinful desires of their own sinful and rebellious hearts (cf. ).

When racists inside the church or outside the church are complicit in racism and display they’re full of envy, unrighteousness, greed, and when they lie, slander, gossip, are merciless, without affection, plotters of evil deeds against their neighbors, are insulters, and the like against those perceived as threats because of the color of their sin, then their behavior may reveal God has handed them over to his wrath in this present evil age (; ). And, unless these racists repent now, they will suffer the gloom and devastation of God’s wrath at the end of history when Jesus returns, because racism in all of its diverse forms and expressions is a demonic ideological power that opposes the power of the gospel (cf. ; ; ).

God’s temporal wrath in this present evil age is a reminder that he will destroy all rebellious and unrepentant sinners (regardless of the sinner’s ethnic origins), whom he has given over now to the sinful inclinations of their own hearts because of their disobedience to the truth of the gospel, with indestructible wrath at the end of history but he will give eternal life to those who repent (). The only hope for a racist (or any sinner) is the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Spirit (; ).

Unrepentant racism matched with a rebellion against the gospel, even multi-ethnic unrepentant racism matched with a rebellion against the gospel, may reveal an inward callousness against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Racists, and all sinners, can be delivered from God’s wrath only if they repent, follow Jesus faithfully, and begin the journey of walking in Spirit-empowered love in obedience to Jesus (). Genuine repentance has both the appearance of godliness and affirms its power (). This is the only kind of repentance that will allow racists (and all sinners) escape God’s wrath.

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3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (ESV)

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24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (ESV)

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; (ESV)

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23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (ESV)

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Jarvis J. Williams, PhD
Jarvis J. Williams is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the author of Christ Redeemed ‘Us’ From the Curse of the Law: A Jewish Martyrological Reading of Galatians 3:13 and a forthcoming Galatians commentary in 2020 in the New Covenant Commentary Series.

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