Back in seminary days, one of my African American friends, Dennis, and I would discuss racism. Dennis came from Atlantic City, NJ. You can learn a lot about racism if you actually talk to those discriminated against. In one of our conversations, Dennis told me about the difference between northern racism and southern racism. He told me that in southern racism, a black person knew quite well that they were hated, disliked, and a second-class citizen. It was obvious. Especially during the days of Jim Crow laws. There were restaurants, clubs, water fountains, and bathrooms for “whites only.” The schools were segregated. You had to ride in the back of the bus. White people would call you the “N” word to your face. Basically, you knew where you stood in the eyes of white Americans.
In the north, however, Dennis pointed out that things were very different. Everyone knows that the north fought against the south in the Civil War to end slavery. Many African Americans fled to the north. The north is portrayed as the defender of black men and women. And yet, Dennis informed me that racism exists under a different guise. Most of the time, racism in the north is not overt and obvious. It is much more subtle and indirect. Northern whites are publically polite, have laws against discrimination, and treat black men and women cordially, but underneath there is still the same hatred, dislike, and second-class mentality. Racism was still there, but much less easier to detect. I instantly knew what he was talking about. To my surprise, Dennis told me that he preferred southern racism to northern racism because it is much easier to know that you are hated, disliked, and second-class.
Where am I going with this? Well, in today’s passage NT Wright points out that there are two kinds of God’s wrath found in Scripture. One is overt and obvious. The other is subtle and indirect. The overt and obvious wrath of God is found here in Revelation 16, depicted symbolically by “the seven bowls of wrath.” They come in the form of natural plagues. In our section for today, the angels pour out the four bowls of God’s wrath upon the earth, the sea, the rivers, and the sun. God’s wrath is directed against those “who had the mark of the beast and who worship its image” (v. 2). God’s wrath is not indiscriminate destruction, but is the direct judgment upon those who worship the beast, who are violating God’s moral law and persecuting God’s people. There is no question that God is now judging the wicked for their wickedness and still “they did not repent or give him glory” (v. 9).
The other kind of God’s wrath that NT Wright mentions is found in Romans 1-2. In Romans, Paul tells us that: “The wrath of God is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). This is a different kind of wrath. It is much more subtle and indirect. God’s wrath is manifested here in the phrase “God gave them over” to the sinful desires of their heart. Three times in Romans 1 we are told that “God gave them over” to the sinful desires, lusts, and a depraved mind so that people simply do what they want to do (1:24, 26, 28). Have you ever thought of God’s wrath as being able to do whatever you want? This form of God’s wrath is much harder to detect. No thunder or lightening from the sky when we sin – just silence and acquiescence to do what we want because we want to. C. S. Lewis defined hell as “always getting your own way.” That is a scary thought. The first kind of God’s wrath is like dying from affixation in a burning building in a blaze of fire. The second kind of God’s wrath is more like dying from cigarette smoking, one cigarette at a time.
Much like my friend Dennis, I would much rather deal with the overt and obvious than the subtle and indirect. People sometimes joke when they do or say something bad that they expect “fire and brimstone” from the sky. It typically doesn’t happen. The thought that I find more alarming is that my selfish desires, wants, and thinking can fool and cloud my judgment and God will simply let me do want I want to do and, then, face the consequences. God’s wrath is already wired into the fabric of life as consequences of bad choices. What is scary is that I can be so blind and bullheaded and bullshit myself to such a degree that I do not realize that what I am doing or saying will have dire consequences. I wish there were more warning signs. God, however, tells us how to live and then let’s us choose freely. His wrath is build into the moral system of the world. No lightening. No thunder. No fire. No brimstone. Just my selfish desires, wants, and thinking and their consequences. I wish it were more overt and obvious.