Making Room for the Wrath of God: Romans 12:19 and Osama Bin Laden

This is a follow up to my post The Labor of Grace about the Christian response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

What I want to wrestle with here is how the vengeance of God fits in with the command to forgive others, even our enemies.

The relevant passage is Romans 12.19:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
The thing I want to think about is how my willingness to forgive Bin Laden is contingent upon my confidence that God will kick him in ass. The "Welcome to Hell" sentiment expressed by Mike Huckabee.

There are two issues I'm wrestling with. First, am I really forgiving someone if I'm simply handing him off to be punished by another? True, by handing the person off I'm forgoing my own right to vengeance. But is that the same as forgiveness? Because it seems to me that forgoing vengeance, while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for forgiveness. They are not the same thing. Forgiveness goes further than "Welcome to Hell." (Not that I blame Huckabee for expressing that sentiment. See my comments on the "moral click" in my earlier post.)

These thoughts about forgiveness bring me to the second issue. Does it make any sense to command me to forgive my enemies when God will not forgive his enemies? As I understand it, Christians are to forgive everyone. However, God, according to some, is only going to forgive a select few. Which means human beings are being asked to do something that even God can't pull off. That humans are to be more merciful, more loving, and more forgiving than God. Which seems odd.

So how are we to think about a passage like Romans 12.19?

I think the most obvious thing to say is that Romans 12.9 is about behavior rather than theology. That is, Romans 12.19 isn't trying to describe God's personality of the nature of Divine Judgment. Romans 12.19 is, rather, a command: Do not take revenge.

This, I think, is the most important thing to take away from Romans 12.9, the call to nonviolence, to hand over to God our hate, blood lust, and thirst for revenge. Justice, payback, reprisals, getting even. All this is to be handed over to God.

I think this is the same logic found in the imprecatory psalms, where hate and vengeance is expressed toward enemies:
Psalm 137.8-9
O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!
What is so shocking about these psalms is how hate is expressed as an act of worship. But I think that's the idea. The hate is handed over to God rather than directed at the perpetrators. The hate is for the sanctuary where the poison can be slowly drawn out.

So we get the general ethical idea behind Romans 12.19. Don't take vengeance into your own hands. Hand it over to God.

Still, this doesn't help us understand the asymmetry between divine and human forgiveness. That humans are commanded to forgive where God will not. That human love is to exceed God's love.

Here's a first pass about what I think is going on with all this, psychologically speaking.

Psychologists have studied for some time a phenomenon called just world belief. Just world belief is the psychological tendency to believe that the world is seeking to find a moral balance, that through God, karma, or fate everyone gets what they deserve in the end. That is, when bad things happen to people we are tempted to suspect that they "had it coming." You see this sort of thinking all the time and it's often expressed in religious language. For example, when a tsunami hits New Orleans you seem someone like Pat Robertson suggest that the Big Easy "deserved" what happened to it. And while it is easy (very easy) to see Pat Robertson as a nut job, the psychological research on just world belief suggests that we are all vulnerable to this sort of thinking. When something bad happens to our neighbors we darkly wonder, if only briefly, what might have been going on behind those closed doors...

Just world belief also explains why we tend to put halos around the rich, beautiful, talented or successful. Our tendency is to think that good things happen to good people and that bad things happen to bad people. So we moralize the rich and the poor, the successes and the failures.

The point in going into all this is that I think just world belief tends to frame how we think about God's vengeance. Specifically, everyday we look out on a world full of moral loose ends, a world full of victims and perpetrators. And in the face of all that injustice we want God to be the fixer who will make it all balance out in the end. On this earth we can't get every score settled, every rapist prosecuted, every murderer executed. Every Osama Bin Laden killed. And so, wanting the world to be a just world, we posit a god to make the mechanism work. If not justice in this life then in the next.

The problem with this idea is that it reduces the Christian God to a form of karma. And this isn't too surprising because just world thinking is simply another example of how Christian belief gets captured by what psychologists call magical thinking. (Just world belief is a form of magical thinking as it posits causes and effects that aren't rooted in physical laws. See my book Unclean for other examples of magical thinking in the Christian faith.) But even if it is natural, psychologically speaking, to posit God-as-karma, this isn't the Christian understanding. The whole notion of Divine love, grace, forgiveness, and self-offering ("Father forgive them.") suggests that the accounting books of justice are not "balanced" through a just world, God-as-karma mechanism. Rather, the "balancing" comes through God absorbing the wound of sin, dissipating it in the Divine love. I think this is what it means to say that Christ "became sin." The life and love of God, symbolized by the blood of Jesus, soaks up and absorbs the sin of the world. The residual of evil isn't balanced out via karma and just deserts. Rather, it is soaked up in the love of God. The violence that killed Jesus doesn't get a payback. It isn't balanced out with more "eye for an eye" violence. Rather, that sin is absorbed and dissipated by the love of "Father forgive them." In this sense, our love for our enemies isn't doing anything God hasn't already done. Our mercy shadows God's mercy. There is no one we can forgive that God won't forgive.

So where does that leave God's vengeance? If God isn't going to balance it all out with tit-for-tat then what is Romans 12:19 talking about with "vengeance is mine; I will repay"?

I can't say with any certainty what it all means, other than to express the worry that if Romans 12.19 is interpreted to mean "everyone gets what they deserve" we aren't, as best I can tell, talking about the God of Jesus Christ. We are, rather, talking about something quite different, something that seems primitive, pagan even--the just world belief of a balanced cosmic accounting.

To clarify, this isn't to say that I think perpetrators are going to get a free pass. That someone like Osama Bin Laden gets to waltz into heaven without any sort of reckoning. On this score, Huckabee has a point. There is hell to pay. But I think hell has to be understood against the background of God's love. Hell isn't a form of karma.

Let me end with this. I like the way Romans 12:19 says "leave room" for the wrath of God. It suggests, to me at least, that the wrath of God is a bit bigger than what I think it might be. That it includes some stuff I wouldn't think would be a part of the picture. It suggests that I might be a bit surprised about what the wrath of God looks like. And that only makes sense. My notion of vengeance is very small, very bound by my just world biases, my tacit belief in karma. But God's wrath? I suspect it's a bit different. A larger, more expansive view.

So I step back. And make room.

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37 thoughts on “Making Room for the Wrath of God: Romans 12:19 and Osama Bin Laden”

  1. Good thoughts...I (like a lot of Christians) have always assumed that verses like this were meant to reassure us that God's vengeance, while requiring patience on our part, would ultimately be more significant (body+soul, eternal) than anything we could mete out.  Several other blogs are discussing Frances Chan's video promoting his upcoming book that (presumably) counters Rob Bell's Love Wins.  In that video, Chan uses Isaiah 55 ("my thoughts are not your thoughts...") to argue against imposing our rational minds on God's justice.  Several commentors have noted that it is just as possible that Isaiah meant that God was *more* loving and compassionate than man could imagine, rather than less.

    BTW, you don't have to be as much of a nut job as Pat Robertson to believe in God's tit-for-tat justice.  John Piper claimed that a tornado that hit the Twin Cities a few years ago was retribution for the ELCA voting to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained.

  2. Maybe it's splitting hairs, but do you think there's a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? One alone can forgive, but doesn't it take two to reconcile? The wrong has to be acknowledged for reconciliation to happen, but the injured party can forgive and still never reconcile with that person. If Matt. 18:17 shows that even the best efforts to try to reconcile on one side of the equation can go without having any good results, then what? Rich man and Lazarus?

  3. Forgiveness seems to about our letting go of the need to play judge and punisher for others' behavior so that we don't trade hurt for hurt, and trusting that God will do whatever is best as we never know the entire story.  I don't think that it's a forgiving spirit to merely forego our vengeance and then pray that God will send someone to Hell, etc., but Love does not withhold consequences (think of our children) for our own good, and God is the only one that can know what the consequences of a behavior needs to be that could lead to reconciling that person.

  4. Hi Patricia,
    "... difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?"
    I think this is a huge, huge question.  I battle with this daily while in the midst of our marital separation/divorce. We remain amicable.
    I want to see to it that my wife is well taken care of and OK. We still enjoy family dinners and I take her out to dinner once in awhile.
    If she needs help with anything, I'm there.  I have no interest in anyone else at all.   I love my wife and I believe she loves me - we remain best of friends ... but I can't live or co-exist with her. So I ask, is this unforgiveness?
    Translating that to this post's context, I would not have a problem at all if God eventually evened out all scores ("vengence") with every induividual who ever lived (myself included), and I would not have a problem seeing a Bin Laden type eventually saved.  But would Bin Laden's dinner table be my first choice of fellowship at the "Feast"? If it wasn't my first choice, is that unforgiveness?
    Gary Y. 

  5. I think what I struggle with is the balance between forgiving and setting boundaries .... some people say we should forgive and forget - like God does - they say (and they quote things like verses like Psalm 103:12)….. I'm not convinced.  Does your prison work help give any insights into this Richard?… on  forgiving yet setting limits on evil/ dangerous behaviour/ people.  I suppose some would say that the ultimate limit is the death penalty, and would justify the killing of Bin Laden in that light. (whereas for me the "moral click" came a few years ago when Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released)

  6. Hi Gary,
    I'm so sorry that this is the case in your marriage. I'm living it out myself, too, with two family members. When someone who calls themselves "Christian" can't be asked to be accountable, and either plays the amnesia game, dismissively proclaims that the history involved doesn't matter, or verbally attacks you for asking for acknowledgment, then there's no way to reconcile, unless you're willing to agree to pretend that nothing they've done really matters and they're wonderful people after all. I just don't think that a God of truth is about such pretense. I bring up the rich man and Lazarus because it seems to me the rich man thought that ultimately his dismissive actions wouldn't matter beyond the grave, and clearly they did.

  7. > vengeance is mine; I will repay

    I think it's perfectly wonderful and clever to spin this the way you do, maybe as a parent talking to children: kid A is worried about what kid B is getting, and perceives it as being unjust, so God says, you worry about forgiveness, I'll worry about justice. "Vengeance is mine, and I will repay what I will repay", even if, as in the story of the workers in the vineyard, it isn't what we think God should pay. In fact, I think that may be my new favorite parable.

    But I don't think you're going to get much traction there with any foundationalist. They're going to trot out the OT to show you what God is /really/ like. And they'll be right, kinda.

  8. We're only called to forgive our brothers (or sisters) which implies that they also are enlightened by that spirit of truth 'which convicts the world of sin'. The imperative with our enemies is 'to love' them, this isn't to not see them as enemies, for such they are and will remain. Paul's advice here is practical, and grounded in the confidence of Christ's eternal kingdom, which is to resist those impulses to self defence & co through which we ourselves become entangled again 'with the yoke of bondage'. Love isn't forgiveness, that scripturally is surely salvation itself, it's complex because our practice of love is the intimation of that supreme reconciliation to the very glory of God to which Christ was restored, yet nevertheless it isn't that demand for forgiveness which is the mystery and demand of gospel fellowship. I hope I make sense through the one we display that 'peace which passes understanding' with the other we show ourselves to be 'seated with Christ in the heavenly places'.  

  9. The "just world belief" (which I didn't have a name for before, so thanks) is one explanation for how Jewish belief in a 'land of the dead' (OT Sheol) became divided into ideas of a 'hell' and a 'heaven' (feeding into NT Christian thought) - they saw the 'wicked' prospering in this life so concluded that God's promised justice must take place in the next life.

    Also, this is interesting to me:
    "But even if it is natural, psychologically speaking, to posit God-as-karma, this isn't the Christian understanding."
    Perhaps you can point me to posts where you explain this more but I'm interested in your division of 'natural' from 'Christian'. Where does 'natural' thinking come from? Since our psychology - in terms of things like a just world belief - affects our reading of the Bible and our theology, and since our inner image-of-God resonance with ideas is also affected in the same way, what resources do/should we draw on to determine what is, the best that we can tell, the God of Jesus Christ?

    These are not argumentative questions I assure you, I genuinely have no idea what the answer is and input from you or your readers is welcome!


  10. Hi Emma,
    There hasn't been, as far as I know, a systematic survey (with an associated literature review) of how natural psychological biases like magical thinking affect theological reflection. I can point you to the examples I'm aware of--like just world belief and the purity psychology I discuss in Unclean--but I'm sure the list is much longer. Basically, it's a book or doctoral dissertation needing to be written.

  11. Yeah, I doubt I could convince a foundationalist. I doubt we've have much to say to each other. Which is kind of depressing.

  12. I'd echo what Patrica said here in the comments. I think there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I can handle forgiveness in my own heart. But reconciliation is a two way street, with requires movement on both sides.

  13. I like this, I think. My sense is that God's justice will not satisfy our justice, but our justice is born in our separation from God so it is not surprising. I wonder about how this all fits with the dominant dualism within Christian thinking - the eternal soul will be punished even if the finite flesh was not. I also wonder where this intersects with the problem of evil - there is much evil/suffering in the world which apparently goes unanswered. My answer to the problem of evil (as it is traditionally framed) has been: God is good and all-knowing and all-powerful but God's power is revealed on the cross and is therefore not as we expect. Hence, God has the power to deal with evil but does so by taking it into God's own self rather than unleashing a hailstorm of divine retribution. I'm not sure if I can synthesize that notion with the Romans 12 quote.

  14. > but God's power is revealed on the cross and is therefore not as we expect

    I find that interesting because all of my theology basically grounds itself in the problem of evil.

    I suspect my approach to suffering is similar, but I have to reject the notion of divine power altogether, asserting something more like "A good God can have no power beyond love ... God's /weakness/ is revealed on the cross."

  15. Ah, Frances Chan. You think you worship God, but you really worship the Bible.

  16. I concur. Power, as defined on the cross, is weakness. Hence Philippians 2. It also makes me reflect on 2 Corinthians 12; "my power is made perfect in (your) weakness". In this sense, "power" is redefined by the cross and as such does not mean what we assume it means.

  17. This from Karl Barth's reflections on Romans 12:19: "What
    does this mean but that through the enemy, through the One
    disguised completely in the other, I have received, in most
    strange fashion, the clear call to give glory to God: "Vengeance is
    mine, I will recompense! saith the Lord" Me—I. In order to
    demonstrate this—"if thine enemy hunger, feed him ! If he thirst,
    give him to drink." These actions demonstrate that precisely in
    the enemy the coming Kingdom of God Himself and of God only
    has been recognized."

    Barth is quite helpful here. He points out that by returning evil with evil we draw the wrath of God on ourselves (the wrath of God being the death which has embraced us). So instead, God interrupts - evil is answered with grace. And through our submission to grace, both we, and the enemy are drawn into God's saving/loving embrace.

  18. Wish I hadn't asked. I think this whole video belongs on

    But thanks for the link.

  19. I think I need to film a video plug for Unclean sitting in a pigsty. That would be awesome.

  20. That's weird. I don't think I've ever run into anybody who agreed with me about this.

    I'm going to have to troll your blog now. =)

  21. Must the cross be a question of power/weakness? Might it be simply tragedy?

  22. The language of power and weakness is Biblical and theological language which tries to grasp the reality of the cross event. I take your point which I also see in the likes of Stephen's witness from Acts 7, "They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers." There is a tragedy to the cross that cannot be glossed-over, but theologically we are required to move from that point of loss into a faithful confession as to what God has done for us in Jesus.

    It does not sit easily, but we must wrestle with the sense in which the cross is both "the power of God and the wisdom of God", and also, "God's foolishness and God's weakness" (1 Corinthians 1:20-25). I don't beleive Paul is being obtuse or glib in this instant but is trying to express the inexpressible 'logic' of God's grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The idea that this trajic moment may in fact reveal the very heart of God is at the centre of Christian proclaimation.

  23. While I hesitate to say that anything is "simply" anything, tragedy, comedy or otherwise, I also am uncomfortable about any attempts to put a happy face on the crucifixion. To me it sounds like you're saying, "There is a tragedy to the cross that cannot be glossed-over, but theologically we are required to gloss it over."

    I mean, if it were possible to entirely redeem the crucifixion of a human being, this is the crucifixion that could be redeemed, given the change it has made in the world. But we see that the crucifixion isn't redeemed. No mater what good might come out of it, a good person was tortured and killed, and in some sense we ought never move past the tragedy of that event. Maybe the tragedy can coeexist with "faithful confessions as to what God has done for us in Jesus," but it makes me a little ill to think that it's possible to move past one and dwell entirely in the other.

  24. Of course. I will often use the language of execution instead of crucifixion to remind myself and others exactly what we are talking about. The question for Christians is always, 'In what ways is this Friday good?' Is the grief and tragedy absent? Patently not. Is the torture and death somehow not real? Never. But as a people we do not remain on the cross with Jesus, nor do we linger in the tomb 'looking for the living among the dead'. We are a resurrection people. It is paradox and I hesitate to speak...but in one sense we have spent 2000 years trying to articulate this mystery.

  25. By the time I finish thinking and writing, my comments are almost always doomed to be a week or so late. Mostly, I dump them; but this one, I hope, is better late than never, though apologies for its being long.

    The sense of justice we share with other mammals (see the book Wild Justice) is clearly part of
    our wiring and no doubt serves a vital role in the survival of relationships in
    social groups. In order to maintain civilization, we
    need there to be fairness, justice.

    But does wanting the world to be just make it so? No. What works
    well in building social relationships breaks down in the reality of
    circumstances in the physical world. Here, Joplin and Tuscaloosa are torn apart, babies and all. People spend their lives imprisoned for acts they did not commit. Innocent people suffer anguish at
    the whim of Osama Bin Laden, who winds up in a million-dollar villa.
    We can't punish the winds, but considering everything he's done to other people, shouldn't we want him to suffer,
    even to suffer forever?

    It seems to me helpful to hear what people who have had an
    affirmative near-death experience say about judgment. What they report defies
    easy description. Tens of thousands of accounts have been reported in the past
    three decades, many of them including portrayal of a life-review, a nearly
    instantaneous run-through and evaluation of everything they had done in their
    life that had hurt or benefitted other living beings. The key is that in the
    life review they not only witnessed their actions but experienced their
    effects. In short, the pain and joy a person had given over the
    years was the cumulative pain and joy experienced in the review—what goes
    around, comes around. God-as-karma? And if the experience of review/judgment
    can be that powerful for ordinary people, what would it be for a Bin Laden?
    Think of all that pain, that grief and torment! Yeah, he gets hell.


    Although the experiencers report how vividly they experienced the
    pain they had inflicted, and their regret for it, rarely do they explain it as
    punishment; rather, their most common response over the years has been a
    feeling of being overwhelmed by understanding—a life-changing “Oh, now I get
    it,” “I see how it all works, how I could have done things differently.” Yes,
    they feel the pain and their own guilt, but it is less significant than the
    enormity of the revelation of what life could be—could have been—when lived out
    of compassion and love.

    I have never heard one of these life-review accounts described in
    terms of  place of fearful judgment, nor of a time sequence of punitively
    imposed eternal suffering (and in a timeless afterlife, what would be
    “everlasting,” anyway?). What matters is that shattering understanding, far
    from vengeance, that is typically a stunning experience of comprehension—pain,
    regret, “getting it,” and a changed understanding.

    To my mind, this can certainly be understood as both the wrath and
    the love of God, as Richard keeps pointing out. “[T]he
    accounting books of justice are not ‘balanced’ through a just world,
    God-as-karma mechanism. Rather, the ‘balancing’ comes through God absorbing the wound of sin, dissipating it in
    the Divine love… The residual of evil isn't balanced out via karma and just
    deserts. Rather, it is soaked up in the love of God.”

    They don't all use a Christian vocabulary, but overwhelmingly, the great majority of near-death experiencers have
    maintained that what they discovered in their NDE was a compassion beyond our
    understanding and a love that can transform all hatreds. Of course it exceeds
    our human comprehension, and our egos’ greedy passion for retribution, and our
    insistence that God are our characteristics; but surely the Mind of God must
    have room for more than vindictiveness. More and more, it seems to me that we
    are asked not for vengeance but for transformation.

  26. Hi Nan,

    This reminds me a little of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of hell as I understand it. In Orthodox thinking, drawing directly from the Bible, each person after they have died, comes into the full presence of God. God is unchanging and pours Godself over each one. However, for those that 'do not know God', that is, have turned from God, they experience this 'full presence of God' differently from those who have turned toward God. In this view, the wrath of God is not God's vindictiveness, but God's love experienced through the lens of someone who has turned from God. I don't know if you see the same connections in what you are saying, but there seems to be a connection for me.

    If anyone is interested in exploring this idea further, this web-article is quite helpful in laying down the basic Orthodox view.

  27. "If God isn't going to balance it all out with tit-for-tat then what is Romans 12:19 talking about with 'vengeance is mine; I will repay'?"
    Vengeance is all about balancing the moral ledger, repaying a moral debt -- is that not what Christ accomplished on the cross? Did He not fully repay the debt and balance the moral ledger by taking on the vengeance that should have been ours? 

    I was glad to see you address the question that I've been struggling with for some time now -- why God would call us to forgive unconditionally when He himself won't do so. My Calvinist friends say that forgiveness is ultimately a function of humility, not love, in that we forgive because God alone has the power to judge, and a refusal to forgive usurps God's authority. But no matter how hard I try, I can't square that with what Scripture says about the love of God.

  28. Thanks for that, Highanddry. Yes, it does sound connected, and I'll follow the link.

  29. Just to be clear, when Mike Huckabee issues a "Welcome to Hell" to OBL ... that means Mike is already in hell, correct?  I mean, that's a little weird, no?  Is Mike Huckabee actually Cerberus in disguise?  

  30. There is more joy in one saved. I'd imagine in the understanding and realisation of forgiveness and reconciliation we'd be overjoyed at the 'most hardened sinner' knowing salvation. Prodigal son ? As they'd know joy at our being at the Table.

    Jesus says, "Father forgive them for they KNOW NOT what they do."

    Imagine Bin Laden as a young child - your own child. What happens in any life to make of any of us what we become.

    If sin is sin to God - then why would your sin be any less than that of any other ? That's self righteousness surely.

    I wonder in that full understanding we won't all be forgiven and know what it truly means to understand and so forgive - reconciliation.

  31. I don't know if you'll ever receive this since this March 12, 2015, but if you do I want you to know that your post helped me considerably in understanding the meaning of God's wrath. If Professor Beck happens to go back and read this post, I hope he will forward the message onto you. Thank you Professor Beck, too, for the article.

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