I always get in trouble when I make this argument (like that’s anything different), but I’ve yet to hear a counter-argument other than “I don’t like this result.” I don’t like it either. But it is what it is.
In Rom 1, Paul presents an argument showing that the pagan Greco-Roman world displays all the marks of having been abandoned by God.
Now, this is not familiar thinking because we tend to think of God being all about love and loving his enemies as well as his own children — which is true. But Paul says that those who abandon God will eventually be abandoned by God.
Now, interestingly, this is also how Paul describes the fate of the damned —
(2 Thess. 1:9 ESV) 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might … .
Part of the penalty of damnation is separation from the presence of the Lord. But those without the gospel are already separated —
(Eph. 2:11-12 ESV) 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
(Eph. 4:17-20 ESV) 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!–
The Gentiles, before receiving Jesus, were “separated from Christ,” “without God,” and “alienated from the life of God.” And this is similar to the language that Paul uses of the damned after death! That is, to be damned leads to hell on earth.
The content of this wrath is not merely the process (described in the rest of the chapter) of God’s “giving people up” to the result of their own folly. That, rather, is simply the anticipation of the final judgment itself, the “death” spoken of in 1:32 and the ultimate judgment described in 2:5–6, 9. The two are, of course, organically connected. Present moral degradation (and physical, too, in many cases) anticipates the ultimate degrading of humanness in death itself.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 431.
What is this hell like?
(Rom. 1:21-23 ESV) 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Well, it begins with not honoring God, even though he is revealed by his Creation (Rom 1:19-20). But man is made to worship, and if we don’t worship the Creator, we worship the Creation.
The Greeks and Roman worshiped the pagan gods of that world. Today, some literally worship the Creation, calling it “goddess Gaia.” Some worship money, power, or sex. Some worship the nation-state where they were born. Some worship their denomination. But these are all created things — created either by God or by man.
(Rom. 1:24-25 ESV) 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
“Gave them up” is from Psa 81:12, referring to God leaving Israel to die in the wilderness. Throughout Romans, Paul regularly reminds the Jews not to feel superior to the Gentiles. The Gentiles have rejected God and worshiped idols instead. But so did the Jews — at the foot of Mt. Sinai, no less. The result is the same: abandonment by God.
We become like what we worship. If we don’t worship God, we’ll worship the creatures he made or — even worse — a creation of humanity. But we will worship, and we’ll become like what we worship.
When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance and worship to that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship, not only back to the object itself but outwards to the world around.
Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it, and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners or customers rather than as human beings.
Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories), and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects.
Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it, and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors or pawns.
These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 194–195.
(Rom. 1:26-27 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; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Paul then points out that homosexual conduct (not orientation by itself) is a “dishonorable passion,” “contrary to nature,” “shameless,” and “the due penalty for their error,” that is, their error in rejecting God. It’s hard to find an argument that homosexual conduct is blessed and approved by God the same as heterosexuality.
In fact, back in Rom 1:23, Paul borrows language from Gen 1 for “birds and animals and creeping things,” that is, he accuses mankind of perverting the created order by worshiping the creatures rather than the Creator. Verses 26-27 are a parallel argument, arguing that, although God created man and woman to be sexual partners (Gen 1, again), separation from God results in separation from the created natural order of things: homosexual conduct.
The underlying logic seems to be as follows. Those who worship the true God are, as Paul says elsewhere, renewed according to the divine image (Col 3:10). When this worship is exchanged for the worship of other gods, the result will be that this humanness, this image-bearing quality, is correspondingly distorted. Paul may suppose that in Genesis 1 it is male and female together that compose the image of God; or he may simply be taking it for granted that heterosexual intercourse is obviously the creator’s intention for genital activity.
Either way, his point is that homosexual behavior is a distortion of the creator’s design and that such practices are evidence, not of the intention of any specific individual to indulge in such practice for its own sake, but of the tendency within an entire society for humanness to fracture when gods other than the true one are being worshiped. The point is: Exchange your God for an idol, and you will exchange your genuine humanness for a distorted version, which will do you no good.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 433-434.