"Paul's Condemnation of Pagan Humanity"

Paul's Condemnation of Pagan Humanity - An Essay on Romans 1:18-25

William J Tsamis, M. A.

The ancient proverb, "There are more gods in Athens than there are men," 1 must have been in the mind of the Apostle Paul as he walked through the streets of the city of Aristotle and Plato in the year A.D. 50. The once great seat of the powerful Athenian city state, though sacked by the Romans in the second century B.C., nevertheless maintained its reputation as a major center of learning and its primacy among the cities of idols in the ancient world. What Paul saw in Athens could only be followed by Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. Indeed, at the Parthenon the goddess Athena stood tall with brilliant bronze spear in hand. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, indeed all of the gods of the Olympian pantheon had their cults in Athens. To the ancient citizen, Athens was a city of great adorn and beauty, bathed in divine glory. And though Paul was certainly not blind to the artistic beauty which Athens beheld - to this holy apostle, such images and architectural wonders were nothing more than representations of the hideous and the demonic, indeed the realm of the heathen. Such vile depravity and condition of wickedness was enough to cause in the former Pharisee a sense of revulsion which had been unknown in Jerusalem for centuries, since the years of the captivity centuries prior.

Perhaps Paul was moved by the Athenian blindness of this gross paganism, or perhaps the thought of the "wrath of God" was in the back of his mind - at any rate, Luke tells us that "[Paul's] spirit was provoked within him as he observed the idols in the city" (Acts 17:16). Thus, Paul delivered his monotheistic elocution to the Epicureans, the Stoics and other Aereopagites, all to little avail however (though never a greater man stood where the Jew from Tarsus stood). So, through the midst of malcontents and religious partisans, Paul made his way out of Athens, westward to the notorius city of Corinth (c. A.D. 51-52), where he would proclaim the gospel in another pagan colony - this time against the landscape of the temples of Aphrodite, Apollo, Asclepius, Hera, and other glorified gods of the Greek pantheon.

It would be several years later that the Apostle Paul would write his Epistle to the Romans (c. A.D. 56-57) from the very city of Corinth, where he would level his condemnation upon pagan mankind. As we go through some of these texts, we will actually "feel" the "dark shadows" of Athens and Corinth making their way into the lyrical discourse as Paul imparts to the church at Rome this theology of condemnation and wrath of God. It is precisely in these verses where the holy apostle begins to set forth God's indictment against man, and argue subsequently that "[since all men stand condemned before God]," and "[since no man can be justified (declared righteous) according to his deeds]," [man must therefore turn to God and look to him for "justification" instead] (3:23-24, 28). Thus, in this paper we will present a consise discussion of Paul's condemnation of pagan mankind as expressed in Rom 1:18-25.2

These few verses are reminiscent of the genre of the prophets, i.e. those who condemned the pagan practices of the ancients. And although Paul is setting the stage to demonstrate why all mankind is depraved before God, and therefore why all men need justification through Jesus Christ, in this short paper we will limit ourselves to a discussion of the sin of "idolatry," which in the words of Paul, is a heinous and monstrous crime in the eyes of God. With this said, then, let us begin.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness
and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,

19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God
made it evident to them

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal
power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood
through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or
give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their
foolish heart was darkened.

22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the
form of corrupible man and of birds and four-footed animals and
crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,
so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.

25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served
the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Though we have presented the entire text above, we have done so for the sake of context. As stated, our discussion will be concerned with a few selected texts. Thus, let us begin with v. 18 and the concept of the wrath of God. However, let us first point out that the phrase "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven" does not stand in isolation, but rather is paralleled in v. 17, "the righteousness of God is revealed from heaven," with another close parallel in 3:21, ". . . the righteousness of God has been manifested." Although v. 17 has been discussed for centuries, and I believe that I have a good Protestant evangelical understanding of that text, for the sake of space and this assignment I would like to begin with v. 18 and Paul's discussion of the "wrath of God."

It is interesting, that although the concept of the "wrath of God" has only been particularly unpalatable to the Western mindset since the Enlightenment, in truth, we find our very first objection to this phrase in the work of the great heresiarch, Marcion of Pontus (c. A.D. 85-160). Indeed, in "his" Apostolicon (Marcionite canon), wherein he included an "edited" version of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in v. 18 he omitted from the phrase "wrath of God," the part that says "of God" because, of course, his excised phrase conformed to his anti-Yahwistic Gnostic theology. Indeed, in the Marcionite text of Romans the phrase is "For the wrath is being revealed from the heaven . . ."3

Whether or not one finds the concept of the "wrath of God" distasteful really matters not. If the orthodox/canonical Christian metanarrative is true, which we believe it is on the basis of revelation and sufficient reason, the "wrath of God" is simply one aspect of God's person that has to do with his holiness and justice. Alluding to Anders Nygren, Douglas Moo, in his commentary on the Book of Romans, puts it nicely when he writes, "[God] cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will is trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction."4 Thus, Paul is using the phrase "wrath of God" consistently with the prophetic genre; however, for Paul, this "wrath" not only has futuristic implications, but also those which are very much present. Thus, to those who stand outside of Christ, this "wrath" is already being poured out.5 According to a number of scholars whose works I consulted regarding this text, the desolation of societies and the deterioration of any moral fabric within these cultures is a juridicial consequence of their apostasy from, or ignorance of Christ, who is the sole "mediator" of any "right relationship" (v. 17) with God. In matter of fact, it is only through Christ that "justification" can be conferred upon people(s) (3:20-26), thus making possible any "right relationship" with God. Apart from Christ in God, there can only be death, dissolution and demise as a people wither and die because they are "separated" (or "cut-off") from God who is the source of all life.

Now we ask, "Who are those who 'suppress the truth in unrighteousness'" according to the holy apostle?" Though Fitzmyer correctly indicates that Paul "has in mind the totality of pagan society,"6 and this is consistent with the context, there is no argument against the notion that there is a categorical element here at work as well.

Since the dawn of time, man has been in rebellion against God, developing elaborate systems of polytheism, pantheism, and a host of other metanarratives. Indeed, the creative potential of man can be seen not only in the outward manifestations of such idolatrous and false religions, but in the inner teachings of such religions and philosophies as well. Even to this day, I am astonished at how "inventive" man can be when it comes to constructing elaborate philosophical/religious thought systems which are antithetical to Christianity. On almost every point, there is an antithesis to Christian doctrine which at some point becomes quite obvious to the Christian student of religion and philosophy, that all religions and most philosophies inherently and "systematically" proffer an alternative thesis or a direct counterpoint as if the "overthrow" of Christianity is the obvious goal. We have seen this in the past two millennia, especially after the Enlightenment, so we cannot say that Paul was talking about something future. Nevertheless, the categorical implication (which includes all heretical ideas) is there. It is obvious that some systems (e.g. macroevolution) purposely "suppress" the truth, while others (e.g. neo-Platonism) are speculative superstructures wherein pure fideism is necessary.

Leon Morris, however, believes that the English word "suppress" is too strong for the context; thus, he would prefer "hinder,"7 and perhaps I would agree with his assessment in the context. As he says, "[suppress] implies that sinners are successful."8 But in the Pauline context they are not successful in an absolute sense; they are only successful in that they attempted to "hinder" the truth.

The key to this whole idea of "suppressing" the truth is noted by Fitzmyer as he understands the Pauline intent which is quite evident:

For Paul the condition of pagan humanity results, first, from its
failure to recognize God for what he is, to glorify him, and to
thank him, when it could readily have done so, had it paid
due attention to the traces of him and his qualities evident
in the created world.9

Thus, "natural revelation," which is sufficient to bring one to faith in a Creator who possesses certain attributes, is rejected on account of depraved man's desire to set up himself above God (or make himself prior to God) in order that he might be able to do that which is in accord with his own will. Thus, he might create a cosmogony (e.g. the "Enuma Elish") wherein a story of the gods is told. And in order to mediate ultimate reality (i.e. the gods of the cosmogony) to the masses, a priestly class is created. Since the priests are the mediators of ultimate reality, they are the most powerful caste/class in the tribe; thus, they make certain demands upon the populace (who nominally believe in the things they have been taught), while at the same time allowing for a degree of hedonism to bring pleasure to the populace, and a sort of "symbiotic" relationship is created between the priests, the rulers, and the populace. In the midst of it all, visuals become necessary, so sacerdotalism becomes central to the pagan religion, with the construction of temples and the invention of elaborate priestly rites, all dedicated to propitiate a particular god, whose appetites are really a reflection of the appetites of man. This elaborate system is what Fitzmyer calls "the big lie,"10 in which they have no excuse.

This is what Paul considers particularly odious and detestable in the eyes of YHWH - that pagan mankind "exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corrupible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures . . . they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (1:23, 25). Now, in returning to our introduction, it isn't hard to imagine, from all that Paul had seen on his journeys through the pagan world, and from the Jewish teachings about how ancient Israel repeatedly became ensnared in the idolatries of the "nations" - it isn't hard to imagine the multitude of gods which paraded across Paul's mind. The "images of corruptible man" polluted the thought of the Greeks in the sense that nearly all of their gods were represented in some human form. In Corinth, from which Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, the goddess Aphrodite was honored in three temples. She was the Greek "fertility goddess," and "goddess of love," draped in soft flowing gowns and adorned with jewels. Her hair gleamed in the sunlight and her silvery feet completed the depiction of a charming and seductive woman.11 Additionally in Corinth there were human representations of Hera, Apollo and Asclepios, and the gods of Olympus - all "corruptible men and women." Further, Paul only had to recall stories from Exodus to think of such gods as Horus (which was portrayed as a falcon) or the sacred bull/cow gods, Apis and Hathor. Simply put, in this section on the "condemnation of pagan humanity," someone like the Apostle Paul not only encountered gross idolatry in his studies of Israel's past, but he journeyed through many cities of the Gentiles which, in his day, were polluted with dead "corruptible" gods, and in our day are filled with nothing but the ruined remains of that idolatrous past. Thus, what we see in historical ruin was "corruptible" all along, precisely as Paul said it was. And now, while archaeologists and others sift through the remains of dead gods and the remains of their temples, hundreds of millions of people worship the one, true living God, through Jesus Christ, in accord with the teachings of the Apostle Paul.


1. Unknown ancient source.

2. A longer paper covering the entire section of Rom 1.18-32 would have been more interesting, including the discussion of the sins of the pagans; however, such a paper would have required me to overwrite for the assigned space.

3. Joseph A. Fizmyer, Romans, The Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 270.

4. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 100, n. 31.

5. Ibid., 101.

6. Fitzmyer, 270.

7. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 77-78.

8. Ibid., 78.

9. Fitzmyer, 271.

10. Ibid.

11. Felix Guirand, "Greek Mythology" in New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. (New York: Crescent, 1989), 85-198.