Lifting the Lid on Hell (Romans 1:29–31)

Romans 1:29–31

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

For several chapters we have been studying the most dreadful description of the sinful human race in all literature, the description provided by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:18–32. It began with the rejection of God by all people and has proceeded to God’s abandonment of us, as a result of which human beings rapidly fall into a horrible pit of depravity, to their own hurt and the hurt of others.

In the last verses of Romans 1, to which we come now, Paul rounds out his description by a catalogue of vices. It is a long list, containing twenty-one items. But how are we to handle this? How can we face such a devastating unmasking of ourselves? Some will not face it at all, of course. Indeed, even many preachers will not. These verses detail what theologians call “total depravity,” and people do not want to hear about that. So many preachers change their message to fit today’s cultural expectations. They speak of our goodness, the potential for human betterment, the comfort of the gospel—without speaking of that for which the gospel is the cure.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). But, as one writer says, “Man as sinner hates God, hates man, and hates himself. He would kill God if he could. He does kill his fellow man when he can. [And] he commits spiritual suicide every day of his life.”

The interesting thing about this, however, is that although the pulpit has been muted in its proclamation of the truth of man’s depravity, the secular writers have not. They write as if they have never met a good man or a virtuous woman. Psychiatrists say that if you scratch the surface and thus penetrate beneath the thin veneer of human culture and respectability, you “lift the lid of hell.”

All Kinds of Wickedness

At the beginning of this section Paul wrote that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). In that verse the second use of “wickedness” refers to man’s suppression of the truth about God. But at the beginning of the verse, where the term is used for the first time, “wickedness” is distinguished from “godlessness”; godlessness and wickedness are employed to designate two great categories of human evil. The first embraces all sins against God, that is, sins of the first table of the law. The second embraces the sins of man against man, those of the second table of the law. Generally speaking, it is the sins of “godlessness” that we have been looking at to this point; they are fundamental. However, in these last verses Paul lists examples of man’s “wickedness.”

1. Wickedness. It is probably to indicate that he is now moving to this second category of sins that Paul begins his catalogue of vices with this term. For “wickedness” in verse 29 is the same word that is used in verse 18. In Greek it is a composite negative term, made up of the positive word for “righteousness” (dikaios), preceded by the negative particle a, meaning “not.” Literally it means “not righteous,” or “unjust.” Since what is “right” is determined by the character or law of God, this term denotes everything that is opposed to that divine law or character. It embraces what follows.

2. Evil. The Greek word is ponēria, which is a general term for badness. One commentator says, “This refers to the general inclination to evil that reigned among the heathen and made them practice and take pleasure in vicious and unprofitable actions.” But, of course, it is not just the heathen who are evil, unless we rightly call everyone by that name. We, too, are evil.

3. Greed. In other places, this word (pleonexia) is translated “covetousness.” It is what God prohibits in the tenth of the Ten Commandments and what is nevertheless the apparent basis of our western economies. It is the desire always to want a little more. There is a proper kind of ambition, of course. There is a proper desire to improve oneself, particularly for the benefit of others. But that is not what is referred to by this term. It is “the passion for more,” the lust to advance oneself even at the expense of others.

4. Depravity. This word denotes that deliberate wickedness that delights in doing other people harm. It could be translated “maliciousness.”

As I have mentioned, there are twenty-one terms for evil in these verses, and these are just the first four. But these four belong together in Paul’s listing, since they are vices with which Paul says the human race is “filled.” What holds them together? They seem primarily to describe injustices that humans commit against the property of other people, and thus also against their well-being.

Hatred of One’s Fellowman

Having shown in the earlier part of this chapter of Romans that human beings hate God and would kill him if they could, Paul now shows how they also hate and attempt to destroy their fellows. In other words, the first four terms describe sins against the property and well-being of others. In the next five terms Paul details sins against the very persons of other human beings. The sins are: envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice.

5. Envy. Earlier Paul has spoken of “greed,” indicating that people never seem to be satisfied with what they have but instead clamor for more, often at the cost of others. Here he goes further. Envy is related to greed, but it goes beyond it, because it shows that the chief factor in our greed is jealousy over the fact that other people have more. Or worse! It is possible that they have less and that we are still greedy for what they have, simply because we envy them. In ancient Greece there was a man whose name was Aristides. He was a great man and was called “Aristides the Just.” But he was put on trial for something, as many just men were, and a citizen of Athens came to him not knowing who he was and asked him to vote for his own banishment. Aristides asked, “But what harm has Aristides done you?”

The man said, “None. I am just tired of hearing him called ‘Aristides the Just.’ ” That is envy in its most destructive form.

6. Murder. The Greek word for “murder” (phonou) sounds like the word for “envy” (phthonou), which is why they probably appear together so often in ancient texts. But they belong together naturally, too, since murder often flows from envy. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, the first murder in history, is an example. “And why did he murder him?” John asks. “Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12). Another early example is Lamech, who killed a young man who had injured him (perhaps only verbally) and then boasted about the deed (Gen. 4:23). We must remember here also that, according to Jesus, murder is not only the outward act of taking a life. It is also the hatred in the heart that leads to it (cf. Matt. 5:21–22).

7. Strife. The root meaning of this word is “debate.” But it came to mean the bad side of debate, which is contention, quarreling, or wrangling.

8. Deceit. Paul is going to return to this word in his summation of human depravity in chapter 3, saying in verse 13 that the “tongues” of the wicked practice this vice. It denotes outright treachery by which words are used to ensnare the unwary for the deceiver’s personal gain. Much of the business of the western world is carried on by this means.

9. Malice. This word is derived from two Greek words: kakos, which means “bad,” “evil,” “worthless,” or “pernicious” (we have it in our word cacophony, which is a bad or discordant sound) and ethos, which means “habit,” “custom” or “usage.” So the word has the idea of customary or habitual evil. The malicious person is one who is normally set against other people and is out to harm them.

The Central Sins

It is hard to group these vices to give logic to Paul’s treatment, and it may even be wrong to try to see meaningful groupings in his arrangement. Nevertheless, if the first four terms catalogue sins against the property or well-being of others, and the next five list sins against other persons, it may be that the next six terms are, as one commentator suggests, “those of which pride is the center.” They are certainly among the most harmful of these vices.

10. Gossips. Some words in every language sound like what they describe, and this is the case here. We have words like hiss, buzz, thump, and bang, for example. This Greek word is psithuristas, which sounds like a whisper and is, in fact, sometimes translated “whisperings.” It refers to the slanderous gossip that is often spread in secret and that is so harmful to another’s reputation. It is a deadly vice. It is interesting that the Hebrew word that denotes the murmuring of a snake charmer is translated in the Septuagint by the verb form of this very word: to whisper.

11. Slanderers. Slander carries gossip one step further, since gossip is unleashed in secret but slander is done openly. The Greek word literally means “to speak against” someone, or “defame” him.

12. God-haters. At first glance, this word seems to be out of place in this listing, because here we are dealing with man’s sins against man and “God-hater” seems more properly to belong in the earlier verses, in which man’s opposition to God was examined. For this reason some have taken the word in a passive sense, meaning “hated by God,” that is, as a term for hardened sinners. But surely it cannot mean that in a list of human vices. Actually, it does belong here, since it comes between the sin of slander and the sin of pride. It is as if Paul notes that in his “slander” man does not merely slander other human beings but is slandering God, too, not failing to speak even against the Almighty. That is the essence of insolence and arrogance, the next items the apostle mentions.

Not many people would admit that they hate God, choosing rather to think of themselves as rather tolerant of him. But nowhere do they show their hatred more than in their condescending attitudes. Scratch beneath the surface, allow something to come into their lives that they consider unwarranted or unfair, and their hatred of God immediately boils over. “How could God let this happen to me?” they demand. If they could, they would strangle him!

13. Insolent. This is the great Greek word hubris, which means “pride.” But it is a special kind of pride. It is pride that sets a human being up against God. The Greeks regarded this as the greatest of flaws, one the gods would not tolerate. No translation can convey all this in one English word, but the New International Version does a fair job when it renders it “insolent.”

14. Arrogant. Today people almost think of arrogance as a virtue, considering it a properly belligerent attitude toward hostile society. But it is rightly included in this list of vices. Arrogance rises from a feeling of personal superiority that regards others with haughtiness. Robert Haldane characterizes the word as describing those who are “puffed up with a high opinion of themselves” and who regard others “with contempt, as if they were unworthy of any intercourse with them.”

15. Boastful. Boasting is based on pride. It is to seek admiration by claiming to be or have what one actually is not or does not possess.

Creators of Evil

Up to this point all the vices mentioned are but one word in Greek. But now Paul seems to need two words each to describe the next evils: “inventors of evil things” (epheupetas kakōn) and “disobedient to parents” (goneusin apeitheis).

16. They invent ways of doing evil. Real creativity belongs to God alone, since at best we can only think his thoughts after him. But here, in an ironical way, Paul suggests that the one area in which our creativity excels is inventing new ways to do evil. The old ways are not enough for us. They are too slow, too ineffective, too unproductive, too dull. So we expend our efforts to make more. This was a term used by the author of 2 Maccabees to describe Antiochus Epiphanes and by Tacitus to describe Sejanus. It is this kind of invention that the psalm is speaking of when it says that people “provoked him [God] to anger with their inventions” (Ps. 106:29 kjv).

17. They disobey their parents. Few things more characterize our day than children’s utter disregard of their parents’ wishes. But this must have been common enough in antiquity, too, since so much is said against it in the Bible. The fifth of the Ten Commandments, the first of the second table, says: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12a). Paul refers to it in Ephesians, noting that it is the first commandment with a promise attached: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Eph. 6:2).

Senseless, Faithless, Heartless, Ruthless

The Greek word for disobedience (the seventeenth vice listed) is a compound word beginning with the prefix a, meaning “not,” just like the term “not righteous” was used for “wickedness” in verse 29. That sound apparently stuck in Paul’s mind and led to a series of four similar terms, which conclude this devastating catalogue: asynetous, asynthetous, astorgous, and aneleēmonas. The New International Version captures a bit of this flavor by rendering the four terms as: senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

18. Senseless. To most of us “senseless” probably means unconscious, but that is not the thought here. “Without understanding” is a fuller translation, but even so we need to make clear the kind of lack of understanding we mean. Haldane has it right in saying that “the persons so described were not destitute of understanding as to the things of this world.” As to these they might be “most intelligent and enlightened.” Rather it was “in a moral sense, or as respects the things of God, [that] they were unintelligent and stupid.… All men are by nature undiscerning as to the things of God, and to this there never was an exception.”

19. Faithless. This word is not built on the Greek word for faith (pistis), which has to do with belief or trust in God. Rather, the root is tithēmi (“put” or “place”), and the term Paul uses actually has to do with breaking an appointment or covenant. “Breaking faith” is the idea. It means that what people solemnly commit themselves to cannot be trusted.

20. Heartless. This word literally means “without natural affection.” It can be seen in the mother who intentionally aborts or abandons her child or the father who abandons his family.

21. Ruthless. The Greek word means “without mercy.” Godet writes, “It calls up before the mind the entire population of the great cities flocking to the circus to behold the fights of gladiators, frantically applauding the effusion of human blood, and gloating over the dying agonies of the vanquished combatant. Such is an example of the unspeakable hardness of heart to which the whole society of the Gentile world descended.” Ah, but it was not only in the ancient world that people lacked mercy. Ours is a particularly ruthless age. We tend to think that others are unmerciful, particularly when they deal harshly with us. But the truth is that cruelty is at the heart of even the most gentle human being.

One commentator observes that as we scan these lists, “we cannot but be impressed with the apostle’s insight into the depravity of human nature as apostatized from God, the severity of his assessment of these moral conditions, and the breadth of his knowledge respecting the concrete ways in which human depravity came to expression.”

The Road to Hell

I began this section by saying that it is hard to imagine anything more horrible than this great catalogue of human vices, not merely because they are horrible in themselves, but also because they are with us everywhere. To study a list like this does not mean that every individual is equally guilty of each vice or that there have not been periods of history when they have been either more or less prominent. But, at best, these are all just below the surface of our respectability, and they quickly become apparent whenever you cross our sinful human nature or scratch this surface.

Yet, horrible as this is, it is only a foretaste of what hell itself will be like. For hell is only what is described in these verses, going on and on for eternity. Lloyd-Jones writes, “Hell is a condition in which life is lived away from God and all the restraints of God’s holiness.” That is precisely what is described in this passage. The basic point is that the human race has chosen to go its way without God and that as a result of this choice God has abandoned the race to the result of its own sinful choices. We have made earth a hell! And we will carry that hell with us into hell, making hell even more hellish than it is already! We and hell itself will go on becoming more and more hell-like for eternity.

Oh, the horror of our choice!

Oh, the glory of the gospel!

A few weeks before I preached this study, after my earlier sermon on “The Psychology of Atheism,” I was roundly chastised in a local paper for preaching such a harsh message, as if I had no word of love in my teaching. It may have been that the love of God was not as apparent in that message as it might have been, and if so, I need to correct that fault. But I do know that it is only an awareness of the horror of our sin that ever leads us to appreciate the gospel when we hear it. What if we think we are basically all right before God? What if we think ourselves good? Then we think we do not need the gospel. We think we can do without God, which is exactly what these verses are describing.

When our blinders are stripped off and the depravity of the race—to which we contribute—is unfolded before us, the glory of the gospel bursts forth, and Romans 1:16 and 17 becomes for us what Martin Luther found it to be for him, namely, “the door to Paradise.” The gospel is then seen to be “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”—no matter how sinful, no matter how corrupt.

We do not deserve this gospel. How could we? We could not even invent it. But because God is not like us—because he is not “wicked,” “evil,” “greedy,” “depraved,” “envious,” “senseless,” “faithless,” “heartless,” “ruthless,” or anything else that is bad—he not only could invent it, he did![1]


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 185–192). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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