The stairway to hell
Romans 1 is a graphic depiction of human depravity, which is not a steep vertical fall, but a descending spiral of ungodliness that begins with rejection of God’s revelation and ends with a fateful last step into outer darkness.
It’s a story we should tell more often because it cuts to the chase. Paul doesn’t promise happiness, wealth, or comfort to the sinner who receives Jesus as Savior. Rather, he warns those who persist in rebellion against God of the peril they face when the divine hand of grace finally lets them go.
First, Paul makes it clear that no person stands before God with a valid defense for unbelief. God has revealed Himself to all people in at least two ways: creation and conscience.
In creation, He has shown the wicked His eternal power and divine nature, “being understood through what he has made” (v. 20). A simple gaze into the heavens on a starry night reveals the vastness, beauty, and intricacy of the universe, so that any reasonable person must conclude a divine Designer is behind it all.
Further, God has placed in every heart a knowledge of His holy standards. Regardless of geography, religion, culture, or historic era, everyone knows intuitively that certain deeds are always wrong for all people at all times, and certain deeds are always right (Rom. 2:14-16).
This universal moral compass points inextricably to a divine Law Giver.
Those who never hear
God’s revelation in creation and conscience at least partly answers the question about the fate of those who never hear of Jesus. The simple truth is that no one gets a pass for not having a Bible or for failing to hear the name of Christ. People go to hell because they are rotten to core, and hell is where they’d rather be.
Specifically, Paul illustrates the descending spiral of depravity with seven steps down the stairway to hell. The wicked:
(1) Suppress the truth. Paul says “God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them” (vv. 18-19). In other words, they know the truth but willingly push it aside.
(2) Dishonor God. “For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude” (v. 21a). They snub the Creator as an unwelcome guest.
(3) Become fools. As their hearts take on increasing darkness, they claim wisdom but prove themselves fools, exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.” (v. 23).
(4) Trade reality for fiction. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever” (v. 25).
(5) Turn their backs on God. “And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God …” (v. 28). The Creator is no longer worthy of a passing thought.
(6) Fill up with unrighteousness. Empty of God, they fill the void with “all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice …” (v. 29).
(7) Celebrate depravity. “Although they know God’s just sentence — that those who practice such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them” (v. 32).
God’s self-revelation in creation and conscience remains for the wicked, and so does His general grace. But step by step, those who reject God fall farther away from Him until, ultimately, He lets them go. Three times in verses 24-28 Paul writes, “God delivered them over …”
At last they pass a point of no return. They know God. They know His moral absolutes. And they see His gavel of justice falling. But rather than repent, they defiantly proclaim, as does Dennis Quaid, playing Jerry Lee Lewis in “Great Balls of Fire!” — “If I’m going to hell, I’m going there playing the piano!”