In response to our rebellion against Him, the shape of God’s punishment fits the nature of our crime with ironic justice—namely, by allowing the consequences of our sin to play themselves out in the resulting moral decay and social breakdown we experience when straying from the Lord of life.
Avid fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were generally both enthusiastic and anxious when the big-budget movies began appearing. One particular fear many devoted readers shared at that time was concerned with how faithful the films would be to the various scrupulous details of the books. Upon the films’ releases, bitter complaints soon lit up the internet about the absence of Tom Bombadil, about the inclusion of Arwen as Frodo’s rescuer on horseback after he is fatally stabbed by the ring wraith, and about a host of other minor revisions to the originals. Arguably, however, none of these adaptations and changes represented too much of significance, and each is easily justified given the constraints of the genre of modern film. However, one drastic change to the literary narrative seemed to escape much public notice, though it constitutes a tragic departure from the heartbeat of Tolkien’s worldview.
The crucial change is located at the end of The Return of the King, when the one ring is finally destroyed on Mount Doom. In the movie, Frodo momentarily succumbs to the corrupting influence of his deadly possession and decides, against character, to keep it for himself. However, once Gollum reenters the fray and his violent theft of the ring is complete, Frodo apparently regains his senses and lunges back into the chaos to redeem himself. Thrusting Gollum–along with the ring–off the side of the cliff, Frodo comes to play the part of the hero as Sauron is utterly defeated and the ring is finally consumed. Though this powerful scene is undoubtedly in the spirit of a classic Hollywood ending, it is far removed from the contours of Tolkien’s Christian genius. Here is Tolkien’s own (different) version of the ring’s downfall:
“The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone. ‘Master!’ cried Sam. Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls. ‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’…
…Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words. The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire. ‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
There was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. The throbbing grew up to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook. Sam ran to Frodo and picked him up and carried him out to the door…’Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. ‘Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. And then Sam caught sight of the maimed and bleeding hand. ‘Your poor hand!’ he said. ’And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared him a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever.’ ‘Yes,’ said Frodo. ‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: ‘Even Gollum may have something yet to do’? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.’”
Years later, responding to disappointed fans who could not grasp the logic of Frodo’s untimely defeat and the apparently anticlimactic role of the villainous Gollum in the finale, Tolkien defended his strategy in a personal letter:
“No–Frodo ‘failed’. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”
Tolkien’s epic story repeatedly demonstrates that evil, by its very nature, is bent inevitably upon its own destruction. Given a lengthy enough span of time and ample opportunity, the chaotic trajectory of moral darkness is to eventually turn in upon itself and commit (unintentional) suicide. The overthrow of evil comes, ironically, entirely from within. It is “even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize” that Gollum’s idolatrous lust for the ring both doomed his own desires and destroyed the object of his hope. And himself along with it.
Throughout the novels, this theme is hinted at and portrayed frequently. While no person in Middle Earth can be found with the virtue necessary to withstand the temptation of the ring and to finally disown it willingly, in the end Sauron’s dark masterpiece is condemned by the very evil it earlier produced: Gollum, who decades earlier was transformed into something morally hideous on account of the ring’s influence upon him. The evil of the ring has in the last returned upon its own head; Sauron has fallen into the very pit that he dug. In giving narrative shape to this reality, Tolkien was providing a compelling voice for a distinctly biblical idea.
In Psalm 7:11-16, the wrath of God is indeed active in the world in response to human wickedness, but its expression catches the alert reader by surprise–to say the least:
“God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels wrath every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.”
The reader is, at this point, led to anticipate how God’s “sword” of wrath and “arrows” of judgment will eradicate the evil being committed. Here is the surprising answer:
“Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”
As commentators tend to recognize, the various strands of thought at play here in Psalm 7 are not disconnected, as they might seem to us upon first glance, but rather profoundly intertwined:
“Verses 14-16 then view retribution from another perspective: it is self-retribution. The birth and hunting images illustrate that the wicked will become their own victims. This standpoint emphasizes that justice is just—the punishment is in like measure to the crime. Together these two perspectives give us insight not only into retribution but also into the mystery of divine intervention. Reading verses 15-16 in isolation might lead us to believe retribution is automatic, but in the larger context it is an expression of a God who expresses his wrath every day. Divine intervention need not be cataclysmic to be divine—in fact, a divine act may appear to have happened by the normal course of events. Divine judgment takes place every day, not merely in historic judgments.” 
God’s judgment of evil in this world tends to take the stance of willful permission, not active intervention (though, of course, this is by no means always true). By choosing not to interfere directly to stunt its growth or to prevent its continued influence, God allows evil to play out its own suicidal course in our lives. God’s moral governance of the universe is put into effect in such a way that when we turn away from Him, we are subsequently “handed over” to the deadly, dehumanizing consequences of our own sin. And it is precisely in this way that the wrath of God comes to its awful fruition upon our increasingly miserable existence. In the world God rules, evil functions as its own just payback upon our increasingly shriveled souls, depraved practices and estranged relationships—estranged both from God and other human beings. The tragedy is heightened exponentially by the fact that most human beings do not even recognize these consequences as tokens of God’s judgment against our sin. We are profoundly numb to spiritual reality.
As Augustine once observed, in God’s economy “sin becomes the punishment of sin.” Or as Doug Moo concludes: “Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin.” A man who turns habitually to pornography as a teenager within the lonely confines of his dorm room simultaneously seals the doom, by those very same actions, of his own romantic relationships (and perhaps his career and health, too) twenty or thirty years later. A woman who incessantly lies and cheats to get ahead in her various ambitions guarantees, by those very same actions, that all of her most beloved friendships will be slowly eroded and her reputation permanently soiled. And the origin of all such tragedies–apart from our repentance and God’s restorative grace—will turn out upon closer inspection to be entirely self-caused, as the black hole of evil once more collapses in upon its own futile ambitions. Like Gollum, evil needs no outside aid in stumbling over the edge into its own utter ruin and downfall.
Returning to Augustine, in his autobiographical work Confessions (and elsewhere) he demonstrates that Tolkien is not the only Christian author to have recognized this important moral dynamic in the universe. Yet instead of depicting the suicidal nature of sin in a fictional story, Augustine perceives the deadly principle wreaking havoc in his own life as he narrates it in hindsight for us as an old man. Ponder these claims:
“You gave me my just deserts by means of my sin itself. Matters are so arranged at Your command that every disordered soul is its own punishment.”
“[You] abandon the wicked to be hounded by their own sins.”
“It is brought about as if by a certain secret judgment of God that men who desire evil things are subjected to illusion and deception as a reward for their desires.”
Finally, in commenting on Psalm 7 itself, Augustine writes:
“God so orders sins, that those that were a delight to man as he sins are instruments for the Lord as he punishes.”
In a universe in which God still sits enthroned as the holy King in spite of the twisted rebellion that has arisen against Him, evil has no future. Nor do those who practice it. And evil’s ultimate comeuppance will, at the last, be entirely self-inflicted. As Paul writes in another place: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8).
And nowhere in all of Scripture is this subtle, tragic dynamic given more cogent expression than in Romans 1:18-32. Following the three-fold use of the word “exchange,” which is descriptive of the baleful actions of sinful human beings who trade off both God’s glory and their created sexuality for false, deviant forms of both worship and sex, Paul then indicates a causal relationship with the divine “counter” which subsequently arises against that rebellion, as we are progressively “handed over” to our own sinful desires:
*Human beings “exchanged” the glory of God for created images—therefore, God handed them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves (vv. 23-24)
*Human beings “exchanged” the truth about God for a lie when they worship and serve the creation instead of the Creator—for this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions (vv. 25-26)
*Human beings “exchanged” natural sexual relationships for those that are contrary to nature—and because they have not seen fit to acknowledge God in their thinking, God handed them over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (vv. 26-28)
Paul argues, in unison with the entire biblical tradition, that divine judgment (“wrath”) inevitably awaits all human sin against the Creator. Yet he says far more than this. The actual “payback” we receive from God for our idolatry is, perhaps unexpectedly, that of being released out of God’s hands into the controlling influence of the very things we foolishly prefer to Him. God’s wrath against our sin tends to take the shape of giving us, so to speak, exactly what we want apart from Him. As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says…‘Thy will be done.’” God gives expression to His righteous anger against our sin through the withdrawal of His moral restraint over our sinful desires. Our sin itself then becomes, in both its long-range repercussions and in the slavery it reduces us to, the punishment of our betrayal in turning away from Him. Our distorted forms of sexuality and general moral decay are themselves the “payback” we receive for our prior abandonment of God for idols.
Indeed, Paul’s carefully chosen language indicates that there is a deeply ironic justice in all of this, for each time the punishment turns out to fit the crime with precise proportion. As Robert Gagnon observes, “Quite appropriately, an absurd exchange of God for idols leads to an absurd exchange of heterosexual intercourse for homosexual intercourse. A dishonoring of God leads to a mutual dishonoring of selves. A failure to see fit to acknowledge God leads to an unfit mind and debased conduct.” Each expression of God’s wrath against us—epistemologically, morally, and sexually—serves as a horrifically accurate silhouette of our ongoing revolt against Him.
And as countless morality plays throughout human history have labored to remind their audiences, getting what we most want is not usually what it is cracked up to be. The good gifts of God to us in creation make for merciless, tyrannical gods when we bow down to serve them in devotion, in the hope that they might satisfy us and give meaning to our otherwise aimless existence. These idolatrous preferences, upon closer inspection, turn out to contain a nasty surprise— they become a deteriorating disease wasting away our hearts, conspiring to ruthlessly dehumanize us in our continuing estrangement from God (cf. Psalm 106:14-15, 19-20, 34-43, which Paul alludes to in Romans 1). Tim Keller succinctly captures the lesson of Romans 1:
“Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness’? We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our heart’s deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us.”
When we are at last “handed over” by God to the various pursuits and objects we have so atrociously desired more than Him, we find that these very things become despotic rulers, subjecting us to their cruel whims and corrosive influences. The former dreams turn unbidden into nightmares. The reason for this is simple: a destructive impulse inheres in anything when it is detached from its proper relation to God. Idolatry thus leads inescapably to immorality. And the wages of sin, even in this supposedly liberated modern world, is still death. If the biblical revelation of the character and purposes of God is indeed the truest rendering of reality, could it be any other way? C. S. Lewis, in commenting on the “long terrible story” of fallen humanity, thinks not:
“What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history.”
Richard Keyes provides an enormously insightful illustration for the caustic psychological process Paul depicts in Romans 1:18-32. Our various idols, Keyes argues, function like Trojan horses in our lives. Initially, we turn to some created object of desire because we believe it will complete us, giving us joy and identity and hope—the “good life.” And as we open our hearts to allow it entrance into our hearts (even while necessarily closing them off to God), our excitement grows in anticipation of the joy it will bring to our empty lives—just as the Trojans foolishly cheered when they brought the trap of the Greeks inside their city walls. Yet, as unbeknownst to us as it was to them, there are enemies inside of these “gifts”—and they have come to destroy us. Therefore, over every blundering expression of moral darkness and sexual immorality in this fallen world, and over all the terrible consequences which inexorably follow them into our lives, Paul writes these haunting words: “The wrath of God is being revealed.” The early church father John Chrysostom learned exactly this from his own engagement with Paul’s message in Romans 1: “But when God has abandoned us, then all things are turned upside down.”
Therefore, we desperately need to heed Richard Baxter’s counterintuitive (but biblically shaped) wisdom, applied specifically to our sexual practices:
“Remember, that to be given over to ourselves, is the heaviest plague on this side of hell…To be given over to your own conceits or wisdom, is to be forsaken of the sun, and left in darkness, and spend the rest of your days in a dungeon, the beginning of the endless utter darkness. To be given over to your own desires, is to be at the choice and disposal of a fool and an enemy; and to be in such hands as will certainly undo you, and to be cast out of the hands of God. To be given over to seek yourselves, is to lose yourselves and God…To be given over to be ruled by yourselves, is to be relinquished as rebels, and exposed to the tyranny of sin and Satan. So that in all things it is most certain, that you are never well but in the hands of God, and never so ill as when you are most in your own hands.”
 J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #191 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, p. 69
 Augustine, On the Merits and Remission of Sins, 2.36.22
 Doug Moo, Romans, p. 111
 Augustine, Confessions, 1.12
 Augustine, Confessions, 2.6
 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, p. 58
 Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 7
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, pp. 66-67
 Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, p. 253. Consider the undeniably intentional parallels in Paul’s description of both our crimes and our punishments (the word play is particularly strong in the Greek words Paul chooses in each contrast):
*We dishonor God, therefore we are given over to the unrestrained practice of dishonoring our bodies sexually in our relationships with one another (vv. 21-24)
*We abandon the truth about God for a lie, therefore we are given over to expressions of our sexuality that are no longer based on truth, but on deceptive lies (vv. 25-27)
*We do not approve of having God in our knowledge, therefore we are given over to the inability to approve of (discern) what is right in the moral realm (vv. 28-32)
 Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p. 1
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 49-50
 Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, discussing Romans 1:26-27
 Richard Baxter, A Treatise of Self-Denial