2 Is the God of the Old Testament Harsher than the God of the New?

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

The most common complaint I hear about the Old Testament is that the God of the Old Testament doesn’t seem very much like the God of the New Testament. The God revealed in the Old Testament is hard-to-please, mean and vengeful. This complaint doesn’t come out of nowhere. Many times in the Old Testament he says that he is a jealous God, and we know that jealous spouses are controlling and unfairly suspicious. He sometimes seems unconcerned about human life. He drowned the whole world, destroyed cities with fire from the sky, and crushed Egypt with plagues, including taking the life of every firstborn. All of this is true, but this is still not an accurate picture. I will explain why in a roundabout way.

I have met several men whose job it is to hurt people, the kind who collect money for criminals, the kind who have callouses on their fists. I’ve met these people, but they are not my friends. I do, however, have an actual friend who hurts people for money. He hurts them until they bleed. This is true; I’ve seen the scars he’s left. You may wonder why I am happy to go have dinner with a guy like that. I respond, why would there be a problem with having a friend who is a surgeon? How about my friend who tries to help criminals avoid punishment? I’m talking about my friend the public defender, who acts as a lawyer for people accused of crimes but can’t afford their own. Do you know a policeman? Then you know someone who grabs people off the street and locks them into a small room, sometimes for years. These examples show that a lot of confusion can be created by an incomplete description of someone’s behavior. This is especially true of descriptions that leave out the person’s motives and the goal they are trying to achieve. The fact that the surgeon is working to save the life of the patient makes the statement, “he hurts people for money” almost untrue. In the same way, the picture of God as harsh comes from an incomplete reading of the Old Testament.

Imagine a grandmother who has prepared a fabulous meal for her family. It brings her joy to see her children and grandchildren enjoying all the good things she has prepared for them. What if you heard that earlier she punished one of her grandsons who kept trying to sneak in and eat the chocolate she had in the kitchen? Would you say that she was an evil old lady who gets angry with children? No, the boy was trying to eat the chocolate, which would keep her from making a dessert that everyone, including the boy, would enjoy. What he was trying to do would mess up the blessing to come for the whole family. When you hear about the punishment you give grandma the benefit of the doubt. Unless you had some negative experiences with a grandmother that have warped the way you think of them, you interpret her actions in the light of the great meal she was planning.

As you read the Old Testament you will see that God has good ultimate goals and knows the best way to get there. You will see that God values many things just as we do: human life, the natural environment, peace, prosperity and so forth. Each of us values many different things: family, friends, home, nature, our community, our nation, peace, joy, etc. Even in an ideal world, we would sometimes have to choose between these loves, so also in the real, broken world we inhabit they often come into conflict. A man will cut down a tree he loves if its heat will keep his family alive through a cold winter. Many people have given a kidney to someone they love more than their own health. We recognize that there are gradations in these values. A woman who runs into a burning house to save her pearl necklace we think an idiot, but to save her child, a hero. The man who gives a kidney to save someone else is one thing, but if we heard of someone who sold one of his for money which he then spent in a few weeks of wild living we would be astonished at his stupidity. Everyone is sometimes forced to chose between different things they value and love. People sell beloved possessions to feed their family. They leave their family in order to defend their country, or leave their country in order to find a better future for their children.

Since we all do this every day, it would by hypocritical not to allow God the same freedom. Have you ever considered that when God created a cause-and-effect universe that follows logical rules and then put in it free creatures to whom He gave the ability to choose, He was willingly confining Himself to having to make the same kinds of choices? He cannot both cast Adam and Eve from the Garden for their own protection, and allow them to live there. He cannot chose more than one man in each generation through whom Jesus would come. He cannot settle His people in a land of their own in a way that insulates them from the influence of their pagan neighbors and leave those neighbors to possess the same land.

As you read and come to understand God more, you will see these choices more and more. He cares for nature and the environment. He made laws to protect it and even made a covenant with the animals (Genesis 9:8-10), but in an unusual circumstance, he killed the Egyptians’ cattle and destroyed a lot of nature with massive hailstones and even fire from the sky. He loves people, and He took the lives of all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Is this evil, or evidence that even God has to make choices? Would you look over a surgeon’s shoulder and say to him or her, “That cut is too big; why does there have to be so much blood? Why didn’t you go through the other side? Don’t you know cutting here will leave an ugly scar?” Unless you are a surgeon yourself or a fool, you recognize that what the surgeon is doing is beyond your knowledge. You assume the surgeon intends good and is doing the best he or she can and that this is much better than you could ever do. Do you have the same attitude toward your Creator?

To understand God’s wrath it’s important to ask what is God angry about? Is He the kind of person who has frustrations he keeps to himself, adding them to a secret storehouse, until he can’t hold it in and then some small thing causes an explosion of rage at the people around him? We all know people like this, but does this describe God? As you read the Old Testament you will see that what God gets angry about is injustice. He hates oppression. He hates cruelty. He hates the arrogance, pride and selfishness which lead to them. He is not an indifferent God. What we do matters to Him. The god many of us picture is one who dislikes evil, but doesn’t hate it. We like the idea of a policeman who doesn’t punish us when we break the law, but just gives us a warning. We like this idea until he does the same thing to the people who broke into your house and smashed everything you own. Is the God who rules the universe really like this nice policeman? Do you want Him to be like that?

I said that this harsh image of God comes from an incomplete reading of the Old Testament, but I should have said an incomplete reading of the Bible, because part of the problem is missing how much judgment there is in the New Testament. Where is the most obvious and incredible example of the mercy and grace of God? It’s clearly the fact that He died for us. So the story of mercy is actually a story of a bloody and painful death. It is, in fact, a story of judgment, of judgment on our sin. Jesus, who gave His life as a ransom for us, spoke more about Hell than He did about Heaven. He talked about it because He doesn’t want people to go there.

Another way to look at it is that there is more diversity in how God is portrayed within each Testament than there are between the Testaments themselves. The God who sent his Son to suffer and die in our place as a ransom for us, who paid such a price, and who offers forgiveness freely, also struck three people dead in the Book of Acts. Need I mention the devastation of the earth in Revelation? Don’t forget that Jesus will kill all the armies of the earth with a word and invite the birds of the air to come feast on their flesh (Rev. 19:11 – 21). Just like the New, the Old Testament reveals a God who is unbelievably generous and merciful, one who forgives sin, but will not make peace with it. This should not be surprising, since it is the same God.

Judgment tends to be much more sudden and dramatic than mercy and, therefore, much more memorable. Stories of judgment stand out. The kind of story that does not stand out, and is even hard to tell in an interesting way, is a story of patience. God’s judgment stands out in the Old Testament against a backdrop of incredible mercy, but it’s hard to see this when we just pick and choose a few stories rather than reading the whole thing.

When you read the Old Testament you will meet a God who loves his creation, and especially humanity, with a fierce love. He hates evil because of the destruction it brings to what He loves. He is absolutely determined to heal and restore His creation. He is absolutely determined to bless humanity. As we come to understand God and what He is doing better, we move from not understanding His judgment at all, to grudgingly admitting that it does sometimes have a point, to accepting it, to seeing it as an expression of love. Eventually we feel God’s sadness with Him that human behavior has created situations where judgment is necessary.

Reading the Old Testament will reveal to you God as he really is. This is very important because we all have false ideas about God. He is kind and good, but what this kindness and goodness look like may be different than you expect. God is not a harsh taskmaster who gives love in return for good behavior as long as you keep being good, but is quick to punish those who offend him. God is not like this, but He is also not a nice old man who doesn’t mind what the kids do as long as they visit him once a week to give him a quick hug and kiss on the forehead. That would be ignoring his responsibilities as Father and Creator. He loves us far too much to abandon us in this way.

He is not a live-and-let-live God. He is a God who seeks us out even though we flee from Him. When Jesus spoke of the Shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to seek the one that was lost, He was not saying something new. He was reminding people of how God described Himself in the Old Testament.

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
a people who continually provoke me
to my very face,” (Is. 65:1-3 NIV)

Before we go further into this topic, we need to look at your attitude. If you are approaching this demanding an explanation from God, or if you are asking God to justify his actions and then, after you have gotten an explanation which satisfies you, you will submit to Him, then I can tell you now that no explanation will satisfy you. This is because you are sitting in judgment of your Creator, making him the accused in this court case. Such a God, one that you can question in this way, does not exist. He is not applying for a job with you, wringing his hands, hoping that you will hire him to the much desired position of being your god. He is your Creator and you must recognize that He understands things you do not. Having said that, God does give us A LOT of explanation for his actions because He wants us to understand Him, but you must do this as His creation, not His master.

This leads to something else we all have to keep in mind. There are actions that would be wrong for a human to take which are not wrong for God to take. This isn’t just because of the position He occupies, but the difference in our natures. Let’s look at murder as an example. I think we can agree that, except under very unusual circumstances, it is wrong for you to take the life of another human being. Why is it wrong? First, the other man’s life doesn’t belong to you. You didn’t make him. Second, you are on the same level as the other person. You are both created human beings. When you judge and condemn him you are ranking yourself as more important and higher than he is. Third, you don’t know everything. You might not know all the circumstances that surrounded whatever it was that caused you to want to kill this man. Also, you can’t see inside him. You don’t know his motives or what he has gone through that has made him the person he is. If you did, perhaps you would be merciful. Fourth, you don’t even see inside yourself very well. What are your motives? Are they really pure? Are you better than this man? Finally, who are you to take this man out of the world? Perhaps if he lives he will do some great good some day, save the life of a child, maybe even a child dear to you. Who are you to end this man’s chance to become a follower of Jesus, to be forgiven and transformed into a different and better person? Who are you to take everything from this man, and this man from everyone who knows him or may know him one day?

None of this is true of God. He is the perfect judge. He knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves. He knows what has happened and what would have happened if things were different. He knows what will happen if the man continues to live. He knows the state of the man’s soul and whether he has entered into the eternal life offered by Jesus or if he would ever surrender himself to God and receive it. God is also this man’s creator and this man only continues to exist because God wills that he exist. God has even more right to decide the man’s fate than a human potter has over the shape of his pots, since the potter did not create the clay he is forming. This is true of every man, woman and child ever created. What’s more, God is perfect in His motivations, completely pure and totally loving. He loves the one He is judging more than anyone else loves him. So as you read the Old Testament, keep in mind that God is not a human being like you are. Instead of saying, “Here’s another place God gave out some harsh judgment,” ask, “Since our God is perfectly loving, how was this an act of love?” It will take some work to come to understand, but if you ask God for help, keep seeking and keep knocking, you will find the answer and be satisfied.

Let’s look now at a place where we see God’s judgment in the Old Testament. This passage was not specially chosen, but typical. I found it right now just by flicking through my Bible. Amos 3:11 says

“’Therefore,’ says the Sovereign Lord, ‘an enemy is coming! He will surround them and shatter their defenses. Then he will plunder all their fortresses.’”

God was sending an enemy army to destroy His own people. This happened because God set it in motion, but why would He do something like this? The verse before tells us why He did this,

“’My people have forgotten how to do right,’ says the Lord. ‘Their fortresses are filled with wealth taken by theft and violence.’” (3:12 NLT).

He did this because his people had become oppressors. Later God says, “Though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them.” (Amos 5:11 NLT).

The reason is, “How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth! You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.” (Amos 5:10-11 NLT)

Do you like corruption and injustice? Do you like it when people use their position of power to steal from the weak or take a bribe to let someone escape justice? Well God doesn’t like it either and His judgment is Him doing something about it. Don’t people complain that God allows evil to prosper and doesn’t judge it enough? Which way do we want it?

Let’s finish by listening to someone from the Old Testament tell what he saw of God’s judgment and what, in the end, he understood about God’s character. The most severe judgment God brought on Israel, His people, was when, after centuries of warnings to turn from their evil ways, God sent the Babylonians who destroyed Israel’s cities, took Jerusalem and God’s temple, razed them to the ground, killed most of the people and took all but the poorest survivors away to live in a foreign land. It’s hard to think of a worse experience a nation can go through. Jeremiah, who lived through this, wrote,

“I am the one who has seen the afflictions that come from the rod of the Lord’s anger. He has led me into darkness, shutting out all light. He has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and flesh grow old. He has broken my bones . . . And though I cry and shout, he has shut out my prayers.” (Lam. 3:1-4, 8 NLT)

This sounds like what you would expect from a harsh and unforgiving God, an easily offended God who only loves people who are good and likes to crush people who are bad. We could stop reading there and go away having our prejudices confirmed, but that wouldn’t be fair. Jeremiah has more to say about what God is like and his own experience of God. He then writes:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning …
The Lord is good to those who depend on him,
to those who search for him …
For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion
because of the greatness of his unfailing love.
For he does not enjoy hurting people
or causing them sorrow. (Lam. 3:22-23, 25, 31-33 NLT).

These words, written by a man who has suffered just about as much loss as it is possible to suffer, have been read and echoed through the centuries by countless other sufferers. They all testify that God does not enjoy human suffering. It is not His desire to strike us, but our rebellion has made it necessary. Even a human mother does not enjoy disciplining her children, but she does it because if she doesn’t the child will grow up to be much less than he or she could be: angry, or uncontrolled, or lazy, or dishonest.

If a mother knocks her little boy to the ground and hurls herself on his back it would be painful and scary for the boy. But if we know that the boy’s shirt had caught on fire, we see the mother’s smothering the flames with her own body as an act of sacrificial love. This is our God, the God of the Bible, which is to say, of the Scriptures: the Old and the New Testaments. He is the same God who never changes, who always acts in a way consistent with His character. He loves us and the rest of His Creation too much to allow it to slide into ever-increasing evil and chaos. That this God, a God this loving, would do something such as flooding the world, or destroying Sodom, shouldn’t cause us to question His love. It should cause us to question if we really understand how damaging sin is.

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