Isn't the God of the Old Testament of Hate, God of the New Testament of Love?
A little girl said she preferred Jesus Christ to God the Father, since Jesus was a Christian! I'm sure after reading yet another bloodthirsty bit in the Old Testament many of us would sympathise. Some of the critics who denounce biblical "atrocities" - like God's destruction of the Amorites (Numbers 21:13-35) - want it both ways. Sometimes they complain: Why doesn't God deal with the evil perpetrators of 9-11 at a single stroke? Then they complain that God dealt with the Amorites and wiped them out with a single stroke! But inconsistency aside, many sensitive Christian souls balk at the idea that a God of love could destroy people. How do we reconcile the picture of God in the Old Testament with the one in the New? There are various options:
Some people reject the God revealed in Scripture altogether. For example: In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic capriciously malevolent bully" (page 31). Needless to say, this is not a Christian option!
Another popular option is to dismiss or ignore the Old Testament stories as a bad dream. Some well-meaning believers want to ignore the God revealed in the Old Testament and focus on Jesus alone. The main problem with this option is that they are tacitly agreeing with the critics who accuse God the Father of being a totally different character to his Son. If it was true that God the Father and God the Son were different, then the Muslims' claim that Christians worship many gods becomes true.
Is Jesus ashamed of His Father?
Interestingly the meek and mild and gentle Jesus who has so captured the popular imagination, does not himself seem to have been troubled by the bloodthirstiness of the Old Testament. In fact Jesus quotes the troubling stories without embarrassment or shame (Luke 17:20-37). Contrary to popular belief, the Jesus who summarised the Law of God, as loving God wholeheartedly and loving our neighbours as ourselves, is the same Jesus who had plenty to say about judgement and hell (Matthew 8:5-12 13:24-50; 22:1-13). Indeed, if anything, (surprising as it may sound), Jesus ups the ante when it comes to judgement, and blood-and-thunder preaching. Worryingly for some, far from disapproving of His Father's actions, Jesus says he - the Son - copies what his Father does (John 5:19). Furthermore, he warns us that to discredit the Father is to disregard the Son since the Son and the Father are One (John 10:30). One thing is clear: Jesus will not allow us to sweep the gore of the Old Testament under the carpet.
A third option with regards understanding biblical "atrocities", is to contend that God has changed. Some would argue that where once God was a harsh, disciplinarian, now he's more laidback - more akin to a gentle grandfather than a strict headmaster. In other words, just as earthly parents learn from their mistakes in parenting, without being branded bad parents, so does our heavenly Father evolve, improving his parenting skills and character over time.
What is God really like?
The person who takes this approach has swallowed two lies about God - one of which concerns his character and another which concerns, what makes God - godlike? With regards his character, the bible is clear that God is perfectly righteous, and so He has no need to repent of his deeds in the Old Testament. In fact, rightly understood, God's actions are all of a piece with what is revealed in the New Testament. With regards His divinity, the Bible is clear that God does not change (Malachi 3:6). God is perfect. He cannot evolve and become more perfect.
After careful examination of the Old Testament one can see that -far from being a war-like god, prone to maniacal fits of temper, God is in fact a personal God who loves both justice and mercy. As we examine these so called "atrocious" stories closely, we see that the sins committed by the Amorites and the other tribes, the Israelites would eventually destroy, would make Hannibal Lecter blush. For example, Leviticus 18 highlights certain abominable practices which the Canaanites committed. Far from blackening God's name, these bloodthirsty stories highlight God's justice and mercy. His justice is seen in the fact that He will not condone evil and let wickedness go unpunished. His mercy is shown by his patience in delaying judgement on wicked people, giving them untold opportunities for repentance. It is only after sinful people persistently reject the living God and refuse to repent of their evil deeds, that His hammer falls. So, for example, Noah preached 120 years to his generation prior to the Flood (Genesis 6:3) while the Amorites had over 400 years (Genesis 15:6) to repent. If we do not see examples of this today, it is because God's hand has been patiently withdrawn until such time as He deems fit.
Richard Bewes in his book The Top 100 Questions concludes that the judgement stories in the Bible are there for our education. They teach us that God will not let sin go unpunished. But these stories of judgement are strangely comforting too in that they remind us that our God is a God of justice and will make sure justice is done. These judgement stories are also a warning to us (1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Peter 3:11-12). Therefore he concludes "Be glad that the Lord does not ignore wickedness. Be thankful too that, to spare us from final judgement, He endured the worst "atrocity" of all - the Cross, where the sinless Christ underwent the agony of the retribution that should have been ours." Hallelujah! Jesus death on the Cross satisfies the demands of justice and mercy, allowing all who put their lifelong trust in Christ to be saved from the wrath to come.
Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan
Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, Mar-April 2008