"God is love,” declared the apostle John (1 John 4:8). For many centuries, Christians have attached great importance to this brief declaration. They have understood it to express the major defining characteristic of God. They have taken this little phrase to highlight who God is at the core of His being, to set forth His foremost quality. And since the Bible affirms the unchanging nature of God (Malachi 3:6), Christians have generally stated that God’s love is on display throughout the Bible—in the Old Testament as well as the New.
However, not everyone agrees that the entire Bible portrays a loving God. In his best-selling book The God Delusion, the militant atheist Richard Dawkins pulls no punches when he asserts, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” To say the least (and much more could be said about Dawkins and his book), Dawkins does not see the Old Testament describing a God of love.
And it’s not just atheists who are challenged by the Old Testament’s description of God. Many casual readers of the Bible, and even a number of Christians, struggle with the Old Testament God. It appears to them, at least on the surface, that the description of God in the Old Testament presents a striking and dramatic contrast with that found in the New. Their impression is that the God of the Old Testament is harsh, vindictive, and punitive, while the New Testament God, as shown in Jesus Christ, reveals Himself as loving, gracious, and merciful.
How should we deal with this issue? Are there responses that support the orthodox Christian position that the Bible’s portrayal of God is consistent, that God is a God of love in both the Old Testament and the New? Or is the chasm between the descriptions of God in the two testaments so great that they cannot be bridged?
I will discuss some points that move the discussion of this challenging issue in a positive direction and provide some help in understanding it. However, first it’s appropriate to review several solutions that have been advocated and popularly held but that a careful study of the Bible shows to be erroneous, even though these ideas have attracted a wide following.
Two different Gods. One solution, advocated by a man named Marcion, who lived in the second century A.D., is simply to state that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. According to Marcion, the God of the New Testament, the heavenly Father who sent Jesus and whom Jesus preached about, is kind, merciful, and forgiving. By contrast, the Old Testament God, the Creator of the material universe, is a jealous tribal deity whose law demands justice and who punishes people for their sins.
In light of this view, it isn’t surprising that Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only a limited number of New Testament books—which he had edited to favor his perspective.
However, Marcion was judged a heretic by the early Christian church and was disfellowshiped, and there are compelling reasons why his perspective must be rejected. First, throughout the New Testament, it’s assumed that the God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16) that He gave His Son to die is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. Additionally, Jesus Himself is identified as the active Agent in Creation, the One who brought all things into existence (John 1:3, 10; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), not the evil deity that Marcion made Him out to be. It’s a telling and decisive point that Jesus never distanced Himself from God as He is presented in the Old Testament. Rather, He saw His life in continuity with and in fulfillment of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 44).
A God with a split personality. Another suggestion, which doesn’t go as far as Marcion’s heresy, is that the same God is present in the Old and New Testaments but that He has a split personality. That is, God dealt with people differently in Old Testament times than He did in the New Testament era. Those who advocate this solution think that for some reason God chose to act harshly in His dealings with the Israelites and other nations in the Old Testament, but with the dawn of the New Testament, His gentleness and kindness come to the forefront.
This suggestion is developed in a rather elaborate way and given a veneer of sophistication in the theological system known as dispensationalism. Rooted in the nineteenth-century writings of John Darby and popularized in the marginal notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, dispensationalism continues to be a widely held view among many North American Christians. It maintains that God has related to people in different ways through a series of periods of time (dispensations) throughout history.
For example, Adam and Eve’s time in Eden is called the dispensation of innocence; the pre-Flood world, the dispensation of conscience; and the majority of the Old Testament era was the dispensation of law. This view also holds that these different dispensations are based on different biblical covenants.
However, dispensationalism, like Marcion’s view, falters on the grounds of the obvious continuity that is seen between God and His dealings in both Testaments. In fact, God declares of Himself, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6).
What are some points to consider that might help us understand the Old Testament portrayal of God and bridge the gap that is sometimes thought to exist between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as revealed by Jesus?
First, Jesus never distanced Himself from the God of the Old Testament. Never does He make a statement even hinting that His character or teachings are distinct and separate from the Old Testament revelation of God. He certainly distinguished His viewpoint and teachings from traditional Jewish understandings on a variety of topics (for example, Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28, 31, 32; 15:1–11), but He never departed from what the Old Testament reveals about God. To the contrary, it was the Old Testament God who gave Him to the world out of love (John 3:16), and He came as Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), the living embodiment of the Old Testament God. Since Jesus didn’t separate the revelation of God provided by His life from the Old Testament God, as His followers we should not do so either.
Second, if one takes the Bible seriously, God is not a one-dimensional Deity with love as His only attribute. Rather, the Bible attributes a variety of characteristics to Him. He is holy, righteous, just, faithful, jealous, merciful, gracious, loving, and so on. The Bible gives quite a long list of God’s attributes, and to eliminate certain aspects of its descriptions of God because they don’t fit our concept of Him as a God of love is to pick and choose the evidence we will accept. Such an exercise leaves us with a diminished picture of God that is unfaithful to the Bible. We must let the Bible define the character and ways of God rather than deciding what God must be like and then imposing our view onto the Bible.
Third, the New Testament also contains some passages that challenge our popular understanding of God’s character. In other words, the God of the New Testament, even as seen in Jesus Christ, is not always a warm, fuzzy God who is gentle in every circumstance. Several New Testament passages demonstrate this point. The divine judgment that took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit was certainly a serious punishment (Acts 5:1–11). Some might even view this as a remnant of the harsh Old Testament God, even though it’s found in the New Testament.
The New Testament’s book of Revelation also speaks of judgments from God that include undiluted wrath, a divine anger that’s unmixed with mercy (Revelation 14:9–11). Jesus Himself drove the merchants out of the temple with a whip of cords (John 2:13–17) and initially rebuffed the plea of a Canaanite woman to heal her daughter with what some consider to be a disparaging comment (Matthew 15:21–28). This is not to deny that the New Testament God is infinitely gracious and loving; it’s simply to note that both Old and New Testaments at times present challenges as we seek to understand God’s loving ways.
Fourth is the concept that Christians sometimes refer to as progressive revelation. Progressive revelation refers to the gradual unfolding of truth—that as we move through the Bible God reveals Himself and His character more and more clearly until we reach the apex of His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is not to say that the revelation of God found in the Old Testament is erroneous. It’s certainly true that David, Isaiah, Daniel, and other Old Testament writers received insights about God and communicated them in the pages of the Bible. However, these are all incomplete revelations.
As the Bible indicates, the fullest revelation of God is found in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ. No Old Testament prophet could ever say, as did Jesus, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Jesus is the only One of whom it could be said, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). We must remember that as long as we are on this earth, even with the wonderful disclosure of God provided by Jesus, we will still, to use the words of Paul, “See but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Only in eternity will we begin to comprehend some of the challenges to our understanding of God posed by certain passages in Scripture.
A final point to keep in mind is that our squeamishness about the Old Testament description of God might tell us more about us and the world in which we live than it does about God. Perhaps our age prefers a God whose affection is indulgent and permissive instead of One whose love is holy and jealous (Exodus 20:5; 34:14). Maybe we desire a God who is warm and cozy instead of One who is, as the New Testament declares, “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
The following quotation from C. S. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain is a striking indictment of our age: “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’ ”
Instead of limiting ourselves to God’s revelation of Himself in only one part of the Bible, let us follow the example of many faithful Christians, the New Testament apostles, and Jesus Himself. We need to recognize the continuity in the Word of God and plumb the depths of the whole Bible, seeking to understand as completely and fully as possible the One whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3).