The God of the Old Testament is, allegedly, a nasty human invention. The meek and mild Savior of the New Testament is the better version of God, some assert. This lie has been popular since at least the second century.
Barely over 100 years after the birth of Christianity, a man named Marcion proposed that the movement should forever rid itself of the unfortunate Old Testament deity. The celebrated atheist author Christopher Hitchens suggests this was Christianity’s chance to embrace a less-embarrassing version of God.
This three-post series will focus on a response to this contemporary challenge and conclude with a video. In this first post, we will specifically respond to the notion that Jesus is less concerned with holiness, judgment, and wrath, than the Old Testament. Is the God of the Bible the same throughout both testaments?
Is Jesus just meek and mild and the Old Testament God an angry ethnic cleanser?
The notorious anti-theist Richard Dawkins has perhaps expressed this most memorably in his book The God Delusion:
“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 cleaner; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament can recognize why skeptics might jump to such a conclusion. There is a lot of bloodshed in the history of God’s people.
How should we respond?
First, we have to recognize that God is indeed concerned with holiness and judgment in the Old Testament. That is no masked secret. God struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian family (Ex. 12:29). God killed his own people too, like when Uzza irreverently touched the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7). God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for longingly looking back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-26). But all that pales in light of the fact that the Old Testament God wiped out all of humanity, save for Noah and his family, in a worldwide flood (Gen. 6).
Second, we need to acknowledge that death in the Old Testament is directly connected to human rebellion towards God. We see this in the opening chapters of the Bible when God told told Adam and Eve that he if they disobeyed him, and placed themselves in the seat of moral authority, they would surely die (Gen. 2:17).
Third, we need to understand God’s pronouncement of judgment always carries the caveat, “unless you repent” (Jonah 3:1-10). The picture of God in the Old Testament is of a loving God who is eager to forgive. As early as the third chapter of Genesis, we see a promise that God will send someone who will defeat evil (Gen. 3:15). God is the loving husband who will not give up on his unfaithful wife (Hosea). God is the loving father who won’t forsake his children (Ps. 103:11-13). The Old Testament God is a God full of truth and grace.
Finally, we need to see that Jesus is not in any way inconsistent with the character of God the Father in the Old Testament. Many people overlook the kindness of God in the Old Testament, and people also often underestimate Jesus’s words on holiness and judgment in the New Testament. Jesus told the disciples that God’s judgment on towns that reject them would be greater than that faced by Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:14-15). Jesus told his listeners they should fear God who could destroy both their body and soul in hell. In fact, Jesus had more to say about hell than about heaven.
What we see in the Bible is not an angry vindictive Old Testament God who is outmoded at the birth of Jesus. No, we see a God who demands holiness and offers forgiveness throughout both testaments.
The word ‘testament’ literally means “covenant.” The God of the Bible is a God who covenants with his people, offering them hope and forgiveness, ultimately through the new covenant of the blood of Jesus. This is the same God in both the Old Testament and New Testament — the same God yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).