Monday, December 29, 2008

Why is the God of the Old Testament so Different from the New Testament?

At the very heart of this question lies a fundamental misunderstanding of what both the Old and New Testaments reveal about the nature of God. Another way of expressing this same basic thought is when people say: “The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” The fact that the Bible is God’s progressive revelation of Himself to us through historical events and through His relationship with people throughout history might contribute to people’s misconceptions about what God is like in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament. However, when one reads both the Old and the New Testaments it quickly becomes evident that God is not different from one Testament to another and that God’s wrath and His love are revealed in both Testaments.

Some individuals would claim that the Old Testament is foremost about God demonstrating his justice, terror and wrath. When one reads the Old Testament, there are instances of terrible punishments, plague, sword, war and famine. His own covenant people are carried off into exile and scattered across the Middle East in wrath and judgment. However, one reads the New Testament and there is gentle Jesus, meek and mild, He says turn the other cheek and love your enemies. Thus, it seems apparent to some that in the Old Testament God discloses himself as a pretty tough character, but now in the New Testament God comes across as loving, gentle, and gracious. So much so that He even sends His Son to die for us. How could this be?

With all due respect that simply will not work. For starters, throughout the Old Testament, God is declared to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 4:31; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 108:4; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13). Though one can finds certain passages that seem cruel and uncalled for, one could also be pointed to numerous passages that talk about God’s love. Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that the God of the Old Testament was not loving, kind, and slow to anger.

In the New Testament, yes it says turn the other cheek and love ones enemies, however, reread Matthew 23 and notice how Jesus condemns some of the religious leaders of his day… “you snakes in the grass… you hypocrites!” I know what you are thinking to yourself, There is no way that calling someone a “snake in the grass” or “hypocrites” even compares to killing entire nations. Let’s continue…

Remember that the most colorful images of Hell itself are introduced by the Lord Jesus, He mentions Hell more times than He does Heaven. However, its not just Jesus, these sorts of images are discussed throughout the New Testament. For example…

The end of Revelation 14:17-20 says,

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, "Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.”

Do you notice what is going on here? In the ancient world in a large vineyard, you would have these large stone vats, which you threw the grapes into, and down at the bottom of the stone vats were little holes with stone channels taking away the juice. The servant girls would kick off their sandals, pick up their skirts and start trampling down the grapes. The juice would go out and get caught in these vats that were often underground. From that, one would make his or her wine or whatever else he or she desired.

And now using that imagery, the writer of Revelation describes people on the last day crushed under the wrath of God until their blood rises to the height of a horses bridal for a distance of about 200 miles. Now can you really conclude that the God of the New Testament is a gentler, kinder sort of God? I know it is imagery but its terrifying imagery and it is meant to be terrifying.

The God in the Old Testmament was not simply ill tempered and now He is soft and has gotten over His issues. The God of the Old Testament is full of mercy and full of wrath. The God of the New Testament is full of mercy and full of wrath. As you move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, just as the picture of God’s love is ratcheted up so the picture of God’s wrath is also ratcheted up. It is impossible for God to be different. God is unchangeable. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).

The reason why we do not immediately and intrinsically see this is because we don’t fear Hell. Most of the judgments in the Old Testament are temporal, that is they are bound up with war and famine, poverty, and disease. That is what we fear because we are so focused on this world. The New Testament and the Lord Jesus focuses much more attention on the eternal sanctions, Hell itself. However, to humanity that seems remote and distant. We can say it in our creeds and believe it more or less but because it does not shape our very existence here and now, the judgments of the Old Testament somehow seem harsher than the judgments of the New Testament. However, I would argue that the judgments and wrath discussed in the New Testament leading to Hell is a lot more terrifying than what took place in the Old Testament.

This is a very simplified argument for the position I hold, however, I think it deserves consideration and much thought. When thinking about God people often use human standards of fair and just to measure God’s actions by. To be frank, we have no right to ever question how God chooses to act. I would suggest that we stop focusing on the wrath of God revealed in the Old Testament because it seems cruel and horrible (yet temporal), and start thinking about the wrath of God concerning Hell (in the New Testament) because that is eternal.


Nathan said...

Well put.

bencyjohn said...

i have my own views on god and i am trying to express it in my blog
pls feel free to come and comment