Did God change between the Old and the New Testaments?
Did God change between the Old and the New Testaments? Or perhaps said differently, why was God so angry in the Old Testament and why is he so loving in the New? This question has troubled many a person for a long time. In fact, long throughout history there have been individuals who said there was actually a different God described in the Old Testament and a different God described in the New. Marcion, who lived in the second century may have been the first to actually put forth this idea that the God of the Old and the New Testaments are different.
How should we respond? I don’t want to present too compelling of a case that glosses over some important details, so I'm actually going to, hopefully, make the problem seem more defined than it already is and perhaps even seem a little worse, though that’s not my end goal. I think God is actually more angry/wrathful in the New Testament, so to speak, than people realize. I think God is actually more loving in the Old Testament than people realize.
Sometimes what's behind this question is that we look at the Old Testament, which is about 70% of the material in our Bible, and we see God striking people dead, God telling a group of people that he has singled out to be his people that they should go kill this other group of people or we see God commanding Abraham to kill Isaac or all of these different things. We look at the wars and the carnage and the bloodshed and we think, "Gosh, the God behind that is angry. He likes blood. He likes killing people." The problem is that we come to the New Testament, that 30%, and we see Jesus just talking about love and all of these different things. We think surely these 2 ideas are incompatible.
The first thing I want to present is that the Old Testament comprises about 3,000 to 4,000 years. There is a lot of history there. When we look at the New Testament, we've got 100 years or less of time span described. Comparing them that way isn't exactly all things equal. The ground is not level. More than that, God is actually more loving in the Old Testament than we like to remember.
First, we see God repeatedly forgiving Israel. They stray from him. He does punish them, but he accepts them back. He provides for them. He protects them. This is not often considered in this current type of Old-New Testament God discussion. What about the New Testament? Why is God only seen to be loving there? I think it's noteworthy that Jesus talked more about hell than heaven. He talks more about a place of eternal conscious torment than he does of eternal conscious joy.
Now that might be cloaked in the fact that he's not striking people dead, but nonetheless, if you weigh the severity of the things talked about in the New Testament, they aren't nearly as happy-go-lucky as people like to say, because what he said is: If you don’t affirm that I'm the one and only true God and trust in me for the forgiveness of your sin, you will die because God's wrath will remain on you, like he says in John 3. The wrath of God is already on everyone. It is Jesus who leads to its removal.
When we look at the New Testament, if we accurately understand what's being said, it's more severe than the Old Testament. And I think this speaks to how we're kind of conditioned in our cultural setting. We think that punishment or suffering in the here and now is worse than future punishment, but that’s not the case. Just a logical survey of the situation would tell you that being punished forever is worse than being punished right now in a singular point in time. What Jesus speaks of is the fact the everyone apart from the conscious placing of faith in him as their savior will be punished forever. That's not a pretty sight. You might think that that’s just in line with the wrathful God of the Old Testament.
This discussion actually pits 2 attributes of God against each other. It tries to pit his wrath against his love or his holiness against his goodness. Any discussion like this is ultimately bound to come up with some bad conclusions because the God of the New Testament, who was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, he affirms that he is that same God of the Old Testament. He didn’t repudiate what Yahweh did in the Old Testament. He didn’t say, "No, that’s different. We've had a management change," or, "I'm not really that person," or, "You misunderstood me." No, he accepts all of it. He sits down with the Apostles before his ascension and explains to them how everything written in the Old Testament in the Prophet and the Law concerning him was true. He explains that he was that God.
If Jesus didn’t say there were 2 different Gods and he was the one that everyone thinks is loving and he didn’t see a problem with the "wrathful" God of the Old Testament and the "loving" God of the New Testament, then maybe we're not seeing things the right way. What I want to point out is that God has dealt with different people in different ways at different times, and that’s his prerogative to do that. All the way back in Genesis 3, when sin entered the world through Adam and Eve's conscious disobeying of God, God gives a prophecy. He says that ultimately, Eve's child will crush the head of the serpent, that ultimately a descendant of Eve will crush Satan. Everything that happens from that time on through the cross is part of a plan that that "wrathful" God was working out for our forgiveness.
What were some of these events that are in that wrathful period? God punishes sin. One of the bloodiest examples in the Old Testament is what some have called the “genocide” of the Canaanites. Now it wasn’t actually genocide. This was a group of people who we've talked about before, but they would actually burn babies alive on the outstretched heated, super heated hands of their idol named Molech. They would beat the drums louder while these children screamed so that you hopefully couldn’t hear them, though those would have to be some very loud drums.
This was the group of people that God wanted gone. Their culture was totally corrupt, from bestiality to incest to adultery that was institutionalized as part of their religious practice to the burning of children. This was a group of people that God rightly wanted gone. Now you might say that’s wrathful, but that actually on the face of it also sounds a lot like justice. It sounds like life being God's and God punishing it. He's either going to punish it here and now on earth or he's going to punish it ultimately in eternity. God is going to punish sin.
Now you might still be thinking that doesn’t sound too happy or too loving. On the face of it, it's not when you just look at that, but God isn't just one thing. While his attributes are infinite in their extent, he has multiple attributes. He's not just love. He's not just what you might call a pushover. He's also just, he's also holy. He won't share his glory with anyone else. In spite of those things, he is loving, because like I said, all the way back in Genesis 3, when he makes that prophecy that Eve's descendant will ultimately crush the head of the serpent and that person who crushes the head of the serpent is Christ and what he accomplishes on the cross, he works all of that out through that Old Testament period.
When he gives the law with its stringent punishment for sin and evil, it's showing people God's character, that God has a perfect holy character, and it's showing that man can't live up to that, that he can't at all. This is what Paul talks about where the law was a tutor. It showed us our need for Christ, because it showed us that we couldn’t be perfect on our own. God, being perfect in character, requires perfection for communion with him, and we can't meet that as humans.
This “wrathful” period in the Old Testament leads us ultimately to the New Testament where I think actually God is more wrathful than in the Old Testament. Yeah, I think God is more wrathful in the New Testament than the Old Testament. Now what do I base that on? In the Old Testament, God's, we'll just call it violence or force was directed towards people who had sinned against him. It was directed towards those baby-burners, the Canaanites. It was directed towards people who were idolaters and all those types of things.
In the New Testament, the primary example of God's wrath was directed towards a perfect person, where the punishment did not fit the crime at all. When you look at the Old Testament and you think, "Look at all of that wrath," well, that is God justly punishing sin that was committed against him primarily. When you look at the New Testament and you look at Jesus' crucifixion on the cross, which was not an accident. Like Jesus said, "No one takes my life. I lay it down." Nonetheless, God was punishing a perfect sinless person for the wrath due to other people.
The cross is a perfect example of God's wrath, and it's also a perfect example of God's love, for in that one event, God punished sin, appeased his wrath, and displayed his love for everyone who would put their faith in him. He saved a group of people by his death on the cross. He took their wrath that they deserved, but, you see, he also had been doing this all throughout the Old Testament, because sin under the Old Testament law wasn’t actually totally done away with when you offered an animal sacrifice. God looked over those sins, we're told in Romans, and they were ultimately atoned for by Jesus on the cross, too.
It's not that God changed between the Old and the New Testament. It's that we see a full revelation of God when we look at both the Old and the New Testament. God tells us about how he feels about sin, how he views sin and idolatry in the Old Testament and Jesus continues this in the New Testament. By very fact of him dying on the cross, he shows us what the punishment is justly due for sin. He also shows us the love that God expresses towards those who actually deserved that punishment by his death on the cross.
When we look at the Old Testament, though, we do see examples of God's unmerited favor towards people. Remember, the Old Testament covers about 30 to 40 times of the New Testament in terms of years. There's a lot more history described there. Remember that Jesus didn’t contradict what God did in the Old Testament. He didn’t repudiate it. He didn’t say it shouldn't have happened. He said, "I'm that same God." Yes, it would have probably made it easier for him in some ways if he'd said, "Well, you know, I'm the same God, but I didn’t actually say you should do all those things," or, "I didn’t actually say you should kill the people who did wrong things."
I think we have to remember that all life is God's. He made it, he owns it. It's as simple as that. Whether he punishes sin now or 10 years from now or ultimately in eternity, it will get punished, and all sin will be punished. It will either be paid for by us or it has been paid for by Jesus, but God being just and loving will punish sin. For some, that looked like punishing his Son for them, and that is the perfect picture of wrath and love at the cross.
Let's remember to not just see the outstanding bad details in the Old Testament, but to see the fact that there is unmerited kindness exhibited, that God does display his blessing. God does display his unmerited favor even in the Old Testament. This last Sunday, I preached out of Daniel 4 on King Nebuchadnezzar, and the king was busy building his own kingdom where he even says, "Isn't this the mighty Babylon I built by my hands for my honor?" God basically turns him into a farm animal for a period of time and brings him to the realization that God alone is worthy of glory and worship. He saves the king. While the king was in rebellion to him, God saved him and displayed his favor to him. That’s exactly what God still does for us today.
Let's also not forget that Jesus speaks a lot about the judgment to come. In Matthew 7 he even says, "Many people will come to me and say, 'Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophecy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do all these good things in your name?'" and he's going to say, "Depart from me. I never knew you." That’s the same God that has the same holy standards as the same God who is in the Old Testament. Let's remember that the Bible is the full revelation of God and his character that he's chosen to give to us. We're not meant to just look at one part of it away from the context of the whole. We need to take the whole counsel of God as it's displayed in the whole Bible.
I hope this has been helpful. I hope it also maybe gives you a realization of the fact that the New Testament is what flows from the Old, that there was a plan being worked from the very beginning for the salvation of mankind, for the forgiveness of their sins, and for the display of God's wrath in punishing them on the cross in Jesus.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to send them in to the contact page on the website. I'll also be posting some related articles to this podcast that might help give you a fuller context on the issue. I'll talk to you next week on Unapologetic.