How do we reconcile the apparently differing descriptions of God and His words and actions found in the two major sections of the Bible?
In his best-selling book “The God Delusion” (2008), the British atheist Richard Dawkins described the God of the Old Testament as “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.”
Give Dawkins credit: he has mastered the use of the thesaurus. More importantly, he expresses a notion that is widespread and deeply ingrained, even among some Christians. In sum, it is the perception that the God described in the Old Testament is, on the whole, quite angry and judgmental, while the God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Gospels is loving and merciful.
Not Two Gods
One essential problem here is quite simple: there are not two Gods — one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament — but just one God: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, is Lord alone!” (Dt 6:4). In the words of one Scripture scholar, “How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?”
That is the clever question posed by David T. Lamb, associate professor of Old Testament (at the evangelical school Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa.) at the beginning of his 2011 book, “God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?” Lamb writes, “God in the Old Testament is consistently described as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else in Scripture.” In fact, the word hell doesn’t even appear in the Old Testament! It appears, in various forms (Gehenna, hades, sheol, etc.) several times in the New Testament, with three out of every four such references coming from the mouth of Jesus. Yet this fact is somehow missed by Christians and skeptics alike.
Here is a short quiz: Which of the following statements is made by or about God in the Old Testament, and which were made by or about Jesus in the Gospels?
1. “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
2. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
3. “Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the Lord is gracious, merciful, and righteous.”
4. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
5. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness.”
Yes, you probably guessed it: 1 (Mt 5:22), 2 (Mt 10:28) and 4 (Mt 23:33) are statements made by Jesus in the Gospels, while 3 (Ps 112:4) and 5 (Ex 35:6) are from the Old Testament (all five quotations RSV). The key point is that both the Old and New Testaments speak of judgment and mercy, punishment and love, communion with God and separation from God. And the word hell is just one way of describing or referring to eternal separation from the presence, life and love of God, just as the word heaven is one of many ways to refer to everlasting communion with God.
This observation informs everything that follows because the Old and New Testaments are not in competition with one another, nor do they tell two different stories, but are intimately connected to each other, forming a long and continuous whole. And that whole — what we might call salvation history — is held together by God’s revelation of himself. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously ‘by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other’ and shed light on each other. It involves a specific divine pedagogy. God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ” (No. 53).
|Jesus healing the demonic boy. Shutterstock
|Driven out of Eden. Shutterstock
Pedagogy refers to a certain approach to teaching, a strategy of education. What we find in the Old Testament is a pedagogical arc that provides an ever-deepening understanding of God and God’s nature and commandments, made necessary because of the Fall and the crippling effects of sin.
But what about passages in the Old Testament that present apparent acts of genocide, violence and other ugliness in the name of God? It is a good and fair question, and it is important to note that while good answers exist, they aren’t always easy answers, certainly not easy to convey in sound bites. We should also keep in mind a couple of points that might seem obvious, but aren’t, judging by the criticisms put forth by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and others.
First, when reading stories from biblical books such as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges or Isaiah, readers must put forth some effort to comprehend just how different the ancient Middle Eastern cultures, morals and attitudes were from our 21st-century situations and perspectives.
For instance, some readers might think it unfair that the God of Israel demanded complete and total allegiance. But such demands were hardly unusual for those who believed in ancient deities. What should actually surprise us, in looking at the context, is that the God of Israel repeatedly reveals himself to be personal, merciful and loving. Consider a passage uttered to Moses at Mount Sinai: “The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful [steadfast in some translations] love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Ex 34:6-7, RSV).
The steadfast (or merciful) love, or hesed, of God is referred to nearly 200 times in the Old Testament; it is a long-suffering, enduring love that remains despite the many failings, sins and rebellions of God’s people. When read with a thoughtful, balanced perspective, the Old Testament continually shows God to be incredibly merciful and patient, especially compared to the coercive, loveless and often brutish gods of the surrounding pagans.
Second, and closely related to the first point, is that the language of the Old Testament requires careful reading, keeping in mind that translating ancient Hebrew texts is quite challenging. For example, Dawkins and others think it is pathetic that God is described as “jealous” in the Old Testament (see Ex 20:5; 34:14; et al.). But such references to jealousy clearly don’t describe a needy, infantile being, but a loving Creator who desires the best for his people. In the prophetic language of the Book of Hosea, God — the loving husband — gets choked up when his wife, Israel, is continually unfaithful. “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (11:8). Compare that with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (see Lk 19:41-44) and you get a clear sense of how the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is the same one, true God.
The fact is, there are more than a few passages from both the Old and New Testaments that surprise or even shock us. The Catholic scholar Dom Celestin Charlier, in his wonderful book “The Christian Approach to the Bible” (The Newman Press, 1965), exhorted readers to recognize that “the God of the Bible is not the metaphysical God of Aristotle. He is an intensely personal being, one who is alive, fearsome, active, at times almost inconsiderate. He is unpredictable.… The uneasiness we feel in this regard will be dispelled only by a return to a deeper understanding of the workings of man’s soul and to a more Christian concept of the reality that is God. True reality is what God has done, not what we think He ought to have done.” TCA