Opening the Word: An angry God?

“How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?”

That question is posed by David T. Lamb, an Evangelical professor of Old Testament, in “God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?” (InterVarsity Press, 2011). Lamb writes that his students are often shocked by his question. He points out, however, that “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”— that is, in either the New or Old Testament.

Try pointing that out to an atheist such as Richard Dawkins, whose best-selling book “The God Delusion” (2008) described the God of the Old Testament as “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak,” “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” and a “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” That’s a quite a list for a deity that Dawkins says doesn’t exist!

Today’s Old Testament, reading would probably cause Dawkins to say, “See? Told you so! We have an angry god anxious to destroy an entire city, while poor Abraham has to try to talk him out of it!” Many have certainly interpreted it in such a way. But how accurate is that understanding?

First, God is not presented as an angry deity bent on irrational judgment. Actually, he is shown to be a righteous judge who responds to the cries of the oppressed. He had heard complaints from those being treated unjustly by citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. As Gerhard von Rad remarks in his commentary on Genesis, “The word ‘outcry’ is a technical legal term and designates the cry for help which one who suffers a great injustice screams.” The question, then, was, “What is the truth behind these claims?” God says, “I mean to find out.”

The dialogue between Abraham and God took place on the heights overlooking the cities. The discussion involved pending decisions, but the real issue was the belief of the righteous. What was it worth? Both Abraham and God know that Sodom is filled with evil men. But what if there are innocent men in the city? “This reflection,” von Rad notes, “is somewhat revolutionary ...” Why? Because the common understanding at that time was that guilt was collective. If the majority of men in Sodom were guilty, the entire city was therefore guilty, a belief that “proceeds from the deeply rooted solidarity of a community incriminated in any felony,” a solidarity from which individuals could not easily be released. Yet Abraham doesn’t merely argue that the innocent should be saved before the city is destroyed, but that the entire city should be saved because just 10 innocent people dwell within it.

Another issue here is the relationship between justice and mercy. God is both just and merciful. But when he renders justice by punishing the unrepentant sinful, is he then failing to be merciful? Or, if he allows the sinful to flourish, would his mercy be hampered and undermined? We, as limited creatures, will often lean toward justice or mercy depending on our particular situations. Thankfully, we can take solace in the fact that God the Father truly loves us and desires what is best for us. “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children,” asked Jesus of his disciples, “how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” 

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.