Why is the New Testament God so angry all the time? How can the Old Testament God be so loving? A common problem people have with the Bible is the disconnect between the loving and forgiving God of the Old Testament and the angry and wrathful God of the New Testament. How can one be so loving and kind and the other so cruel and capricious? The implication being, of course, that the Bible is completely wrong as a result of this seeming contradiction.
Let’s dive right in then and examine this disconnect between the New and Old. First up: the angry, wrathful, vengeful God of the New Testament. There’s no better to place to start than 2 Thessalonians, a book of the Bible which has proportionally more on Hell and judgement than any save perhaps Revelation. Take the following quote:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” 2 Thessalonians 1 v 7 – 8.
Take note of three things: 1) the scope of those under judgement, both those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel (i.e. the call of the gospel to repent of sin), a lot of humanity currently falls into this category. 2) The punishment is of everlasting destruction: Hell, to name it, taught as a very real and very horrific punishment. 3) Jesus is the one doing the punishing, this is not an impersonal action but one carried out by God himself.
Given that all this will occur when Jesus returns it might seem sufficiently distant for us to ignore it. This would be foolish but to go along with it for a moment, there are plenty of examples in the New Testament of the immediacy of God’s judgement.
There are the Christians mentioned in 1 Corinthians 30 who God caused to “fall asleep” (i.e. die) because they took communion in a dishonouring manner. Or there’s the example from Acts 5 of Ananias and Sapphira who God put to death for the sin of lying about the proportion of money they were giving away (yes, they were both engaged in a charitable act when they died). Or consider Jesus driving people out the Temple using a whip. Or King Herod who was eaten by worms (from the inside) for not giving God the praise he received from men. Or the book of Revelation where Jesus is revealed to be one of the horsemen of the apocalypse: riding out on a white horse to conquer the world.
Well does Hebrews 12 remind us that our God is a “consuming fire”.
And this can easily confuse, for if we look at the Old Testament, a completely different picture is painted. Here we see, not a vengeful God full of wrath and anger, but a God overflowing with love and forgiveness. A God who proclaims himself to be: “The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.” (Numbers 14:18). A God who is described as a mother hen - “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge (Psalm 91 v 4). Or as a loving Shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40 v 11).
Throughout the Old Testament we see the patience and forgiveness of God in dealing with his rebellious people, forgiving sins and saving the oppressed. This is clearly expressed in Zephaniah 3 v 17: “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing."
How can we reconcile these two differing views? How can the angry God of the New Testament, who kills a married couple for lying, be the same as the loving God of the Old Testament, who rejoices over us with singing? I have four answers.
The first answer is to recognise that a selective reading of the Bible will always create a false image of God. Case in point, my mean and cunning ploy in this blog post, as you all know it’s the Old Testament God who gets called angry and the New Testament God who gets called loving. But with a bit of clever quoting this picture is easily turned around.
Some Christians, so embarrassed by the Old Testament’s reputation try and pretend this it is somehow less applicable than the New. This wins first prize for duplicitous nonsense of the highest order. A solid grade F for spiritual wisdom, intellectual credibility and theological accuracy. The New Testament allows us no escape from the “difficult” passages, it still portrays a God that makes others uncomfortable and angry rants about the capricious nature of God can be backed up just as well from the New Testament as the Old.
This bring us back to the first answer. If you selectively read the Bible you can paint any picture of God you want to. To be get an accurate picture you need to take in all that the Bible says, in totality. In other words, the second answer to the question above is to remember the importance of nuance. There is no simple picture of God, no easy answer, no old man in the sky walk over, no vengeful capricious titan of anger. These are caricatures: blasphemous, empty insults at God that have no bearing in reality, yet nevertheless are wholly believable to our sinful hearts.
To understand God (as best we can), we need to understand the nuances of the Bible, not only the simple parts, but the complicated, my head hurts from thinking, my heart finds this hard to believe parts too. We have to wrestle with the truth, struggling to comprehend, humbly asking for help to grasp the infinite as finite creatures.
The third answer is a summary provided in Romans of one of the main nuances to understand. “Behold the kindness and severity of God.” (Romans 11v22). To remember one and forget the other creates a false God, lacking in integrity. A Christianity without heaven and hell (both acting as ultimate expressions of the kindness and severity of God) is no Christianity at all.
Did I use the term ultimate expression? There is a better one by far: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Kindness as it was God dying for the sins of mankind; severity in that it was God punishing God for the sins of mankind. At the cross we see a display of love that cannot be grasped and wrath which would drown all understanding. It is only in realising the infinite-ness of kindness and severity on display that any answer appears possible, For as the cross defies all human understanding so we are forced to turn back to the Word of God, in faith and trust, beholding both the kindness and severity of God. Our gospel, the good news of Christianity, is a message of kindness and severity, justice and mercy, love and anger, hope and rebellion, heaven and hell, God and fallen humanity.