Why is the picture of God’s character in the Old Testament so different from that in the New?
One testament portrays a God cursing and destroying His enemies, judging and disciplining sin, demanding holiness, killing the firstborn and sacrificing the innocent. It is bloody and violent.
The other testament portrays a God sending missionaries to the nations, healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sin, creating a community of believers, dwelling among His people and allowing the guilty to go unpunished.
How can Christians worship such a schizophrenic Sovereign?
The representations of divine character between the two testaments seem irreconcilably dissimilar to many. Critics cry “foul,” claiming that one testament reveals a capricious, vindictive and angry Sovereign, while the other communicates a loving, compassionate and kind Savior. This alleged disparity leads many to skepticism and confusion.
But which picture is from the Old Testament and which is from the New?
In the Old Testament, God sent Jonah as a missionary to Nineveh. He redeemed Israel from slavery and rescued them from their enemies. He created a community of believers and dwelled among them in the tabernacle and the temple. He forgave murderous adulterers like David.
In the New Testament, Christ cursed His enemies. God the Father slaughtered His innocent Son. He judged the disobedient and disbelieving. He triumphed over and shamed the rulers of this world. And He will one day eternally punish those who have rebelled.
Perhaps the depictions are not so dissimilar after all. Maybe the issue is not contradiction between testaments, but the complexity of divine attributes.
Making Sense of Divine Complexity
Seeming discrepancy appears if we read the Scriptures by emphasizing certain narratives and descriptions to the exclusion and neglect of others.
As staring at a picture brings one point into brilliant focus, while backgrounds blur to undifferentiated haze, so concentration on one divine attribute can incite us to ignore or distort others. By focusing on God’s love, we might inadvertently lose sight of His justice or holiness and vice versa.
Those who object to Christianity on the basis of this seeming diversity focus on God destroying the Canaanites and skip over His rescuing the Israelites. They see Christ dying for sinners and ignore Revelation’s declaration that He will judge, make war and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:11-16). Such emphasis on one attribute or account of the triune God to the neglect of others is not only intellectually unwarranted, but spiritually hazardous.
God is not either gracious or just. He is both. He is not either loving or angry. He is both. “Either/or” categories must often be deferred in theological conversations. Is Christ human or divine? Is God one or three? Is God sovereign, or are men responsible for their sin? Good theologians wrestle with these tensions.
In Part 2 of this blog, we will consider how the Scriptures present this “both/and” picture of the mercy and wrath of our God and how the death of Christ clarifies the complexity.