Did God change from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
In the book The God Delusion, noted atheist Richard Dawkins describes 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.”1
Agnostic Charles Templeton doesn’t offer a much better character reference:
The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians. He is an all-too-human deity with the human failings, weaknesses, and passions of men—but on a grand scale. His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous, and his prejudices are deep-seated and inflexible. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives.2
Is that true? Is the God of the Old Testament different from the God described in the New Testament? At first glance, it certainly seems possible. On one hand, God is depicted as a harsh—even wrathful—judge. On the other, Jesus tells his followers that God is love.
Does the Christian Bible tell a tale of two Gods?
The modern writers mentioned above have not offered a new reading of the Christian Scriptures. In the second century CE the Christian writer and thinker Marcion of Sinope (c. 85–160 CE) refused to accept Yahweh, the deity described in the Old Testament, as the “Heavenly Father” proclaimed by Jesus.3
Marcion concluded that the Old Testament god was a “demiurge” who created the material universe, a mere tribal god of the Jewish people, while Jesus preached of a God marked by compassion, love, and mercy.4 Marcion wrote his Antitheses, in which he contrasts these two beings. Although some early Christians found Marcion’s arguments compelling, his teachings were rejected by the vast majority.
From the earliest times, Christians have perceived their faith in Jesus to be rooted deeply in the Old Testament writings. How have they been able to reconcile these seemingly contrasting portraits of God?
To start, we must note that the idea of progressive revelation is key here. This concept states that God’s revelation of himself to human beings has been a process—a progression. Over the centuries, men and women who have encountered God in the biblical stories have come to increasingly deeper understandings of who God is and what God is like.
Just as the gradual sunrise allows one to see steadily more and more of what a room contains, so God’s progressive revelation has permitted human beings to understand increasingly God’s nature, will, and ways. The truth was there all along, but perception was limited.
So it is with God. Man’s understanding of God progressed through the Old Testament and into the New.
Progressive revelation can also be understood in terms of humanity becoming more and more responsible to God for our actions. A parent might permit a younger child to behave in a certain way—even when that behavior is not ultimately the parent’s will—because the child simply doesn’t know better. Later, however, as the child grows and becomes more responsible, higher standards are imposed.
In the same way, many practices permitted in the Old Testament (polygamy, for example) are later regarded as outside of God’s will for his people. As God’s people grow, so do God’s expectations.
More in Common Than You Might Think
Moreover, the perspectives of the two sections of the Christian Bible may not be as different as they sometimes appear.
For starters, even in the Old Testament, God is frequently characterized as full of mercy and compassion—not just wrath and judgment. He is depicted as a God who does not anger easily and whose forgiveness and mercy endure forever.5 He is called “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”6
God is described as the shepherd of his people, for whom he cares deeply.7 He is their rock, their refuge, their help, and their deliverer.8
It could be said that in the New Testament, the volume is turned up in regard to this aspect of God’s character. Through the words and works of Jesus we come to see this merciful, compassionate God in action. Jesus demonstrates the love of God for sinners, outcasts, and hypocrites. In fact he tells us that the second greatest commandment—right after loving God with all we have—is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”9
However, Jesus is also as clear as any Old Testament prophet in proclaiming the consequences of rejecting God’s grace.10 The earliest Christian writers, like Paul, Peter, and John, echo the same message.11 The Apostle Paul states plainly that on “the day of God’s wrath . . . his righteous judgment will be revealed.”12 It is this characteristic—God’s judgment—that is more “turned up” or emphasized in the Old Testament.
God’s love and God’s wrath are prominent in both the New Testament and the Old Testament. In fact, it might be said that these two aspects of God’s character—mercy/love and judgment/wrath—are two sides of the same coin.
God loves all mankind and desires relationship with each one of us. However, the rejection of that offer leads to unavoidable consequences—separation from God through his just judgment. Love rejected becomes an experience of wrath. Such rejection excludes a person from relationship with the God who gives eternal life.13
Moreover, some of the challenges presented by the Old Testament portrayal of God may have to do with issues of language and analogy.
For example, within the Old Testament, God is often described as “jealous,” frequently in the context of tales of the Israelites worshipping other gods.14 However, this is not meant to make God seem petty. God’s “jealousy” as it is described in the Bible refers to his burning love for his people. God wants the best for them, and the worship of idols (false gods) is simply not good for them.
In the New Testament the word “jealous” is not used to describe God. But that same burning love is described in terms of God’s demands of his followers. He asks for ultimate allegiance, for love and loyalty that transcend family and friends—and certainly material goods.15
The Patient Justice of God
Although the Old Testament includes descriptions of graphically violent acts of judgment, these are nearly always preceded by long periods of patient waiting on God’s part for the condemned to repent of their sins.
Often there are multiple appeals for people to turn to God and consequently escape judgment. God sends prophet after prophet with the message to repent of sins and follow God.
Those condemned are not “innocents” but often people who engaged in acts of oppression and violence against other human beings. Not to have acted against such behavior would likely be regarded by sensitive modern readers as evidence of God’s injustice.
The God That Jesus Loved
Finally, it is worth observing that the Scriptures Jesus himself read and meditated on were the Hebrew Bible—what Christians now call the Old Testament.16 Jesus was not oblivious to the stories of God found there. The God that Jesus loved and worshipped as his Heavenly Father was the God whose story is found in the books of the Old Testament.
Jesus never implied anything other than that in his teachings. If Jesus understood the essential continuity between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the Heavenly Father whose kingdom of love and mercy he proclaimed, perhaps we might take the time to consider that connection more carefully.17