Have you ever heard someone say: I like the gentle New Testament God better than that warlike, violent Old Testament God? Is there really a difference?
There are definitely some differences in human’s relations to God from the Old to the New Testament. This is because the New Testament is talking about the relation between God and human after the death of Christ on the Cross. It was not because God learned a new way to deal with people, but because of what God in the person of Jesus Christ made possible.
In the Old Testament and the New, justice had to be done. That is, wickedness and rebellion had to be punished. A debt had to be paid through suffering. The debt of disobedience to be paid started from Adam all the way past the prophets to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus came to heal not only the body but more importantly, the spirit. After His sacrifice of shed blood for all the sins of the past (Old Testament), the Holy Spirit was now able to live inside of a person, in their body as the temple of God (1Cor 6: 19) in a way not possible before, because the temple of the body was cleansed by the blood of Christ in those who receive Him as Savior. As He rose from the dead He enabled the sinner to receive the gift of life through repentance. These differences are critical in understanding the seeming different ways God dealt with people from the Old to the New Testament.
Now because ransom was paid (Matthew 20:28: “Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered to but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many”) and also because justice was done for the sins of the past through the blood of Christ (Romans 3:24-26: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.”), man and woman have the freedom to be forgiven day in and day out. It was finished, and Jesus said so as He was dying on the cross.
All those who put their trust in this saving God of justice experience this peace from Him and live to promote real peace by living this relationship with Him.
With this as a background, let’s look closer at the Old Testament and the New.
Justice has always needed to be done, whether in the Old or New Testament times. It is true that God caused different groups of people, including his chosen nation Israel, to suffer and to be on the receiving end of swords and other punishments. It is right there in the Old Testament, in so many places that it cannot be dismissed. So the idea that the writers were dishonest and tried to portray a “violent” God to scare people does not fly. But what are we to make of all these references to violence in the Old Testament? And are there any like verses in the New Testament?
Judgements on the nation of Israel:
To answer the first question, let’s look at the nation of Israel. In Psalm 106, Israel’s spiritual condition is described by several verses, and the miracles Israel saw God perform are also outlined. Israel saw many powerful miracles right in front of their faces and still rebelled against God. Just because they were God’s chosen nation, they did not escape judgment.
The judgment to wander in the wilderness is pronounced in Numbers 14:22-24: “Because all those men who have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice, surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it; But my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and has followed me fully, him will I bring into the land whereinto he went; and his seed shall possess it.” The “ten times” were Israel’s various grumblings against the Lord and His provisions, even after seeing all His miracles. The culmination of their rebellion came after the ten spies were sent in to the land that the Lord promised them, and they wanted to tell Moses to get lost and they wanted to go back to Egypt. But notice that Caleb, who did not rebel, was spared. This will be important later.
In the prophetic books, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, we have more insight into the dynamics of Israel’s rebellion and God’s punishment. Israel began to get caught up in the practices of the neighboring peoples around them. What kinds of things were they doing? Jeremiah 5:23-29 tells how they were oppressing the poor and the fatherless. And the Lord said: “Shall I not visit for these things?” (Jer. 5:29). Jeremiah 7:6-9: “If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place…will you steal, murder, and commit adultery…” Jer. 9:3: “for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me.”, Jer. 7:28: “this is a nation that obeys not the voice of the Lord their God, nor receives correction, truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth.” Jeremiah himself asks why the wicked are not judged immediately: “Wherefore does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are they all happy that deal very treacherously?” (Jer. 12:1)
Here is a quote from Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who lived through years of strife in what used to be Yugoslavia. He used to question the idea of a wrathful God before his experiences:
“My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrator’s basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love, God is wrathful because God is love.” (emphasis mine)1.
God’s justice was recompense for human deeds:
In Ezekiel, we find out more of what the people were up to, and why God had to respond accordingly. Ezekiel 8:17: “Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? For they have filled the land with violence….” (Notice that the people were violent first) Verse 18:” Therefore I will also deal in fury…” Ezekiel 8: 9-10: “The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great, and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverseness, for they say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the earth, and the Lord seeth not’. And as for me also mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity, but I will recompense their way upon their head.” Notice that God is doing justice, according to the deeds of the people. Ezekiel 14:23: “you shall know that I have not done without cause all I have done in it, says the Lord God.” God wasn’t “violent “without a cause. Ezekiel 18:11-13: “and has defiled his neighbors wife, has oppressed the poor and needy, has spoiled by violence, has not restored the pledge, and has lifted up his eyes to idols, has committed abominations…shall he then live? He shall not live… he shall surely die, his blood shall be upon him.”
Notice that God was punishing the unrepentant and hard of heart, simply bringing back their bloody violence and immorality back on their own heads. This is called justice, not violence. The unrepentant and wicked must suffer consequences for their actions, or there is no justice. We believe that in our own society.
God does not enjoy bringing judgement:
But when a person repented of their evil acts, they were spared. God was not a warmonger; neither did He delight in punishing the wicked. Ezekiel 18:23: “Have I any pleasure that the wicked should die? Says the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” Ezekiel 18:31-32: “Cast away from you all of your transgressions… and make you a new heart and a new spirit, for why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, says the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves, and live.” Lamentations 3: 32-33: “But though He cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.” God does not want to punish, but His justice demands that He does. And there are many Old Testament passages about God’s mercy and forgiveness. Exodus 34:6-7: The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.” But through Jesus, the punishment has now been taken by God Himself, and so there is a just basis for “clearing the guilty”, and forgiving the sins of past and present.
The Loving, Forgiving God of the Old Testament:
Here are some passages in the OT about God’s forgiving nature, both for Israel and for us. The critics seem to conveniently forget to include these passages. Psalm 32:5: ‘I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity I have not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and thou forgave the guilt of my sin.” Pertaining to Israel, Psalm 78:38: “ But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity and destroyed them not; yea, many a time turned He his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.” Jeremiah 31:3: “The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” Jeremiah 31:34:”…for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest of them, saith the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” In this last passage Jer. 31:33-34, including the above verse, God was alluding to just what I discussed above about our new way of relating to God through Jesus Christ. And the atonement of the Messiah is also talked about in the Old Testament. Isaiah 53:5-6:” But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:8, 12…for the transgression of my people was He stricken… and He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Now we know that wickedness has still been in the world since Christ died and rose, even to this day. But as I began with above, we also know that after Christ rose, having paid the penalty for sin, the Holy Spirit was sent in to the world in a whole new way. See John 16:7-8:” …If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” The Holy Spirit was to dwell in the hearts of people who received Him, and in order for this to happen, that temple, the body in which He dwelt, had to first be purified from sin, and this could only happen by the blood of Christ applied by faith to each person that repents and received Him. The veil to the Holy Place is torn open, now each person has free access to God in a whole new way.
Justice in the New Testament:
To those who don’t receive Him, the Holy Spirit comes to them to convict them of their sin, and its consequences. The consequences of unrepentant sin are much more serious than simply physical death. They are what is called the “second death” or eternal death, namely being separated from God forever in Hell.
That is why there was a death penalty for certain sins against God under the Mosaic Law. It is because not acknowledging God and rebelling against Him leads to eternal death, which is far worse. Physical death as a consequence for sin reminded people and warned them of the seriousness of sin and its eternal consequences if there is no repentance. See Exodus 20:19-20:” let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto this people, fear not, for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not.” Why? Because unrepentant sin results in eternal punishment. God is holy and pure. All rebellion against this loving and holy God is serious. It is saying to God: “I could care less about you and your dying for me and about your plan for my life. Get out of my life” God will oblige that request, though the person states in not in so many words, but by their life. And the result is eternal separation from God.
This is spoken about very clearly in the New Testament: “Seeing that it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you…when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels. In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Remember, this verse is after the cross of Christ, toward them that don’t repent.
There is no escaping the fact that Jesus warned more about this eternal punishment than anyone else in the Bible. We all have the opportunity to escape this punishment by trusting in Christ and His finished payment on the cross. He died in our place, experiencing not only physical death, but the separation from His Father as he bore the sin of all of us. Because He is God, He only was able to pay that eternal punishment debt that each of us would otherwise deserve. “For by the deeds of the law shall no man be justified in His sight.” (Romans 3:20).
Some try to say that a person can pay for their own sins through a purgatory or through suffering in this life. But we don’t have to fear punishment of any kind, once we place ourselves at the foot of the cross. Hebrews 10:14: “For by one offering He has perfected forever them that are sanctified.” And 1John 4:17-18: “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love.”
A “violent” God in the New Testament?
So does that mean that there are no consequences for unrepentant wickedness after the cross of Christ? Because God is forgiving, does that mean He overlooks or condones what is wrong? Does God ever deal with people in the New Testament as He dealt with them in the Old Testament? Does this “violent” God show up in the New Testament even after the cross?
Jesus said to fear eternal death more than physical death: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28). “Except you repent, you shall likewise perish” (Luke 13:5) But there are also some cases where physical judgment was brought on people who acted wickedly. Acts 5:4-5 records the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira: “…why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? You have not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost; and great fear came on all them that heard these things.” King Herod was struck down in Acts 12:23. Some who were being greedy and selfish during the Lord’s Supper died because of it (1 Corinthians 11:30) And Saint Paul writes of the powers in the land that are ordained of God to punish evil with the sword: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil…but if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.” (Romans 13:3-4).
But perhaps the most telling words that show that God judging evil with physical death is not just a pre-cross, Old Testament phenomenon are the words of Jesus himself as related by the apostle John in the book of Revelation: “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am he that searches the minds and hearts, and I will give unto every one of thee according to your works.” (Revelation 2:20-23).
So even Jesus in the New Testament spoke sometimes of physical death as judgment for sin. But it was always for willful, unrepentant sin, just as in the Old Testament. And we also need to remember that only He who gives life has the right to take it away. God takes the life of every person, it is called death. He has that right. We don’t. But for the one who trusts Jesus Christ and counts on the judgment that He bore for our sins on the cross, physical death is only a glorious entrance into His wonderful presence in heaven: “And Jesus said unto him, verily I say unto you, today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believes on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26.