Wrathful, Then Loving: Why Does God Seem So Different In The Old And New Testaments?, Part 1 (Answering Atheism)

father talking to his son
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Question: Why does God seem so mean or wrathful in the Old Testament, but then becomes a loving Father in the New Testament?

This question is posed in some form by former Hawk Nelson member Jon Steingard, who, as you are well aware, finally decided to declare that he no longer believes in God a few weeks ago. I mention this in my post titled “Atheism And The Problem Of Evil (Answering Atheism).”

Well, Steingard says in his long Instagram post that there are certain things that, to him, suggest that the Bible has problems in its portrayal of God. For example, one problem he has with Scripture is how the Old Testament and New Testament portray God the Father. The claim he makes is the same claim that critics of Scripture have often made: why is it that God the Father seems so angry and wrathful in the Old Testament, killing people for sin and often ready to punish, while being loving in the New Testament?

The implication here is that God is “double-minded” or has split personalities: He’s one way in the Old Testament, and completely different in the New Testament. The impression the question sends is that God has some sort of mental illness whereby He just switches up quickly. His mood is unpredictable, some say, as if to make Him nothing more than a god of Greek and Roman mythology.

The gods of Greek and Roman mythology had terrible mood swings. You didn’t know from moment to moment if they were happy or angry with you, if they’d bless your crops or strike you dead. And that’s the impression some people have of the God of the Bible.

But is that the case? Is there such a disconnect between God the Father in the Old Testament and God the Father in the New Testament? I’d dare say that there isn’t such a great disconnect as atheists want you and me to believe. God may be fierce and get angry in the Old Testament, but He does show grace and mercy and love in the Old as well. And in the New, though God is the God of Love, He shows justice as well.

God of the Old Testament: wrathful without love?

God, Adam, and Eve (Genesis 1-3)

In the Old Testament, atheists and skeptics see God as angry all the time. But is God really angry all the time? No He isn’t. When we see God in the beginning when He creates Adam and Eve, He blesses them by giving them life, as well as dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). He allows Adam to name the animals in the Garden (Genesis 2:19). God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden to work and keep the Garden.

God gives Adam a lot of trees to eat from; He only forbids Adam from eating one tree, namely, the Tree of Knowledge Of Good And Evil. That’s it. Outside of that, all other trees are fair game (or food, I should say).

And even when the Lord expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for eating of the forbidden fruit, He does so out of mercy: 

“Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever –” (Genesis 3:22, NKJV). 

Because man could still eat from the Tree of Knowledge and live forever, God “sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23). Some say that God expelled Adam and Eve so that they couldn’t reverse the death sentence He pronounced on them for their sin.

Another perspective on this, however, is that God sent them away from the Garden because to eat from the Tree of Life would have caused man to live forever in an endless cycle of death, sickness, and sorrow. While Adam and Eve would have died based on the command of the Lord, their offspring would have done the same…and on, and on, and on, forever, without end. 

At least with God sending them away, He would put an end to death, sorrow, and suffering. There will be an end to the sorrow, which is why the words of Jesus in Revelation are so comforting: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away…Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:3-5, NKJV). 

God and Cain (Genesis 4)

Cain and Abel are brothers, sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is the oldest, however, while Abel is the youngest. When the two offer their gifts to the Lord, we read in Genesis 4 that God respects Abel and his offering while He doesn’t respect Cain nor his offering. Out of pure jealousy, Cain rises up when he’s in the field with Abel and kills him.

It is at this point that Cain believes he’s due to be killed because he killed his brother. Yet, God gives Cain a seal of protection to prevent him from becoming another victim:

10 And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. 11 So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”

13 And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.”

15 And the Lord said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. (Genesis 4:10-15, NKJV)

We see in Genesis 4:11-12 that God sentences Cain to life as a fugitive, away from his home and family. And yet, even in this sad situation, God places a “mark” on Cain to protect him from being killed. Even in God’s judgment and wrath, He is still loving to Cain, who doesn’t deserve it. This unmerited favor is what we Christians call “grace.”

Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 1-4)

Nineveh was a wicked city, a place where the people were ungodly. We know this because of the beginning lines of the Book of Jonah, where God says to Jonah to go to Nineveh “for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2, NKJV). Jonah decides to disobey and head to Tarshish instead, but the Lord meets him there in a storm.

You know the story. Jonah ends up in the belly of “a great fish” or whale (as some say), where he cries out to God for three days (Jonah 1:17). After crying out to God to be saved, God allows the large fish to spit Jonah out. Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, they repent, and God spares the city (John 3:10).

Despite Jonah’s rebellion and stubborn refusal to obey God’s command to preach to Nineveh, God spares Jonah’s life. And then the Lord teaches Jonah something about the wicked city Jonah doesn’t want to preach to:

10 But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

The Lord shows Jonah that Jonah cared more about a gourd, which grew in a day and died in a day, than he did the city of Nineveh that housed lots of livestock (cattle) and 120,000 people. To care more about a plant (gourd) than a people (120,000 Ninevites) makes little logical sense. The Book of Jonah begins with the Lord telling Jonah about the wickedness of the Ninevites, but ends with the Lord asking Jonah why He shouldn’t spare the Ninevites. As can be seen from this, the Lord is a God of justice but also shows mercy — even to the wicked.

 God spares david’s life (2 Samuel 12)

Remember King David? He’s the one Scripture says was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel ). This same King, this man of God, also lusted after a married woman by the name of Bathsheba. He slept with her, then tried to cover up his paternity and the pregnancy. When he couldn’t get Bathsheba’s husband and his Israelite soldier, Uriah, to sleep with Bathsheba, he then decided to put him on the front lines of battle and kill him (2 Samuel 11).

God saw all of this and was displeased with David’s actions (2 Samuel 11:27). Eventually, God sends Nathan the prophet to David to let David know that God is aware of all that happened and that God is angry with David. Nathan says in this confrontational exchange with David about his adultery and murder (Uriah) that David has sinned, that he is the man who took the proverbial little ewe lamb from the man with only one while he himself had many. David responds by acknowledging his sin. While he avoids death by God’s hand, he loses his first child with Bathsheba:

13 So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

Though David deserved to die, God allowed David to live and took the life of the child instead. God showed grace to David by sparing his life.

King Ahab (1 Kings 21)

King Ahab of Samaria wanted the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite to have as his own personal vegetable garden. He told Naboth to give him the vineyard, and he would either 1) give him a better vineyard or garden or 2) give him the monetary value of the vineyard in question. Ahab wanted the vineyard or vegetable garden “because it is near,” he told Naboth (1 Kings 21:2). Since Ahab wanted to give money, he could’ve afforded a vegetable garden of his own. Instead, he wanted Naboth’s because it was next to his home, it was convenient.

And yet, Naboth told Ahab he wouldn’t give him the vineyard because it was “the inheritance of my fathers,” he said (1 Kings 21:3). As inheritance, Naboth was likely to pass it down to his children or brothers and sisters in the event that he died. Upon his death, the vineyard would remain in the family and pass down to other relatives who would pass it down to their children, and so on. It was the equivalent of a modern-day family heirloom: these possessions are family possessions, designed to remain in the family.

As a result of Naboth’s refusal to sell his vineyard (and rightly so, since it was a family possession), we’re told in Scripture that King Ahab refused to eat (v.4). His wife, the evil Jezebel, inquired as to the cause of his sorrow, and he told her it was because of Naboth who refused to sell his vineyard. Jezebel told Ahab that she’d secure the vineyard for him, and she did. She wrote letters to the authorities living in the same city as Naboth, and told them to hold a feast in Naboth’s honor, seat him at the highest seat at the table, and then place two witnesses at the table who’d accuse him of blaspheming God.

Then, the elders and nobles were to take Naboth out of the gathering and stone him to death (vv.9-10). The elders and nobles did as Jezebel instructed: they sat him at the highest seat for a feast in his honor. Two “scoundrels” accused him of blasphemy against God, and he was taken out the gathering and stoned. Ahab went and took possession of Naboth’s vineyard upon receiving word of his death.

But the thing Ahab did displeased the Lord, and he sent the prophet Elijah to Ahab to tell him so. “…in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (v.19). But when Elijah told King Ahab that he would die by dogs, Jezebel would die by dogs, and that every male in his house would be cut off (that is, Ahab would have no posterity to follow him), he did the unexpected: he fasted, put on sackcloth and ashes, and mourned his sin (v.27).

We read that the Lord decides, as a result of Ahab’s repentance, to delay the punishment: “See how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the calamity in his days. In the days of his son I will bring the calamity on his house” (1 Kings 21:29).

The Lord had originally promised to cut off Ahab’s posterity in his own day, but he delays this punishment. Ahab died three years later, in battle, and the dogs lick up his blood from the chariot in which he died that evening after the battle. Ahab dies, as the prophet Elijah said he would, but his posterity isn’t cut off until his son reigns in his place. And eventually, old evil Jezebel meets her end, too. God still delivers on the prophecy He gives Elijah, but He shows mercy by sparing Ahab in his day and delaying the impending punishment. Even in His wrath, God still shows grace and mercy.

jesus points out exceptions to old testament law (Mark 2:23-28; matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5)

Even in the Old Testament, God demonstrated grace to sinners. He demonstrated grace to the Ninevites by sending Jonah to preach to them so that they would repent and turn to God. But in additional circumstances, God extended grace to those who did something that “violated” the Law of Moses. In Mark 2:23-28, we read that Jesus’ disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees question Jesus about how unlawful it is, and Jesus responds with the case of David in the temple who ate the showbread, “which is not lawful to eat except for the priests” (Mark 2:26, NKJV). The Old Testament story reveals that David not only ate the priestly bread but also gave it to those who were with him; none of those traveling with David were priests. 

In Matthew 12:8, Jesus’ teaching not only includes David eating the shewbread, only for the priests, but also “that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless,” Jesus says. The priests work in the temple on the Sabbath, yet there is no work to be done on the Sabbath; despite their “Sabbath work,” they are still “blameless.” It’s a reminder that the priests have important work to do in teaching and educating God’s people, though, make no mistake, teaching is real work.

However, because it is real work for God and toward the people of God, they are considered “blameless” and not “sinless.” They are absolved of guilt because it is godly work they are doing, not work for personal gain or leisure purposes. 

Even the priests receive grace in their work, though they, being an exception to the rule, do not overturn the rule. The standard rule is still “no work on the Sabbath,” but they find grace in the eyes of the Lord because it is His work they are doing and not their own. 

Luke 6:1-5 provides the same account of Jesus plucking grain on the Sabbath as Matthew 12 and Mark 2, but there’s an additional story we read in Luke 6:6-11. The new passage pertains to Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. The man’s right hand was withered, according to Luke 6. Jesus asks a question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” (Luke 6:9) In other words, there’s a principle of doing good that exists, even on the Sabbath, and makes a person blameless when they do it.

Nurses and doctors may work on Sundays, for example, but look at the good they do: they help those who are sick feel better and accommodate their needs. Additionally, new life may enter the world on the weekends, and so doctors help usher life into the world when they help pregnant mothers give birth to little ones.

EMT drivers and policemen, for example, also help the effort, as they drive sick people to the hospital (EMTs) and look out for those driving on the roads (policemen). We know the danger that drunk drivers and speeders can pose to innocent, law-abiding drivers on the road, so we can’t underscore the work law enforcement performs to keep our roads safe and maintain life and stability. 

So with that said, life-giving work on the Sabbath is no bad thing. And so, it is in the spirit of life-giving that Jesus heals the man’s withered right hand. Jesus reminds us that, on the Sabbath, it is no bad thing to do a good deed for someone — or even to heal the sick. If it’s good enough for our Lord, then it should be good enough for those who believe in Him.

wrapping it up

This first post focuses on the statement made by Jon Steingard, a former Hawk Nelson member who has declared that he has left the faith some time ago. Steingard mentions a number of things that seem off for him with regard to Christianity, and one of them is God’s “mentally unstable” mindset: first He gives wrath, then He gives grace.

Additionally, Steingard goes so far as to say that the Old Testament shows the divine wrath, but then the New Testament is all about divine grace. To Steingard, these two are never shown together (implied, though not explicitly stated) so that one could easily think that God’s attitude is moody: He’s happy and gracious one minute, mad and ready to execute the next.

But God is not like this. God is not like the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. God is not unpredictable in that way, though He does move in mysterious ways, no doubt. He does show grace in the Old Testament. Steingard is wrong.

However, Steingard’s oversimplification of the Old Testament (he paints it with a broad stroke instead of examining more concrete details) is typical of so many who leave the faith but have yet to understand it or talk to those who could guide them into greater faith. As it has been said so many times, you cannot critique a position accurately until you understand it properly.

A class on punishment and remedy in the Old Testament at seminary taught me this. Perhaps Steingard should have sat in on that same class.