Is the God of the Old Testament different from the One in the New Testament?
The Bible’s portrayal of God is unified and consistent that God is a God of love in both the Old Testament and the New.
“God is love,” declares the apostle (1 John 4:8). For many centuries, Christians have accorded great importance to this brief declaration. They have understood it to express the primary defining characteristic of God. They have taken this little phrase to highlight who God is at the core of His being, to set forth His foremost quality. And since the Bible affirms the unchanging nature of God (Malachi 3:6), Christians have generally stated that God’s love is on display throughout Scripture — in the Old Testament as well as the New.
However, not all people agree that the entire Bible portrays a loving God. In his recent best-selling book, militant atheist Richard Dawkins pulls no punches when he asserts, “The God of the Old Testament is 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 To say the least (and much more could be said about Dawkins and his book), Dawkins does not see the Old Testament as describing a God of love.
And it’s not just atheists who are challenged by the Old Testament’s description of God. Many casual readers of the Bible, and even a number of Christians, struggle with the Old Testament God. It appears to them, at least on the surface, that the description of God in the Old Testament presents a striking and dramatic contrast with that found in the New. Their impression is that the God of the Old Testament is harsh, vindictive, and punitive, while the New Testament God — as shown in Jesus Christ — reveals Himself as loving, gracious, and merciful.
How should this issue be engaged? Are there some responses that support the orthodox Christian position that the Bible’s portrayal of God is unified and consistent, that God is a God of love in both the Old Testament and the New? Or is the chasm between the descriptions of God in the Old and New Testaments so great and yawning that they cannot be bridged?
We will discuss some points that move the discussion of this challenging issue in a positive direction and provide some help in understanding it. However, first it is appropriate to review several solutions that have been advocated and popularly held but are inadequate or erroneous on the basis of Scripture, even though they may have attracted a wide following.
One solution, advocated by Marcion in the second century A.D., is simply to state that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. According to Marcion, the God of the New Testament, the heavenly Father who sent Jesus and whom Jesus preached about, is kind, merciful, and forgiving. By contrast, the Old Testament God, the Creator of the material universe, is a jealous tribal deity whose law demands justice and who punishes people for their sins. In light of this view, it is not surprising that Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted a limited number of New Testament books that he had edited to favor his perspective.
However, Marcion was correctly judged a heretic and disfellowshiped by the early church, and there are compelling reasons why his perspective must be rejected. First, throughout the New Testament, it is assumed that the God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16, NIV) that He gave His Son to die is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. Additionally, Jesus Himself is identified as the active Agent in Creation, the One who brought all things into existence (John 1:3, 14), not some evil deity as Marcion contended. It is a telling and decisive point that Jesus never distances Himself either from the God of the Old Testament or the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, He saw His life in continuity with and in fulfillment of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 44).
Another suggestion that doesn’t go as far as Marcion’s heresy is that the same God is present in the Old and New Testaments but that He has a split personality. That is to say, God dealt with people differently in Old Testament times than in the New Testament era. Those who advocate this solution think that for some reason God chose to act harshly and punitively in His dealings with the Israelites and other nations in the Old Testament, but with the dawn of the New Testament, God’s gentleness and kindness come to the forefront.
This suggestion is developed in a rather elaborate way and given a veneer of sophistication in the theological system known as dispensationalism. Rooted in the nineteenth-century writings of John Darby and popularized in the marginal notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, dispensationalism continues to be a widely-held view among many American Christians. It maintains that God has related to people in different ways through a series of different dispensations or periods of time down through history. For example, Adam and Eve’s time in Eden was the dispensation of innocence, the pre-Flood world was the dispensation of conscience, and the majority of the Old Testament era was the dispensation of law. It also holds that these different dispensations are based on different biblical covenants.
However, dispensationalism, like Marcion’s view, falters on the grounds of the obvious continuity that is seen between God and His dealings in both Testaments. In fact, God declares of Himself, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6, NIV).
What are some points to consider that might help us understand the Old Testament portrayal of God and bridge the gap that is sometimes thought to exist between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as revealed by Jesus?
Firstly, Jesus never distanced Himself from the God of the Old Testament. Never does He make a statement even hinting that His character or teachings are distinct and separate from the Old Testament revelation of God. He certainly distinguished His viewpoint and teachings from Jewish traditional understandings on a variety of topics (Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28, 31, 32; 15:1-11), but never did He depart from what the Old Testament reveals about God. To the contrary, it was the Old Testament God who gave Him to the world out of love (John 3:16), and He came as Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23, NIV; quoting Isaiah 7:14), as the living embodiment of the Old Testament God. Since Jesus didn’t separate the revelation of God provided by His life from the Old Testament God, as His followers we should not do so either.
Secondly, if one takes Scripture seriously, God is not a one-dimensional deity, with love as His only attribute. Rather, a number of characteristics are attributed to the Divine Person. He is holy, righteous just, faithful, jealous, merciful, gracious, and so on. Quite a long list of biblical attributes could be adduced, and to eliminate aspects of the biblical descriptions of God because they don’t fit in with our concept of a God of love is to engage in reductionism. Such an exercise would leave us with a diminished picture of God that is unfaithful to Scripture. We must let the Bible define the character and ways of God instead of deciding what God must be like and then imposing our view onto Scripture.
Thirdly, the New Testament, like the Old, contains some challenging passages when it comes to understanding the character of God. In other words, the God of the New Testament, even as seen in Jesus Christ, is not always a warm, fuzzy God who is gentle in every circumstance. Several biblical passages serve to demonstrate this point. The divine judgment that took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit is certainly a serious punishment (Acts 5:1-11). Some might even view this as a vestige of the harsh Old Testament God, though it is found in the New Testament. The New Testament’s final book speaks of a judgment from God that contains undiluted wrath, a divine anger that is unmixed with mercy (Revelation 14:9-11). Also, Jesus Himself drove the merchants out of the temple with a whip of cords (John 2:13-17) and initially rebuffed the plea of a Canaanite woman for healing for her daughter with what some consider to be a pejorative comment (Matthew 15:21-28). All of this is not to deny that the New Testament God is infinitely gracious and loving; it is simply to note that both Old and New Testaments at times present challenges as we seek to understand the loving ways of God.
Fourthly, is the concept that Christians sometimes refer to as progressive revelation. Progressive revelation refers to the gradual unfolding of truth, to the fact that as we move through Scripture God reveals Himself and His character more and more clearly until we reach the apex of His self-revelation in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is not to say that the revelation of God found in the Old Testament is erroneous and mistaken. It is certainly the case that David, Isaiah, Daniel, and other Old Testament writers received insights about God and communicated them in the pages of Scripture. However, it is an incomplete revelation.
As the Bible indicates, the fullest revelation of God is found in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ. No Old Testament prophet could ever say, as did Jesus, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NASB).
Jesus is the only One of whom it could be said, “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9, KJV). For that matter, we must remember that as long as we are on this earth, even with the wonderful disclosure of God provided by Jesus, we will still, to use the words of Paul, “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NASB). Only in eternity will we begin to understand some of the challenges to our understanding of God posed by certain passages in Scripture.
A final point to keep in mind is that our unease and squeamishness about the Old Testament description of God might tell us more about the world in which we live and about us than it does about God. Perhaps our age prefers a God whose affection is indulgent and permissive instead of One whose love is holy and jealous (Exodus 20:5; 34:14). Maybe we desire a Lord who is warm and cozy instead of One who is, as the New Testament declares, “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NASB).
The following quotation from
C. S. Lewis is a striking indictment of our age: “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”2
Instead of limiting ourselves to God’s revelation of Himself in only one portion of Scripture, let us follow the example of many faithful Christians, the New Testament apostles, and Jesus Himself. May we recognize the continuity in the Word of God, and plumb the depths of the entirety of the Bible, seeking to understand as completely and fully as possible the One whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3).
Greg A. King (Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary) is dean of the School of Religion and professor of biblical studies at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 31
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 40.