Renowned Atheist, Richard Dawkins, describes the God of the Old Testament as ‘the most unpleasant character in all of fiction’. This is an interesting quote because it captures perfectly what most skeptics think about God and the bible. Firstly, they believe God is ruthless and secondly, that the bible is a work of fiction. The term ‘the God of the Old Testament’ in itself is erroneous: it suggests there is a different God in the New Testament. Dr. Ravi Zacharias refers to this as ‘a false dichotomy’.
Indeed there is a lot of bloodshed in the Old Testament. If you flip through the pages long enough, I won’t be shocked if you end up with bloody fingers. Most of the killings were done either directly by God or they were done at his command either by angels or humans. The most popular ones include the killing of all of humanity (save 8 people) in Noah’s time. The death toll of the flood should be in the millions. There are several other massacres scattered all over the pages of the Old Testament. Below, I have visualized a few of them in this interactive Bar Graph, do check it out.
How do we reconcile God’s almost instant judgment on people who sin against him and the fact that he told Jeremiah ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’? How does God call himself ‘LOVE’ yet kill people mercilessly? Let’s look at Uzzah for example. He had the best of intentions to save the Ark of the Covenant from falling, so why did God kill him at that very moment?
Uzzah was killed because he disobeyed the law concerning the ark. The problem is sin, not God.
According to the definition of love in 1st Corinthians 13, ‘Love doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing’. Imagine God in all his holiness, who has created man in his image, only to see man wandering off and chasing after ephemeral pleasures of this world that are in actual fact dung. It is sickening for God to see man wallow in sin and chase after other gods that are non-existent in the first place. God asked Jeremiah, ‘Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit’ Jer 2:11. He was talking about Israel here but indeed this applies to all humanity. For we were all created by God. Can you imagine the hurt he felt when his own people turned away from him to whore after foreign gods? In Noah’s time, sin so greatly abounded that God regretted creating man. Love cannot rejoice in wrongdoing – and God is love. That is why he punishes people who sin.
But isn’t God merciful? Well, of course, he is. Nevertheless, we must understand that as much as mercy is a function of love, so is intolerance for wrongdoing. Love without a deliberate attempt to wipe out evil is just empty talk. There is correction in love. There is purging in love. There is nurturing in love. Ultimately, there is punishment in love. Therefore we shouldn’t be shocked at the fact that both mercy and intolerance for wrongdoing dwell in God. But, so are the other characteristics of love. Love is patient. Love suffers long. There is no personality in human history who has suffered long for the sake of love more than Jehovah. Usually, we lose sight of how long it took God to punish some people for the wrong they did. Throughout the Old Testament we see God delay punishments even for the most heinous of sins. He didn’t delay punishment for the sake of it, but while at it, he offered a hand of grace to the culprits so they would be pardoned. Let’s take for example the exodus of the Israelites. These people offended God every step of the way for 40 years. Some got their punishments immediately they sinned, but God was generally patient with the entire congregation for such a long time. Also, it took Noah 120 years to complete the ark. The bible refers to him as a preacher of righteousness: while constructing the ark he kept preaching to the people to repent. For 120 years God watched on as humans rolled in the mud of sin, yet he held back till the ark was completed before he punished them.
There are so many things that people do not consider when they say that God was wicked in the Old Testament. Let’s look at a few of such factors:
- The Law: It isn’t God who put sin in us thereby making us candidates of his punishment, it was the law. Where there is no law, there is no sin (Romans 4:15). Do you know Adam and Eve wouldn’t have been thrown out of Eden had they killed every single animal in the garden? Why? Because there was no law against that very act. The only law that existed in Eden was the one that prohibited them from eating the fruit, therefore, any other act wasn’t a sin. One act of sin changed the nature of man. So under the law even our righteous acts are like a filthy rag before him because sin is our nature. Literally, God was disgusted by man. Therefore the problem isn’t God being wicked, it is man going against the will of the almighty God when we are fully aware of the consequences. The punishment for sin is death. Also, people often call Jehovah evil because they are ignorant of how the other ‘gods’ dealt with their worshippers in times past. Some of the gods the Israelites chased after demanded human sacrifice – preferably the sacrifice of their children. God never asked anybody to do this … well apart from Abraham and even he was stopped from killing Isaac.
- God punishes the children for the wrongs of their fathers just us he blesses the children for the good deeds of their fathers: It seems rather unfair that sometimes innocent children have to die for the wrong deeds of generations that lived way before they were born.
In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31:29-30)
Countless times in the Old Testament we see God making reference to the good deeds of people like Abraham and David being the reason why generations after them were to be blessed. There are so many examples of this fact that I can’t begin to quote them all here. Another thing worth knowing about God is that he can change his mind about the evil he is about to visit on a person who has sinned against him but never does he change his mind about the good he intends to do (correct me if I’m wrong).
“It may be they will listen, and everyone turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds” Jeremiah 26:3
- God is sovereign: I often hear atheists calling God a serial killer, a murderer … excuse me, by whose standards are you judging God? The whole world sat and watched Saddam Hussein executed. Notice how humans call it ‘an execution’? Ha! Semantics. He was executed for the wrongs he had done against humanity. Human beings set up courts of law that determine the fate of other human beings, whether they deserve a prison sentence or death. And we have a problem when the Supreme Being and Creator of the heavens and earth has a death sentence too? The truth is, God answers to nobody. One has to be under a law to break it. He isn’t under any of the laws that govern human affairs hence we can’t say he has broken them. That is sovereignty. So when he who is sovereign decides to overlook your sinful deeds and grant you your life because he is gracious and merciful, you better accept it. A friend of mine said “only God knows how to keep a balance between love and justice’. When I think about this statement, this expression comes to mind “to tamper justice with mercy”. Which means in a legal situation, mercy, which is a function of love has no place. Only God knows how to be Love and Just at the same time. The cross is where we see both Justice and Love fully represented in one ruling. The penalty of sin was fully paid at the cross and because of that humanity received undeserved grace and mercy.
God hasn’t changed at all, he is still merciful and intolerant of sin. It is just his Grace and Mercy that have been revealed unto us in such a tremendous way because of the death of his Son. It isn’t God who has changed, it is the Testaments that have changed. When your landlord changes the terms and conditions in your tenancy agreement for it to favor you more, it isn’t your landlord that has changed, it is the conditions under which you occupy his property that have. God is still intolerant of sin. However, there is mercy when we sin and there is Grace to keep us from sinning. Please note, Grace and Mercy will end pretty soon. One of these days, God will come not as a lamb but as a ravenous lion.
One other question people often ask is, why should the man who stole 1 cedi receive the same punishment (hell) as the serial killer? This is the same reason why the thief on the cross (who got saved a few hours before he died) ended up in heaven just as the global evangelist who won millions of souls. It isn’t by deeds that we go to either heaven or hell, it is by faith or unbelief. The thief on the cross is a typical example of what I’m saying. He didn’t have to observe the Sabbath or anything else, he just had to believe in Christ and jump to his defense when the other thief accused Jesus. So there it is faith: Belief + Actions. There are degrees of punishment in hell anyway, just as there are degrees of rewards (crowns) in heaven. In Luke 10:13-14, Jesus warns the people of Bethsaida and Chorazin to repent. He said that it would be MORE BEARABLE for the people of Tyre and Sidon on judgment day than it will be for them.
We really can’t judge a person’s character by scrutinizing aspects of their behavior or relations with other people. We need to assess them based on their general behavior. So if you think God is evil based on the killings in the Old Testament, how about the blessings and victories he lavished on his people and all who feared him? You certainly cannot ignore those. This article isn’t extensive enough to capture everything on this topic. If you noticed, I used verses in Jeremiah a lot because I studied that book not too long ago. Therefore if you have questions on this topic from other parts of the bible, do ask them in the comment session and let’s get talking.