In the rough and tumble world of online discussion of just about any current theological issue, eventually one is sure to come across a denunciation of the God of the Old Testament. His detractors deride Him as cranky, vengeful, wrathful, unreasonable, arbitrary, blood-thirsty, and (in the always colourful words of Richard Dawkins), “as the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. And, I am compelled to admit, I have no clue as to what they are talking about. The very first time I seriously read through the entire Old Testament as a teenager and new convert to Christ, my initial impression of the God revealed in the Old Testament was one of love, condescension, compassion, and almost infinite patience with rebellious sinners. And that impression has endured and (if anything) has grown deeper with the passing of years.
I understand some of this denunciation of the Most High on online forums and the like—some people are simply angry at Christianity and happily use any stick with which to beat Christians. They take some Old Testament verses out of their literary context and entirely out of their cultural context and start shouting. What is more perplexing to me is finding some Christians arguing that the Old Testament deity is insufficiently Christ-like. I expect the unbelievers to throw large chunks of the Bible angrily across the room. But I expected believers to be more respectful of what is for them, after all, Holy Writ.
My perplexity is increased at finding some Orthodox Christians talking as if the Old Testament painted a picture of an unworthy and wrathful God. After all, the Orthodox are the ones who supposedly value history and Tradition, and the heresy of Marcionism was soundly condemned a long time ago. It is late in the game to be taking pages out of his playbook. Marcion (as described by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) held as his central thesis “that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. [For Marcion] the God revealed in the Old Testament had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ”. In this reading of the Bible, the Old Testament God was vengeful; the more Christ-like God of the New Testament was not at all wrathful, but only ever loving to everyone.
One may object to Marcion and his modern disciples therefore on two counts: 1. that the Old Testament God is not at all as His detractors portray Him; and 2. the portrayal of the God of the New Testament is entirely consistent with His earlier portrayal in the Old Testament.
On the first count: the Old Testament God is one who unfailingly and tenderly cares for His people, even when they betray Him, deny Him, turn away from Him, and generally act abusively towards Him. Look at the histories recounted in Judges, and 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. One could summarize this centuries’ long and lamentable history of apostasy as God Himself did through His prophet Jeremiah: “They turned their back to Me and not their face, though I taught them, rising up early and teaching, they would not listen and receive instruction. But they put their detestable things in the House which is called by My Name to defile it, and they built the high places of Baal to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech” (Jeremiah 32:33f). Or listen to the cry of divine hurt through His prophet Micah: “My people, what have I done to you and how have I wearied you? Answer Me! Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery” (Micah 6:3-4). Or read the whole sorry indictment of Israel’s unfaithful betrayal in Ezekiel 16: here God says that He found His people like an abandoned baby, left to die in an open field, and took them in and cared for them, only to have them grow up and abandon Him for others. Salvation history is the history of heartbreak, of a God who has done everything possible for His people only to have them turn away to other gods, gods which could not possibly save them, gods which commanded that they sacrifice their children in the fire. You can almost feel the divine perplexity at such perversity, like an open and bleeding wound in the heart of God: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Here we see an abandoned and broken-hearted God. The shadow of the Cross begins to loom even before the birth at Bethlehem.
We can also see how truly Christ-like is God’s character in the Old Testament—He is a God who commands that when His people take eggs from a nest, they may not take the mother along with the eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). He is a God who commands that every seven years all financial debts be forgiven, and that one must take care to loan money to a neighbour even if the year of forgiveness approaches and the loan therefore cannot be recovered—“for the poor will never cease from the land, therefore I command you, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 22:7f). He is a God who cares for the poor, commanding His people to leave some food ungleaned in their fields so that the poor might have it (Leviticus 19:9-10). In Facebook forums people often scream about how Christians should not be guided by Leviticus, but this aspect of Leviticus and the Law seems to escape them.
On the second count: this Old Testament deity continued to reveal Himself in the New Testament through His Son. In ancient times God took no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11f), and in later days He continued to prove Himself the God of love, and called the whole rebellious race of man back to Himself through the proclamation of the Gospel. If despite their monstrous sins (see Nahum 3:19), God still cared for the people of pagan Nineveh (Jonah 4:11), it is not surprising to see Him later calling back tax-collectors and prostitutes to His mercy. Indeed, though the whole human race had defected from His love and preferred idolatry and sin to serving Him, He still sent His Son to die for such ungodly rebels.
Yet His kindness is balanced by His severity (see Romans 11:22)—judgment will fall upon the impenitent if they resist to the end His call to repentance. In the New Testament as in the Old, our God is a consuming fire, and it is a terrifying thing to fall into His hands (Hebrews 12:29, 10:31). In fact, given that God’s love is the more abundantly poured out in the New Testament dispensation, the cost of rejecting it is correspondingly higher: “If the word spoken through angels [in the Old Testament] proved unalterable and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:2-3) The one who set aside Moses’ Law died without mercy—how much severer punishment will he deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God and insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29) Ananias and Sapphira discovered this to their cost—when they lied to God, they were struck down dead for it (Acts 5:1f). St. Luke concludes his telling of their story by remarking that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v.11).
Here, I submit, is our problem today, for great fear no longer comes upon us when we read of such things. We have driven a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and have distorted the features of both. The God of the Old Testament is all severity; the God of the Gospel is all kindness. This latter is no longer a father, but a grandfather—old, indulgent, toothless, and harmless even when defied and ignored. It is not a fearful thing for impenitent rebels to fall into His hands. If any neglect the great salvation He has provided, it will all come out fine in the end. Love wins, and the fires of Gehenna will be extinguished in the end. Ananias and Sapphira (and with them Hitler, Stalin and all others like them) will be tremendously relieved for, as it turns out according to this view, righteousness and justice are not the foundation of His throne after all (Psalm 89:14).
It is a natural temptation to want to remake God into our own image, and it is not that hard. Marcion did it superbly. But it is a temptation we must resist.