One of the apparent inconsistencies in Christianity is the change that occurs in the character of God between the Old and New Testaments. The God of the Old Testament is stereotyped as a God of war, a God of wrath, and a God for whom justice is the primary concern. Followers of Jehovah focused on obedience to the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen other laws commonly acknowledged to be contained in the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, by contrast, the God worshipped by early Christians is full of love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Less focus is placed on following the Law to the letter and more emphasis is placed on following the spirit of the Law. Jesus condenses the law to two commands: love God and love others. This apparent discrepancy has been a stumbling block for members of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity when it comes to living peacefully and working together. However, there is substantial evidence within the Bible as a whole that points to an unchanging God. That is to say, the Old Testament is as rife with evidences of God’s mercy as the New Testament is with concern for His wrath.
The Old Testament characterizes God as a law-giver whose primary interest is justice. Beginning with the Garden of Eden, God gives Adam and Eve one command: Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because when you do, you will die (Genesis 2:17). This rule seems simple enough but Adam and Eve disobey. As a result, they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, among other things, because God gave a command and they disobeyed it. This characterizes God as One who keeps His word and is concerned with justice. In a similar fashion, God becomes displeased with the people He created because of their wickedness and decides to destroy the entire Earth with a flood. Again, God set up rules and His people disobeyed them; therefore, they had to be punished. This exhibits not only the concern that God has for justice, but also His wrath and the extremes to which He is willing to go in order to execute justice. There are also the examples of the threat to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, which is carried out, and the threat to destroy Nineveh, which is not carried out. This wrathful, controlling God also commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Fortunately, God takes back that command and commends the faith of Abraham. There are innumerable other examples within the Old Testament selections which point to a God concerned only with wrath and justice; there are wars, famines, disease, deaths that all show the harsh personality associated with God by many people. In addition, the laws for relations between people often reflected these ideals of justice and retribution, as evidenced by the common phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24).
On the other side of the proverbial coin, the God depicted at the surface level in the New Testament has forgotten His anger toward the disobedient Israelites and is now focused on love and forgiveness. The opening verses of the gospel of Mark, which was written to Roman Christians, speak of John the Baptist who preaches about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. This gospel, unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, omits the genealogy of Jesus presumably because the intended Roman audience would not be interested in it like Jews would have been (Gromacki 96-100). But the Romans would understand the concept of baptism because of its presence in many of the pagan religions of the day. This emphasis on the forgiveness of God is part of what sets the New Testament God apart from previous conceptions of God. Later, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39). Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament calls people of faith to also exhibit these characteristics associated with the God of love and forgiveness. One of the primary examples of this is found in the gospels. A Jewish rabbi, trying to trick Jesus, asks which commandments are most important. Jesus responds by saying that first one ought to love God then one ought to love his neighbor. This is quite the contrast to the seemingly nitpicky laws of the Old Testament that governed everyday life for the Hebrew people. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus directly contradicts the idea of an eye for an eye. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Matthew 5:38-39). This idea of forgiveness completely contrasts the letter of the Old Testament law. Instead, the precept known commonly as the Golden Rule which states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is the mode of the New Testament.
It is easy to paint God as strictly concerned with justice and wrath in the Old Testament but there are, in fact, many examples that demonstrate God’s love and compassion toward people. One such example is the compassion that God shows Cain. Yes, Cain is banished from his home because he murdered his brother out of jealousy. Cain assumes that he would be killed by whoever met him but God promised that He would put a mark upon Cain so that no one would kill him. This shows God’s mercy toward Cain. He could have left Cain destitute and constantly in fear of losing his life, but God takes pity upon him and prevented that. God also shows mercy to the entire people of Nineveh, despite Jonah’s objections. When God is giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time He says to Moses, “I am the LORD God. I am merciful and very patient with my people. I show great love, and I can be trusted” (Exodus 34:6). Indeed, if we examine the whole story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, God did show His patience to the Hebrew people. They did not have much faith and continually turned away from what He told them was right but God did not turn away from the. Prior the monarchal period in Israel’s history, God raises up judges to rule (Barker, OT Chronology). In the book of Judges, the Hebrews go through a cyclical period of being happy and obedient, then regressing to a state of sin. God patiently waits until the nation of Israel is ready to come back to Him. God also shows compassion toward Jonah, who disobeyed a direct command. First of all, Jonah lives after being swallowed by a great fish, commonly translated as whale. That, in and of itself, is a miraculous demonstration of God’s mercy. Also, after Jonah preaches to Nineveh and they repent, Jonah is upset. God protects him with a plant and does not leave him. Yet another example is seen when God, speaking to the people of Israel through Jeremiah says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3). It is also easy to characterize the law for people as being rife with the eye-for-an-eye mentality but the opposite is, in fact, the case. Another command mentioned is for the Israelites to “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). This seems rather to be the antithesis of the eye for an eye mentality so commonly associated with the Old Testament.
Just as it is easy to stereotype the God of the Old Testament as solely wrathful and vengeful, it is just as easy to characterize the teachings of Jesus about God as only loving and forgiving. To be sure, the God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving but He still cares for justice as much as he did in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, there are approximately thirty-six verses that make mention of God’s wrath, depending on which version you are looking at (E-Sword). The God of the New Testament continues to execute justice against those He considers unrighteous or ungodly: “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…” (Romans 1:18a). The basic gospel, according to Paul in Romans, is that human beings are sinful and that without the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, they would be facing God’s eternal wrath and punishment. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This verse suggests that without God’s forgiveness, consequences for one’s actions, in the form of eternal punishment, will still apply. In other words, God still cares for justice. Yes, this verse adds the gracious, compassionate side of God to the equation but it does not take away the judicial side of Him. One story that comes to mind regarding God’s wrath and punishment in the New Testament is that of Ananias and Sapphira. To summarize, Ananias and his wife sell a piece of their property and bring some of the profit as an offering to the apostles, claiming that what they brought was all that they had received. When asked directly if they had brought everything, Ananias lies and says that it is. In reality, he and his wife had kept back a portion of it for themselves. God strikes Ananias down dead for lying to Peter and to God. His wife, Sapphira who was not present for these happenings, then comes in and is questioned similarly. She also says they brought everything they received for the land. She also dies (Acts 5). In my opinion, that’s a quite vivid depiction of wrath and punishment on the part of God. Perhaps the biggest evidence of God’s concern for justice is the crucifixion of Jesus, who according to the gospels was God’s Son. According to Christian tradition, Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself and symbolically became the sacrificial lamb referred to in Isaiah. As said in Romans, the result of sin is death. God allowed this death to be accomplished in the death of Jesus (I John 2:2), an allowance which, if the claims of Jesus being God’s Son are accurate, would have been difficult for even an almighty Father.
To view God as either the God of the Old Testament or the God of the New Testament is irresponsible. (Simplifying any person, deity or otherwise, to one or two characteristics is irresponsible.) The first Christians were converted Jews who whose only scripture was the Old Testament; most of the gospels and epistles even quote from the Old Testament on occasion. Christianity was at first considered an off-shoot of Judaism by the Roman Empire. In my opinion, there is no God of the Old Testament. There is no God of the New Testament. There is God: the great I AM, as He called himself to Moses. This God is capable of maintaining standards of justice and law while still exercising mercy and compassion. In conclusion, God is righteous, holy, eternal, just, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He is also loving, compassionate, and merciful. Most importantly, He is perfect (Psalm 18:30). As imperfect human beings, we are incapable of fully comprehending everything that God is and how everything works. Instead of partitioning God into the vengeful God and the loving God, people of faith ought to try synthesizing the two to come to a fuller understanding of both God and each other.