This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: How can the God of the Old Testament, who destroys his enemies, align with Jesus who tells us to love our enemies?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
This question haunted me for years. For many Christians, it seems like an unsolvable riddle. That’s why many of us choose to ignore this reality and focus more on the New Testament. Maybe the grumpy God of the Old Testament found a way to chill out a bit in the 400 years between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And then maybe He came back happier as Jesus. If forced to choose between Old Testament God or Jesus, the decision seems pretty easy. Unfortunately, I don’t think we as Christians have the luxury of avoiding this difficult question. Consider a quote from the noted atheist Richard Dawkins as an example of why:
“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.”
Perhaps a bit harsh, huh? Yet many of these accusations from Dawkins result from real stories in the Old Testament that horrify modern readers. God tells His people to kill off entire groups of people, including women and children. Now let me show you an equally shocking verse when seen in this light. Jesus chastises a group of religious leaders for how they “study the Scriptures diligently because [they] think that in them [they] have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” (John 5:39). Does that mean these stories of violence in the Old Testament point us to Jesus?
Or consider another problematic verse in this discussion. In John 10:30 Jesus explains how “I and the Father are one.” That means God (particularly the version in the Old Testament) and Jesus are the same person. And my suggested option of God mellowing out in Heaven and then coming back nicer as Jesus completely clashes with Hebrews 13:8 where we find that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” God is the same in the Old Testament and the New Testament. All these reasons and more challenge us to make sense out of this problem. What do we make of this?
There must be something else going on. If God looks like Jesus, and the Old Testament points to Jesus, and God is the same in both testaments, then we must start with Jesus and work backward. Jesus on the cross is the fullest picture we see of God. Colossians 2:9 says that “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” God cannot and does not look like anything other than Jesus. We must therefore suspend any other reading of an Old Testament text that would lead us to find an ‘anti-Jesus’ God and search deeper for how we can reconcile them to Jesus. That could mean that the Israelites misunderstood God (and God never actually said those things), that it didn’t happen that way, that God wanted other solutions which they couldn’t understand or any other number of possibilities.
I realize this puts many Christians into an uncharted and uncomfortable territory. While it’s beyond the scope of this post to elaborate on each option, consider just one possibility to make my point. In Exodus 23, God describes how he wants the Israelites to inhabit the Promised Land.
“I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” Exodus 23:27-30
Notice how much violence they would have to carry out to make that happen: none. God isn’t killing those people either. Could it be that something like this verse (and there are others like it) shows us God’s desire instead of Israel conquering by military might? Could it be that Israel wasn’t able to understand this concept and instead assumed God must use violence? Again, this is just one of multiple possibilities of what else might be going on. As we saw in the last Theology Thursday post, we have to remember the people involved in writing the Scriptures we read (see: Contradictions in the Bible).
If the New Testament is right about Jesus, then it makes little sense to think God readily embraced all the violence the Old Testament attributes to Him. We should read the Bible not as a cookbook, where all pages hold equal value, but rather as a suspense story where the shocking ending changes everything that came before it. Jesus shows us how to read the Old Testament. This was the point of our summer series Pixelated. It’s not up to us to choose which version of violence or which version of God we prefer to use today. It’s up to us to live out the radical call of discipleship modeled by a God who displayed His power not in overthrowing Rome but in surrendering to a cross. This Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus in Matthew 5:43-45
Only by reading the Old Testament the way Jesus did can we find a way to see Jesus in it.
Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create a dialogue where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.Click here for the photo credit on this post