R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Wrath and Love (or, in which I rant about the character of God)

Yesterday, thanks to the kind offices of Twitter, I followed a link to an opinion piece about the recent controversy in the Montgomery County school system, where a teacher is being challenged and accused of corrupting young minds because of the inclusion of certain books in her classroom reading list.

No, that isn't what I'm going to rant about. Actually, the article made some quite good points about the dangers of judging these things hastily or leaping to wrong conclusions about the people or books involved, so there's not much to complain of there.

The column was nevertheless responsible for triggering this rant, however. Because halfway down the page I came across the following statement:

"I believe consenting adults should be able to write, publish, read or surf almost any loony material they please (with the exceptions of child pornography and nuclear secrets), just as I believe they ought to be free to worship anything from the fire-spewing God of the Old Testament to pet rocks."

Think you know what I'm going to rant about now? You're probably wrong. Actually, it was the "fire-spewing God of the Old Testament" part that got my dander up, and not much else.

Is the author of this piece (a pastor no less) actually saying that the God of the OT is completely different from the God of the NT, and one whom only "loony" people would worship? I would hope that I am misunderstanding him on that point, not least for the sake of my Jewish friends. But whether the author means what he appears to be saying or not, he's far from being the first to claim that the God of the Old Testament is somehow significantly different in temperament from the God described in the New. I've been hearing similar assertions from people -- not just skeptics trying to disparage the Bible, but professing believers as well -- all my life.

And quite frankly, it drives me crazy. Because I've been reading and studying the Bible since I was a child -- I've read it cover to cover several times and studied the major books of the Old and New Testament more times than I can count -- and based on everything I can see about God's character as revealed throughout the Bible, the idea that the Old Testament God is a big meanie and the New Testament God is jolly old Santa Claus is just not true.

The question of why God judged and punished certain particularly sinful individuals, cities and nations over the course of Old Testament history is a huge one, one that would require giving every one of those incidents a close and careful examination -- and there's no way I can do that here. But I can say that when you look at many of those incidents, you discover surprising things.

Things like God telling Abraham that his descendants won't be taking over the land of Canaan right away because "the sin of the Amorites [the inhabitants of that land at the time] has not yet reached its full measure". In other words, the Amorites were bad but they weren't bad enough to merit being wiped out -- in fact God was determined to give them another four hundred years to recognize their sin and repent. Similarly, long before the Babylonians swept in to conquer the nation of Israel and take them into exile, God had been sending prophet after prophet to warn the Israelites of their danger and urge them to repent and come back under His protection. Only when Israel had sunk so far into evil that they were sacrificing their own infant children to idols did the worst of their punishment finally come -- and even then, God alternated His messages of judgment and condemnation with assurances that He would not forsake Israel and promises that one day they would be restored to their homeland.

We see this kind of thing again and again in the OT -- instead of a hot-tempered "fire-spewing" God flying off the handle and smiting people right and left, we're presented instead with a God who patiently instructs, corrects, warns, pleads with, and grieves over sinful people for days, weeks, years, decades, even centuries or millennia before He finally steps in to judge and punish them for their sins. And even when the punishment is being carried out, He still shows mercy to those who are willing to acknowledge their sinfulness and invites them to come and be healed.

"As surely as I live," God declared to the prophet Ezekiel, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they should turn from their ways and live." Judgment is something He does because it would actually be worse -- indeed evil and uncaring -- for Him to do otherwise, not because He enjoys making people (even wicked people) suffer. That's why He delays, and warns, and pleads, and is patient, as long as He possibly can before things get so bad that He has to step in.

And even in the midst of rebuking and condemning Israel for their gross immorality, injustice and idolatry (details about which the Old Testament is almost nauseatingly explicit, just in case you're tempted to think God is overreacting to some niggling little offences that didn't really hurt anyone), He also compares His love for His people to the love of a faithful husband for a wayward wife, and even the tender love of a nursing mother for her child. He has not written them off completely. He is not washing His hands of them. He longs to bring them back to Him and restore them to wholeness and joy -- the only reason He hasn't done so is because they themselves are not willing to accept the help He offers.

And the Old Testament is full of examples of God showing mercy and compassion to people in need, and urging His servants to do likewise; it's in the Old Testament that we find the lovely and much-quoted Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd," and many other touching and beautiful words of encouragement. Time and again God's gracious and forgiving character is shown in His dealings with flawed, confused, and sinful people -- the Old Testament is full of misfits and screw-ups and yet God accomplishes great things for and through those misfits and screw-ups nonetheless.

So no, I do not see the God of the Old Testament as some "fire-spewing" barbarian with no patience or tender feelings, whom the enlightened moderns of Christendom have thankfully outgrown. I see a righteous God who loves and cares for those who are weak and needy, and must sometimes bring terrible judgments on those who exploit and oppress them… but who doesn't enjoy doling out those punishments, either, and would much rather not have to.

And then there's the New Testament God, whom we're supposed to believe is nothing but marshmallowy indulgence by comparison. People who hold this view appear to have forgotten that Jesus spoke eleven times about hell for every single time He spoke about heaven; that in the early days of the Christian church Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God for lying to the Holy Spirit, and the arrogant Herod struck down by an angel of the Lord so that he was eaten by worms and died; that the book of Hebrews reminds us that "our God is a consuming fire"; and also that the book of Revelation records the most horrific spectacles of human degradation and divine judgment to be found in the whole Bible. Not to mention that according to the gospels and the epistles, God loved the world but deemed the accumulated sins of mankind so profound and terrible that He had to step into human history Himself and undergo ultimate suffering on humanity's behalf -- that no lesser payment or sacrifice could be enough.

You may or may not agree with any of this: you may not think the Bible historically accurate or even in some vague sense "spiritually true". It may be that as far as you've seen, you find both the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New to be unappealing and as such, the idea that they are one and the same hardly matters.

But I do hope this rant of mine makes it at least somewhat evident that the much-touted dividing line between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New is really no wider than a single thin, rustling page... and that the God of the Bible is -- to use a New Testament phrase -- "the same yesterday, and today, and forever," whether you choose to love and trust and worship Him for it or not.
Tags: bible, christianity, rantage, theology
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