Is God cruel in the Old Testament?

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Transcript of the above video

Over the years, I’ve read a few of the major books on atheism and one of the things that they often spend time talking about is these horrors that they see happening in the Old Testament by a God whom Christians claim to be benevolent and loving. There’s these judgments and conquests, brutal slaughters and killings happening in the Old Testament, condoned by God, that include women and children! There’s the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the firstborn of the families of Egypt, Joshua in the Canaan Wars. We understand that these are judgments against wicked people, but it’s still very difficult to swallow. Put mildly these stories seem quite barbaric to the modern reader. Put not-so-mildly, I would give you the words of the Atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion he says this. “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, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)

This is one of the big reasons that people don’t have much interest in hearing about God these days. They don’t like him! They say that they would rather go to Hell than to worship a God like this! Frankly, I don’t get excited about a God “like this” either, but I find that a holistic view of Scripture does not present a God “like this,” and there are a number of things going on in the Old Testament that we have to understand. 

As a Christian, one of the things that has helped me understand God’s seemingly cruel acts in the Old Testament is when I really considered what it means for God to be holy. There is a highness, a sacredness, a sense in which God is utterly set apart from all things impure. This is why sin is such a big deal for Christians. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah sees God seated on his throne in all his glory and he cries out “Woe is me, I am ruined!” This was a morally astute man, and yet at the sight of a holy God, that’s what comes out of him! It’s like his eyes are opened and he gets this revelation about God: that because of sin, we are not entitled to the very air we breathe! For me, this didn’t totally solve all the angst I feel for why God does these seemingly cruel things in the Old Testament, but it helped me to see things in a better perspective. God is establishing in the Old Testament that he is holy, and with that comes a moral standard that he holds us accountable for. And so the very fact that we are alive today is because a holy God has shown us mercy. And the more time I spent reading through the Old Testament, the more I realized how merciful this holy God really is. 

Think back to the Canaan wars, arguably the most prime example of judgment and bloodshed in the Old Testament sanctioned by God. Now these were cruel, bloodthirsty people who sacrificed children! Yet in mercy, God waited 400 years before he commanded Joshua to destroy them. Even then, the first story in these narratives is a story of Rahab. And this is HUGE, that Rahab comes first! Because Rahab informs a reader that these people knew about Israel’s God, they heard of the stories of judgment, they knew that God’s army was coming to destroy them in judgment, and that even a prostitute, the worst of them all like Rahab, could receive mercy. As it turns out, the tragedy of these stories is that they didn’t want it. 

Another example of mercy in the Old Testament would be the story of Jonah. As a prophet of God, Jonah understood God’s delight to relent from judgment. Now, under God’s command, Jonah prophesied judgment over the city of Nineveh, but the people repented… no judgment! The irony is that Jonah wanted God to be less loving. He wanted these people to be judged. God wouldn’t do it! Evidently these judgment prophecies were delivered as a warning in mercy so that the people would have a chance to repent. 

Hopefully by now we have a sense in which God does not relish in executing judgment. Ezekiel 33:11 makes this explicit. God says “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)

We’ve got to take this verse with us when we consider God’s dealings with humanity. But of all the examples of mercy I could give you, the most important example is the mercy that we have been offered in Christ. Now here’s why: Jesus told his disciples that he is one with God in that by looking upon Jesus we have looked upon God. This is huge! That God is actually revealed to us in Christ, and the Bible encourages us to understand God through Christ! It says he is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), the exact imprint of God’s nature! (Hebrews 1:3) Now, if Christ is the exact imprint and the full revelation of who God is, then we can’t just stick with the Old Testament and think that we have a complete picture of God. It is not complete. Now, God never changes, but our understanding of God does change as we consider “the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

I am astounded by the fact that Paul had to explain to the Romans why God showed so much mercy before the time of Christ. His audience struggled with mercy! We struggle with judgment! We struggle to understand things like holiness and sin. Perhaps more than anything, we struggle to understand why God says that he loves us and yet holds this world accountable—you and I—to a moral standard. And so I don’t expect any of us to just walk away from this video being, “Oh! Okay, I get it!” I’m not even there yet! This is just difficult to talk about. It takes time, especially in the culture that we are born into. We may not understand why God does what he does when it comes to judgments in the Old Testament. We may not like it in our own minds. But if history has shown us anything, it’s that entire nations who thought they were morally right have been horribly wrong. And this takes humility: That we just don’t have perfect knowledge here. But if God is God, and he truly is who he said he is, then the judge of all this world is going to do what’s right. That is our hope. That is where we place our trust. That is why we can pick up the entire Bible and appreciate God as he is fully revealed in the beautiful face of Christ!