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Without question, one of the more common objections raised against the Christian faith is that the Old and New Testaments differ in their portrayal of God’s character.
For many people—believers and non-believers alike—the God of the Bible underwent a type of “personality makeover.” Somewhere between God’s dealings with the Jewish people and Jesus coming to bring salvation to the world, the Creator “changed.” This has shaped the appearance that God is described in the OT as an angry, malicious and bloodthirsty deity. The famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, once summarized the “outsider’s perspective” on the matter:
“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.”
The lavish language aside, this basic sentiment is not radically different from how many people understand the “God of the Old Testament.” The implication is that God is depicted in the New Testament as a far more compassionate, forgiving and tolerant deity. In other words, Jesus is “nicer” than Yahweh.
But is this really what the Bible teaches?
I want to suggest that this is not the picture painted by Scripture at all. But before proving this point, it is necessary to look at what some may call the “uglier” realities of the Bible. These are the very examples that are sometimes used to prove how vicious the God of the OT was/is. Though believers often attempt to gloss over these events—because it’s simply easier to—that is a problem in and of itself. I will return to this point near the end.
At present, let’s examine some of these OT passages and see how they portray God. One of the best places to start is early in human history, with something very well known: The Great Flood. This event is sometimes sugar-coated but rest assured that it was a brutal reality. Genesis 6 reveals that humanity had, in very short order, come to be insufferably corrupt. This was so much the case that God became “grieved” and regretted having ever made our race (6:6). The cumulative effects of the “Nephilim”—made possible by the “sons of God”—and human sinfulness were sufficient in forcing God’s hand. God decided that enough was enough, and that it was time to wipe the slate clean in dramatic fashion: “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them’ ” (6:7).
Except for Noah and his family, the Lord “blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land” (7:23). It is difficult to imagine the calamity seen by those who were perishing.
While plenty of other undesirable events occurred thereafter, the next example takes us well into the time when God was dealing with a specific group of people: with His people (Israel). After the death of Moses, a young leader named Joshua was appointed in his stead. Joshua was left with the daunting task of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. But first, they would have to run through a virtual gauntlet of groups that already inhabited Canaan and its surrounding territories. What transpired was a brutal military campaign for the ages. It began in Jericho, where two Israelite spies had formerly scouted the city. It is recorded that the prostitute, Rahab, and her family were spared from the insurgence (Jos. 6:17).
However, no one else was quite as fortunate. After marching around the city for days on end and blowing their trumpets, the walls of the city finally fell (6:20). Afterwards, this is what the Israelites did: “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (6:21). Everything living was eradicated. Not a single man, woman, child, or even animal was left breathing.
This was not a one-time event, either. Joshua 12 records the multitude of lands and rulers—thirty-one kings in all (12:24)—that were conquered along with way to possessing the Promised Land. Much of the time, this certainly involved tremendous death and destruction.
Further, God did not spare His own people when they rebelled. Joshua 7 describes a man named Achan, and the horrible fate he and his family suffered. The Israelites were frequently told not to carry off with them the spoils of battle (6:18). However, after the destruction of Jericho, a man named Achan took for himself a beautiful robe, two hundred shekels of silver, and a gold bar weighing fifty shekels (7:21). The entire community proceeded to take Achan—along with all his sons and daughters, his cattle, and everything he owned—and destroy him. They stoned both Achan and his family before burning their bodies (7:24-26).
Did his family even have anything to do with Achan’s act? We simply don’t know, but it didn’t seem to matter either way.
To drive the point home, consider just a couple more examples. The book of Numbers depicts a very strange event in which Korah (a Levite)—along with all who took part in his uprising to rule Israel—was either miraculously devoured by the earth or destroyed by fire from heaven (16:1-35). More alarming is the fact that God initially wanted to destroy the entire congregation for “Korah’s Rebellion” but didn’t at Moses and Aaron’s desperate request (16:20-24).
Apart from this, God forced the entire generation of Israelites to wander in the wilderness until they had expired. Elsewhere, Scripture records that David, before he was made King of Israel, was celebrated for being a great warrior: “The women sang as they played, and said, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands’ ” (1 Sam. 18:7). How could David—a man God said was “after My own heart” (Acts 13:22)—have been adored for killing thousands of people?
There are a great many other examples we could look at, but these make the point.
It is critical to understand that, as the Bible explains ancient history, the cities and groups the Israelites (or God) destroyed were neither “innocent” of wrongdoing nor morally virtuous. In fact, some of these cultures valued their own children so little that they were willing to offer them as sacrifices to their gods. Such groups had no business influencing God’s people or living with them, and they typically reciprocated (or instigated) acts of aggression toward Israel. Those within the Israelite community who perished were attempting to put them at risk and thwart God’s plans for the world. That could not be permitted, either; there was too much at stake.
Still, who can deny the brutality involved? Few of us are willing to read through these parts of Scripture, much less try to imagine what the events were really like. Consider the carnage: the screaming mothers, the wailing children, the mangled bodies left littered on the streets . . . you get the idea.
Maybe the “God of the OT” really was a monster. Perhaps we should be glad that Jesus came and changed our understanding of God’s character!
Perhaps, but no. This could only be true if God’s character really did undergo a change after Jesus’ arrival. However, and most emphatically, it did not. When we carefully read through the Gospels and take a hard look at the person of Jesus and his teachings, we see God’s character revealed in a way that is remarkably consistent with the OT descriptions.
To put it mildly, Jesus did not tolerate willful foolishness, debauchery, hypocrisy or sinful behavior in general. Though his aim was always to correct and lead others out of darkness, he was quick to give his audience a heavy dose of reality. He regularly referred to the corrupt religious leaders as “whitewashed tombs,” a “brood of vipers,” “hypocrites,” and even children of the devil. Jesus called his own apostles out as well, even claiming once that Peter—a person within Jesus’ sacred inner circle—was attempting to do Satan’s bidding (Mt. 16:23). Jesus of course famously overturned the tables in the temple, because it had been turned into a “den of robbers” (Mt. 21:13).
Furthermore, Jesus—being both God and man—cannot be divorced from certain other acts described after he returned to heaven. A couple named Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the spot for withholding money from the church (Acts 5:1-11). The corrupt Judean King, Herod Agrippa I, was likewise destroyed by an angel of the Lord (Acts: 12:23). These are just some of the more notable events that could be mentioned from the NT.
Above any of this, Jesus also discussed the end results of godless behavior in ways the OT barely broached. Earthly death is a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, but it was not the only result (and certainly not the worst). There is a “second death” that each of us would be heading towards (Rev. 21:8), without God’s miraculous intervention and our subsequent commitment to follow Him. Jesus spoke frequently about this reality, calling it “Gehenna.”
To you and me, Gehenna is hell: the place prepared for fallen angels and unrepentant human beings (Mt. 25:41). He often warned others about the dangers of hell, telling them it would be like “outer darkness” and a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25:30). Jesus even suggested that it would be preferable to amputate our appendages than to continue on a path leading the hell: “. . . it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43).
Without question, the punishment of everlasting destruction in Gehenna far exceeds anything endured by those in the OT.
Being struck down, devoured by the earth, destroyed by a flood, or anything else, pales in comparison to the nightmare of hell. It was not the first death that Jesus asked people to be concerned with but the second: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
Obviously, I have not described the loving and compassionate nature of God. That is not the matter at hand, but it should be noted that God—in both the Old and New Testament—is consistently described as being incomparably caring. Certainly, there are stern consequences for sinful behavior but the lengths God goes to in order to spare individuals and save humanity are difficult to comprehend.
The purpose of this article is to show that, while God is consistently loving and benevolent, both testaments of the Bible depict divine wrath and judgment in equal measure. If anything, the NT descriptions of hell are far more ominous than the punishments we find in the OT.
The bottom line is that God did not change as time went on. Jesus is not “nicer” than Yahweh.
In fact, Jesus is Yahweh: one of the three persons that Christians collectively call “God.” The Son of God became incarnate in the man Jesus but, before that, he created the world (Heb. 1:2) and governed the people of Israel. Both the OT and NT are describing the exact same God, and the portrayal of God’s character is incredibly consistent throughout.
If that is true, why do so many people—even those who profess Christianity—believe that the Old Testament portrays God in a much scarier and more vengeful way than the New Testament?
There are several reasons involved, certainly. In my opinion, the root cause of this misunderstanding is that believers have—for far too long and far too often—ignored the “unpleasant” aspects of the NT and Jesus’ ministry in general.
It is easy to embrace the “For God so loved the world” and “eternal life” parts of John 3:16 but it is harder to accept the alternative it describes, which is to “perish.” To be sure, John meant this in an everlasting since. The sad reality is that the Gospel Message has been watered-down to the point that we no longer see the complete character of God or even acknowledge some of its most pivotal points.
Among these is the crucial reality that Jesus came to save us from something: being cast into hell. The results of sin not only lead every human being to physical death, but will cause the unrepentant to partake in the second death.
While we must never cheapen or downplay the sacrifice Jesus made to save us from this demise, we must also never forget that the very same Jesus has vowed to sentence some to Gehenna upon his arrival.
That may not be “nice,” but it is most certainly just.
Looking for a new book to read? Check out my books below:
God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact
Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm
Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn’t Teach
The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 31.
 The existence of the Nephilim and the sons of God require a separate explanation of their own. I refer you to my online article, “The Sons of God: Giant Makers” and pages 92-104 of Spiritual Things.
 The silver would have weighed about 5 pounds and the gold would have been the equivalent of about 1¼ pounds; a valuable prize indeed!
 See Numbers 14:33 and Joshua 5:6.
 Leviticus 18:21, for example, specifically forbade Israel from sacrificing their children to Moloch (or any other god), as the Ammonites and certain other Canaanite groups were doing.
 See Matthew 23:27, 33 and John 8:44.
 See Genesis 3:19 and Romans 5:12-21.
 Of the twelve times Gehenna is directly referenced in Scripture, eleven are attributed to Jesus. The remaining reference was made by Jesus’ half-brother, James (Ja. 3:6). The basic concept is discussed in myriad other ways throughout the NT, and by most all of its authors.
 For every time someone was harshly dealt with, there were countless wrongdoings God had endured. God is within His rights to stop the human project at any time, but never has. Even after the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the endless cycles of sin during the time of the judges, the kings, and the prophets, the mass rejection of Jesus, the murder of God’s Messiah, and the innumerable everyday acts of lawlessness, God has stuck with humanity. This central truth and reflection of God’s loving nature must be factored in when evaluating the kinds of topics taken up in this section.