By Javan Rowe
The Old Testament God is angry and the New Testament God is nice. I don’t know how many times I have heard this sentiment, but is it a true portrayal of the God in Scripture?
Old Testament Wrath
We cannot deny that there are passages in the Old Testament that make us squirm. To some it seems that God simply lost his temper at times and zapped individuals or large groups of people. A deeper look, though, shows that this is not a fair assessment of God’s character, nor is it a true depiction of the events portrayed in the Bible.
We must start by mentioning that the wrath of God is not angry feelings the Lord desperately holds inside until he develops some kind of divine ulcer. Rather, it involves action, where he reaches forward to display his anger in memorable ways.
However, God’s wrath is also not an uncontrolled temper tantrum, like an unruly 2-year-old may exhibit. It is a wrath that is released only after God has patiently endured, having given plenty of chances for obedience. In his wrath, he finally exhibits the vengeance that is part of his righteous character. This may not be a comforting thought, especially when we tend to only think of God as being love, but it is an aspect of God that must not be ignored.
Let us consider some of the more memorable exhibitions of God’s anger we may recall:
• As a child, I remember being bothered by the scene where Korah and some of his followers were swallowed up into the earth—certainly a horrible way to die! Numbers 16 gives this account, where Korah, Dathan, and Abiram led 250 men in a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, questioning their leadership. The result of this action is found in verses 31-33: “The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.”
• It does not stop there though. When the people complained to Moses about what had happened, God sent a plague, killing 14,700 people.
• On an even larger scale, God had previously destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire (Genesis 19) and sent plagues on Egypt, culminating with the death of the firstborn of every household (Exodus 7–12). These and other events are certainly ones where God displayed his wrath in vivid, unforgettable ways.
Patient, Merciful God
As awful as these accounts may seem, we must first realize that God gave more than adequate warning for people to change their ways. This was why God sent prophets like Jeremiah: “Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’” (44:4). God’s desire was not to destroy people, but that they would turn to him in obedience.
Besides, when you consider that thousands of years passed in the Old Testament, these occurrences really are few and far between. When we read the Bible, I think we forget how much time really passed between the accounts, like the kings in the Chronicles books, for example. Only certain stories are highlighted so we forget the lapses of time between them. It reveals that God really is long-suffering.
A good example of this can be found in the book of Judges. Throughout this book we find the following cycle repeated: the Israelites sinned greatly, God punished via an enemy army, the people repented, and God raised a judge to deliver them. This cycle constantly repeated so that when we read quickly through the chapters, it seems that God’s punishments were never ending. But upon closer examination, time expired between the judges, such as 80 years passing between the time of Ehud and Deborah (Judges 3:30).
What we discover is that God’s judgments and acts of wrath really were quite infrequent.
If we are completely honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that we deserve God’s wrath. Any sabbatical from his vengeance is truly undeserved. The fact that his wrath was only periodically visited upon people is proof of his patience and willingness to bring many people back to himself. God’s vengeance is rare, while his patience is frequent.
Though we all deserve God’s wrath daily, his mercy withholds his judgment that is justified. If we got what we deserved, surely none of us would stand. God’s mercy saves us on even minor matters, and it is that mercy that ultimately saved us from his wrath concerning our sin when the Father sent a Savior to take our place.
New Testament Wrath
So God is not as mean in the Old Testament as some may believe, but we must also consider the false notion that the New Testament reveals only a nice, overly passive God. The truth is there are plenty of places where God judges swiftly in the New Testament, like when the Lord quickly put Ananias and Sapphira to death for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). God is always a righteous God, despite which part of the Bible we are reading.
Jesus at times has been portrayed as a meek teacher, sometimes to the point of seeming wimpy. To dispel this line of thinking one can simply read Matthew 21, where Jesus in his righteous wrath threw the money changers out of the temple.
We cannot escape the fact that in the sacrifice of his Son, the fullness of the Father’s wrath was poured out on our sin. Isaiah prophesied about Jesus, speaking undeniably about the Father visiting his wrath on his Son because he bore our iniquity:
“We considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him . . . the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:4-6, 10).
This Old Testament prophesy was confirmed in the New Testament with passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:9, which says, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” or Romans 5:9, which says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
The good news is because of Christ’s death on the cross, we no longer have to fear God’s wrath because it was already appeased. He will certainly chasten us along the way, like any parent who loves a child. But it will be a reprimand with the goal of bringing us back into his loving arms. Even in that, God’s punishments are occasional, while his patience and mercy remain enduring.
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio (eyesonthekingdom.com).