by Sean Luke
“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.”— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
God is a jerk, according to some contemporary atheists. If you Google “God of the Old Testament,” you will readily find a number of links that disparage this God. This criticism goes all the way back to Marcion, a second century figure who argued that the God of the Old Testament was a different God than the one of the New Testament. According to him, the God of the Old Testament was violent, vindictive, and bloodthirsty (sound familiar?), and so couldn’t possibly be the God of the New Testament. But in fact, the God of the New Testament isn’t so different. He strikes people dead (Acts 5:1-11), and in Jesus promises to come back with a sword to slay the nations (Revelation 19:11-21). Inevitably, we have to ask ourselves an honest question: do we worship a bloodthirsty, vindictive monster?
No, we don’t. We worship a God of holy justice.
The Question of Justice and the Wrath of God
Several years ago, a Stanford swimmer named Brock Turner sexually assaulted Chanel Miller. He was indicted and received the light sentence of six months in prison. This sparked a national outcry; six months seemed far too lenient. We live in a world where extortionists can get several years in prison, but rape apparently only merits six months. The public knew a clear truth: justice was not done. And they were right.Justice requires that the crime be punished in a way that a) shows the severity of the crime and b) upholds and communicates the worth of the victim. The punishment Turner received was unfitting precisely because it did neither.
We live in a world full of murderers, rapists, thieves, child molesters, human traffickers, and evildoers of all shades and sizes. If a man molests a child, we know that getting him to say “sorry” isn’t actually enough. If a judge sentences a child molester to ten minutes in “time-out,” this would be an inappropriate punishment even if the punishment sufficed to bring about contrition and sorrow. Justice must be done, and the worth of the victim must be upheld.
And this is where the story of the Bible indicts us all in the scene of God’s courtroom. We know that child molesters and rapists must be punished; we get that it wouldn’t be enough if Hitler just said “sorry” for the Holocaust. But we stubbornly resist the fact that we are the murderer in the divine courtroom. We are the wrongdoer. We have all wronged our neighbor in some form or another, wronged creation in some way or another, and supremely rebelled against God. In fact, people do this sort of thing every day. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:26, NIV). Moreover, sin is an infinite cancer; sin—our wrongdoing—is not merely a name for isolated acts of wrongdoing. At the first taste of lust, for example, one finds pornography more and more appealing. The first act of violence makes the next one somehow easier. Sin, in other words, expresses an unbounded potential for evil.
We think to ourselves, “Well, I’ll only lie once . . . or twice . . . or thrice!” Or we think, “Well, I may have ruined his reputation, but I’m no murderer.” But why is it that our anger doesn’t always yield murder? Surely, it’s because of a moral law that restrains us—what we call “conscience.” But what would happen if conscience didn’t restrain us? The natural tendency of sin is towards further and further destruction and vice. An expression of unjust anger is the seed of murder. Every isolated act of sin carries the seeds of an eternal spiral into depravity. Hell, then, is what happens when God takes off his restraining hands and lets sin have its way in us. He says to us “thy will be done,” and gives us over to the ravaging effects of sin. So hell endures just as long as our sin bears its thorns and thistles: forever.
If God is to deliver justice, he must show forth the severity of sin relative to its seriousness. And just as sin is an infinite downward spiral, God pours out his wrath eternally. This is why God “strings his bow” (Psalm 7:12, NIV). He aims his arrows at human beings when there is no other option or no good thing that could come out of permitting human evil. He gets angry at genocide for much the same reasons we do. But the divine anger is perfectly just in opposition to sin. God, then, delivers judgment when human evil leaves him with no other good option. Though he has a right to judge us whenever we commit evil, he withholds judgment until it would be unfit to withhold it any longer. And at final judgment, God won’t hold back at all. Evil will be judged completely.
The Holiness of God and the Good News of Jesus
If God’s responses to evil in the form of execution and eternal judgment expose the severity of sin, then we ought to tremble at sin’s horror. Just as a life sentence communicates the seriousness of murder, God’s wrath communicates the seriousness and ugliness of sin. Evil is far more sinister than we thought.
But in the contemplation of our sins’ ugliness, there is the promise of deeper love. “He who is forgiven little, loves little,” but he who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47, ESV). Forgiveness is only sweet if we see what it is we have been forgiven of; and forgiveness is ever-sweeter when we realize just how much God has forgiven and cleansed us. The fittingly severe God of justice is also the merciful and gracious God of love. The reality of his justice is the backdrop against which we can see his shining mercies.
In his great love, he provided a solution to the downward spiral of evil and sin: Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly took the punishment we deserved in our place. He chose to represent humanity before divine justice, and took the demands of justice onto himself as our substitute. By his wounds, humanity can find healing. That’s good news!
Image credit: “Spartiate” ( An Archer ), bronze sculpture by Max Le Verrier. Photo courtesy of 1stdibs, Inc.