In his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion, Dr. Richard Dawkins said,
“Well, there’s no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament. Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn’t) was surely one of the greatest ethical innovators of history.”
Dawkins moves forward to criticize the New Testament’s teaching on sin, atonement, and love of neighbor, so he’s not exactly a proponent of it as an improvement on the Old Testament. However, you see the divide he makes between the Old Testament and the New Testament regarding God. In the Old Testament, God makes himself a metaphysical monster, always judging and destroying and the like. In the New Testament, we get the ethically innovative Jesus, though Dawkins does not think much of Jesus as a son and brother.
The divide in readers’ perceptions of God in the Old and New Testaments predates Dawkins and all other smug attempts at casual critiques of the faith of Christians. The heretic Marcion proposed the idea around AD 144. He claimed the Old Testament’s deity could not possibly be the supreme God or Jesus Christ. A lower god, the one found in the Hebrew Scriptures, created matter and metes out arbitrary judgment. The true God would never do such things, and exists only as a God of love, claimed Marcion. Due to this belief, he threw away the Old Testament.
I have heard various expressions of this same idea from both people asserting it as an objection to Christianity and from at least one individual who expressed interest in Christ (eventually becoming a sister in the faith) but had questions about God’s identity in both testaments of Scripture.
First things first, let’s go ahead and identify some things within the premises of the assertion. First, it assumes the biblical standard of good as the correct one, for the biblical standard of good serves as the measure against which the Old Testament God compares (and fails, in the eyes of objectors). Second, the argument assumes the biblical data bears clarity (it does) regarding Jesus as God incarnate, otherwise no objection exists. So, when this objection rears its head, understand the objector already works within a biblical framework. He cannot retreat into further objection on something like the Bible presenting immoral commands or a lack of clarity regarding the deity of Jesus. Via this objection, he committed himself to these propositions.
Dealing With the Objection Itself
Shall we make things harder on ourselves? I think yes, let’s do.
If we want to posit a God of judgment, we need look no farther than the New Testament!
First, look to the words of Jesus himself. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus states, “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.” Presumably God can and will destroy some people by means of hell, hence Jesus’s warning. In reference to the goats of Matthew 25, Jesus says they will go into eternal punishment. Not content to deal with Jesus’s references to future eternal destruction, I also direct you to Acts 5:1–11 which tells of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. They test and lie to the Holy Spirit and subsequently die. Likewise, when Herod Agrippa I allows his subjects to repeatedly proclaim him a god, an angel strikes him down to become food for worms. Should one need more convincing, turn to the book of Revelation for more.
The New Testament stands in the tradition of the Old regarding judgment. God will and does judge sin. Indeed, the cross of Jesus Christ places the wrath of God in judgment of sin on the Son, God incarnate. The New Testament provides further revelation after the Old (otherwise, why have a New Testament at all?), but the theme of judgment remains.
Yet, so does the theme of God’s love and grace. After all, one finds Psalm 136 in the Old Testament, not the New. This particular psalm declares God’s lovingkindness as everlasting twenty-six times. The Old Testament Israelites had legal obligation, based on the character of God, to show love to those alien among them. Deuteronomy 10:17–19 reveals God as an executor of justice for traditionally marginalized and oppressed people like widows, orphans, and aliens. The people stood admonished to emulate the character of their God who saved them from slavery. The law stated in Deuteronomy 10 seems to stand behind the practice of gleaning as seen in the book of Ruth. Leviticus 25 provided the people with instruction regarding the Year of Jubilee, a time in which the people of God would show tremendous kindness and charity to the poor among them. Judgments against Israel and Judah the Old Testament often stem from their practice of defrauding people. Amos 8:4–6 details this sort of thing exactly.
The Scriptures reject a flat conception of God. Scripture unapologetically depicts God as loving and gracious as well as willing to judge and angry with sin. No incongruity exists in the depictions of the character of God in the Old versus the New Testament. If one wants Jesus at all, he or she must take Jesus as a whole, his speech on judgment included.
God as revealed in Christ remains a God of love and liberty, not lechery and licentiousness.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 283.
Justo L. González, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1 of The Story of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1984), 61.