So you’ve heard about the love and grace of Jesus and want to learn more. Maybe you even had another Christian lead you to Jesus and accepted Him as your savior. Then you sit down intending to read the Bible from start to finish and find something you weren’t quite expecting.
Genesis starts out with creation and the fall of man, then suddenly God’s wiping the whole earth out in a flood (Gen. 6:5-8). Next He’s scattering the people of Babel for building a tower (Gen. 11:5-9) and raining fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24-25). Why does the God you know as forgiving and accepting seem so angry? Where is God’s love and grace here, in the Old Testament?
Many people give up on the Bible and/or their faith because God isn’t what they expect, or they go for a version of Christianity that highlights the New Testament and ignores any verses about uncomfortable topics like judgement and sin. But authentic Christianity demands something more of its followers. Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” twice in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 20:16; 22;14). We don’t want to be the people who receive the seed of the gospel and then wither away because we have no root (Matt. 13:5-6, 20-21).
The lives of Christians are supposed to reflect the nature of our God. If we aren’t diving deep into His word, we won’t know who He is or what He requires, and we can’t grow roots into our faith. We can’t let misconceptions about or fear of His anger and expectations scare us away from getting to know Him.
Why is God So Angry?
An overly simplistic, yet still persistent, view holds that God in the Old Testament is angry and scary and that God in the New Testament is open and loving. This disconnect simply doesn’t exist — God’s character is consistent throughout the Bible. The Old Testament is filled with declarations of God’s love, and the New Testament contains warnings about His wrath and judgement (Heb. 10:26-31, for one).
That said, I know where this argument comes from. The Flood, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, plagues of Egypt, telling the Israelites to wipe out their enemies, sending His own people into captivity — it can look pretty grim if we just read-over the stories without asking “why?”
Grace in the Flood
God’s choice to wipe out humanity with a flood happened because “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Though God’s mind is far above our understanding (Is. 55:8-9), I think to a certain extent we can sympathize with why a perfect being who embodies love and righteousness would be “sorry that He had made man on the earth” and be “grieved in His heart” at seeing how wicked something made in His own image had become (Gen. 6:6-7).
In the midst of God’s grief at man’s corruption, we also find the first use of the word “grace” in the Bible. Verse 8 reads, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” There was one man on the whole earth who “was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). For that one man, God held off the flood long enough for Noah to build an ark, saved his entire family and a pair of every animal (along with extra edible animals, Gen. 7:2-3), and established a covenant that the world would never again be flooded this way (Gen. 8:13-22).
We see this pattern again and again in the Old Testament. Stand-out moments of God’s destruction are always righteous punishment for terrible sins and include examples of Him extending mercy and grace. When talking with Abraham, the Lord (most likely a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus) says, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Gen. 18:20-21). He’s personally checking things out to make sure any punishment on the cities is delivered justly. At Abraham’s prompting, the Lord also promised that if He could find even 10 righteous people He would spare the entire cities for their sake (Gen. 18:32). As in the days of Noah, though, the angels only found one righteous man. To save him and his family, the angels took them by the hand and led them out of the city because of the Lord’s mercy (Gen. 19:15-16).
It’s worth noting that neither Noah nor Lot had achieved some kind of perfect standard that we’ll never reach. Both had flaws. Noah had a drinking problem (Gen. 9:20-25). Lot didn’t want to leave Sodom, and later got so drunk he unknowingly had sex with both his daughters (Gen. 19:30-39). God’s mercy isn’t just for people who never make a mistake, even really big mistakes. Just look at David — he was forgiven for adultery and murder, which are both death-penalty sins under Mosaic Law.
The history of God’s chosen people, Israel, also contains cycles of obedience and blessing, and disobedience and cursing. God made a covenant with them, clearly laid out the terms, and they agreed to it (click here for an overview of God’s covenants). By breaking covenant, they brought curses on themselves and God was perfectly within His rights to punish them. But He built into the very foundation of His covenants a promise to take on Himself the ultimate penalty for covenant breaking — death. If it weren’t for the merciful plan of God established in the Old Testament, we wouldn’t have a New Testament.
For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. “For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has mercy on you. (Is. 54:7-10)
Redemption from sin and death is at the heart of God’s plan for the entire world and all of humanity. It’s too big a subject to fully explore here, but we have to remember that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways (Is. 55:8). When we look at the Old Testament and see wicked people dying, we often come at it from the perspective that they missed their chance at salvation. But there is strong evidence that God is not yet done with people who have died, as well as that the current notions of heaven and hell are a non-Biblical myth. I plan to write about this in the future, but for now I’ll direct you to the book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright and the free booklet “What Happens After Death?” published by United Church of God.
Jesus said, “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29). We get a little more detail about the resurrections in Revelation, where it clarifies that the faithful in Jesus will be resurrected to eternal life (Rev. 20:4-6), and later there’s another resurrection of people who were not followers of Jesus. This passage speaks of books being opened, and in light of some other prophetic verses, we believe this refers to every person being given a chance to understand God’s way of life and make a choice. All the people in this resurrection will be “judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” Some will be judged as righteous, but others will be killed in the lake of fire. This is called the “second death,” and there’s no indication of eternal torment (Rev. 20:11-15).
On a certain level, God should scare us. He is awesome and far more powerful than we often realize. Yet the more we know about our Lord, the more that fear should shift to reverence, awe, humility, and love. When we consider God’s Old Testament anger in the context of His eternal plan and His consistent character, it becomes clear that He’s not an arbitrary or vengeful deity that takes pleasure in destruction. His every action is motivated by love with the perspective of an end goal that will benefit the entire world and every person throughout history.