Monday, 10 October 2016

Are the Old Testament and New Testament Portraits of God Contradictory?

There are many who claim that the portrait of God in the Old Testament is very different from the New Testament portrait of him.  They say that whereas the OT God is a God of judgment and punishment, the NT God is one of love, mercy and kindness.

For many non-Christians this alleged difference shows that even in a key issue the Bible is hopelessly self-contradictory.  If the sacred Scriptures of the Christian faith are so untrustworthy in the basics, the argument goes, then Christianity is very probably false per se. 

For many Christians, the alleged difference leads to confusion and to questioning the authority of Scripture.

So what are we to make of this?  Is there really a huge contradiction between the portraits of God in the OT and the NT?

There certainly isn’t.  In fact, I would suggest that those who think the OT God is basically a severe God of punishment, while the NT God is basically a kind God of love, have not been reading the Bible very much.  Or they have not been absorbing what they have been reading.  In both the OT and the NT God is revealed on the one hand as a judge and punisher, and on the other hand as merciful, loving and kind.

Because no one disputes that in the OT God is frequently portrayed judging and punishing, in what follows I won’t spend time supporting this aspect of the OT portrait.  Similarly, because it isn’t disputed that the NT speaks much of God’s love and mercy, I won’t bother demonstrating this.

What I do want to do, however, is to show that the God of the OT is a God of love, kindness and mercy, and that the God of the NT is a God of punishment and judgment.  I will therefore list some passages that make these things clear. 


Let’s begin, then, with God’s love, mercy and kindness in the OT.

General references to God’s love for Jews

First of all, the OT often refers to the mercy, love and kindness of God that is directed towards Israel or individual Jews.  There are many fairly general references to this throughout the OT.  Take the following passages, for example: 
‘The LORD did not set his love on you or choose you because you were more numerous than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery . . .  Know therefore that the LORD your God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps his covenant and his kindness . . .’  (Deut 7:7-9) 
‘. . . the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you.’  (Deut 23:5) 
‘But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion on them and turned to them . . .’  (2 Kings 13:23) 
‘O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his kindness is everlasting.’  (1 Chron 16:34) 
‘Your kindness, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.’  (Psalm 36:5) 
‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his kindness to those who fear him.’  (Psalm 103:11) 
‘Help me, O LORD my God.  Save me according to your kindness.’  (Psalm 109:26) 
‘My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD or hate his correction, for the one whom the LORD loves he corrects, as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.’  (Prov 3:11-12) 
‘But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and he who formed you, O Israel, “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not submerge you.” ’  (Isa 43:1-2) 
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb?  They may forget, but I will not forget you.  Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’  (Isa 49:15-16) 
‘ “For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but my kindness will not be taken from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says the LORD who has compassion on you.’  (Isa 54:10) 
‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you, and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.’  (Isa 66:13) 
‘ “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for well-being and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” ’  (Jer 29:11) 
‘ “Is Ephraim my beloved son? Is he a delightful child? . . . Therefore my heart yearns for him. I will surely have mercy on him,” declares the LORD.’  (Jer 31:20) 
‘When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  . . .  How can I give you up, O Ephraim?  How can I surrender you, O Israel?  . . .  All my compassions are kindled.’  (Hos 11:1, 8) 
‘[The LORD your God] will exult over you with joy, he will be quiet in his love, he will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.’  (Zeph 3:17) 
Many other passages could be added to this list, including Exod 15:13; Deut 4:31; 10:15; 2 Sam 22:51; 1 Chron 16:41; 2 Chron 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Neh 9:27, 32; Job 10:12; Psalm 25:10; 30:5; 31:7; 32:10; 33:5; 37:28; 107:8; 145:17; Isa 54:4-8; 62:4; 63:7-9; Jer 32:40-41; Lam 3:22-23, 31-33; Ezek 16:1-14; Hos 3:1. 

More specific examples of God’s love for Jews

Moving on to specifics, the OT speaks often of God’s slowness to get angry with his people and of his forgiveness.  On several occasions it also says that he would much rather his people repented and received his forgiveness than become objects of his punishment.  Consider the following passages, for example:

‘ “As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “I take no pleasure in the death of an evil person, but rather that the evil person turn from his way and live.” ’  (Ezek 33:11) 
‘Who is a God like you, who forgives sin and passes over the transgression of the remnant of his possession?  He does not hold on to his anger forever, because he delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us.  He will tread our sins underfoot.’  (Mic 7:18-19) 
Other examples are Exod 34:6-7; Num 14:18; Deut 30:1-4; 2 Sam 14:14; Neh 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:5, 15; 145:8; Ezek 18:31-32; Joel 2:13.

There is also an emphasis in the OT on God’s concern for the weak and disadvantaged, such as widows and orphans.  See, for instance:

‘You must not afflict any widow or orphan.  If you afflict them at all, and if they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.’  (Exod 22:22-23) 
‘The unfortunate commits himself to you.  You have been the helper of the orphan.’  (Psalm 10:14) 
See also Lev 19:9-10, 13; 23:22; Deut 10:18; 24:10-15, 17-22; Psalm 10:17-18; 146:7-9. 

God’s love for Gentiles

As well as revealing God’s love for Jews, the OT contains numerous passages in which his love for Gentiles, i.e., non-Jews, is revealed too.

Just as God shows a concern in the OT for vulnerable Jews like widows and orphans, so he shows a desire to protect vulnerable Gentiles living in the land of Israel.  Note these passages, for example:

‘You must not afflict a foreigner or oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’  (Exod 22:21) 
‘You must not oppress a foreigner, because you yourselves know how it feels to be a foreigner, for you also were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’  (Exod 23:9) 
‘The foreigner who lives with you must be to you as a native among you, and you must love him as yourself . . .’  (Lev 19:34) 
‘[The LORD] . . . shows his love for the foreigner by giving him food and clothing.  So show your love for the foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’  (Deut 10:17-19) 
See also Exod 23:12; Lev 25:35; Num 35:15; Deut 1:16; 14:21, 29; 16:11, 14; 24:14, 17, 19-21; Psalm 146:9; Jer 7:6.

The OT also contains prophecies (more or less explicitly) of blessing coming to the Gentiles.  When God first chooses the Jewish people, in the account of the call of Abram (later, Abraham) in Gen 12:1-3, it is significant that the prophecy ends with the words: 
‘And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’  
As the NT explains, God’s purpose in choosing Abraham and the Jewish nation always had the goal of bringing blessing to all peoples of the earth regardless of ethnicity.  See also Deut 32:43; Isa 11:10, 12; 42:4; 51:5.

The Suffering Servant

Finally, In Isa 52:13-53:12 we find what is probably the passage in the OT that most powerfully reveals the love of God.  Here God sacrificially hands his Servant over to suffering and death in order to bring blessing to people:

Isa 53:4-6 reads as follows: 
‘Surely our sicknesses he himself carried, and our pains he bore.  Yet we ourselves regarded him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our sins.  The punishment for our well-being fell upon him, and by his wounding we are healed.  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.  But the LORD has caused the sin of us all to fall on him.’ 
Summing up

The verses I have listed show clearly that the God of the OT is a God of love, compassion, mercy, kindness and tenderness.  And my list, even including the verses that I have not quoted but only given references to, contains only a small percentage of the relevant examples.  To put it simply, the OT resounds with the love of God, just as it is full of his judging and punishing. 


Let’s move on now to consider the NT.  As I have noted, there are many who claim that the NT God is a God of love, mercy and kindness, but not really one of punishment and judgment.

This claim is probably even more unrealistic than the claim that the OT God is not a God of love.  As well as constantly teaching about the love of God, the NT is packed full of references to him punishing and judging.

John the Baptist

To begin with, in the message of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, we find a pronounced theme of judgment: 
‘You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’  (Luke 3:7) 
‘The axe is already placed at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’  (Luke 3:9) 
‘He will burn up the chaff with inextinguishable fire.’  (Luke 3:17) 

Moving on to the ministry of Jesus, the theme of God as judge and punisher continues: 
‘. . . whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to hell fire.’  (Matt 5:22) 
‘If your right eye makes you stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  For it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’  (Matt 5:29) 
‘. . . but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness.  In that place there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’  (Matt 8:12) 
‘Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.’  (Matt 10:15) 
‘Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul.  Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’  Matt 10:28) 
‘You snakes, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of hell?’  (Matt 23:33) 
‘Depart from me, cursed people, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.  . . .  These will go away into eternal punishment . . .’  (Matt 25:41, 46) 
‘.  .  .  he who does not believe has been judged already . . .’  (John 3:18) 
‘. . . an hour is coming in which all in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come out, . . . those who have committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.’  (John 5:28-29) 
‘And when [the Helper] comes, he will convict the world about sin and about justice and about judgment.’  (John 16:8) 
Among many other examples, see also Matt 11:22, 24; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 10:12, 14; 13:28; 16:19-31.


In Acts too we find the theme of judgment: 
‘And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give glory to God.  And he was eaten by worms and died.’  (Acts 12:23) 
‘But as [Paul] was discussing uprightness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened . . .’  (Acts 24:25) 
Acts 5:1-11 also states that God executed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the apostles.

The letters of Paul

The letters of Paul too refer frequently to God’s judgment: 
‘There will be suffering and distress on the soul of every human being who does evil . . .’  (Rom 2:9) 
‘Much more, then, having now been justified by his blood, we will be saved from wrath through him.’  (Rom 5:9) 
‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each person may be recompensed for the deeds they have performed in the body, whether good or bad.’  (2 Cor 5:10) 
‘. . . Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.’  (1 Thess 1:10) 
 ‘. . .  it is just for God to repay with suffering those who trouble you . . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven . . . punishing those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .’  (2 Thess 1:6-9) 
Some of the many other examples are Rom 2:12; 1 Cor 5:12-13; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; 1 Tim 5:24; 2 Tim 4:1.

The other New Testament letters

The other NT letters also often refer to God’s judgment: 
‘For if we go on sinning wilfully after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a frightening expectation of judgment and the zeal of a fire which will consume the adversaries.  Anyone who has disregarded the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much more severe punishment do you think the person will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, and has considered defiled the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?  For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge. I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”  It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’  (Heb 10:26-31) 
‘For judgment without mercy will be shown to the one who has not shown mercy.’  (Jas 2:13) 
‘For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.  And if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?’  (1 Pet 4:17) 
‘. . . the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of impious people.’  (2 Pet 3:7) 
Sodom and Gomorrah . . ., because they committed sexual immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example of those who undergo the punishment of eternal fire.’  (Jude 7) 
Some of the other examples are Heb 6:2; Jas 4:12; 1 Pet 4:5; 2 Pet 2:3-9; Jude 14-15.


Finally, the judgment portrayed in the book of Revelation is especially ferocious.  Nearly every chapter includes this theme.  Revelation even contains explicit references to being tormented day and night forever and ever, including the following passage: 
‘Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on their forehead or on their hand, they will also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, that is mixed in full strength in the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulphur . . . And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night . . .” ’  (Rev 14:9-11) 
Summing up

As with the earlier list of OT references, this one includes only a small proportion of possible examples.  It is abundantly clear that the NT speaks constantly about the judgment and punishment of God. 

For more examples, just search for ‘God’s judgment in the New Testament’ on the internet.  Similarly, ‘God’s love in the Old Testament’ will provide many more examples of that theme.


There is no doubt, then, that the OT contains many references both to the judgment and punishment of God on the one hand, and to his love, mercy and kindness on the other.  And it is just as clear that the NT also refers frequently to these themes. 

That is not to say that there is no difference in emphasis between the OT and the NT.  In the NT both God’s love and his judgment are portrayed more intensely than they are in the OT.  In the NT teaching on the cross of Christ, God’s love is depicted as something deeper than anything explicit in the OT.  And in the NT depictions of hell, God’s judgment is seen to be more severe than anything in any OT passage. 

The OT and NT, therefore, are broadly similar in their teaching about these things, although the NT turns up the volume, so to speak.


The God of the Bible, then, is a God of love, mercy and kindness, but also of judgment and punishment.  However, to show mercy and to punish are more or less opposite actions.  Is the biblical picture of God therefore an inconsistent one?  Can we reconcile his mercy with his punishing?

I am certain that we can.  Nevertheless, the relationship between his mercy and punishment is not an easy or simple topic, and I don’t want to get into a long discussion of it here.  That said, I will make a few comments.

To begin with, when God punishes someone, it is always to enforce justice.  It is not as if he gets some kind of sadistic pleasure in inflicting punishment.  Rather, he gains satisfaction from seeing justice done.

Importantly too, we need to recognise that the goodness of both mercy and justice is deeply ingrained in human beings.  There are times when we hear of punishment being withheld when a wrongdoer is shown mercy, and we feel that something good and proper has taken place.  Paradoxically, however, there are also times when we hear of a wrongdoer being justly punished and we feel that a good and proper thing has been done. 

Exactly when mercy or punishment is appropriate is a complex issue that I don’t want to go into now.  My point here is simply that there are circumstances when we feel that it is good for mercy to be shown to a wrongdoer, and there are circumstances when we feel that it is good for a wrongdoer to be punished.

Just as we don’t feel that our liking of mercy and our liking of justice are contradictory, so we should avoid thinking that they are contradictory in God – difficult to understand properly, yes, but contradictory, no.


According to the Bible, the story of God’s dealings with humanity has involved him showing a lot of mercy and also doing a lot of punishing.  The Bible teaches too that his mercy and punishment will last into eternity, mercy for those whose destiny is salvation, punishment for those whose destiny is damnation.

There is, however, an asymmetry here.  In John 3:17 Jesus says: 
‘God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.’  
Similarly, in John 12:47 he states: 
‘I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.’ 
Of course, these verses shouldn’t be taken literally as meaning that Jesus will not judge the world at all.  They do mean, however, that showing mercy is God’s plan for people in a way that punishing is not.

I think it would be appropriate to say that whenever God punishes someone and sends them to hell, he is acting out his plan B for humanity.  He gains satisfaction in punishing, and rightly so, but he would have preferred to show mercy.  As 1 Tim 2:4 says: 
‘[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.’  
And as 2 Pet 3:9 tells us: 
‘The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wishing that any perish, but that all come to repentance.’  
There is a sense in which God regrets sending people to hell.  When he welcomes people into heaven, by contrast, we could say that he is acting out his plan A for humanity, and he has no regrets.  Hence the asymmetry.

We all have a choice whether we are part of God’s plan A or plan B.  God will either be merciful to you for all eternity – his preferred option – or he will enact his justice on you for all eternity.  For your own sake and for his, choose plan A.

This is done by accepting in faith Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour and Lord.  If you do this, your sins will be forgiven and you will enter into a relationship with him.

See also:

God’s Plan A and Plan B for Humanity