Is God inconsistent?
Published: 4 February 2014 (GMT+10)
In letters and at ministry events, we often receive challenges mainly from skeptics trying to stump us by citing passages in the Bible about God killing, or ordering others to kill, ‘innocent’ people. Parents and church leaders please note we are particularly noticing an increase in university students using this approach. We suspect this is because Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (see our review), is being highly recommended to students on campuses. (The students have actually told us that.) In his book, Dawkins writes:
“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, megalomanical, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.1”
We should not be surprised that a God-hater finds God repugnant. But some suggest that this portrayal of God in the Old Testament contradicts Jesus’ admonitions in the New Testament, loving our enemies and so on. Jesus seems to portray a more loving, forgiving and merciful God, they argue. Some claim that these two ‘different’ Gods falsifies the unity of Scripture. In our experience, most Christians have never been taught how to defend against this very common accusation.
But the Bible clearly presents a consistent narrative from Genesis to Revelation of God’s big picture plan for the salvation, redemption, and judgment of human beings. In particular, the Bible reveals how God created the nation of Israel and used it as a means of bringing the Saviour, Jesus, into the world. If we keep this ‘big picture’ in mind there are a couple of ideas that help to explain apparent inconsistencies.
Is the God of the OT different from the God of the NT?
First, it is not true that God’s character undergoes a dramatic shift between the Old and New Testaments. God’s holy nature means that not only is He sinless, He must judge sin that corrupts His Creation. He has always done this and will continue to do so. In fact, when a person makes an accusation about God he or she is, in fact, making a judgment. But this is the first problematic area, because man’s judgment on what is right or wrong is arbitrary if not rooted in God’s nature, and is usually based upon justifying a person’s own sinful desires which slant perceptions of what is right or wrong, good or evil etc. But God has a right to set the rules and decide what is good or evil because He is the Creator. He is morally perfect so His laws will always be good.
Second, while the OT reveals how God judged sin before the incarnation of the Saviour, the OT actually has dozens of statements about God’s mercy, His patience, and in particular, His merciful acts to people and nations. For example:
“Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Exodus 34:6–7).
“‘And should I not pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (Jonah 4:11; see also Gen. 18:23–32; 19:15–16; Ps. 36:5–6; 145:8–9; Jer. 18:7–8; Lam. 3:22–26).
And people forget that the NT has plenty to say about judgment, including some of the most terrible images of eternal condemnation that we have ever seen (and the most colourful language about Hell comes to us courtesy of Jesus Himself). For instance:
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11–12).
“The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the general and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:14–17; see also Mark 9:47–48; John 3:36; Acts 12:23; Rom. 1:18; 2:8; Rev. 14:11; 19:15).
While the New Testament’s picture of salvation and mercy is clearer in some respects, that is only because Jesus, the Saviour, is finally revealed. It’s only through Jesus that we can experience God’s mercy and forgiveness of sin. Jesus is the ultimate solution, ordained by God from the Creation of the world for the sin problem that everyone experiences. For everyone who does not accept God’s free gift to be eternally free of sin, there is only judgment and condemnation for sin. So there is no difference between God in the OT and NT. It is Jesus (God the Son) that paid the ultimate penalty for God’s perfect and holy justice.
Is God’s judgment immoral?
If there exists a being who is omnipotent (so He can right every wrong) and omniscient (so He knows every wrong that’s ever been committed), would we expect this being to act on His perfect knowledge to give everyone ‘what they deserve’? Every abused child could see justice, everyone murdered at the hands of bloodthirsty dictators. The only person who would object to such perfect justice would be the guilty ones or those who want to continue in sin in rebellion of the Creator. In fact, God’s perfect and holy nature demands that He will do exactly that. God will punish all sinners who have rebelled against Him—it’s not about how bad a sin is, but the sin nature of a person, and the fact that their sin offends God.
But atheists don’t even believe that God exists, so all their outrage at Him rings hollow. It’s a bit like someone complaining about Santa Claus giving the rich kids better presents. A nonexistent being can’t do anything! But even under their own standards, they would not be able to accuse God of injustice since atheism, with evolution at the core of its belief system and its ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra, cannot provide an objective standard of morality to ground their own accusations; see Can we be good without God? If God is culling sin and helping perfect the human race somewhat, then the atheist/evolutionist should actually be applauding Him; after all, God would be the great ‘selector’. And surely there would be nothing wrong if the nation of Israel vanquished a weaker foe. That would be consistent with the evolutionist’s worldview, so why complain?
Still, we recognize that many atheists claim God is acting inconsistently with His own character by mandating punishments such as death. But in reality they misunderstand God’s character and that He is acting righteously both when He judges sin and when he mercifully saves sinners.
Again, we only have a problem with God’s judgment because we’ve all sinned and deserve to be judged. No one likes the thought of that because it casts a spotlight on us and our own nature. But let’s look at some specific instances of God’s judgment:
Noah’s Flood: In the second biggest catastrophe of all history, God killed all air-breathing animals and people outside the Ark (the biggest is, of course, the Fall in Eden, which ensured the death of every human being and animal that ever lived). Scripture tells us that the whole world was violent, corrupt and wicked. Even fallen angels were actually violating women in an attempt to threaten the lineage of the Saviour (see Who were the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6?); who had to be fully human as the “Last Adam” (as Paul calls Him in 1 Corinthians 15). God’s judgment of the world was absolutely just, but also merciful, because it preserved the possibility of Jesus’ coming. Because man was given dominion over the Creation, including the animals (Genesis 1:28), it was subject to God’s judgment when mankind caused it to fall. A fallen creation, and even violence in the animal kingdom, is an apt reminder of how sin corrupted everything under man’s dominion (Romans 8).
The conquest of Canaan: The Canaanites were a very immoral nation, participating in all sorts of sexual immorality and idolatry—the most infamous sort of which involved burning their babies alive on a red-hot idol of Molech. In fact, God told Abraham that He would not give him the land in his day, because the iniquity of the people had not reached a sufficient level. Although God foreknew their sin would increase, He waited because He wanted it to be so apparent that no one could say He was being unjust (Genesis 15:16).
We should remember that God often uses humans to bring about His will and His judgments. In the conquest of Canaan, Israel was acting as God’s instrument of judgment, just as much as if God had sent a plague or famine. This is clear because God can give commands about what to do or not to do with the spoils, and so on. God also showed mercy to people in Canaan who believed, for example, Rahab and her family (Joshua 2, 6) and the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), by sparing their lives and allowing them to live in Israel. And when Israel became corrupted by idolatrous practices and started committing these same atrocities, God similarly used Babylon and Assyria to judge them. The purpose of experiencing God’s judgment was so that repentance might follow.
The killing of innocents in the judgment of nations: Invariably in God-ordained wars in the Old Testament, innocent women and children would have been killed, and sometimes the destruction of innocents was part of the judgment of the nation (for instance, in the killing of the firstborn sons in Egypt, see later). Some bring this out as their strongest condemnation of God. However, we must remember that from an eternal standpoint, there are no ‘innocents’, because we are all infected with a sin nature (Rom. 5:19). We all deserve to die because of our sin, and it makes no difference whether that happens to be at 90 from old age, or from a bombing at 7 years of age. If death outrages us (and it should!) we should not be angry at God, but at the sinful condition which brings death. Even the Lord Jesus (the Creator Himself) cried and wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, displaying His tragic concern at how sin had marred His creation by bringing death and pain into the world (John 11:33–36).
It’s ironic that if God ordains a judgment against a nation, the skeptics want to condemn God for killing innocent people. But in manmade wars, many humans seem to accept or justify that the death of women and children will be an inevitable consequence of battling to overcome a hostile nation, for example. This shows that their judgment of God in such a way is arbitrary. Their manmade wars are justified, but God’s are not.
The plagues and judgment of Egypt: This well-known event in history is a good example of what we are talking about. God wanted to create a nation out of the Hebrews who were being held captive and forced to work as slaves in Egypt. Out of this nation God would fulfill His promise to Abraham. So why was God’s judgment warranted? For one thing, the Hebrews were initially welcomed as citizens in Egypt. It was an evil Pharaoh that decided to change the rules and enslave them. Also, initially God, through Moses and Aaron, merely asked for a time and a place where the Israelites could worship God. Pharaoh’s refusal escalated the matter. Furthermore, Pharaoh was warned that if he did not comply things would get worse. He received several examples or warnings of God’s power and justice. Besides all this, after he initially seemed to relent and agree, Pharaoh went back on his word (his heart was ‘hardened’), despite the afflictions that his people were enduring as a result of his refusals. Pharaoh was the head of his country and, as such, had a responsibility to his people. It was Pharaoh’s fault by his actions that caused his people to suffer in such a way. So, this example shows how God was patient and at the same time demonstrating the hardness of man’s heart towards Him.
Another often overlooked and important aspect when God judged nations like Canaan and Egypt is a spiritual one. God’s ultimate adversary is Satan. In the case of Canaan, innocent babies were being killed as a result of the worship of evil deities. And there were few nations on Earth that worshipped as many false deities as Egypt. The Egyptians were preoccupied with the afterlife and they believed in the power of these evil spirits to help them live eternally. As such, this was a massive deception that caused millions of them to perish for eternity. In short, while at the same time as punishing individuals and nations, God is also judging and battling evil forces in high places. This was never more evident than in Egypt.
Eternal condemnation of those who die apart from Christ
Some argue that it is immoral for God to condemn people to an eternity of Hell for sins committed in this finite life. While this is dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere, there are a few key points to understand:
First, heaven would only be a pleasant experience for those who are sanctified through Christ’s sacrifice, so they are free from sin and love God. A sinful being in God’s holy presence would not be able to bear being there.
Second, people are sent to Hell because they have sinned and because they are sinners—in other words, it’s not only what they’ve done; it’s what they are. We are desensitized to sin because we are sinners, and mankind increasingly seeks to justify sinful actions (calling evil ‘good’ etc.). But to God (and to the holy angels and glorified believers), sin is the worst thing in the universe. Adam and Eve were condemned for one sinful act, but as their physical descendents we are physically born sinners. Our sinful nature is our default inherited position that condemns all of us, because like the heads of nations whose actions impact their citizens, Adam was the federal head of Creation and all mankind. The natural inclination of an unbeliever is unremitting rebellion towards God. And even if, for instance, 100 years of punishment were enough to pay for 100 years of sins, it still wouldn’t change the fundamental nature of the person, who is still sinful and hates God. So Hell is the ultimate answer to: what should God do with people who want nothing to do with Him? The answer is: give them what they want. Hell is basically a place where God’s presence is only manifested in judgment, because they’ve rejected God’s mercy and good gifts.
Third, Hell is the answer to all the injustices of this life. There is a fundamental injustice to this life regardless of whether one thinks God acts unfairly or not. There are so many wrongs that are seemingly never punished. God puts all this right in the ‘age to come’ (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30).
Finally, and most importantly, every single person in Hell will have consciously rejected whatever revelation of God he was given, whether he was only given the witness of nature as in Romans 1, or whether he rejected the fully-fledged Gospel of Jesus (and Scripture indicates that the latter sort of person will be judged much more harshly than the former). The reality is that Hell is our default abode because all of us are sinners, but God in his unmerited favour (grace) provided a way for us to be saved.
Is God’s mercy immoral?
The question of whether God’s mercy is moral would be absolutely foreign to most people in Western society, because mercy is seen to be almost a cardinal virtue. But imagine if someone committed a vicious crime against you or someone you loved: would you want the judge in the criminal’s trial to show mercy? No! We all have an inbuilt desire and expect justice in cases like that, which is actually part of the image of God in us—especially when we, our loved ones or our property are involved. So, why do we question God’s right to seek justice for what He owns (all of Creation). We would be outraged if a judge decided to let the criminal go free, because he hasn’t upheld justice. But on a cosmic scale, this is what happens every time God forgives a sin, or even lets a sin go unpunished for a period of time. By God demonstrating His love for us first, many people often respond to that love and thus hearts can be changed—even the seemingly worst sinners.
See, the moral problem isn’t how God was morally justified when He deluged the wicked world; it’s how He could save Noah and his family, because they were sinners who also deserved to die. It isn’t how He could order the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho, it’s how He could spare Rahab and her family. It isn’t how He can condemn sinners to Hell—that’s what sinners deserve—but how He can forgive them and welcome them into Heaven. Romans goes as far as to say that God had to prove His righteousness of His forbearance of sins (Romans 3:21–26).
The Gospel explains God’s judgment and mercy
The ultimate answer to how God can be consistent both in His judgment and His mercy is found in Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s nature of demanding justice and punishment for sin has not changed—it’s just been paid for by the ultimate sacrifice. Because Jesus paid the penalty of sin for all who trust in Him, God is free to extend mercy to those who repent. But for those who reject Christ, there is nothing else; there is no other way to be saved, and demanding another way would be the worst imaginable insult when He already gave so much for us to be able to be saved. God did not have to provide a way for humans to be saved at all; He did not provide the possibility of reconciliation for the angels who rebelled. In God’s love and mercy Jesus’ sacrifice is the ultimate answer to those who claim that God’s judgment is unjust, or that His judgment and justice is inconsistent with the mercy proclaimed in the New Testament.
References and notes
- Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, p. 51. Return to text.