Many of the challenges against the Old Testament begin with an attack on the character of God. One of the most ferocious is from Richard Dawkins:
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.¹
Assessments like those of Richard Dawkins are understandable when coming from someone outside the Judeo-Christian faith community who has not committed himself to the entire revelation of the character of God in the Old and New Testaments. Dawkins doesn’t have a balanced view of God and all his attributes, especially the perfect balance of God’s love and holiness as demonstrated in both the Old and New Testaments. These kinds of appraisals also come from a lack of appreciation for the original historical and cultural context out of which the Bible emerged. But for those who accept the entire Bible, characterizing God in this way could not be further from the truth.
Let me address just one of the charges above, that God is unjust.
Who defines what is just? If Richard Dawkins were to say that we human beings define what is just, then there is no valid definition or standard of justice, since most people would define justice differently.² Was Stalin just to exterminate twenty million of his people and to rob the Ukrainians of their harvest in order to build his empire and leave them to starve? Stalin would have said yes.
Biblical theology does not teach that there is a universal code of justice under which God submits himself, because that would mean there is something greater than God. When I was teaching in graduate school, I remember Dr. Greg Beale discussing this topic in the cafeteria, pounding the table and declaring, “Justice is what God does!” He could not have been more right. Only God determines what is just, and whatever he does is just, because what he does is an expression of his just character.
Believing this is obviously a faith position, but it’s a position that makes sense and is internally consistent, even if we don’t always understand the specific implementation of that principle in time. Is it just to punish people for their sin? Yes, because God punishes people. Is it just for God to forgive sins? Yes, because he does forgive sins. Is it just for someone to die as a substitute for another? Yes, because that’s what Jesus did on the cross. From a human standpoint, there was no greater act of evil than for God to kill his own Son because of human sin, but doing so was just because God did it.
Let’s associate the biblical understanding of justice with the doctrines of the love and holiness of God. One of the most important affirmations in all of Scripture is God’s declaration to Moses in Exodus 34:6–7:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
God is compassionate, gracious, and not angry but loving and faithful. God’s love leads him to act. God does not have to forgive, but his love leads him to forgive. He removed Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden lest they live forever in their sin. His love led him to send his Son to earth to die so that through his death all his children could live forever with him.
But God is also a holy God. He is not more loving than holy, and not more holy than loving. He is as holy as he is loving; both qualities are held in perfect balance. Because God is holy, he cannot tolerate sin. Sin is a mindset or activity that is contrary to the character of God. Because God is holy, anything contrary to his character is sin, and his holiness, often expressed as “righteousness,” requires punishment of sin. I don’t think the Bible ever tells us why this is true, but it’s the clear teaching of the Bible. God doesn’t punish because he enjoys it; he punishes because to do otherwise would render him less than perfect. This is why Jesus had to die. If God had simply ignored sin, he too would be unrighteous.
God is loving, which leads to forgiveness. God is holy and just, which leads to punishment of sin. Both of these divine attributes of love and holiness are true, but it’s in the balance of both that we gain the clearest picture of who God is. As we’ll see when we look at the flood and the killing of the Canaanites, as well as at the cross of Christ, these events should be understood as an expression of the balance of God’s perfect love and his absolute holiness, leading to both forgiveness and punishment.
But accepting God’s love and his holiness certainly involves faith in him.
¹Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York; Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 51.
²When the Bible ceases to be the standard of truth, there can be no standard of truth; see David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1993).
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