Q. For years I’ve been struck by the stark contrast between how God’s judgment is portrayed in the Old Testament and how it is portrayed in the New Testament. Even before Jesus’s death, God seems to have a gentler spirit with his people. I pondered this for a long time but never came up with an explanation that seemed to make sense until the other day.
Let me run a hypothesis by you. Do you think God changed after Jesus walked on the face of the earth, because he experienced first-hand some of the struggles we face? This may seem like a pretentious suggestion, and I really don’t mean any disrespect to our sovereign God who created the universe and is all-knowing. But I do see a an inexplicable difference between the Old and New Testaments. Would love to hear your thoughts.
I think you may actually be on to something here, but let me offer a couple of qualifiers first.
We should observe, for one thing, that God actually shows mercy as well as judgment towards people in the Old Testament, and judgment as well mercy to people in the New Testament.
For example, there’s a beautiful passage in Hosea that speaks of God’s love for the wayward nation of Israel: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.” And then there are the words that open the second part of the book of Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” And so forth, in the Old Testament.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, along with all the grace and mercy, we find passages like this one in 2 Thessalonians: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you . . . This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God . . . They will be punished with everlasting destruction.” Even from the lips of Jesus himself we hear things like this, spoken to the Pharisees: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (I won’t even get into all the plagues and destruction in the book of Revelation.) So it seems there’s plenty of both mercy and wrath to go around in each testament.
Still, we have the impression that there’s more wrath in the Old Testament. What creates that impression? For one thing, in that period God was using the law to govern His relationship with His people. The New Testament itself says that the law has a positive purpose, to restrain and to teach. But laws need to specify what the consequences will be if they’re broken. That’s one reason why we hear so much about punishment in the Old Testament.
If teenagers found themselves constantly threatened with punishment, or actually being punished, they might marvel at how different their parents seemed from the days when they used to cuddle them and coo over them as babies. But the parents haven’t necessarily changed. The teenagers have actually moved into a life stage where they need the guidance and restraint of enforceable rules to help them become more mature and eventually independent adults. In the Old Testament, that’s the stage the people of God are in. Things do change in the New Testament, where God’s relationship with His people is governed instead by the Holy Spirit living in them. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
One more consideration is that the Old Testament is the story of how the original chosen people kept disobeying the covenant through which they were supposed to be God’s instruments to reach the rest of the world, and how they needed to be corrected as a result. Ultimately, a new kind of covenant was promised. The New Testament is the story of how Jesus came to earth to live out perfect obedience, inaugurate that new covenant, and fulfill the intentions of the original covenant, to bring all peoples in. So the story of disobedience in the Old Testament is going to feature a lot more judgment and punishment than the story of obedience in the New Testament. It’s not so much God’s “learnings” as a human being that lead Him to be more merciful in the New Testament as the unfolding of a plan by which God, in Jesus, supplies the obedience that He was looking for from humans all along.
All of that said, however, let me return to your hypothesis and explain why I think you may still be on to something. The book of Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” As a result, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
This seems to suggest that there was some kind of “learning” as a human being on Jesus’ part that has resulted in Him being a more effective intercessor for us in heaven. Should we therefore conclude that when Jesus intercedes for us, since God is talking to God (that is, God the Son is addressing God the Father), God is now more able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” in His own self-reflections? If so, this would reflect no prior deficiency in objective knowledge on God’s part, but rather a gain in God’s subjective or experiential knowledge. It makes sense to me, at least, that even if God knew everything from the beginning, He hadn’t necessarily experienced everything. Something to think about, anyway!
This would not account for any difference in God’s dealings with us “before Jesus’s death,” however, because Jesus had not yet taken His place back in heaven as our intercessor at that point. So I wouldn’t appeal to this to explain how justice and mercy work in the Old and New Testaments. But I would still marvel, and worship, at the thought that Jesus came and shared our humanity to such an extent that He could bring an experiential appreciation of it back to share with the Father in heaven.
I don’t know that this has necessarily changed God’s character, to make Him more merciful. Even as God is first giving the law through Moses, He describes compassion as His primary and outstanding characteristic, at length, before describing justice as well: “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 . . .” Still, I recognize that God in His graciousness has identified with us in an amazing way through Jesus, and this must give a very special quality to His compassion.