Why Does the Old Testament God Seem Different than the New Testament God?

by Rick Richardson and Kerilee Van Schooten

When we read stories from the New Testament about Jesus’ life and ministry, it is easy to see a God who is gracious and compassionate – who heals the sick, lifts up the downtrodden, and forgives sinners. As we begin paging through the Old Testament, however, we run into jarring accounts of violence and judgment.

These stories seem to paint a picture of God that is polar opposite to that of the New Testament. Why is that? If the Bible is really one continuous story of God’s relationship with humanity, then why does the Old Testament God seems so different from the New Testament God?

The truth is that the God of the Old and New Testaments is actually one and the same, but the two pictures often seem different because we have an incomplete view of both. When we read the Old Testament, we easily see God’s judgment but forget His mercy, and when we read the New Testament, we often see God’s mercy but forget His judgment.

In Exodus 34:6-7, God encompasses both mercy and judgment when He describes Himself to Moses saying, I am “the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth… who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” This revelation of the character of God is perfectly portrayed throughout all of scripture.

One of the reasons why it can be hard to glimpse God’s graciousness and patience in the Old Testament is that we often read the stories in isolation from each other. When we read the Old Testament in larger chunks, we can understand more of the historical context. The incredible patience of God comes into clearer focus.

For example, after the Israelites make the golden calf in Exodus 32, God commanded the Levites to go through the camp, killing Israelites left and right. In the end, about 3,000 people died that day. Yes, the Israelites shouldn’t have made the golden calf, but wasn’t that response from God a bit extreme?

In his book God Behaving Badly, David Lamb explores this story, along with many others where God’s actions are confusing and off-putting. Regarding this instance in Exodus 32, Lamb steps back and helps us see the story in its broader context (Lamb, 36). The Israelites had just been freed from 400 years of enslavement in Egypt and no sooner have they gotten out than they begin complaining.

They complain about lack of protection (Exod. 14:11), bitter water, and a lack of both food and water (Exod. 15:24, 16:3, 17:2). Each time, they assume the worst about God, and each time God demonstrates His patience by continuing to provide for them. When they create and worship the golden calf, the Israelites betray God—just as God is making a covenant of faithfulness with them through the Ten Commandments. Lamb compares this situation to a spouse committing adultery on a honeymoon. When seen in that light, the violent judgment of God is just (Lamb, 37).

Along with our need to have a broader historical context, sometimes it’s hard to see God’s mercy in the Old Testament because we lack knowledge about the cultural context of that time. For example, some of the laws which God gave the ancient Israelites seem extreme or harsh at first glance, but when we understand the cultural context of the ancient Near East, we can see God’s grace extended through them.

In Leviticus 24:19-20, God commands that, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done, so it shall be done to him… eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Today, we are very familiar with the phrase “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” and God’s laws in the Old Testament seem unnecessarily violent. However, these laws actually set a limit on the revenge that would often cause escalation of violence in nomadic, tribal communities (Lamb, 106).

Because of that, we can recognize that “while Yahweh’s legal punishments seem violent, they were actually effective means of reducing violent crime and promoting peace among his people” (Lamb, 106).

Granted, there are many more instances throughout the Old Testament where the character of God seems to come into question. In each case, however, an awareness of the historical and cultural contexts, along with a deeper understanding of the holiness of God, can shed light on what’s really going on, revealing a God that is both just and merciful. If you are interested in taking a closer look at some challenging Old Testament stories, David Lamb’s book, God Behaving Badly, is a great resource to explore.

When it comes to the New Testament, it’s easy to see the compassionate and gracious character of God, and rightly so. John 3:17 explains that Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn it, but to save it. Since that was Jesus’ mission, it makes sense that God intentionally put His mercy on display through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Because of that, however, we often see Jesus as a meek and humble Savior rather than a just Judge, when in fact, He is both. Throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus actually talked about hell a lot; 73% of the times the word hell (Gehenna or Hades) is mentioned in the NT, Jesus is the one saying it (Lamb, 188). In doing so, He was pointing to the judgment that is coming. Along with that, the Apostle Paul refers to Jesus as a judge (2 Tim. 4:1), and in Revelation 19, John describes Jesus as a judge who will bring both God’s judgment and perfect justice.

It can be easy to miss this aspect of Jesus’ character, because it’s not readily uppermost in the Gospels and because this final judgment hasn’t happened yet. But the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus is both merciful and just, and this perfectly echoes the character of the God of the Old Testament, quoted earlier in Exodus 34.

From first glance, the Old and New Testaments seem to describe God very differently. However, when we take the time to understand the historical and cultural contexts of scripture, we begin to see the mercy and judgment of God permeate both the Old and New Testaments and must admit that they are not as different as they initially seem.

We live in an age and cultural context that values tolerance and inclusion above all.  The Old Testament took place in periods and cultures that often valued vengeance and justice more. Just maybe, the God of both Old and New Testaments has something corrective and prophetic to say to all of us.

Rick Richardson (@reimaginer) is evangelism fellow at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, professor of intercultural studies at Wheaton College, and director of the MA in Evangelism and Leadership and the MA in Missional Church Movements degrees. Rick consults widely with churches on evangelism and healing and reconciliation for the emerging generation and on contemporary missional churches and missional movements.

Kerilee Van Schooten is research coordinator at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.