If you have experience talking about your Christian faith with others, you have probably run into some form of this objection: the God of the Old Testament is fundamentally different than the God of the New Testament.
The God of the Old Testament, it is asserted, is angry and wrathful. The God of the New Testament is loving and merciful and forgiving. Surely these two rival conceptions of God are at odds with each other.
The reality is that not only are both of these depictions true reflections of various aspects of God’s character, they are both strongly present in both Testaments.
Love and Mercy In the Old Testament
In the Old Testament book of Lamentations we read:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness
In this Old Testament passage (from a book written to lament the terrible things that have happened to God’s people) we read that both the love and mercy of God are unending. They are a permanent and vital part of his character and central in defining who he is.
But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
Here the disobedience of Israel is recounted. The people did not obey the law (throughout their history Israel was notoriously bad at keeping the law and routinely fell away from worshiping God altogether in favor of vain idols and false Gods), yet God did not abandon them. He was patient with them and ready to forgive. The Bible is consistent in teaching that even though God has a just anger against wrongdoing, he has a long fuse. God is not impulsive and ready to blow his lid at the drop of a pin, he patiently endures more than we could ever handle.
Wrath and Vengeance in the New Testament
In the Book of Acts, we see God strike several people dead instantly. Annanias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying about how much they sold their land for (Acts 5:1-11). Additionally, at the end of Acts 12, Herod was struck down for receiving praise from men and then not giving glory to God in return.
Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild
Jesus often gets cited as evidence that the New Testament has switched from wrath and anger to love and mercy, but the truth is that Jesus comes with a whole lot of wrath.
In Matthew 25, he lays out how he will one day judge the world. He is clear that he will send the wicked “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) for “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46)
Perhaps nowhere is the wrath of Jesus more vivid than in the book of Revelation where the wicked are gathered like a bunch of grapes and it is said that Jesus “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God” (Revelation 19:15)
The Bigger Picture
Someone might still object that though there are examples of both wrath and mercy in each Testament, overall there is much more of an emphasis on wrath in the OT and on mercy in the NT. That’s actually correct to a large extent, but it actually fits with the overall Biblical picture.
In Romans 3 we read about Jesus “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). In other words, Paul is saying that the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners vindicated God’s righteousness. What is amazing here is that Paul is not struggling with the fact that God was so vengeful in the Old Testament, he is finding himself needing to explain why God wasn’t more vengeful. How could God pass over sins in the OT without immediately punishing them? Does he not really care about sin? The answer is that he definitively does and the death of Jesus on the cross proves it.
This is why the New Testament seems to emphasize mercy: it is being written in light of the cross where God’s righteousness has been vindicated and his mercy can be offered freely.
Perhaps no passage is clearer on the relationship between Gods wrath and mercy than this one from the book of Romans:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory
Here we see it explicitly stated that God’s mercy and wrath are both attributes that he wants to make known. They are not, however, equal. Wrath serves as the backdrop against which the full magnificence of His glory is displayed. Indeed, the Old Testament serves in the same way as a backdrop for the New Testament, emphasizing the real anger and wrath of God so that the glory of his mercy in the New Testament would shine all the brighter in contrast.
When you stop and think about it, it wouldn’t make sense to say that God was good if he didn’t strongly disapprove of what was evil. The goodness and love and mercy of God are not at odds with his wrath and anger against sin, they are two sides of the same coin.
Don't Miss Out on Any New Content!
If you liked this post, join our mailing list to stay up to date: