In the Christian faith, we talk a lot about God being just. He balances the scales of justice. He exacts justice. He is just in all His ways. He is the ultimate Judge.
Sooner or later, these phrases just start rolling off our tongues like trite cliches or rehearsed lines. We know they’re true. We’ve accepted them as God’s truth. We’ve committed them to memory—yet, we’ve never really put them under the microscope. And even if we have, we’ve probably never focused our microscope past the blur. We’ve never really, truly, fully understood the implications of worshiping a just God.
Well friends, dust off your microscopes because question #8 has arrived. Here it is:
How do we reconcile God’s good & loving nature with His violent wrath in the Old Testament?
As far as I can tell, God’s justice lives at the corner of His love and His wrath. Let’s take a closer look at how the two work together to make Him the just God we’re always talking about.
God created the world & therefore defines the parameters of justice within it
A helpful reminder, right? Whenever the thought “but why would God allow X to happen?” enter my mind, I have to remember that this is my Father’s world. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”—they’re literally the very first words in the Bible (Genesis 1:1). And if God created the heavens and the earth, that means He has full veto power over everything that happens on it.
Justin Taylor, SVP and Publisher at Crossway, put it this way in a Gospel Coalition article: “As Deuteronomy 32:4 says, ‘all God’s ways are justice’—by definition. If God does it, it is just. And since the triune God is inherently relational, the Bible says that God is love—and therefore all of his justice is ultimately born from and aiming toward love” (Taylor par. 5). Basically, if we believe what the Bible says is true—that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that “all God’s ways are justice”—than it stands to reason that everything He does is rooted in love.
After establishing this, Taylor continues: “While it is ultimately illegitimate to ask if God’s ways are just in securing the Promised Land, it is perfectly appropriate and edifying to seek understanding on how God’s ways are just—whether in commissioning the destruction of the Canaanites or in any other action. This is the task of theology—seeing how various aspects of God’s truth and revelation cohere” (Taylor par. 6). Once we’ve accepted the biblical truth that God’s ways—all of them—are in fact just, we can earnest approach His throne with hearts that ask “but how?”
Love & wrath are not mutually exclusive
There are certain passages in the Old Testament that, on their surface, seem to present us with the image of a less-than-loving God. From “blotting out every living thing” with the flood to taking vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, we see Him go to some pretty extreme lengths to make His glory known.
When we read these passages, it’s hard not to wonder how our God of love orders the death of mothers and children or allows the destruction of entire nations. As we think through this, I think it’s helpful to look at a specific passage. Let’s head to Deuteronomy 4:25-28:
“After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and arousing his anger, I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.”
In this passage, Moses is warning the Israelites that choosing to worship other gods will ultimately drive them out of the promised land and into great suffering. He says that they will be scattered among many nations where few will survive.
With this warning, Moses reminds the people of Israel that turning away from God has serious consequences. Consequences that some may find drastic, violent or even un-loving. But notice how Moses’ words in the next three verses reveal the heart behind these consequences:
“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deut. 4:29-31).
Man’s forgetfulness is a major theme throughout God’s Word. God reveals His faithfulness. Then, He is praised. His faithfulness is forgotten. Man sins. God punishes. Man repents. God forgives. And the cycle continues. The Israelites are the best example of this in the Old Testament. Over and over, God makes a way for them. Over and over, they forget His faithfulness and turn to other gods. It’s only through the consequences of turning away that they are humbled and reminded of God’s faithfulness to provide.
Later in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to ”Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years...He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna... to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:2-3).
When we’re confronted by instances of God’s wrath in the Old Testament, it’s easy for us to question His loving nature. How could a loving God be so full of wrath? But this passage helps us see that His love and His wrath are far from mutually exclusive, as it is often His wrath which guides the Israelites back to Him after a season of forgetfulness.
God’s love & wrath intersect at the cross—where our hope is born
A few weeks ago, I shared a response to a question about suffering. In it, I talked about how I don’t believe that the suffering we experience today is a consequence of personal sin—which may seem like a contradiction of what I’ve just said. Here’s why it’s not.
For starters, I want to call out the distinction that’s often made between “Old Testament God” and “New Testament God.” A lot of people talk about the “Old Testament God” being the God of wrath and the “New Testament God” being the God of love and forgiveness. But Christians worship one God whose narrative and attributes are consistent throughout all of Scripture. The New Testament doesn’t introduce us to a new god. Rather, it invites us into a new relationship with the same God. A relationship that’s made possible through Christ’s work on the cross.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17-18). He does this through the ultimate act of unconditional love: enduring the totality of God’s wrath on our behalf. Because Christ has paid the price of sin in full, our relationship with God has changed drastically. Rather, it’s been restored.
Certain of our inability to perfectly fulfill the law on our own accord, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). Instead of allowing the sin of mankind to forever remain unaccounted for—which would have made Him an unjust God—He did this “to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t eliminate the presence of suffering in our lives. It does however eliminate our need to suffer as a consequence of sin. Instead of desperately grasping at straws to make ourselves worthy according to the law, we’re now justified by faith in Jesus. This is the hope we find when God’s love and wrath intersect at the cross.
So now what?
In thinking through this question, it’s worth remembering that the character of our almighty God cannot be limited to the confines of our finite logic. As citizens, we accept that the president has the authority to do things that we don’t. As children, we accept that our parents have the authority to do things that we don’t. And as children of God, we must accept the same.
I say these things not to discourage us from probing to understand the ways of God. In fact, I believe that bringing our questions before God is an act of worship. It reveals our deepest desire to be in true relationship with Him. But in the hidden crevices and darkest corners of our searching, let us remember to savor the mystery of His unsearchable ways.
Donald Miller captures this idea perfectly in his novel, Blue Like Jazz. I’ll leave you with his words:
“At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don't think there is any better worship than wonder” (Miller 206).
God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis
Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller