Some people believe that the Old Testament depicts God as often angry and vengeful, and that the New Testament depicts Him as always loving and forgiving. These people tend to focus on the Old Testament accounts of severe punishment by God that reflect His wrath, and on the New Testament expressions of God’s grace that demonstrate His compassion.
In this regard, Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., asserts on page 144 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?,
The Old Testament contains frequent instances of the judgment of God upon sin and sinners. Popular theologians say these are inconsistent with the nature of a God of love, that a God of love was revealed by Jesus, and that therefore there is a difference between the view of God in the Old Testament and that in the New.
In disagreement with the position of the popular theologians he mentioned, Atkinson goes on to declare, “Both Old and New Testaments reveal what we may call . . . two great sides to God’s character, His holiness and His love. These are not antagonistic to each other, but complementary.”
It is true that, in comparison with the New Testament, the Old Testament records many more instances that pertain to God’s hatred of sin and His punishment of the people whose sins became intolerable to Him. On the other hand, Gleason L. Archer, in his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, says on page 309, “The Hebrew Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament] . . . contain far more verses on the mercy and lovingkindness of God than the New Testament does.”
Old Testament Passages That Proclaim God’s Mercy
Although we could cite many Old Testament passages that proclaim God’s mercy, we will focus on only a few verses that we believe provide particular insight. [Note: When quoting Scripture, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Exodus 20:6 and Deuteronomy 5:10: God says that He shows “mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
1 Kings 8:23: Salomon declares, “Lord God of Israel, there is no God in heaven above or on earth below like you, who keep Your covenant, and mercy with Your servants who walk before You with all their heart.”
Daniel 9:4: “O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments. . . .”
Note that these verses indicate that God does not show mercy to everyone – only to those who love Him and keep His commandments or His covenant. Throughout the Old Testament, God continually demonstrated His mercy to those who loved Him and who generally tried to keep His commandments, even though these people had lapses in their faithfulness.
Having considered God’s mercy in the Old Testament, let’s contemplate New Testament references to God’s wrath, and then New Testament passages that mention His judgment.
New Testament References to God’s Wrath
On page 309 of his book, Archer declares, “[T]he New Testament teaches the wrath of God just as forcefully as the Old Testament does.” Among the relevant scripture passages are the following:
John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. . . .”
Romans 2:5-6: “[I]n accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds. . . .”
Among the other scripture passages in the New Testament that mention God’s wrath are 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelation 6:15-17 and 14:9-11.
New Testament Passages That Mention God’s Judgment
In Matthew 5:21-22; 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36; Mark 6:11; and Luke 10:14, Jesus Christ warns about a judgment that will come. Although Jesus said that He had not come to judge or condemn people (see John 3:16; 8:15; 12:47), He stated in other scripture passages that He had come to judge (see John 5:22, 27; 9:39). How can these scriptures be reconciled?
On page 407 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., provide the following explanation:
These verses were spoken in different contexts and with different references. In general, the references to Jesus sitting in judgment on the human race are references to His second coming . . ., while verses about His not coming to judge but to save have His first coming in mind.
Another distinction that clears up some difficulties is found between the real purpose of Christ’s coming (to save those who believe) and the net effect of it (to judge those who don’t believe).
We believe there is sufficient evidence that God’s nature has not changed, regardless of some people’s perceptions to the contrary.
In his book entitled The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer states on page 91,
We should banish from our minds forever the common but erroneous notion that justice and judgment characterize the God of Israel [i.e., the Old Testament], while mercy and grace belong to the Lord of the Church [i.e., the New Testament]. Actually there is in principle no difference between the Old Testament and the New. . . . He has always dealt in mercy with mankind and will always deal in justice when His mercy is despised.
Malachi 3:6 begins with the statement, “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” This verse and the other scripture passages that we have referenced provide sufficient reason to reject the belief that God demonstrated a different nature in the Old Testament than He did in the New Testament. God has always been loving and forgiving, but He has also always shown His wrath when people have continued to live a reprobate life.