There are other reasons, of course, that people give for not believing. My focus in this writing is only this pop culture view of Christianity and the God of the Bible.
I think what people are saying when they say they cannot believe in the God who is described in the Old Testament is that they can’t believe in a God who seems to be (to us) so arbitrary, angry and jealous as God is portrayed in the Old Testament.
There are many things that can be said in response to this popular sentiment. For one thing, if there is a God, it doesn’t matter what I believe or what you believe: God is God regardless of our beliefs. There is Truth in the world, and it transcends me and you. The important question is, then, not what we think about God as revealed in the Old Testament, but whether it is true.
Considering whether God as revealed in the Old Testament is true should begin with some understanding of the Old Testament. In reading what people write and listening to what people say, most people (in my opinion) reject “the God of the Old Testament” or God as revealed in the Bible with very little understanding of what they are rejecting. They are rejecting a distortion or caricature. If you are going to reject something, at least understand what you are rejecting!
Before providing my thoughts, I should say I am no Old Testament scholar. With that said, it dawned on me a long time ago that, if there is a God, and if that desires to have relationship with human kind, He would find a way to communicate Himself.
Further, it would be no small matter for an infinite Creator of the Universe to communicate to a finite, limited, created being. How would that connection be made? How would it be perceived? How could a flash-in-the-pan like creature, albeit an intelligent one, really understand and accurately know the infinite, all powerful Creator? At the point of connection, how would that creature (us) categorize and describe the God who is, was and ever will be with limited experience, perspective and vocabulary?
When we consider the extent of human life, as significant as our years seem to us, the existence of all of humanity is not even a drop in the bucket of time. Our individual and collective years are not even a spray of mist in the sea of infinite timelessness. The relation of our lives even to the time that we are able to observe and understand is utterly insignificant.
What, then, is death that cuts a life “short”? What significance is this life that we live? If God in the Old Testament strikes people dead and commands His people to wipe out nations, of what significance is that really in the big scheme of things?
I can hear the retort: as short as our lives are, cutting them even shorter is all the more tragic and costly. And so it certainly does seem to us from our very limited perspective. Our perception is colored by our utterly limited experience and awareness; and our awareness, knowledge and understanding is limited by the finiteness of our existence.
The same Old Testament that describes what seems like an angry, jealous and retributive God says that God put eternity into the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Therein lies a clue, though it is difficult, indeed, to grasp the significance of it from where we stand.
The time, space and matter that defines the farthest boundaries of our present existence do not hold or contain God. This God who has revealed Himself to us says that there is something else that awaits us… only we have great difficulty grasping it.
In the context of eternity, what is 100 years? What is 50 years? What is 1 or 2 years? If eternity awaits us, what is the significance of our lives?
While we have difficulty grasping, in any experiential way of “knowing”, we can, at least, understand the concept of eternity. How can that be if we are finite beings?
This life is short. At the end, 20 years is not much different to 100 years. If there is an eternity awaiting us, this life is not very significant in relation to eternity.
When we read of God striking people dead in the Old Testament, or instructing Joshua and Caleb to overrun the land of Canaan and wipe out its inhabitants who live there, we are tempted to recoil from it. It seems brutal and barbaric to us. The significance in relation to an infinite God who set eternity in the hearts of men, however, is not as we perceive it.
There are many, many points to be made about these passages in the Old Testament. I am not going to get into those points except to note that the Canaanites were the most barbaric of people. They sacrificed their own children to their gods. They placed them live on the red hot metal surface of the gods they made with their own hands, leaving them to roast to death.
This was the cultural environment in which God revealing Himself, little by little over time, to people who were somewhat, but not always, receptive to the revelation. The Old Testament is a story of many misunderstandings, and tests and lessons learned. The Old Testament is a story of a particular, unlikely people that God lead into a land where these people would be a “captive” audience to Him, free from the barbaric influences of those around them and the distraction of other “gods”.
Though God wanted the inhabitants of Canaan wiped out and driven out of the Promised Land, the Israelites didn’t actually wipe out the inhabitants and drive them out of the land. Many of those barbaric Canaanites were allowed to stay. The people the Israelites failed to drive out of the land continually influenced the Israelites to stray from God, to worship other gods and to engage in the same barbaric practices of the people they failed to drive out. But that is not really my point or focus of this article.
The point is that the Old Testament purports to chronicle the story of God revealing Himself in history to people who had little appropriate context for understanding Him. That revelation came little by little. The perceptions of those people were colored by their culture and limited knowledge. God called them to separate themselves from that barbaric culture and to learn something different.
They did separate themselves and learn, but very imperfectly and very slowly over time. What we see in the Bible is a progression in revelation and understanding. We see God setting the stage for the ultimate revelation, the revelation of God in the form of His own creation – Jesus.
We must look at Jesus to get a truer and more complete idea of who God is. In the next part of this two-part series, I will get into Jesus and the God of the Old Testament – who is described as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and “the express image of [God’s] person” (Hebrews 1:2). Jesus didn’t distance himself from “the God of the Old Testament”; Jesus embraced the God of the Old Testament and claimed to be the extension of “that” God incarnate in a human body.