What is God like? Most Christians will point you to the Bible in order to answer that question. They wouldn’t be incorrect, but have you actually read the Bible? The Bible has all sorts of different depictions of God; some are spectacularly wonderful and some are abhorrently disgusting. Despite what your pastor may have told you, all the authors of the Bible are not in agreement with each other on what God is like.
Many times in the Old Testament, God is depicted as an angry bloodthirsty warrior who slaughters countless men, women, and children without mercy; sparing only young girls so the Israelite men can have their way with them. God is also said to curse people and give them sickness and disease if they don’t do exactly as he commands.
Once we get to the New Testament, a man named Jesus shows up and claims to be God. Jesus acts almost completely contrary to many of the images of God we can read about in the Old Testament. Jesus cares about other nation’s peoples. Jesus loves even his enemies. Jesus says that sickness and disease are from the devil. Jesus blesses the righteous and the wicked. What is going on? What does God actually look like?
Admitting We Have a Problem
Everyone will tell you that the first step is admitting you have a problem. But the biggest problem you might have is not even knowing you have a problem. If you haven’t read the entire Old Testament then you’re likely unaware of many of the ways that God is described. Many stories will make your skin crawl. If you were to come across many of these depictions of God in any another ancient pagan religious text, you’d have no problem calling that god evil. So why then would we not do this if it is contained within our religious text?
If you haven’t read the entire Old Testament, or you need a refresher, here is our article that should help immensely.
As you can see, we have a huge problem. Most Christians will claim that God is always good and never evil. There are two possible outcomes from this line of thinking. One, you will profess that God is beautiful and will consciously or subconsciously ignore all the parts of the Old Testament where God appears quite ugly. Or two, which is even worse, you will change the meanings of “good” and “evil” to accommodate the wretched portraits of God sometimes found in the Old Testament.
“Well, when God does those seemingly evil things, it is actually good because God is always good.”
These two ways that Christians often deal with ugly depictions of God in the Bible are unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. What if evil is just always evil and it is never made good, even when we read depictions of God participating in said evil? When you read that God commands stealing little girls to be sex slaves after murdering their families, how can you truly trust and love him? (Numbers 31:17-18 ESV) The mental representation of God in your head will determine the quality of the relationship with him. The intensity of your love for God will never be able to outrun the level of goodness you envision of him.
Questioning God’s Character
The Old Testament is filled with stories of people questioning God when it seemed like he was acting out of character (Genesis 18:23-33; Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-16; Psalm 89:19-44; Habakkuk 1:3-4, 13; Job 9:17, 22-24; 10:3, 8, 16-20; 16:12-14; 24:12). Jesus, the Apostles, and the New Testament writers continued this tradition when they faithfully questioned Scripture. This questioning and rejecting isn’t hard to find once you start looking for it but if you aren’t looking you may never find it. But once you see the radically different depictions of God that are contained in the Bible, what do you do with them?
On the one hand, you have depictions of God wanting to slaughter families and rape their women (Jeremiah 13:14, 22, 26; Nahum 3:5), and on the other, you have depictions of God loving his enemies and committing to being nonviolent. Which is it? Can it be both? Many Christians will try to live in the tension of having two diametrically opposed portraits of God in the Bible. This understanding of God has allowed Christians throughout the centuries to preach love but to also put people to death for disagreeing with them. This understanding has allowed Christians to attend Church every Sunday but to also commit genocide the other days of the week. This understanding has allowed Christians to pray every night but to also whip their slaves during the day. This understanding simply doesn’t work.
Does God show his power through violent coercive force or does he show his power through self-sacrificial love? Either the ancient Hebrews were correct or the early Christians were correct. Thankfully the Bible itself answers this question time and time again, though many Christians fail to see it.
Jesus is the Correct Answer
The Bible clearly and repeatedly shows us that Jesus is the overriding message to us about what God is like.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me… Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
John 14:6, 9
Jesus is the one and only Word of God (John 1:1). When God wants to speak directly to us with no intermediate, Jesus is the way he does it (Hebrews 1:1). Jesus is what God has to say. Jesus is the way and the truth. If there are any incomplete or false understandings of God, Jesus is not it because he is the truth. To put it more explicitly, Jesus is the exact representation of God.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…
The Old Testament doesn’t override anything we learn about God through Jesus, rather the opposite is true: Jesus is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Old Testament (Luke 24:45). Paul tells us that only with Jesus can we even understand the Old Testament (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). Jesus is who must guide us through the old Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus Weighs More
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life… If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.
John 5:39-40, 46
The way, the truth, and the life are not found in the Old Testament: they are found in Jesus. That means that we must allow Jesus to show us the correct and true way to read and understand the Old Testament. Jesus is the one and only mediator between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus alone mediates every aspect of our relationship with God, including our knowledge of what God is like. We cannot and should not treat the Old Testament as an independent source of information about God. Paul and other Jews used the Old Testament as an independent source of information about God, and they put Jesus and countless Christians to death (and they were ‘correct’ for doing so, according to the OT). Any truth or life found in the Old Testament is only through the key of Jesus Christ.
No one can know God except through Jesus (Matthew 11:27). That means you cannot know God through the Old Testament unless you go through Jesus. All wisdom, knowledge, and complete understanding of God are found in Jesus (Colossians 2:2-3). All of the fullness of God’s being lives within Jesus (Colossians 2:9). Everything we need to know about God can be found in Jesus. The author of Hebrews even claims that something is wrong with the Old Testament and that it is obsolete because of Jesus (Hebrews 8:7, 13). Maybe this claim is made because no one has ever even seen the Father except Jesus who makes him known (John 1:18). That is a shocking claim: no author of the Old Testament had seen God.
Some will say, “well Jesus is in the Old Testament.” Correct, he is. But not in the way most think. In order to understand how we can see Jesus in the Old Testament, we must first look to the culmination of God’s self-revelation through Jesus: the cross.
The Unexpected Center
God is love.
1 John 4:8
While all Christians agree that God is love, many disagree about what love is. If God really is love, it is pretty important that we understand what love actually is. Thankfully, the New Testament doesn’t leave the definition of love open to speculation; rather, it tells us with extreme clarity.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
1 John 3:16
Jesus shows us exactly what love is. The cross is where we find what love looks like—and it characterizes God’s eternal nature. Shockingly, followers of Jesus are called to imitate this love, even towards enemies. All of Scripture points to Jesus and the culmination of Christ’s life and ministry is found at the cross. This means that the character of God revealed on the cross is the epicenter of the entire Bible.
The cross agrees with Christ’s entire life in that it is what other-orientated, self-sacrificial, enemy-love looks like. Rather than being the expected warrior king, God is revealed as a servant (Matthew 20:28). Rather than achieving victory like the world does through war, God is revealed as willing to suffer on other’s behalves (Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 26:2; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 17:25, 24:7). Rather than establish control over others, God is revealed to reject the traditional worldly power of coercive political violence (Matthew 4:8-10).
Rather than slaughtering the Romans to save the Jews, God is revealed to be willing to die for the Romans. When Peter, who understood God through the lens of the Old Testament, tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross to suffer, Jesus rebuked him and even called him “Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Peter knew his Bible, but he allowed the Old Testament to override the character of God revealed in Jesus. Today, many Christians follow in Peter’s footsteps, but in order to read the Old Testament correctly, we must do the opposite.
The Lens Through We Must Read
When first-century Jews and Romans looked at Jesus hanging on the cross, what did they see? They saw a guilty, bloody, God-cursed criminal. With the natural eye, this is all they could see. Can we even blame them? What could allow them to see more than just a bloody criminal? Why do Christians view Jesus on the cross as something more? What is the difference between non-believers and believers when it comes to how they see a bloody criminal hanging on a cross? The difference is whether or not they know Jesus—whether or not they know what God actually looks like.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18
Christians look beyond the surface appearance of a bloody, guilty, cursed criminal to see a God who stooped down low into our world out of love in order to bear our sin. God became cursed on our behalf (Galatians 3:13). God was willing to take on the appearance of a cursed, guilty, bloody criminal in order to reconcile the world to himself (Colossians 1:19-20). On the surface, the cross is revoltingly ugly because it reflects the ugly sin and curse that Jesus bore. But beyond the surface, the cross reveals the beauty of a God who, out of love, was willing to bear our sin by taking on the ugly appearance of a bloody sinner.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21
The cross reveals what God is like—more importantly, the cross reveals what God has always been like because God never changes his character. So in light of this, shouldn’t we read the Old Testament expecting God to reveal himself in the same way he revealed himself on the cross? What if the cross wasn’t something new, but rather, what if the cross was just another example of how God always chooses to display his character? If God indeed never changes, then we should read the Old Testament expecting to see a God who takes on the appearance of sin, on our behalf, just like he does on the cross. Since all Scripture is supposed to point to the crucified Christ, we must read the Old Testament with that in mind.
The Cross in the Old Testament
Many assume that the Old Testament is perfect because it is “God-breathed” and God is perfect, but that isn’t how the Bible works. God always accomplishes his purposes through “the foolish,” “weak,” “lowly” and “despised” things of the world, as the cross shows us (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). But since the cross appears foolish and weak according to ordinary human standards of strength, wisdom, and perfection, why would anyone think that the Bible, which was written to point us to the cross, would look any less foolish and weak? If God chose to reveal the fullness of his being by becoming a human that then became our sin and curse, why would anyone assume that the Bible wouldn’t have material that reflects God in the same way?
The cross, just like the Bible, is where humans and God meet. At the cross, God stooped down low to take on the appearance of our sin and appear as a bloody criminal. At the cross, we took the nails and murdered an innocent man, putting our sin onto God. In the Bible, God stooped down low to take on the appearance of our sin and appear as a bloody criminal. In the Bible, we took the pen and described God that way, putting our sin onto God. God acted towards us and we acted towards God. This is true of the cross and it is true of the Bible.
To the degree that any depiction reflects the character of God revealed in Jesus, we can consider it God acting toward people. To the degree that the surface appearance of a depiction of God fails to reflect Jesus, we can consider it the sin and cultural conditioning of his people acting towards God. So when we read in the Old Testament how God is full of mercy, we can see the Holy Spirit breaking through, but conversely, when we read about God committing ruthless genocide, we can see a reflection of our sin and a God who is willing to appear as a bloody criminal. It is up to us, who have the Holy Spirit living inside, to see and discern what is really going on behind the scenes with Jesus as our guide.
Accommodating Our Ignorance
As much as has been possible, God has always revealed his will and his true character while stooping to accommodate the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people only as much as has been necessary. In the Old Testament, God often appeared like all the other Ancient Near Eastern gods because it was written by people who were steeped in that world.
Consider this: the Bible tells us that the ancient Israelites were a stiff-necked people who continually broke God’s heart and resisted the Spirit.1 Therefore it is no wonder that they could only see glimpses of God’s true character. Some prophets even claimed that the Israelites lacked all knowledge of God and that even the Israelite leaders didn’t know God (Hosea 4:1, 6; Isaiah 3:12, 5:12-13; Jeremiah 2:8).
For instance: Did God really want animal sacrifice? No. Did God really want human government? No. Did God really want a temple? No. Did God really want men having multiple wives? No. Did God really want people to own slaves? No. Did God really want the genocide of ethnic cleansing? No. But in his love, God was willing to allow his people to think of him like other Ancient Near Eastern warrior gods, only to the degree it was necessary, for the purpose of progressively influencing them to the point where they would eventually be capable of receiving the truth that he is actually radically unlike these other violent deities.
The Truth At Last
The absolute first moment in history where mankind was capable of receiving the full truth of God’s full and true character, as revealed in Jesus, was in the first century. God only waited as long as was necessary and no longer. At the first possible moment in human history where God could reveal to us the exact representation of his being, he did so. God knew precisely when the full truth could take hold and spread.
Obviously, not everyone was ready for the truth and Jesus was put to death because of it. The Romans were unwilling to accept that Jesus was their true ruler and Caesar was not. The Jews were unwilling to accept that the Messiah wouldn’t ride a warhorse or pick up a sword. Even today the same is true: not everyone is ready and willing to accept that God looks like a servant who doesn’t use violence to accomplish his will. Jesus shows us that this is the way, the truth, and the life—but not everyone has ears to hear.
We can either continue seeing the horribly evil portraits of God in the Old Testament in the same way that the Romans and the Jews saw Jesus on the cross, or we can see what is really going on behind the scenes. If we can fully trust in the revelation of God revealed in Jesus on the cross then the ignorant ways that the ancient Israelites sometimes described God will become obvious. But if we refuse to fully trust that Jesus is the full and complete representation of God then we will continue to read the Old Testament like the ancient Jews, who put the creator of the universe to death. Don’t settle for fragments and glimpses of the truth, instead, put all your trust in Jesus, who perfectly shows us what God actually looks like—nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-love. Dare to believe that God really is as beautiful as the cross reveals him to be.