When reading the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, how can God be seen as a loving God, when he strikes down so many people? He seems more like an angry hateful God to me.
This is one of those deep thinking, philosophical questions. I’ll try to give a few simple responses, but at the end, you may need a couple aspirin.
I start with the central character trait of God, that he is holy. More than anything else, the Bible affirms the holiness of God. In fact, I would say that all of His other character traits flow from the reality that God is holy. When we affirm that God is holy, we are declaring that God is not like us, he is separate, different, other. Holiness refers to many aspects of God’s glory. Morally, God is perfect, pure, sinless, and cannot tolerate sin and rebellion. In terms of power, the holiness of God refers to the sovereign control of God over all things, while we, on the other hand, cannot control life. In relational terms, God’s holiness requires exclusivity in relationship, meaning that He will not tolerate the worship of any other deity or object. The holiness of God is also used to refer to the glory and brightness of his being.
A man named Isaiah has a vision of God in Isaiah 6. In his vision, he is allowed to see God enthroned in the Temple. All the time, there are angelic creatures flying around the throne of God. The angelic creatures continually sing and chant the phrase, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). In Hebrew thought, when a word is repeated it adds emphasis. Repeating something three times is sort of like saying, “Of all the things that could be said, this by far is the most important.” God has many attributes as He is described in the Bible, but no attribute, other than holiness is repeated in this manner, or is expressed on the tongues of angels as they worship Him around the throne. God is holy! His holiness is the defining issue of his character. There is no other God, and He is like no other!
This means that every other character trait flows from the Holiness of God. Exodus 15 is a song of praise sung by God’s people after God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Their experience in Egypt had been terrible, and they were significantly oppressed by Pharoah (the Egyptian leader) and the Egyptians. The Old Testament book of Exodus is the story of God’s deliverance, but it includes 10 horrible plagues on the Egyptians, and the parting of the Red Sea. At the Red Sea God provided a miraculous path of freedom for Israel as they escaped Pharoah’s armies, but at the same time, these armies pursued and God brought the water in the parted sea back resulting in the death of this army. In the song of praise in Exodus 15, the people sing, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorieous deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; and the earth swallowed them.” (Exodus 15:11-12) The Israelite people were praising God for His holiness, but also proclaiming that His actions and deeds came from His character. That included their deliverance, and the downfall of the Egyptians. For God’s people, this resulted in grace and blessing, but for the Egyptians, the result was judgement.
As we understand holiness, then, the Bible demonstrates three key attributes that uphold the holiness of God; righteousness, justice, and love. Jeremiah said, “Let him who boasts boast in this, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:24) These three terms are not a comprehensive description of God’s holiness, but they are three key terms that help us understand how God’s holiness is expressed to His creatures.
First, the righteousness of God demonstrates holiness. The word righteousness refers to the idea of living up to a standard. It is the high jumper, seeking to get over the bar. For God, the standard is moral perfection, complete purity, absolute sinlessness. “Your righteousness, O God, reaches the heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?”(Psalm 71:19) God is completely perfect in his character. He will not sin, does not sin, and is not even tempted to sin (James 1:13). The righteousness of God declares that God is perfect, and must require the same of his creatures. Often, when the action of God is swift and harsh, the Scriptures explain that God is upholding his righteousness. This is so important! Think for a minute what would happen if God was not righteous. It would mean God is morally flawed, and as a result, He could not be trusted. If God is not perfect in his character, it means He could lie to us, cheat us, and even take our lives without any reason.
Second, God demonstrates his holiness through his justice. This means that God will deal with all sin and rebellion in a way that is consistent, fair, and in accordance with what is deserved. Often, the story in the Old Testament shows God pouring his justice out on people. The Egyptians in the story of the Exodus are a good example. This nation can be catagorized by saying that everything they did was in rebellion to the true God. They did all kinds of evil things in worship to their gods. They also committed horrible acts of horrible cruelty as slave masters to the Hebrew people. As God deals with these people, the question is this, what is a just response? We get frustrated, because we want God to be soft and fluffy, who never has wrath, and never deals with people. But at the same time, we get angry when people in our culture commit horrible crimes, use racism and sexism as a tool of power, or commit the worst sin of our culture, smoke in a public place (that is a tongue in cheek reference, just in case you were wondering). We actually want justice, for people who are worse than us. We just hope God will draw the line about two steps behind our sin. Yet, for God to be just, his response to all sin has to be fair and reflect the evil nature of sin. So often, we get so focused on the response of God to certain individuals or groups of people in the Biblical story, that we fail to stop and take a good look at who they are. How should God deal with people who throw their babies on an altar of fire as a sacrifice to a false god? How should God respond when an army conquers a village and they execute the men, rape and abuse all women and children, and then cart them off to live as sex slaves? What should God do when an entire culture of people crash a man’s home because he has two guests who happen to be male, and the men of the town want to drag these two guys into the street and commit homosexual rape? These are a few of the cultural settings where God exercises justice on people. So we tend to ask the wrong question. The Old Testament stories should not lead us to question God. Rather, we ought to see these stories and wonder why God let it go so far. Yet, we also need to wonder why justice has not reached me yet. The moment that God ceases to be just, that he tolerates any sin without giving the just penalty, God gives up the position as God. In other words, if we as people can act and live however we want, and then expect God to approve of us without any punishment, this is actually a declaration that I am really the center of existence, and my God is there to serve my lifestyle. The justice of God is a reminder that God is God, he does as he pleases, and we are subject to Him!
The third expression of holiness is the lovingkindness of God. The Old Testament word is chesed, a Hebrew term that means to express gracious, covenant love that flows freely from the character of God on the undeserving. God gives grace and mercy to people who have not lived up to righteousness, and people who deserve the justice of God. The love of God is demonstrated to all people, in that they take another breath, which gives them the opportunity to repent and experience God’s love. Many people experiencing this grace of God use the opportunity God has given them to curse God, live in total rebellion, and act in ways that are disgusting. But they get the next breath, an act of grace and love. But God also pours this love out on His people, not because they desrve it, but just as an expression of holy love.
God is holy! Holiness is expressed in His righteousness, justice, and lovingkindness. As we look at these traits, it is hard for us to understand how God could be all of this in infinite and perfect ways. He does not violate his justice and righteousness to express love. He does not violate his lovingkindness when he expresses justice. He is perfect in his character, even when we don’t understand it.
Finally, the Bible teaches that the clearest demonstration of the holiness of God is the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, God’s righteousness is demonstrated because Jesus is perfect and sinless, a complete reflection of righteousness. In Jesus death, the penalty and guilt of our sin was poured on Jesus, as he took our place on the cross. Forgiveness is not that God “just lets people off the hook.” Rather, he takes the punishment and guilt of sin and imposes it on Jesus, an act of supreme justice. And, the love of God is demonstrated through the supreme sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, in our place, for our sin. Romans 3:24-26 is a key passage in all the Bible. It says, “(and all) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (atoning sacrifice) by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness (all bolds here are emphasis mine), because in his diving forbearance (gracious love) he has passed over former sins. It was to show his righeousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The writer, Paul, is saying that the cross was necessary, because it was the devine plan by which God could express His holiness in perfection. He could maintain righteousness, demonstrate justice, and show love to rebellious sinful people. Praise be to God, for He is holy!