How can the God of judgment and punishment, as often portrayed in the Old Testament, be reconciled with the concept of a God of love?
The God of mercy and loving kindness will show up in the Old Testament, and the God capable of wrath and judgment will appear in the pages of the New Testament. It is true that there are far more Hebrew scriptures in the bible, that the Old Testament is larger and represents a much longer period of time than the New Testament, which was written in Greek over a relatively short period of time. There is also a way in which the trajectory of scripture reveals an evolving sense of who God is, how God works, what God hopes for us, and how God responds to our shortcomings.
There is always some truth in a stereotype. The sense of God conveyed in the New Testament is more approachable, in general, whereas the God conveyed in the Old Testament is more awesome, in general. The shift in language and imagery is attributable to Jesus' own sense of God as his Abba, his loving father. Jesus' lively sense of his Abba comes through the Gospels, alongside other passages depicting God the judge and warning of apocalyptic punishment. With such apparent contradictions on the same page, it helps to think of scripture as the receptacle of human pondering about God. Even though inspired, as all our wonder about God is, its view remains incomplete and evolving. God is always emergent in our experience and in history, and so is our reflection and our writing about the mystery of the holy over time.
Within the individual books of scripture, arguments about God are happening, different aspects of God are being proposed, different views of God are being tried. For example, in the prophets, the God of wrath may be invoked to recall the people to repentance in a time of impending calamity. Later, in the same book, the God of compassion may be evoked, to comfort the people, suffering from their own folly and its consequences. In the Gospels, parables which portray God's mercy and loving kindness (e.g. the prodigal son) appear alongside parables of judgment and punishment (e.g. the unjust steward). The internal contradictions of scripture compel us to decide for ourselves and among ourselves about the meaning of their juxtaposition.
Think of scripture as a progressive conversation among seekers after God through centuries and across cultures. Then all the differing points of view can be appreciated, and all the various views of God can be tested against each other and against our experience in a new place and time. Christians are folk who hold themselves accountable to scripture and who hold scripture accountable to the tests of faith they themselves experience. Today's faithful are those who are putting God's promises to the test every day, by trusting them and reflecting upon the results together as life unfolds. It's these faithful today who are having a conversation with yesterday's faithful through their last will and testaments. We will leave ours behind also, becoming part of the stream of scripture and tradition as they did before us.
When scripture and tradition are continually tried and tested in this way, a lively faith results. Assuming that scripture and tradition are resources and navigational aids for our journey in faith, we are not only free to ask questions, but actually held responsible for asking them. How can a particularly provocative passage be true without violating our best sense of God's nature and purpose? Exercising our concept of God in this way produces exciting possibilities, which convince by their paradoxical attraction. It's a little like the fascination of riddles. How can God be just and merciful at once? How does that work?
What if a God of judgment were a good thing? Let's just assume that judgment might be a gift from God, and see where it gets us. For one thing, we'd also have to assume God loved us enough to give us a gift. Then, if we are able to suspend our own judgment long enough to imagine something new and different, we could experiment with welcoming and trusting judgment, learning and growing from it.
Scripture says it this way: repent, turn and live. What if the mechanism of judgment is the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the perfect picture of a holy and blameless life? What if the dynamic of judgment arises from our attraction to him, our comparison of ourselves to him, and our growing desire to become more like him? In that sense, he is our judgment, our condemnation and our absolution, confronting and forgiving us at once, the measure of our homework assignment.
Punishment, when entertained as a gift from a loving God becomes the inescapability of living with the consequences of our behavior, our choices, our ways of understanding God, ourselves, others, and the world. We shall know by the fruits which are the most life-giving and healing and worthwhile. A violent god, a vindictive god, an arbitrary god of wrath produces cringing devotees intent on blaming each other and appeasing the most high. A loving God who holds us accountable to the consequences of our choices encourages us to grow up and inspires our cooperation as we do so, while providing the grace to confirm our efforts.
Another way to look at this is through the cross. On the one hand, it would seem we were all let off the hook with, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." On the other hand, what a brilliant way to hook us all, when we behold the fullness of our human potential revealed in that generous and undeserved advocacy. By that prayer to his Abba, Jesus displays our meanness and our blindness to it, while simultaneously opening our eyes and ministering to our spirits, giving us a vision of cooperation with God and one another for good. By forgiving our adversaries, we call them into a new kind of relationship, a community relying upon God's grace to make us one.
When we reject the gift and view it as a curse instead, we live in an inhospitable universe, and our punishment is to continue to live in a world bereft of grace. When we accept our "punishment" as a gift from God, our work is cut out for us, and we take up our task, which is to grow into a world defined by the gift itself. Forgiving and asking forgiveness, absolving one another and making amends for the wrong we have done, creates a different kind of person, a different kind of world, a world which Jesus envisioned for us even as we did him in. His parting gift created the resurrection, the newness that grew out of the cross, as God has assisted with grace those who embraced their judgment and punishment as good news and set about making amends.
—The Rev. Dr. Katherine M. Lehman
Each religion has its reference point as to how the benevolence of the Creator enters and has entered the material world of time and space. For Christianity this reference point is Jesus Christ. Since Jesus was a Jew, the Christian tradition includes the Jewish Bible as its Old Testament, and the New Testament—the Christian Bible—is combined with the Old to make the document we know as the Bible. The Old Testament was written from a point of view about Creation and God that comes from a far distant past. These people experienced life as more hardship than pleasure; they did not have the conveniences that we take for granted: running water, indoor plumbing, grocery stores, etc. From their point of view they experienced God as the Creator of this life, and God was therefore a Creator who had a harsh side.
Yet if you carefully examine the pattern of God's involvement with the people of the Old Testament, you will find that God rescued, restored and never abandoned those people. From their point of view, God did disappear, but that point of view was severely limited by the way they experienced life. In short, for Christians the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses is the same God that revealed the Divine nature through Jesus. The God of the Old Testament didn't change, humanity's understanding of God evolved over centuries of experience.
Christians believe that God's revelation of God's self has been consistent throughout the Bible and that revelation unveils a God who is benevolent, not capricious or harsh. Life may be harsh and capricious, but that does not mean God is. We all create the lives we live for ourselves, and our behaviors have an effect on others. That goes for individuals, groups, churches, religions and nations. Let's not lay our foul-ups on God; let's take responsibility for them and seek God's aid to re-find the appropriate relational context for all humans. As we do that intentionally, we will find the Creator enabling us in ways that defy human explanation.
—The Rev. C. Douglas Simmons