How do I respond to my friends who accuse God of being harsh in the Old Testament?
A couple of my buddies always ask about God in the Old Testament: especially about how harsh he can seem to be at times. Have any advice or recommended reading about the topic?
Clearly this is a good question. I have gotten one version or another many times. If you do a search of my web site, you will find some answers. Let me give a fresh version here.
As people of faith we will have to admit that there are things God does and things he asked or allowed Israel to do in the Old Testament which are hard to accept on an emotional level. God asked Saul and the Israelites to kill all the Amelekites; man, woman and child in 1 Samuel 15. This is perhaps the most famous example, but it is not an isolated one.
It is fashionable in Christianity today to present a one-sided picture of God. We love to talk about his love and his grace. We are pretty fired up about his patience and his kindness. We can quote John 3:16 and many other passages. Obviously I have no problem at all with talking a lot about God’s love. After all, John said that "perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18). God is love. The qualities that God has he has in infinite measure. Here is what many of us tend to forget. Not only is God love, he is also holy and just. God cannot and will not tolerate sin. "The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) "Vergeance belongs to Me; I will repay" (Romans 12:19) and "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). Those who rebel–those who choose to sin–those who treat as an unholy thing the blood of Jesus will be judged. This is not a good thing. In the Old Testament God’s judgment came on both Israel and on their enemies when they mocked God. I do not believe harsh is the right word for this, because harshness is anger without love. Even in judgment, God is love. However, I will not deny that the judgment of God is a terrible thing. Personally, I would prefer to ignore this aspect of God, but it is as real as any other. We cannot ignore judgment and we should not flinch to tell lost people about it either. Jesus talked about judgment and hell about as often as he talked about heaven.
So yes, I will admit that I am not completely comfortable with some tough things–even violent things which God either allowed or even caused to happen in the Old Testament, but I believe that the issue is not who dies in warfare, but who will go to heaven and to hell. God loves us all. God loved every single person in Sodom and Gomorrah. God loved the Amelekites. The infants who died in that war will not be judged by God as they were not sinners. I am with you emotionally in your uncertainty how to respond, but I believe we ought to confront these questions head on and not present an unbalanced view of God. So my advice to you in talking to your buddies is to take the question head on. Read passages like Romans 6:23 or Hebrews 10:26-31 or even Revelation 21:8. Remind your friends that with God physical death is really not the issue, but God has every right to warn and to judge us even in this life and we will do well to learn from these stories in the Old Testament.