God's Contrasting Character Traits
If God is love, why did He wipe out entire nations in the Old Testament? Again, would a loving God torture men in hell eternally? Even the contrast between how God acts in the two testaments seems very different. So how are we to understand such apparent contradictions?
When thinking of God, we must always remember His infinitude. Anything He is in nature, He is in infinite measure. If we speak of God's purity, we mean that in Him is not even the slightest speck of darkness or impurity or unrighteousness, not even once, not ever. And so it is with all His traits – all are endless in measure. When we say that God is righteous, it means that His righteousness is absolute. Not only is He perfectly pure in nature, but He is also perfectly just in judgment. His every intent, His every thought, His every reason for action is birthed by an upright cause. His integrity, His authenticity, His honesty, His faithfulness are all without wavering – they are complete, never even lessening in the slightest degree. In short, He is thoroughly good, thoroughly perfect and thoroughly upright.
“He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He.” – Deuteronomy 32:3-4
Now because God is so pure (and mankind is anything but that), the darkness in us has separated us from the light of God. Remember what the first thing was that Adam and Eve did after they sinned? They covered themselves and hid from God (Genesis 3:9-10). Darkness always does this, it flees from the light.
“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” - John 3:19-21
So when darkness found home in man, man fled from God. And God could not draw us closer because His righteousness had to hold us accountable for our sins. He is the judge, and to show us kindness or mercy was to give us what we did not deserve – it was an injustice to repay our wrongs with His goodness. God's righteousness demanded our death, because the penalty for sin is death.
“For the wages of sin is death” – Romans 6:23a
God is so pure that His very presence consumes and destroys unrighteousness, just like a furnace purifies gold. That is why when Israel witnessed it they described Him as a consuming fire.
“Now the glory of the LORD rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel.” – Exodus 24:16-17
Witnessing that sight, the children of Israel were abundantly aware of their own sinfulness and begged Moses to go and face God in their stead, certain that His presence would destroy them.
“Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” – Exodus 20:18-19
In response to this, Moses tells them to what end God has shown them His power. It is to fill them with holy fear so that they would refrain from sin, knowing it will bring His judgment.
“And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” – Exodus 20:20
This single event illustrates the heart of the entire Old Testament, and how its purpose was to reveal what God is to mankind. Let us explain:
WHAT GOD IS
After Adam's fall, mankind was set on a course of darkness. And because of how long men lived, they became excessively evil, reaching depths occultists have not equalled in the 4000 years since. Demons walked openly with men and women bore their sons. Just imagine – if you care to – how evil a man can become if he lives for 900 years and devotes all that time to the dark arts. And with only the very rarest of individual exceptions, that darkness was the state of all men.
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” – Genesis 6:5
Witnessing the extent of man's evil for one and a half Millenia, God's righteousness was stirred to anger. He could no longer endure their wickedness and so He sent a worldwide flood – a judgement of death – the just reward of their actions.
For the first time, God had shown mankind His power, that He is a God to be feared, a judge of the hearts and intents of man. To Him all creation must give an account. That fear was meant to keep us from evil behaviour, but soon after the flood mankind was at it again, and building the tower of Babel.
God knew that this was a perpetual cycle that would never end. And He had much better hopes when He made mankind. Despite our sin, God still desired to give us the fullness of His love and blessing, but He could not because of our choices. So what did He do?
God drew closer to Abraham and promised him that through his seed, God would make a people, set apart for Himself. God would use Abraham's descendants as a beacon of light on the earth, through which He would manifest His presence, His power and His goodness before mankind.
So during the season of the Old Testament, God was revealing what He is to the world. God showed His omnipotent power when Moses faced off against the Egyptian magicians. He showed it when He parted the Red Sea, when He made the sun stand still and when He brought down the walls of Jericho. In that season, God showed us His authority over men, over the forces of nature and over the powers of darkness. He showed that He alone is the infinite One, the judge of all things, He has no rival, no equal, and no end. He is a God to be respected and a God to be feared. He is a great God!
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” – Matthew 10:28
So the Old Testament showed us God's seat of power, His glory and His righteousness – this is what God is. Why then does God seem so different in the New Testament?
WHAT GOD IS vs WHO GOD IS
It took Jesus' death on the cross to allow God to reveal the fullness of His love to mankind. Let's use an analogy which will explain what we mean.
Let us say there is an old man who holds the position of a judge. Now one day a case comes to his court where a teenage boy is on trial for possession of illegal drugs. As the case unfolds it becomes clear that the teenager is no addict. However, his father has abandoned them and his mother is on her deathbed in excruciating pain. The young man has no means of paying for the medication it would take to make his mother comfortable before she passes, but watching her agony is unbearable. In his desperation, he sells his only prized possession to buy street drugs to help her cope with the pain.
Our judge now finds himself in a predicament. On the one hand he is convinced of the kindness and good intentions of the young man along with the tragedy of his situation. But on the other hand there is the letter of the law which the teenager is guilty of violating. He must be sentenced.
As a judge, the old man must make a ruling according to the law. If he lets the boy go unpunished, he is not a righteous judge. But as a compassionate man, he neither wants to punish the teenage boy nor rob his mother of a caretaker and comforter for her final months. There is a dichotomy within the judge, a wrestle between what he is (his seat of power), and who he is (his heart of compassion).
So the judge can at the same moment hold two opposing positions: one of judgment and the other of mercy. If that is the full sum of the facts, though the judge would prefer to show mercy, he has no option but to fulfil his role as a custodian of the law. He must send the teenager to prison for 2 years or else fine him $200 000 which he knows the boy does not have.
But now let’s say there was a rich benefactor who passed away and willed a substantial fortune to the discretion of the court – money available for just such an occasions. The gift of the benefactor has changed the judges options. Now the judge can both uphold his seat of authority and express his heart to the teenager. So he pronounces the teenager guilty, the benefactor pays the penalty and the boy is released. And after the case, the judge finds the boy and says, “Son, I will send a doctor friend of mine to your home, he will give your mother all the medication she needs to make her comfortable until the end. Everything is fully paid for, now go and do not break the law again.”
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.” – James 2:13b
And there you have the difference between the two Testaments. God is the judge, and until Jesus came and paid a price with His blood, Father could not show the nature of His heart or the boundlessness of His love. But now He does. God has not given up His role as righteous judge in the New Testament. He does judge us and we are still guilty. But those who are in Christ have the account of their guilt settled by His death on the cross. And those who harden their hearts and refuse Jesus, will find out at the final judgment that God is neither weak nor unwilling to render due justice to the evil thoughts and deeds of men.
“The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:35-36
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
WHO GOD IS
If the Old Testament showed us what God is, then the New Testament shows us who God is. Now we are no longer talking about His seat of authority, instead we are talking about His heart, His nature, His desires. And the essence of who God is, is love. This is the core of His being, the driving force of His actions.
“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” – 1 John 4:8
“And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” – 1 John 4:16
Despite the fact that we have all turned from Him repeatedly, this limitless God did not write us off as defiled, worthless creatures (which we very arguably are). Instead, God unites Himself with our nature, becoming a lowly creature like us! He was so unwilling that we should die, that God subjects Himself to our mockery, to torture, to spitting and disgrace... all the while enduring that for our good alone. And the only reason driving Him was love.
Our sin obliged God to show us His righteousness. But nothing obliged God to show us His love. He chose to, He wanted to, He made a way for mercy simply because of who He is. God is love and He loves us.
To be able to show us His love He had to fulfil His righteous judgement first. Sin had to be condemned. The price had to be paid – so He took that punishment on Himself. The cross was the only way He could remain true to both what He is and who He is. The cross made it possible to have mercy on the unworthy.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” – Ephesians 2:4-5a
Since Jesus' death, God has been able to put His love on full display. But we must never forget that He is still the judge of all evil and unrighteouness. Before we can answer our final question, we must take a closer look at the nature of evil.
THE NATURE OF SIN
God is perfect. When He creates, His creation is also perfect. This was true of Satan and mankind because it is both a spiritual and a natural law – the offspring has the nature of the parent. So when God created Lucifer, he was perfect – in fact the name Lucifer means bearer of light, or shining one.
“You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty... You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you.” – Ezekiel 28:12b, 15.
Now we know that Lucifer, having been given the best of God's gifts, noticed his own beauty and became filled with pride. That pride lead to jealousy against God and he wanted all God had. And seeing the violence in his heart, God cast him out of heaven.
“You became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God.” – Ezekiel 28:14, 16b
“How you are fallen from heaven, o Lucifer, son of the morning!... For you have said in your heart: 'I will exalt my throne above the stars of God... I will be like the Most High.” – Isaiah 14:12-14b
Look at the stark difference between Lucifer's character of unrighteousness (above) compared to Jesus' character of righteousness (below).
“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.” – Philippians 2:5b-9.
Lucifer had been the created being who most perfectly reflected God's light. But when he resisted God he stopped reflecting His beauty and became the father of darkness, the first of God's creation to reject Him. His name was changed to Satan – which means the adversary – the one who sets himself against God. Satan has since taken on the mantle of the antithesis of God: everything God is not. He is the anti-god: all that rebels against His rule, His truth, His goodness and His will. He is the one who sets out to destroy God's work. God gives life, Satan causes death. God is unchanging truth, Satan is the ever morphing lie. God is selfless, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Satan is selfish, even to the point of other's destruction.
“the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” - 1 Peter 5:8b
“the devil... was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” – John 8:44-45
Satan then is the one:
“who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:4a
Simply put – darkness is all that wants to self-rule without answering to God.
The nature of sin comes from the father of sin, so evil men echo this character. An infamous servant of darkness (Aleister Crowley), summarised his master's doctrine in one statement: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Under this licence a man can take, or kill, or rape, or steal, or misuse, or abuse anything or anyone he wants to. He may act out his every sinful desire with no thought to consequence. Crowley, at one point, boasted in book that he sacrificed about 150 human victims every year. This is the true nature of darkness – it consumes to satisfy its own lusts – it is selfishness unleashed.
The destructive poison of sin only brings harm to others. This injustice is something God will not tolerate forever. He will wipe it out at the final judgement and bring to reckoning those who chose darkness and rejected the grace of His light. He will repay the wronged victims and repay the perpetrators, each with just reward.
“It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels.” – 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7
God will fully judge those who resist His righteousness. But, we might ask, why would God even allow mankind the option of sinning if He knew we would fall and our fall would bring His judgment?
A QUESTION OF KINGDOMS
Behind all we have discussed is God's desire that mankind would dwell with Him eternally. But He did not want robots, He wanted men who desired to be with Him – men who would love Him, as He loves them. So He created a realm (the earth) where we would have the freedom to choose either Satan or Jesus, either darkness or light.
The purpose of our time here on earth is to choose our eternal kingdom.
There are only two kingdoms. The kingdom of God is for all those who hold God, all He is and does dear, who choose His truth as their own. And the other kingdom is for all those who exalt independence from God, seek their own desires and their own 'truths' – as Satan did.
“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” – Romans 6:16
By obeying Satan, all mankind became sons of the father of sin – and as is the spiritual law – we shared in our father's nature.
“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” – John 8:44a
So then all of us have had some share in the nature of the father of sin, which leads us increasingly into deeper levels of unrighteousness. This is the state of men who have rejected God, who have refused to fall on His saving grace and love.
“For since the creation of the world His (God's) invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God... being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.” – Romans 1:19-21a, 29-32
These men – the Bible teaches us – will suffer eternal death. Now we must turn our attention to the most difficult question of this piece. Would a loving God really condemn men to eternal torture in Hell?
AN ETERNAL CHOICE
Did God really want to torture men in hell eternally? No.
“The Lord is... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9
Hell was never made for men. It was made as the due reward for all the unthinkable atrocities Satan has conjured since he fell. He is set on an unwavering course of debauchery and destruction and he will not relent. He knew the beauties of heaven and set his heart on destruction and violence instead, therefore God made an:
“...everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” – Matthew 25:41b
God takes no pleasure in sending men there with him. But His will is not the only will at play. We each have our own choice to make. And some of us choose the father of destruction and so choose a share in his end. There are only two end destinations – the one where God will be, and the one where God will not be. Those who choose God will be with Him. Those who reject Him, will find themselves without Him.
“You say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair...’ Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?... is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive... I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!” - Ezekiel 18:23, 25-29, 32, 33:11
As a result we follow Satan there by the sum of our decisions. Those who will not receive God's mercy will find themselves subject to His judgment.
This earthly life then is a season of choice. When it is over God will separate out those who chose Him from those who refused Him. Those who rejected God will have their desire. They will be removed from His presence completely, they will not taste His goodness. Instead, they will be surrounded by a world that echoes the nature of their chosen master. This was never God's desire for them but a path they have chosen despite His many warnings.
“God... ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’ eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honour, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath.” – Romans2:6b-8
All sin will receive a just reward – no more than its due, but no less either. That is why the Bible says that sinners will have 'their part' in the lake of fire.
“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” – Revelations 21:8
God will only deal the measure of punishment which His justice demands. Just as He cannot allow the guilty to go free, He also cannot allow the guilty to be punished beyond what is due. The Bible does not offer a detailed account of how God will measure out His judgment, and we step into very dangerous territory when we try to fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. This much we can know – God's judgement will be right and therefore His punishment of each sinner will be fair.
As we said when we opened, God is what He is to the infinite degree. He would rather lavish on us His infinite mercy and love, than measure out to us His infinitely righteous judgement – but we will all meet one of those two experiences at the final judgment. We have this life to decide which we would rather face.
So we conclude then that God is unchanging. He was loving in the Old Testament and loving in the New. He was righteous in the Old Testament and righteous in the New. The difference is only this – Jesus Christ came to pay for our sins. Therefore we are able to experience God's love, in spite of being sinners. All this God did because of how deeply He desires to keep us from an eternity of damnation. And so we concluded that God has done everything He can to prevent that end – everything short of denying us our free will.