People often wonder about the way God is described in the Old Testament—and the contrasting way Jesus spoke of God in the Gospels. Common descriptions of God (often used by nonbelievers) are that of cruel and vicious. It’s as if God changed from the Old to the New Testament. One thing is certain: God does not change.
Jesus’ description of God is surely the most accurate: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). And we know the great kindness, compassion, and humility of Jesus are found all through the Gospel accounts. So why the difference in what some call the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God”?
It’s important that we understand that the revelation of God and God’s true nature took many centuries to unfold, and was completed by Jesus’ own words. The Old Testament writings were composed many hundreds of years before Jesus’ time. What’s more, they are describing events that took place as much as 2,000 years before the Incarnation. God revealed himself to Abraham almost 2,000 years before Jesus.
As God made known his existence and uniqueness to his chosen people through events and the prophets, we have to remember that this revelation took place to people who, prior to God’s revelation, were pagans. God revealed himself as both the “one and only” and, at the same time, was not visible to human eyes.
Descendants of Abraham—the Israelites—could be considered a tribal nation, living like other tribal and pagan nations who had innumerable gods to worship. What is significant is that, from the beginning of humanity, there was recognition of the existence of supreme beings and the human need for them. We can find many explanations for creation among pagan peoples.
Image and Likeness
Remaining faithful to God was a constant struggle for the Israelites. Pagan worship and licentious behavior of neighboring tribes were always an attraction to them. The mentality of the Israelites was that their powerful God favored them. When God is described as commanding the deaths of many hundreds of innocent people when battles were won, we have to understand that it was a way in which wars were fought. It was understandable for the Israelites to simply presume that God was favoring them in any war. What it meant was that, at times, God could be described as cruel, inhumane, vengeful, and ungodly.
It was the human image of God that was misunderstood until Jesus revealed to us the truth. But projecting our ideas onto God still happens today when you consider how so many preachers say that earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods are God’s punishment for human sin. More often than not, though, those punished are the poor and needy.
Perhaps the best way to understand the conflict between the Old and the New Testament God is to see Jesus as God’s true image and likeness. We can then understand that the full and correct revelation of God could be realized only after Jesus preached and taught the ultimate truth of who God really was.
Dear Friar Jeremy: I have an adult son whom I have invited to Mass. The invitation was never accepted. I ask him why he does not go, and he says that the Church was too strict in many ways. What does one do now? I pray for him every day. Maybe that will help, but I don’t see anything in the near future that looks promising. Dina
A: Dear Dina: You are not alone. Many of us have loved ones who don’t go to church. In our culture, there are many swift currents that carry people in other directions. Don’t blame yourself. Attending Mass is not the only criterion for being a follower of Jesus. You are giving the example. You are praying, not judging, being supportive, and loving. God loves you both and is on your side! Peace! Friar Jeremy
Dear Friar Jeremy: We no longer attend Mass due to the horrible way we were treated by the staff at our children’s Catholic school. It was a financial burden for us to send them, but we wanted our kids in a Catholic environment. Each year, the tuition would get higher and higher. When our daughter was in 6th grade and our son in the 2nd, my husband lost his job. We had never asked for financial assistance, but were put on a payment plan. We struggled for a couple more years and, finally, had to put our son in public school. We were treated horribly by the priest and the principal. It has been a struggle to attend Mass. Julie
A: Dear Julie: Thank you for sharing your terrible experience. I apologize for the way you and your family were treated. I understand why you are hurt. You made great sacrifices to send your children to Catholic school, even when you were having financial problems. It is an unfortunate reality that many Catholic families can no longer afford to send their children to Catholic schools. You have taken a first step in sharing your experience with me. You may want to talk with someone else to get help in dealing with your feelings and hurt. I know it is easy for me to say, but holding on to the hurt doesn’t help. Let Jesus heal you and nourish you in Holy Communion and help you to carry the cross. I am praying for you. Peace! Friar Jeremy
Dear Friar Jeremy: I think it was Billy Sunday who said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” Maybe not, but people who don’t go to church are probably not filling up their “God-shaped hole.” Thanks for your insights. Kathy
A: Dear Kathy: Thanks for your reply and for sharing the quote. I like it! The idea is similar to “the habit does not make the monk.” The external is not enough. Jesus invites us to return his love and share it with others in many ways. Going to church is only one. Peace! Friar Jeremy