Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Does God Change from the Old Testament to the New?

I started to leave this post as a comment on ratamacue0‘s recent post, What Started My Questioning? but decided to post it instead. Fellow blogger (and friend) unkleE left this comment as part of a conversation that he and ratamacue0 were having:

…most non-believers seem not to recognise that there isn’t one consistent portrait of God in the Bible – it changes through both Testaments – and then to choose the worst picture (which is often the earliest one) to critique. But if the claimed revelation of God is progressive, it would surely be fairer to choose a later picture.

I think most non-believers do recognize the difference; it’s just hard to forget that first impression given in the OT.

And really, how progressive is the picture the Bible paints? The NT points out that God doesn’t change, so those harsh characteristics he possessed in the OT are still being claimed by NT writers. The NT also repeats some things like “vengenance is mine, I will repay.” And it tells us not to fear those who can destroy the body, but he who can destroy both body and soul. The NT also gives us the doctrine of Hell, regardless of what that might mean.

I think some of the NT writers, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, are arguing that the method of salvation and the specific requirements God has for people are changing, and in that way the message becomes more progressive. More emphasis is placed on the mind and not just physical acts, for instance. But as to who God is, I don’t think that image really progresses from OT to NT. The same God that killed Uzzah for trying to steady the ark, condemns anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus, even though it’s hard to blame many of the Jews for saying Jesus was a blasphemer, considering the teachings in the Old Law.

Such a God is irrational. Many Christians seem to agree, which is why they don’t believe in parts of the OT. But since the NT still claims the same irrational God, I see no reason to believe in him at all. And to me, that seems much more consistent than trying to hold onto parts of the mythology, while rejecting the unsavory parts. If that god were real, and he wanted people to know about him, I think he’d keep the one source of information about him pure. Since that obviously didn’t happen with the Bible, why continue to hold to it at all? Why not put faith in a god who isn’t concerned with petty dogmas, one who simply set things in motion for us? One that may inspire people from time to time, but is largely content to let us live our lives without interference? To me, that seems to fit the evidence far better… and while I don’t have any actual belief in such a deity, I can see why some would. Why mesh it with Christianity, when it seems so superfluous?

324 thoughts on “Does God Change from the Old Testament to the New?”

  1. That’s a good point, mak. I expect they would argue that it’s not so much that God’s nature is changing, it’s just his methods. But I think this is problematic as well, because it still means we’re dealing with a being who’s capable of all the atrocities mentioned in the OT. Either that, or he didn’t mind that people misrepresented him, because no one in the NT ever disagrees with the way the OT portrays God.

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  2. The change is obvious. But it isn’t just between OT and NT. It also changes within the OT.

    I noticed this at around age 14. My pastor had encouraged me to read the Bible for myself, so I did, And I could not help but notice that God was changing.

    This suggested to me the possibility that it was man who created God in his (man’s) image. Culture evolves. And if a God who is supposed to be timeless is seen to evolve with culture, then it seems likely that God is a cultural construct.

    I guess it took me another 10 year to completely withdraw from religion. But that was when I started the questioning. I extended that to questioning whether Jesus ever claimed that he was God.

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  3. The Revelation of John is part of the New Testament, right? Isn’t that the book where God starts by killing a fourth of the Earth with sword and famine and with beasts, burns one-third of all the vegetation on the Earth, tortures men with stinging locusts for five months and makes it impossible for men to commit suicide to escape, tortures people over a slow fire who get an RFID chip so they can buy groceries, and then moves up from there to a real slaughter, with a river of blood 200 miles long, and as high as a horse’s bridle? Seems to me the OT God who just drowned almost everyone was much quicker and more merciful.

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  4. Okay….Christian-guy speaking…Reluctant as I am, I guess I’ll wade into the fray here. Could it possibly be that we, 21st century ‘Muricans (and other world alum) are reading the Bible through our 21st century minds instead of reading the works (NT at least) as 1st century writings, written to a 1st century culture, with 1st century references in which that culture would have been familiar? Could John, in Revelation for instance, been allegorical…i.e.”the beast” being an actual person, “the mark” being a literal mark that people needed to conduct business, buy goods, etc. A “mark” that denoted the people’s allegiance to the Roman king and/or government i.e. “the beast”? I’m not saying, if taken allegorically, that Revelation (and other writings) aren’t relevant to us today, but need to be understood through the culture and history in which is was written. I’m also not saying the Bible is without contradiction. On the contrary, there’s quite a few in there. But, what if they were put in there for a reason? To make us think? To make us question? Even to the point where it may mean that some of us walk away. Does God change from the OT to the NT? No, I don’t think so. But why are those harsh OT accounts in the Bible to begin with? If the Bible is the ‘inspired word of God’, why did he allow himself to be so badly represented? Why is he still allowing it today?

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  5. “Could it possibly be that we, 21st century ‘Muricans (and other world alum) are reading the Bible through our 21st century minds instead of reading the works (NT at least) as 1st century writings, written to a 1st century culture, with 1st century references in which that culture would have been familiar?”

    So are you saying that 7 billion people need to go to seminary to understand what God was saying ? Probably not. If the NT was written for a 1st century culture, it makes a lot more sense to treat the bible as a literary work and nothing more.

    The god which Nate talks about would come much closer to describing a deity if one exists.

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  6. “So are you saying that 7 billion people need to go to seminary to understand what God was saying?”

    Not at all. None of the cultural references and historical context is that hard to find. Believing and accepting may be a hurdle, but not finding.

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  7. Hi friend Nate! 🙂

    Thanks for raising this topic. I think one thing that you all haven’t really addressed is that I didn’t say God is changing (though I think, Makagutu, that immutability is a silly and unBiblical concept) – I said the portrait of God is changing.

    If we are going to reach any reasonable understanding of this, believer or unbeliever, we need to start with some expert assessment based on an understanding of the culture and literature of the time. I offer two such experts:

    1. Based on his understanding of ancient literature and history, CS Lewis was quite definite that the revelation of God was very incomplete originally. I have put 5 quotes from Lewis here. Here is a brief flavour:

    “If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels …. was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”

    2. Old Testament scholar Peter Enns shows that the earliest parts of the OT aren’t too dissimilar to other ancient near east religions (though a little more refined), but the picture changes gradually until in Jesus we have something very different. Much the same as Lewis said.

    If you are going to seriously grapple with this question (and not just use it to ambush unsuspecting christians – which I know you don’t want to do, but some sceptics do) and discuss it intelligently, we need to start from this view of the experts as common ground. I don’t think you are quite there yet, but hopefully this discussion will lead that way.

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  8. When I read your synopsis of Lewis’ (and Enns as well), Unk, my first thought was test marketing – seeing what the public will buy, and possibly the original introduction of the phrase, “new and improved”! It made me smile.

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  9. Why not put faith in a god who isn’t concerned with petty dogmas, one who simply set things in motion for us?

    Nate, one doesn’t need special intelligence nor reliance on any scholarly opinion to recognize that this sentence of yours in the post is admirable. The Christian focus on dogma being the most important key for what is most important in life is why I would consider a handful of other religions way before ever considering returning to most versions of Christianity.

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  10. I wonder why an unchanging God might create a world that is nothing but change. What was going on in her mind – boredom? 😉 What does an ‘unchanging God’ mean? o_O Change is existence is it not? If this putative God does not change, then she does not exist. Or if she does exist, as a changeless entity, she can never be known by humanity. Perhaps this is all far too simple; apologies.

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  11. Was god once the tyrannical brute the OT often portrays, killing his servant’s children for their transgressions (david) or for a wager (job), and commanding the wholesale slaughter of other nations including the women and children (sometimes sparing the virgin girls – sounds like ISIL)?

    and is it that he just changed to a nicer guy god in the NT?

    or is it that the authors of the OT couldnt be trusted completely, but the authors of the NT have a more reliable version of god?

    if the latter, then why couldnt the OT god be the more accurate portrait? Why isnt it merely an arbitrary selection of which painting of god you like better by selecting that of the NT? why couldn’t it just as easily be the worst case as the best case?

    and if the former is true, then god was a tyrant. if he can change his mind and his character, what’s stopping him from altering the deal the believers think they have in heaven?

    or, why couldnt this all just be a clue that the claims, written by men, in the bible arent from a literal god or about a real god?

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  12. if he can change his mind and his character, what’s stopping him from altering the deal the believers think they have in heaven?

    William, this is exactly right. It’s been my feeling since leaving the fold that if the god of the old or new testament truly is real then every single human being could possibly be in for a sad awakening no matter what their beliefs are. There are no assurances. I see no need to worry myself over such unknown “monsters in the closet” anymore.

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  13. Nate-
    Great post. I am coming to a place not terribly far removed from what you posit in your final paragraph above, though it is more rooted in what I believe about Jesus than you suggest. I read a Robert Farrar Capon quote earlier this morning that came right to mind when I read this post.

    “It’s a bizarre proposition [that God is complicit in creating the potential for, and allowing, evil], and *The Third Peacock* revels in its bizarreness. God is not some divine Mr. Goodwrench in a nice, clean shop (pace all the bumbling preachers who hold up such a God for our admiration); he is a disreputable Lover who makes all his important assignations with us in seedy and terrible places. When I wrote the book, I had not yet come as fully as I later did into the awareness of the loving awfulness of grace. But the seeds were there, waiting only for the rainy season to water them into life: I had to learn the hard way that God in his grace does not run away from my evils, nor does he tell me that he will come to me only after I have gotten rid of my evils. Even back then, though, the idea of a God with dirty hands — of a God who, while we were still sinners, could throw away his claim to be a respectable God and die for us — struck me as more on the mark when it came to the problem of God and evil than all the slick attempts of theologians to get God off the hook [for evil]. Especially since it was God, on the cross, who put himself on the hook.”
    -Robert Farrar Capon, From the introduction of *The Romance of the Word*

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  14. the problem, as i see it, isnt necessarily of evil, but of the fact that we must first have faith in the claims of the men who wrote the bible, before we could ever have faith in the god they tell us about.

    why believe them? The presence of errors and discrepancies in a criminal case tend to tip the investigators off that something is amiss, and they never just say, “well, it all works out somehow, because they said so…”

    jesus? he’s just a dead guy. a story and more claims about a dead guy. Where’s the body, christains will ask, as if that’s proof. Where’s jimmy hoffa’s body? did he ascend too? The fact that no one knows where jesus body is isnt proof as anyone could list a number of names and ask, “well, where’s the body?”

    “But why didnt his naysayers do more about those claims at that time,” other believers will ask in response. no one cared. the claims werent written until 30 or more years after he died. Romans typical custom was to let bodies rot on the cross, and they seldom, if ever took them down for burial. I find it much more likely that jesus’ body is now dust and by the time this legend of him flying into heaven came about, there wasnt enough of his dust laying around that was recognizably him, so someone just said, “well if he didnt fly into heaven, then where’s his body?” again, that’s horrible reasoning.

    then, to the problem of evil, the bible says that if a man knows to do good and doesnt do it, then it is sin. We also have the story of the good samaritan, which illustrates that doing good also encompasses helping people’s physical needs. But we see so many people, including children, suffer and die miserable deaths, in many cases by diseases and circumstances that only god could help – yet he does not. why not? isnt it good to do good, when it’s in your power to do it? The bible says it’s sin when you dont.

    But I’m not questioning god. I’m questioning the claims those men, whom i’ve never met, made thousands of years ago, during a time when most people held to some form of superstition.

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  15. “…then, to the problem of evil, the bible says that if a man knows to do good and doesnt do it, then it is sin. We also have the story of the good samaritan, which illustrates that doing good also encompasses helping people’s physical needs. But we see so many people, including children, suffer and die miserable deaths, in many cases by diseases and circumstances that only god could help – yet he does not. why not? isnt it good to do good, when it’s in your power to do it? The bible says it’s sin when you dont.”

    You’ve got some great questions there, William. Let me put my two cents worth on a few of these. First of all “…many people, including children, suffer and die miserable deaths. In many cases by diseases and circumstances that only god could help…” Why is it that only God is on the hook for all this supposedly preventable disease and death? How much does a vaccination cost? How much is it to drill a well in Africa, providing fresh water and helping to eradicate many of these diseases? How many of these things could be provided for by one year’s worth of a typical professional sports contract? Or Hollywood picture budget? My point is that God HAS provided the means o help the world (disease, starvation, fresh water) if only WE gave enough of a shit to do something about it. What would provide more of a miracle? Him doing it Himself? Or a group of like minded people, worldwide, putting aside their own greed and gluttony, and banding together to solve these problems for the ‘lesser than’s’? “Sin” is nothing more than ‘missing the mark’. I don’t think finding a permanent solution to a lot of these problems is beyond our modern day grasp. How many of us (myself included) are ‘missing the mark’ because we’re too wrapped up in our own little world? How many days worth of coverage did Kanye West get on his Grammy stunt compared to actual news and atrocities and opportunities to “help” that happened and went wholly unnoticed?

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  16. kent, what vaccines or african wells cure pediatric brain cancer?

    I get that a lot of people place every little stubbed toe and bad day on god, but am not doing that. I get that some pain will exist and do not question that. I get that people will when they’re old or even at the hands of someone else by someone else’s neglect – I’m not even talking about that.

    i’m mainly talking about the issues where god would be the only one to help; and to help in situations where him creating cancers, etc were the leading causes of these horrors.

    and yes, people can be very bad. how does that justify a perfect god to be the same?

    but again, my main point is that we dont know that this is god at all. the only reason people think it is, is because they read it in a book written by men. It’s all from the claims of men.

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  17. Basically, the god (Yahweh) was simply a humongous, monstrous Dickhead, and Marcion recognised this and thought … ‘Wait a moment.’ Then went off and put together his own bible.
    When the Powers That Be got wind of what was going on they realised that without Yahweh there would be no Original SIn and umpteen other doctrinal issues -Virgins Giving Birth – that could ruin tea and cake on Thursdays’ at the Pope’s place so they declared Marcion a heretic, refunded his money and told him to ”naff off”’, and later declared him a heretic.
    Then it was a relatively simple matter of doing a snow job with the character,Yeshua, ”Let’s call him Jesus of Nazareth”, and everyone either went to heaven or hell depending on what the church decreed.
    More or less ….

    Nice to see you back, Nate,

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  18. As I see it, the biblical god evolved from the Mesopotamian god, Amurru (look him up), and when the Jews, personified by the fictional Moses, united with the Midianites for a time, they encountered the obscure desert god the Midianites worshipped, YHWH, and merged the two concepts, creating the Yahweh that the rest of the Bible describes.

    But as time passed, and these pastoral nomads encountered other cultures, their world concept changed and so did their god, since he was an invention of human minds in the first place. Then, in 586 BCE, Jerusalem was destroyed and the higher-ranking Israelites taken captive to Babylon for fifty-seventy years (depending on who you ask), during which time they absorbed much of the Babylonian culture. Then Persians overcame the Babylonians, and knowledge of Persian culture was acquired.

    In the 300’s BCE, the Greeks conquered the Levant, bringing with them their own gods, culture, and beliefs, including that of an afterlife in Hades. The Greeks allowed the Israelites safe passage to travel freely, something they had previously not been able to do, and thus Egyptian culture was absorbed by some – the Torah was translated into the Greek Septuagint in Egypt.

    This, of course, was followed by the Roman occupation, once the Greek occupation had imploded, and still another culture, albeit one quite similar to that of the Greeks, was added to the milieu.

    So the god of the OT is the god of pastoral nomads, to which the Priestly Source, a group of Aaronid priests in captivity in Babylon, added their accumulated knowledge in roughly the middle of that last millennium BCE, while the NT was written by more recent, largely more knowledgeable Jewish authors, and their god was the result of all of the culture that the nation had acquired in the intervening thousand years, so yes, he’s going to be more sophisticated, more urbane – not exactly GQ cover material, but certainly not the saber-rattling, fire-breathing god of old.

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  19. @unklee

    If you are going to seriously grapple with this question (and not just use it to ambush unsuspecting christians – which I know you don’t want to do, but some sceptics do) and discuss it intelligently, we need to start from this view of the experts as common ground. I don’t think you are quite there yet, but hopefully this discussion will lead that way.

    What a load of condescending tosh!

    If your god was such a stand up guy he would have made damn sure there was no misunderstanding from the first to the last Alpha Omega, right?

    Yet apologists have been queuing up to defend this make-believe narrative asshole since the day they put the book together and stamped ‘Holy’ on the cover.
    What sort of half wit worships a meglomaniacal genocidal despot and says: ”Don’t fret…. he becomes really nice in the next book, wait and see. And in the end he gets crucified to save us all.”

    This is the 21st Century, unklee. Hello!

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  20. My point is that God HAS provided the means to help the world (disease, starvation, fresh water) if only WE gave enough of a shit to do something about it.

    I couldn’t agree more, Kent – the answer, as the Wizard once said, was within us all of the time, and for that reason, if for no other, we don’t need a Wizard.

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