Recently, a lead singer of a Christian band publicly expressed his lack of belief in God. As a part of a long and well-thought out Instagram post, Jon Steingard from Hawk Nelson announced, “I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.”
I wrote a blog response where I applauded his honesty and validated his concerns with some manipulative practices found in certain corners of Christianity. I didn’t write the blog to win Jon back or pen the next great Christian takedown piece. Instead, I wrote it to encourage anyone who might share his doubts about the Church. In my article, I also promised I’d address his doubts about the Old Testament and God.
In this piece, I’ll respond to Jon’s doubts about the Old Testament. I’ll start with a quote from Jon, walk you through how I’ve struggled similar doubts, then finish with how I found my way out. This blog won’t be comprehensive, but I hope it’ll encourage your faith.
“Why does God seem so pissed off in most of the Old Testament, and then all of a sudden he’s a loving father in the New Testament? Why does he say not to kill, but then instruct Israel to turn around and kill men, women, and children to take the promised land? Why does God let Job suffer horrible things just to… win a bet with Satan?! Why does he tell Abraham to kill his son (more killing again)? If God can do anything, can’t he forgive without someone dying? I mean my parents taught me to forgive people- nobody dies in that scenario.”
When I read this, I thought, “Woah, Jon! Four of the most complicated Christianity questions in a row!” Then I realized something… I’ve asked every one of those questions at some point in my life. In fact, if I condensed all of the Old Testament questions I’ve wrestled with over the years, I could probably fill a small pamphlet. And some of my more curious friends could fill encyclopedia-sized books.
Old Testament Slaughter
When I read the Old Testament in college, I cringed when God flooded the earth and wiped out most of humanity. Then I read passages where he commands Israelites to slaughter the men, women, children, and animals of certain cities. I asked God out loud many times, “Why?!!!” To me, as I skimmed through one story of violence and bloodshed after another, I only saw a God with vengeance on His mind and the blood of his enemies dripping down his beard.
Then, with a similar question to Jon’s on the forefront of my mind, I started reading and listening. Honestly, the articles and books I read at first were totally frustrating and unhelpful because while I wanted to dive in to the deep end of reason, most popular Christian books at the time led me through a very shallow context for violence in the Old Testament.
My Veggietales Version of Evil
Eventually though, I watched Apocalypto. I know. I know. I just took a hard left turn from writing about Biblical theology to talking about a Mel Gibson directed movie about native Americans. In the film, the peace-loving Jaguar Paw and his Native American friends are captured by intruders from the Mayan empire. Some of them are murdered. Some of them are chosen for human sacrifice. And many of them are used for target practice.
As I read through the Old Testament, I realized many of the Canaanite cities Israel conquered were much like the Mayan empire I had just watched in the film. Many of their cities were built around continual war, human sacrifice, rape, sexual violence, ritualistic orgies, and demon worship.
Somehow, when I first read the Old Testament narrative, I caricatured the people in these cities as “bad guys” like the “Wet Bandits” from Home Alone or the “French Peas” from Veggietales. At best, they were dopey mischief makers. At worst, they bowed down before a weird half-human/half-animal statue like a massive 3D version of the Starbucks logo.
I was wrong. They burned their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31) They had public ritual sex with male and female shrine prostitutes. (1 Kings 14:23) And they engaged in sorcery, witchcraft, and consulting demonic forces. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
Why “Holy War” Makes Sense
In a 2013 interview with The Gospel Coalition, Tim Keller talks about why God could tell the Israelites to invade, dispossess, and kill the people in Canaanite cities. Tim explained, “First, God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped. He alone has the right to take a life. Second, in “holy war” Israel did not seek to imperialistically expand its wealth and power but acted as an instrument of God’s judgment on a particular set of people.”
And in response to Christians who use the Israelites’ model of “holy war” to justify being violent today, Tim says, “Third, if you believe in the authority of the Bible as the only infallible way to know God’s will for us—then holy war today is impossible. God gives no warrant for it. That’s what we see when the Bible is read as a whole, with the New Testament completing and fulfilling the Old. Jesus specifically forbids Christians to take up the sword in his name, to spread the Christian faith by force. In short, if you believe the rest of the things the Bible teaches, the period of holy war makes sense. Holy war is not, therefore, a reason to reject what the rest of the Bible says about God.”
In other words, God didn’t warrant the needless killing of the Canaanites. He specifically commanded Israel to be his tool of judgement on very evil cities. In another article on The Gospel Coalition’s website, Justin Taylor says, “It’s also important to note Deuteronomy 9:5, which says that Israel’s possession of the land and the Canaanites’ being kicked out would not be due to Israel’s righteousness, but would rather be on account of the Canaanites’ wickedness.”
He also restrained Israel from attacking many of their neighbors. The Old Testament holds multiple examples of God having mercy on Israel, on foreigners, and the outcasts of society.
For example, in Joshua 2:9 a prostitute from Jericho and her family are saved from destruction. Her name was Rahab. Boaz, Rahab’s son, married Ruth, a Moabite widow. And King David, Israel’s greatest king, was a great grandson of Ruth. Their family lineage produced Jesus Christ. Rescuing a former prostitute and including her in Jesus’s lineage is just one of many ways God freely gives mercy to very sinful Old Testament people.
When I read the Old Testament now, God looks more like a loving Father who has experienced deep grief because of humanity’s choice to reject Him and run after other gods. In Genesis, He creates a good world for Adam & Eve to live in forever. After Adam & Eve sin, He covers their nakedness. When humanity is on the verge of destroying themselves and the earth, He steps in with a flood and hits “Reset.”
Over and over, He uses events, judges, prophets, kings, and common people to save Jews, Gentiles, and the world from total destruction.
In Exodus 34:6, God says about Himself as He passes before Moses, “The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.” Other passages all over the Old Testament affirm this many more times. (Numbers 14:18, Psalms 103:8, Psalms 145:8, Nahum 1:3, Joel 2:13, Nehemiah 9:17, Jonah 4:2, and many more.)
Minimizing Sin = Minimizing Jesus
In my initial readings of the Old Testament, I saw God as a merciless tyrant because I didn’t fully believe in the depravity and evil of my own rebellion towards God. I looked at my high school porn addiction as a regrettable struggle. I saw my tendency to lie about little things to make myself look better as excusable. And I called my arrogant self-righteousness “boldness” or “prophetic zeal.”
I minimized my sin. I minimized the sin in the world around me. And I minimized the sinfulness of people in the Old Testament. And because I minimized it, God’s wrath became unjust and the world’s need for Jesus to die on the cross became nothing more than a ticket to help me access a better life now.
In reality, my porn/dirty movie problem was an awful sex addiction. It blinded me to seeing the image of God in the women I knew. It aided an industry that entraps and enslaves women. And it deeply wounded past girlfriends who experienced my unrealistic expectation of airbrushed perfection.
My lies helped me project a version of myself that never really existed. And my self-righteousness created division and verbal strife in my family, among my friends, and on all of my basketball teams. I pushed away mentors, coaches, and teachers who wanted to help me because I thought they weren’t good enough.
The list of things I’ve participated in that hurt myself and other people is so long I can’t even begin to give you the full scope of my wickedness. And I was raised by Christian parents who helped me differentiate right from wrong.
If I think about my own life, it’s no wonder God is angry. If I think about my own life times thousands of years and billions of people, I can see why he’d send judgment. If he would have never sent judgment on me at different points in my life, I would have destroyed everyone around me. If he wouldn’t have sent judgment to evil ancient societies, they would have destroyed everything around them. Even his judgment is merciful.
He is perfectly good. He created a beautiful world, and He designed us to share this world with Him in perfect relationship. Adam rebelled against him and brought sin and death into the world. And even now, every single human has rebelled against him and destroyed him or herself and others in the process.
If I see my sin in a Biblical context, God’s wrath is warranted. If I look at my sin and rebellion through the lens of humanism and minimization, God’s wrath makes Him seem like a psychopath.
A Bad Sales Pitch
I interviewed Jon recently about his Instagram post. Jon and I have a lot in common. We grew up in charismatic Christian homes with deeply spiritual, yet imperfect parents. We lived relatively comfortable church lives from the time we were young.
In a life where I was surrounded by loving parents, a nice house, good food, and a loving community of smiling adults, the wrath of God seemed like a vacant idea to me. When I first committed my life to Christ, I thought Jesus just had a more wonderful plan for my life than the plan I had for my life. It seemed like a good sales pitch, and I wanted His plan.
In return, he ripped away my first love – basketball. He never let me succeed in a big way at songwriting. And he asked me to repent publicly of sex addiction. He exposed the depth of my pride, arrogance, lust, and selfish ambition for all of my friends to see. It turns out, His plan for me was pain- the pain of realizing how deeply sinful and selfish I am. But He also planned joy for me- the joy of realizing how much He loves me – how much He was willing to sacrifice to save me from my own rebellion.
The Cost of Forgiveness
In Romans 6:23 NLT, Paul states, “For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” In Genesis 2:17 NLT, God says, “…except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.”
Sin ruins me. It ruins the world around me. And it ruined God’s creation. From Genesis on, God promises death would be the result of sin and rebellion. That doesn’t make Him evil. It makes us evil.
But here’s the amazing news: God took the promised wages of sin upon Himself in the form of Jesus.
In Jon’s earlier quote, he asked, “If God can do anything, can’t he forgive without someone dying? I mean my parents taught me to forgive people- nobody dies in that scenario.”
His final question reveals three things: He has minimized the depth of his own sin before God. Because of that, He has minimized the importance of Jesus accepting the wages of his sin on the cross. And because of that, he has reduced his parents’ forgiveness to a moral act.
Because Jon is minimizing the horrible effect of sin on our world, I understand why he can’t come to grips with a God who’s “pissed off” also being a loving Father who actively redeemed the world by taking death upon Himself. Without first recognizing how sinful and broken I am, I would never be able to understand why death is the cost of God’s forgiveness.
Again, I like Jon. I interviewed him. We had a very thoughtful conversation. This isn’t me trying to rip him apart and win a debate. This is me admitting I’m deeply sinful. This is me admitting I need Jesus to absorb the cost of my sin. And this is me hoping and praying God gives Jon the experience and the wisdom he needs to admit both of those things too.
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