Why are Old Testament laws so harsh? Why does God seem so mean in the Old Testament and nice in the New Testament? Why does God kill so many people in the Old Testament? Why is God angry in the Old Testament and then merciful in the New Testament? Why Does God punish people like homosexuals in the Old Testament? Why does God command Israel to kill other nations and take their lands? Why is the Old Testament so violent? How can the God of the Old Testament be same as the God in the New Testament?
As Christians who believe the whole Bible to be the perfect, inspired word of God, the Old Testament is often the biggest point of contention. Some believe the Bible is inerrant despite their confusion with the apparent differences between the Old Testament and New Testament, some only read the New Testament, and others just avoid the questions about the Bible all together.
As we discussed in Part 1 of this blog series titled, “Why Are the Old Testament Laws So Harsh?”, rather than deny that there are any differences between the Old and New Testament, here we want to explain why there are differences. It’s right to point out the love, holiness, wrath, and grace of God in all sections of the Bible to show its cohesiveness, but to deny there are some obvious surface level differences between the Old and New Testament is simply irresponsible.
One main reason God acted differently in the Old Testament was because he was manifestly present in a different way than he was in much of the New Testament and now. Harsh laws took place in the context of God being physically present.
Old Testament Laws Were So Harsh Because God Was Manifestly Present
The “presence of God” is a term that is often thrown around amongst Christians, but within the Bible there are different ways God’s presence is referred to. In its simplest biblical forms, God’s presences can be talked about in at least three basic ways:
- Omnipresence: God is present everywhere and at all times (Psalm 139:7-12). There’s nowhere in the entire universe where the presence of God does not exist. However, this type of presence is not the type where people must know, experience, or feel him. God can be present and the world can totally reject this fact.
- Personal Presence: Each Christian can usually point to a time in life, some more than others, where they really “felt the presence of God.” God’s presence is revealed through the Holy Spirit to people who seek God personally (Jeremiah 29:13). Whether in prayer, reading the Bible, walking through the woods, or simply doing something mundane, God often reveals his presence in a personal way to people. But this type of revealing is personal, meaning that one person can experience it while sitting right next to someone who does not.
- Manifest Presence: Throughout the pages of the Bible, there have been times recorded in human history where the presence of God was undeniably revealed in such a way where no one could deny it. The manifest presence of God is when God appears in a physical, tangible, undeniable way. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-5), he spoke to Moses in a cloud face to face (Exodus 33:9-11), he led Israel in the wilderness in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), his presence literally resided in the tabernacle and in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:8, 22), and in many other ways God has manifested himself.
It may seem harsh for God to tell the Levite priests to kill people who are directly disobeying God’s commands, but we have to remember the context of such harsh commands in the Old Testament. God was not just omnipresent, personally present, but rather manifestly present. For example, Leviticus 21:9, “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire”, seems like an incredible harsh law. But we must remember the context made clear in Leviticus 21:1, “And the Lord said to Moses . . .” God was present, speaking in a physical way, and since the people were in his presence, God was telling them how holy the must be to avoid being completely wiped out by his holiness (Exodus 33:3-6).
Skeptics laugh and raise their eyebrows when they read the harsh Old Testament enforcement of God’s laws. And then they make arguments such as, “Well why aren’t Christians killing homosexuals now, executing adulterers now, or taking the life of people who dishonor their father and mother now?” One reason (and there are many) laws like these no longer apply is because God’s manifest presence is no longer amongst us like it once was.
You are certifiably crazy if you try to kill someone for sinning because you think God told you to do that. The harsh laws in the Old Testament, however, were not told to people in a personal way by God. Moses was given the law by God when God was manifestly present amongst the people. In fact, when Jesus manifestly returns in such a way where the world cannot deny his existence, the Bible makes clear that the same type of bloodshed found in the Old Testament will take place again (Revelation 19:13-16, 21).
But since God is not manifestly present as he once was, obviously these types of extreme laws no longer apply. More than that though, as we will discuss later, these harsh laws no longer apply because Jesus took these harsh penalties of sin upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21).
At this time in human history, God is giving us time to receive our pardon through Christ. But make no mistake, if we reject the pardon, the harsh punishment for sin will be executed.
The More God’s Presence Manifests, the Harsher the Penalty for Sin Becomes
In Acts 5:1-11 Ananias and Sapphira lie about the price of a field they sold, and then they both are struck dead by the Holy Spirit. This is very odd Bible passage at first glance. It seems like it should be found in the Old Testament rather than in the New Testament.
However, the context of this harsh penalty for sin is during a time when the Holy Spirit was manifesting in undeniable ways. Yes the Holy Spirit was always omnipresent, yes after Pentecost we can experience the Holy Spirit personally within our hearts, but during the times that were recorded in Acts, the Holy Spirit was also present in tangible, undeniable ways (for examples, just read Acts 2-3).
The recount of Ananias and Sapphira is recorded in Acts 5:1-11. The very next verse, Acts 5:12, states, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles.” Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their sin just like people in the Old Testament because God was manifestly present much like he was in the Old Testament.
In Kindness God Has Withheld His Manifest Presence So His Harsh Execution Can Be Delayed
Whenever I talk to atheists, invariable the statement is eventually made, “Well if God is actually real, why doesn’t he reveal himself in a way where it is undeniable?” Atheists claim they won’t believe God unless there is unmistakable evidence, like his manifest presence.
When faith (based on evidence) is no longer needed, the chance to escape the penalty for sin will be over. God had harsh laws for sin in the Old Testament because his holy presence was manifest. God will fully apply the penalty of sin (death) on unbelievers when he reveals himself fully again in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The reason God is not manifestly present right now is because he desires to give people the opportunity to repent. He loves us too much to not give everyone (every nation) a chance to see the truth and repent. But when the gospel is preached throughout the entire world and God sees it fit to return, harsh, instant execution will return as well:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:9-13)
The harsh laws in the Old Testament seem at odds with the love of God expressed in the New Testament. But with a closer look, we can see that the New Testament does not hide the fact that when the manifest presence of Jesus Christ returns through his second coming, the chance to receive God’s grace will vanish.
In Part 3 to this blog series, “Why Are Old Testament Laws So Harsh?” we will also see how the Old Testament is a historical record revealing symbolic truth. The truth that all sin results in death was symbolically shown throughout the real, historical events of the Old Testament.