Why was God so vicious in the Old Testament?

By Tom Quiner

A faithful Quiner’s Diner reader, who is also a faithful atheist, posed a good question to me:

“If God has the ability to change people instantly, why would he need to kill so many men, women [pregnant women], and children like he did throughout the Bible? Why kill so many so violently in a flood when he could have just made them better people?”

God can only change us if we allow Him.

Since God is Love, it was imperative that our Creator give us free will. Freedom is necessary for love to flourish. Some people are changed in an instant. I think of the criminal on the cross next Jesus. His life had been wasted on criminal activity, living only for himself.

And yet Jesus saved him at the last instant of his life when He allowed Christ into his heart.

St. Augustin was another who denied Christ for much of his life, actively opposing him in the public square. Even more, Augustin led a lustful life,  prompting this great quote from the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

 “If there was ever a man who could be said to have adored sex, it was Augustine.”

Augustine didn’t “change” or convert to Christianity until he was 33 years old when an inner voice told him to pick up the Bible. He did, opening it to Romans 13:13,14:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

So, as to the first part of the question, conversion for many is a process, a lifelong journey where God reveals Himself if we let Him into our hearts.

Some meet God through a dramatic revelation.

Some, like St. Paul are knocked off their horse.

Some, like contemporary Christian writer, Lee Strobel, come to God through an intellectual investigation into the history and logic of the faith. Mr. Strobel was an atheist who set out to disprove the claims of Christ only to be persuaded by them after interviewing scholars, as you can read in his book, “The Case for Christ.”

But the larger, and more challenging question is the seeming inexplicable contrast of the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Here’s how atheism’s high priest, Richard Dawkins levels the charge in his book, “The God Delusion:”

 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Besides that, He was a pretty nice guy!

I’m no theologian. I realize, though, that neither a St. Augustin nor a Bishop Sheen could provide an acceptable explanation to anyone with a hardened heart, one whose mind is already made up on the subject.

Here, I think, is the answer. The Bible is a collection of books. Collectively, they reveal God’s mind, His Truth. But they do it in different ways using different styles and literary techniques. Some books are history; some are poetry; some are letters; some are allegorical.

Some are a combination.

Fr. Robert Barron suggests that many of the violent stories of the Old Testament are “allegories of the spiritual struggle  of the way we need to fight evil ‘all the way down’.” He points out that writers of the Old Testament were quite comfortable with symbolic teachings.

Many Christians who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible will bristle at such a notion. But how else do we square the competing depictions of God?

Fr. Barron says that the Bible tells us how to interpret the Bible in Revelations 5:1-14, to read the Bible through the eyes of the crucified, compassionate, non-violent, forgiving Lamb of God. Only he can break the seals on the sacred scroll in heaven.

Watch his commentary above from beginning to end. Regardless of your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, I think you will appreciate his even-handed and intelligent discussion on this challenging question.


  1. chicagoja on May 14, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    The violence in the Old Testament can be attributed to a god (little g)who was not the Prime Creator.

  2. lburleso on May 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Tom –
    Your reader used tip #9 from this excellent post: http://www.strangenotions.com/top-10-tips-when-atheists-for-engaging-christians/
    Worth a read for any defending Catholic, which we all are.
    – Lee

    • quinersdiner on May 14, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      I wish Christians were as evangelical as atheists!

      • quinersdiner on May 15, 2014 at 10:04 am

        Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  3. tsaebxiii on May 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    As someone who holds to a literal reading of the Bible, in the sense that I prefer to read a passage in the genre that seems most natural for that part of the text, I don’t ultimately find a difference between the depiction of God in the Old Testament and the depiction of God in the New, even when God’s OT acts of wrath are taken as literal history. Firstly, we often underplay the mercy and compassion of God in the OT. God continually reveals himself as the champion of the oppressed, the poor, the orphan, the widow and the alien from the beginning; this was not some invention of Christ come the New Testament era. Secondly, we underplay the terrifying wrath of God in the NT; we only have to have a read of the book of Revelation, however symbolic you may take it to be, to realise that the NT God is as wrathful as the OT one.
    The question then, of course, is why God’s wrath was revealed naturally on a regular basis in the OT, while it is postponed to the final judgement in the NT. For dispensational or covenant theologians, that answer is absurdly easy to give. However, even without invoking dispenational or covenant theology, there was a pretty momentous pair of events that occurred between the OT and the NT: the cross and the empty tomb. Prior to the cross, man was condemned to face what he deserved; he was condemned to receive the wages of sin, that is, death. We must never forget that every single human being is born deserving the acts of wrath that God performed in the OT – it is a tremendous act of mercy that we get anything better. The OT was an era that demonstrated what we deserve. In Deuteronomy we find God’s character expressed as law for an ANE society. The penalties are harsh because sin, before God’s character, cannot be tolerated. Leviticus highlights just how hard it is for man, of his own accord, to come before God.
    It was Christ who changed things. He came and bore the burden for what we deserved and offered us something far better. We look back at OT times and see a stark illustration of what we deserve; we look at the promises Christ gave us in NT times and we give thanks that, even though we still deserve the OT, we are freely offered the NT. In the NT, God is illustrating his grace, for now, so that all who would repent of their sins and come to him may do so. But, this is not a change in God, for there is a time coming when the offer ceases. At that moment, the same wrathful God of the OT pours out his postponed wrath on all those who chose to receive what they deserve when they reject the offer of grace.
    When I look back at the OT and see the violence, the pain and the suffering, I see that as what I deserve. The works of my life warrant nothing better; were God to declare the Noahic covenant null and void and send another worldwide Flood, it would be by the grace of God alone if I were spared. And yet, through Christ’s death and resurrection, I get better. Through the cross I receive forgiveness; through the resurrection I share in his glory as part of his Bride. Only when we see from the OT what we deserve can we be truly thankful for what we receive in its place.