Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so angry and vengeful versus the merciful and gracious God of the New Testament?
Consider it this way:
When God is pouring out his wrath in the Old Testament He’s holding back. Because God is ultimately holy and righteous He has the right to do whatever He wants. He has the right to punish bad behavior, and I mean not just destroy us but make it so that we were never created to begin with. God reserves the right and the ability to make us really suffer.
When Job takes God to task for all of his suffering God responds this way:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? Job 38.4-7*
In an excellent New Yorker article from December, 16th 2013 titled, “Misery“, author Joan Acocella ends her discussion of the Book of Job with this:
God’s speech slaughters the moral, the what-should-be, nature of the rest of the Book of Job. It is the knife flash, the leap, the teeth. And despite, or because of, its remorselessness, it is electrifying. It is like an action movie, or a horror movie. Of course, Job is important in the story, but today he seems the pretext, the one who is like us, and makes the argument that we would make. As for God, he makes the argument that, at least as far as nature is concerned, is true.
God reserves the right to do whatever He pleases. From our perspective He seems cruel in the Old Testament and kind in the New. But when God is punishing the people in the Old Testament He is actually showing mercy by limiting His wrath. Further so, that an all powerful, all knowing, infinited Creator would condescend enough to talk with and commune with limited, finite Creatures – regardless of what said Creator does – is a grace itself. By no means does God have to pay us any mind. That He does is kindness.
But God seems so much nicer in the New Testament.
It’s that old heresy, Marcionism, that says the Old Testament and New Testament God are too divergent from each other to be the same. The God of the Old and New Testament are one in the same. God is never more merciful or vengeful – He is consistently both, always existing as Love and as Wrath.
Jesus Christ is the sure fulfillment of all of this because Christ isn’t like God, he is God. God is simultaneously wrathful and loving on the cross. There he pours out His wrath but lovingly pours it out on Himself.
Then Job replied to the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. Job 42.1-3
*I’ve linked to the final four chapters, all of which are worth reading for their sheer poetic beauty, if not for their theological weightiness.