Tough Questions Teenagers Ask: Is the God of the Old Testament Unjust?

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One of the most common questions teenagers (and adults!) ask about the Bible is why the God of the Old Testament appears to be unjust in his dealings with people. As teenagers read the Old Testament, they might wonder why God would send a flood to nearly destroy humanity, turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, or strike Uzzah dead.

Perhaps their most troubling question is, how can a loving God command genocide?

I don’t know about you, but I feel myself breaking into a cold sweat when these questions come up at youth group . The stakes feel so high, and I imagine that I need to somehow defend God’s character.

I invite you to take a deep breath with me, to offer up a prayer that God would help us engage these questions faithfully, and to remember that God loves to draw people to himself despite their doubts. As you ask the Holy Spirit to speak through you, here are some considerations that may help to guide these conversations with teenagers.

Two Testaments, One God

Underneath the question of God’s justice is an assumption that there is a “God of the Old Testament” who behaves differently than the God who freely offers his grace by sending his Son in the New Testament.

We need to demonstrate to students the biblical truth that God has not changed between the Old Testament and the New. It’s a common misconception, even among some Christians, that God’s character somehow changes between these two periods of history.

But this is not what the Bible teaches about itself! The Bible is one story with One God; his nature and his heart toward human beings made in his own image is the same from the Old Testament to the New . (See Deut. 6:4-5; Is. 45:6; Mark 12:29.) All that we see and love about God’s character in sending Jesus has been true of him from before creation.

In Why I Trust the Bible, beloved Greek scholar Dr. Bill Mounce highlights one of the key passages of the Old Testament, Exodus 34:6-7, showing how God has always revealed himself as the God of both love and holiness:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 

God’s self-revelation is repeated several times throughout the Psalms and the prophets to remind God’s people that he is the God of both justice and grace. This repeated declaration of God’s character shows us that out of his perfect love, God has always been a forgiving God. Simultaneously, out of his perfect justice, he has always been a God who rightly deals with sin. 

Mounce writes, “God doesn’t punish because He enjoys it; He punishes because to do otherwise would make Him unjust. This is why Jesus had to die. If God had simply ignored sin, He too would have been unrighteous (see Rom. 3:24-26).”[1] God’s perfect love and perfect justice are fulfilled in the cross, where Jesus takes the punishment for sin upon himself so that we can experience the full reality of God’s gracious love.

If God is Just, Why Does he Command Genocide?

As we lead students to understand God’s character as totally just, loving, and trustworthy, they may rightly wonder about some of the Old Testament texts in which God commands his people Israel to destroy the foreign peoples in their paths.

When God led Israel out of Egypt and into the land he had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants, he commanded the people to completely destroy all the people of Canaan (Deut. 7:1-6). People often assume this was genocide.

The United Nations defines genocide as “an internationally recognized crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”[2] This is not what’s happening in the Old Testament.

In the Ancient Near East, herem (meaning “devoted to destruction”) was a type of warfare intended to show the power of one king or god over another. The sense was not that of ethnic cleansing (i.e. wiping out a particular people group because of their ethnicity, race, or religion like we see today), but of seeking to show the dominance of one power and therefore to bring the land under his control.

When God commanded Israel to “devote to destruction” the people of Canaan, he was speaking to them in warfare language they understood: he was going to show his power over the false gods of Canaan and their destructive influence.

Three Things to Share with Teenagers About the Conquest Narratives

People are more sinful than we want to believe.

What was really at stake in the conquest narratives in Exodus, Joshua, and elsewhere in the Old Testament was not some sort of ethnic cleansing, but God’s own holiness. The Canaanites and other people groups were more wicked than we can imagine, regularly engaging in abhorrent practices of temple prostitution and child sacrifice. These ancient injustices of epic proportions meant that the people of the Ancient Near East deserved punishment from a holy and righteous God.

God takes sin more seriously than we want him to. 

As we have already said, God’s holiness means that he will not  tolerate unrighteousness. If we take the Bible seriously, then we have to say (drawing on Genesis 3) that we all deserve God’s judgment for sin. As Creator, God has every right to deal with his creation in the way he sees fit. And as the one who is truly just, he must deal with sin. In sparing the Israelites, who were themselves sinful, God was acting in mercy, “not treating them as their sins deserved” (Ps. 103:10). 

God is more merciful than we ever imagined.

Throughout the biblical narrative, we see how men and women from all ethnicities and backgrounds are invited to worship Yahweh, the One True God of Israel. God called Abraham to himself from Ur, a place known for making and worshiping idols. He invited the Egyptians to listen to his voice and obey (Ex. 9:20-21, 12:38). He spared Rahab and her family from the conquest in Canaan because she trusted in him (Jos. 2:1-21, 6:17, 22-23). Whenever God calls people to himself, it is a sign of his love, grace, and forgiveness in the face of our sin.

In Jesus, God took his own wrath, his herem warfare, upon himself. When Jesus, the only person who never sinned, died on the cross, it was to absorb the wrath of God we all deserve.

The good news we get to share with our students is that because of Jesus, we no longer have to fear God’s holy war.[3] We have been spared not because we are righteous or deserving, but because God has given us the righteousness of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection in our place.

Who Defines Justice?

One final word we can share with our students is to remind them that justice flows from God’s character. When we find ourselves asking, “how could a God of justice do X?” we need to remember that no human person can determine what is just. The God of the Bible—the God of perfect love and perfect holiness—defines justice, not us. As we help our students wrestle with difficult questions, and as we wrestle ourselves, let’s ask him to help us know him as he has revealed himself in both the Old and New Testaments, as the God of both justice and love.

 

[1] Excerpt from Mounce, William D., Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), pp. 229-248.

[2] “Genocide,” Definitions, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml.

[3] I’m indebted to Dr. Tom Petter, Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, for this framing of herem warfare as a motif that carries from the Old Testament to the Cross.

 

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