I have many unbelieving friends who laugh when I claim the God of the Bible is both all-powerful and all-loving. As they read through the Old Testament, they point to a variety of passages and episodes where God seems to be anything but loving. They cite passages, for example, where God seems to command the pillaging and killing of Israel’s enemies with great brutality. How can a God who would command the brutal destruction of Israel’s enemies be called moral or loving?
I have often had the same complaint lobbed at me in discussion with atheists and it seems to be a less-than-thoughtful-argument. The argument though seems to be a case of cherry picking because it focuses on a very small period in Israelite history (probably 40-60 years) rather than the entire span of its history. They level the argument as God being unjust at one end, then seemingly ignoring where God does the exact same thing at the other. If anything can be said at all it’s that God is consistent. But there’s two common misapprehensions that fill in the argument. Those misapprehensions have to do with what is meant by God being all-loving and all-powerful and in order to untangle the mess, we have to sort out some terms.
The term “god” serves two purposes: it is both a title and a description of being in regards to nature, power, and authority. These things, for modern monotheists, are absolute and categorically unique. For people living three to four thousand years ago, they had the same meaning, but were not necessarily seen as being manifestly absolute. Some cultures had a perception of a chief god who sat at the top of a hierarchy, but many of those saw a raging competition for the top spot. In Hebrew theology, to speak very generally, there was a hierarchy of gods, but not as the pagans saw it, rather Yahweh sat at the head of a bureaucracy that he invested with various levels of authority, but all ultimately answering to him, even all the way down to man. We see inklings of this concept in Genesis 1, Genesis 9, Deuteronomy 32, and Psalm 82. Mankind, as unique among earthly creatures, while having a place in the bureaucracy of administration fell from it, as did other divine beings who deceived men rather than acting as older brethren and leading us to righteousness before the one True God. From that, it follows that if God can delegate authority and give responsibility, he can hold those to whom he has delegated accountable. Jesus uses similar examples in his parables to distinguish between the faithful called and the unfaithful and rebellious, such as in this one in Luke’s gospel. When the Christian refers to the God of Scripture as being “all-powerful” we are inherently recognizing God’s authority over his creation and the bureaucracy that he established to run it, that he has the right to delegate authority and the responsibility to hold those to whom he has delegated accountable. This goes right into God’s all-loving nature.
God’s love is first for himself, in his Triune nature, then it extends outward to his creatures. Love is what causes his desire to share his power (authority) with his creatures and what causes him to hold them responsible for abusing that power. How unloving it would be for God to not care how his creatures conducted themselves. If God had simply said, “Here ya go,” without establishing boundaries and expectations then we would have reason to question. But all the way from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemene, God was placing limits on power and authority of his creatures. God’s love for how his image bearers portray his nature to one another caused him to send a deluge when the world became filled with violence, and when mankind refused to obey the command to fill and subdue the earth, God confused their language so that they would have to. And when men colluded with the lesser divine beings attempted to subvert God and fell into idolatry, God still loved them sending his sun and rain in an effort to preserve people he would eventually covenant with first at Sinai and later at Calvary.
That, of course, means that God has to act severely, because man is stubborn and rebellious. When man refuses to do what is right and good, that which aligns with God’s justice and holiness, because man is abusing the image he bears in himself and that others bear, God acts harshly knowing that it will either produce repentance or it will harden men further to judgment, exposing their hatred of God. God, therefore, cannot “behave badly” but is acting justly.
For further information on the divine council worldview articulated in this post, please visit The Divine Council where you can find resources that go deeper into the subject.