The apostle John wrote, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
This is perhaps the most quoted verse of scripture by Christians because it is the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ which is that Jesus died for our sins so that we could live with him in heaven forever. However, this verse also tells us something else that all Christians universally believe and that is that God is a being of incomparable love. His love for us is so great that He was willing to sacrifice His only begotten Son to save us.
The apostle Paul taught that "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans. 5:8). In other words, even though God is perfect and holy and we are very much imperfect and immoral, God still loved us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross so that we could be made worthy to live forever in His magnificent presence.
The apostle John also wrote, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (1 John 4:10,11).
Throughout the New Testament, the message that the apostles repeatedly preached was that of God's great love for all of mankind. They wrote, "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour" (Ephesians 5:2). "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you" (1 Corithians.13:11).
Notice that the being we worship is described as "the God of love." In fact, as Christians we often talk about God's love for us as being unconditional. Paul expressed this idea when he said, "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38, 39).
If God's love for us is so great that He was willing to sacrifice His Son, not after we had loved Him first but even while we were yet sinners, and that there is nothing that could ever separate us from God's love, then that clearly shows that God loves us without any conditions and, if that is the case, then no matter what we do God will always love us. That is the message of the New Testament.
But that doesn't seem to be the message we get when we read the Old Testament. Instead, we read of a God who is jealous, who is revengeful, and whose wrath is so terrible that He is not only able but willing to destroy thousands of people at a time.
In the very first book of the Bible we read of how God destroyed all life on the planet by water, except for eight souls and later we read of how God destroyed the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. What a horrible way to die!
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob told Moses on Mount Sinai "Thou shalt not kill," but within days, when He saw the Israelites at the foot of the mountain worshipping a false idol He said to Moses, "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation" (Exodus 32:10) and Moses had to plead with God to turn away His fierce anger.
Later the Lord commanded Joshua to lay in ambush to attack and destroy the city of Ai. "And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai" (Joshua 8:25,26).
The ancient prophets wrote, "Remember, and forget not, how thou provokedst the Lord thy God to wrath in the wilderness: from the day that thou didst depart out of the land of Egypt, until ye came unto this place, ye have been rebellious against the Lord" (Deuteronomy 9:7). "God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies" (Nahum 1:2). "Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord God" (Ezekiel 22:31).
After the children of Israel had become a mighty nation they failed to keep the laws of God and therefore He warned them, "I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the Lord. I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;… And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil. Therefore their goods shall become a booty, and their houses a desolation: they shall also build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof" (Zephaniah 1:2-4, 12,13).
As we look at the God of the Old Testament He appears to be a very different kind of God in character and temperament from the God of the New Testament. As a result Christians often struggle to reconcile these two opposing views of the God they worship. In the earliest Christian church there were those who taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament. That is to say, there were two Gods - one who was mean and harsh and another who was kind, merciful, and forgiving.
Today there are Christians who tend to ignore the Old Testament and just concentrate on the loving God of the New Testament. In other words, instead of trying to reconcile the differences in attitude between the God of the Old and New Testament, they just pretend that the Old Testament God didn't exist. And then there are other Christians who aren't even interested in trying to understand the wrathful behavior of the Old Testament God.
Then there are some Christians who say that it isn't God who punishes us but rather we punish ourselves as we suffer the natural consequences of our own actions. Those who hold this view believe that when God warns of impending danger, it isn't Him who is doing the actual punishment but rather He is warning us of what lays ahead if we don't repent and turn from our wickedness in much the same way someone on the shore of a river tries to warn people in a boat that these is a steep waterfall up ahead.
However, for others, that explanation doesn't fit with the words of God Himself who said that it is He who will bring about these calamities. For Christians, these differences present a perplexing conflict in trying to decide what kind of God it is that they worship.
Their question is: If the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, and the God of the New Testament is a Being who has complete and unconditional love for all mankind, then why was this same God so vengeful and full of fury before the time of Christ?
The short answer is that there are many places in the Old Testament which talk about the great love of God and there are also many places in the New Testament that talks about God's wrath. For example, even while Israel was making a mockery of all that was sacred, God said to them, "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me." (Isaiah 49:15,16).
"O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life. Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west" (Isaiah 43:1-5).
Even though God warned Israel how He would destroy them as a people because of their great sins against Him, yet He was patient as He repeatedly gave them chance after chance to repent and save themselves from destruction. In other words, God was very slow to anger and was longsuffering in putting up with their disrespect for Him while giving them more than enough time to change their attitude so He wouldn't have to punish them. This is consistent with the character of God as described in the New Testament.
Yet, even in the New Testament we read, "God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Romans. 9:22). "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). "And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God" (Revelation. 15:1).
Thus we see that even in the New Testament the early apostles spoke of God bringing down His wrath "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness." Then how can God be someone who can show forth both unconditional love and yet also be capable of displaying anger that is so terrible that it induces trembling fear in even the strongest man?
What we have to understand is that God is a law abiding Being. That means, God isn't who He is because He can invent any law He wants but rather His is God precisely because He obeys the law that allows Him to be God. He explained, "unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions… that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still" (D&C 88:38,35,36).
As our Father, God delights in blessing His children and He seeks every opportunity to do so, but even here He must bless us only as the law allows, for "there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated- And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20,21). Therefore, as much as God wants to bless us, He cannot do so unless we meet the conditions upon which that particular blessing is predicated. And the same is true of punishing sin. There is a law known as the Law of the Harvest where what we sow is what we reap. If we sow seeds of goodness we reap the fruit of goodness but we cannot sow seeds of wickedness and expect to reap goodness. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit… Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:16-20).
Alma told his son Corianton, "And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish-good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful…. For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored; (Alma 41:12,13,15).
That is a law that is unalterable and no one, including God Himself, can violate it without suffering the consequences. So when we sin there has to be consequences and sometimes, like any good parent, God has to be the one who administers the necessary punishment. God can extend mercy in applying the punishment but mercy cannot rob justice from being done nor can it permit unfairness to exist. Therefore, the greater the sin the greater the punishment must be because justice has to be satisfied. That is the law.
Since we are all children of God, then God is our parent and, like all good parents, there are times when discipline has to be administered. Although no child likes to be disciplined, if it is not done then the child will grow up having no respect for the law. When that happens, justice will eventually be meted out but not by the parent but by society, and often that punishment will be much worse than what the parent would have given.
And, like all good parents, God administers discipline according to the severity of sin - the greater the sin the greater must be the punishment. And, like all good parents, the reason why God punishes us is for our own good. If He didn't punish us when we sin then, in the end, the law will punish us far worse than what God would do. So God punishes us to teach us right from wrong and help us become better in order to save us from a greater and far worse fate.
But God doesn't delight in punishing His children and He tries hard to use other means to correct our incorrect behavior. That is why He is so longsuffering and patient with us. He sends us prophets to teach us with the hope that we will heed their words and follow their counsel. He gives us warnings by way of calamities with the hope that we will turn to Him for help and realize our dependence on Him. But as we continue to ignore Him and drift farther from the path of righteousness, He must afflict us more sorely, and when even that doesn't cause us to repent, then we have left Him with no other choice than to severely chastise us.
There is a reason why we see the wrath of God more often in the Old Testament than in the New. On many, many occasions we read in the Old Testament of God's great love for the children of Israel but Israel didn't respond with love for God. More than that, they were quick to leave Him and go worship other gods. God poured out His blessings on Israel but, instead of being grateful, they bowed themselves before dumb idols made of stone and wood who hadn't done nor could they do anything for them.
Imagine a parent who provides their children with all they need, including their love, and then the children refused to do anything their parents ask but instead spend all their time at the neighbor's house, adoring them as though they were the greatest people on earth. It would be understandable that those parents would feel a sense of jealousy in the sense that someone else was taking their children from them.
No earthly father would want someone to take their children's affection away from them. That's why God told Israel, "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:2-5).
Therefore, when the children of Israel wandered off to serve other gods, the Lord was not happy with them. Yet, instead of punishing them immediately for their lack of faithfulness and ingratitude, He sent prophets to teach and warn them. He sent calamities to afflict them and He caused them to suffer. But when the Israelites failed to heed all of these warnings, God had to take stronger measures. Yet, at every turn He continually warned them of what He was going to do if they didn't repent and He gave them plenty of time to change their behavior and come back to Him. But when they still didn't listen He had no other choice but to keep His word. It was either that or let them continue in sin until they destroyed themselves with their own wickedness, which is something no righteous parent would intentionally do.
The reason why we read so much of God's wrath in the Old Testament is because of the stiffneckedness and rebelliousness of Israel. But this was not the case with the people in the New Testament. This part of the Bible was written to those who had already accepted Christ. These were people who loved God and worshipped Him and sought to do His will. As such, there was no reason for God to be angry with them.
Like any good parent when their children are being obedient, God constantly reminded those who had accepted His Son of how much love He had for them. But we have to remember that it was this same God of love who also allowed the Roman soldiers to destroy Jerusalem, including the holy temple, and to take the entire Jewish nation captive and scatter them throughout the entire world.
But why would a loving God do such a thing? The answer is that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." But instead of the Jews receiving this great gift with gratefulness and adoration to God, they spit on God's Son, mocked Him, despised Him, turned their backs on Him, and "cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).
For such a horrific crime against God there had to be an equally horrific punishment. What they had sown is what they would reap. That's the law of the harvest. Since the Jews had not shown any mercy towards Christ, they received none in return. That may seem cold and harsh but that is what justice demands; nothing more and nothing less.
However, those who had accepted Christ were shown mercy by God, even though they too suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans. But they were supported in their trials and they had the hope of a glorious life in eternity with God to sustain them. That was their blessing because they had kept the law upon which such a blessing is predicated. That law states, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne even as I also overcame and am set down in my Father's throne" (Revelation 3:21).
Those who overcome all trials of faith and endure to the end in overcoming all manner of sufferings and temptations for Christ's sake are entitled to dwell with Christ in the heavenly mansions of His Father, while those who are overcome by wickedness and evil are entitled to suffer the wrath of God. That's not because God is vindictive or mean or doesn't love them. That's just the law.