Does God ever seem cruel to you as He’s portrayed on the pages of Scripture? You come across something God says, does, or commands His people to do and you cringe, thinking: “Is God really like that? Is this as bad as it seems? Is He as bad as this seems?” Certain depictions of God seem to violate the very instincts of love and justice wrought in believers by the Holy Spirit. What sense are we to make of this struggle of sentiments within us, each of which claims to represent the true and living God?
To represent other troubling passages, let’s consider Genesis 22 as it tells us of God’s testing of Abraham.
God commands the father of our faith to sacrifice Isaac, the son whom God had promised and miraculously provided. This account of father, son, and sacrifice clearly foreshadows the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. As such, it might seem to be an overly convenient choice for a test case of hard biblical passages. However, a basic tenet of biblical interpretation is to let those passages which are easier to understand interpret the ones which are harder to understand. In principle, then, Genesis 22 serves as a paradigm by which we can approach other troublesome passages, not only because it clearly points us to Christ, but also because of how closely God’s apparent cruelty and actual goodness intermingle within it, especially in the wording of God's command.
God does not simply say to Abraham: “Take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering …” These words would have been devastating enough to a father’s heart, and to the heart of the son who eventually learns of it! But God goes further, using precise, piercing phrases. Mounting painful phrase upon painful phrase, God presses the command’s emotive blade deeper and deeper into Abraham’s soul: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love …” Coupled with the contextual fact that God is doing all of this as a “test” (verse 1), the scenario seems malicious, and pointless - a cruel, cosmic game whose purpose is to reveal the heart of its victim to an already all-knowing God.
Certainly, passages like Genesis 22 have been interpreted this way through the centuries. Thomas Hardy in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles sarcastically calls God’s dealing with the tortured Tess “sport” at the hands of the “President of the Immortals.” In our day, more and more believers who ache over the "dark side" of Scripture are re-questioning and recasting such passages. On both a scholarly and popular level, these Christians are entertaining and embracing the idea that particular potions of Scripture are not only errant, but evil. Their hearts are better able to bear a Bible marked by human sin in its composition than a Bible in which every word is breathed out by God. With the former, one can apologize for and explain away undesirable content. With the latter, one has to reckon with undesirable content as God's eternal truth.
Passages such as Genesis 22 bring us to a crucial crossroads in our understanding of the nature and authority of Scripture: Will we balk at the idea that such texts truly represent God, or will we bow, submitting our trembling hearts to His Word? Will we have the courage to see these passages through to their divinely intended end, allowing our understanding of God be altered accordingly?
Let’s look again at Genesis 22. If we follow through with the text as it is presented, diving right into its apparent darkness, we find even more of the light of Christ than we may have expected given its obvious overtures to Calvary.
In Matthew 3 we read of Jesus’ baptism and of God the Father’s subsequent tribute to His Son, helpfully rendered in the New International Version: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased.” We are meant to hear in the Father’s words from heaven echoes of the divine command to Abraham. In John 1:14, the evangelist praises Jesus, describing Him as the Word who became flesh. “…we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” - more echoes! God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves - anticipating the day when God the Father would sacrifice his Son, his only Son, whom He loves. The words of God to Abraham are not cruel; they are Christ-centered.
God would not play cosmic games with the Son He has loved from all eternity (John 17:5). So why did He give Him over to death? Why did He want His eternal Son to become incarnate? God is just; the sins of His people had to be dealt with. The severity of God's judgments reveal the severity of the crimes which merit them. Here again, we may think we see cruelty. Jesus had no sin to judge! (Hebrews 4:15). But here again, we see God’s glory in Christ. Such was God the Father’s love for the world, that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16), so that He would be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
The scene on Mt. Moriah is harrowing and heart-rending, but the darkness there is the darkness of a shadow, casting our attention to the scene at Golgotha (Mark 15:22). While Abraham and Isaac were spared the pain of completing God’s command, God the Father offered His Son wholly to the suffering that was necessary to “bring many sons to glory.” (Hebrews 2:10).
The book of Hebrews (11:17-19) helps us see even more of Christ in the Genesis 22 scenario. There, we learn what Abraham’s heart was thinking as he steadied it in order to sacrifice his son. The father of our faith trusted God to bring his boy back from the dead. Though horribly hard to actuate, Abraham's conviction was perfectly reasonable. After all, Isaac was born to parents for whom child-making was biologically impossible. In Genesis 22, what we find when we search in faith is not cosmic gamesmanship and quasi-pagan brutality; what we find is an early, graphic glimpse of the love and justice of God the Father, along with the obedient life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of God the Son. We find the gospel!
Scripture is fundamentally and essentially Christ-centered. Scripture is in its entirety “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and given by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-21) to guide our heart’s thinking to the Christ (2 Timothy 3:14-15). The parts of the Bible over which we are tempted to stumble are also “God-breathed” and thus call for our submitting ourselves to their judgment, rather than our presuming to be their judge.
We must take a hard look at the hard sayings of Scripture, trusting that the Spirit who composed them will use them to do that which is the Spirit’s essential ministry: bringing us to and confirming us in Christ. When we try to maneuver our way around the hard sayings within Scripture, we miss the Messiah to whom they point.
These matters are complex, but at the heart of them all is the fundamental issue of loyalty to and trust in God, of not being ashamed of Jesus and the Spirit-inspired book which guides us to Him.