Making Sense of a Vengeful God

PUC theology professor Jean Sheldon offers a preview of her presentation at the upcoming Adventist Forum conference; two different models of atonement explain why the Old Testament God of violence contrasts so strongly with Jesus, who taught his followers to turn the other cheek.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This interview brings US to the Question —
WHAT and
is the “Church”???

Jean also brings up a Second Issue in our Church.
Jeans says, "1. Know God intellectually and experimentally. 2. Learn to question everything you are taught, test them for yourself. DO NOT let anyone do your thinking for you. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of freedom."
Two things the SDA church does NOT do.
It does not provide a means for youth and other members to Discern their Vocation in God.
It does NOT provide a means for an Invitation To A Journey. To Develop a Road Map for Spiritual Formation – “The Process of being conformed to the Image of Christ for the sake of others.”

The True Church is not in Denominationalism.
The True Church is being a Member of the Heavenly Church FIRST.
Then we find a group, band together, so we can more effectively spread the Good News of the Gospel.
Many together can do more than what one can do alone.

Found a great documentary. “The Letters”. The dramatized story of Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

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Alita:What a wonderful and thought provoking interview. Thank you, Edgar


“As I see it, God was forced to communicate His character to people who believed whole-heartedly in violence. So violent ways of dealing with human relationship and violent ways of making wrongs right seem acceptable in the Old Testament.”

Which seems to be another way of saying that people create their own idea of god. Weren’t the OT writers conveying their own thoughts and ideas and attributing them to God?

Hasn’t it always been difficult in reading both Testaments to merge God as represented throughout the Hebrew Bible with Jesus as described in the New Testament? This has been, and continues to be a stumbling block for many as much of the writings of the OT are quite contrary to Jesus in the NT. It was also a stumbling block to early Christians for several centuries until they combined the three and agreed on the Trinity, something not so identified by the NT writers.

Has there ever been agreement among all Christians, including Adventists, on the meaning of the atonement? Or is there one and only one answer? Do you introduce all the theories and let students decide?

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Professor Sheldon,
I too have had trouble making sense of a “vengeful god”.

However, I am not at all surprised that the Israelites believed as you put it, “wholeheartedly in violence”. Had not their own God placed them in slavery to the Egyptians for FOUR CENTURIES??

If this was not vengeance, what was? Would forty years or one hundred forty years have been adequate? Slavery is one of the most nefarious, noxious, pernicious, plagues on the planet. The Israelites would have been subjected to brutish beatings, heinous humiliations, abhorrent atrocities, all at the instigation of their God, who allowed this slavery to endure so long.

Then later, the Babylonian captivity was for SEVENTY years. Would seventeen not have been enough?

The old mantra, if God be for us, who can be against us, rings hollow!

Yes, the Old Testament is steeped in such great genocide ( many God-ordained ), so much agony and anguish, brutality and bloodshed, it would be impossible to screen an authentic Biblical movie that was not X and R rated.

Then we come to the New Testament where Paul wholeheartedly endorses the very slavery that his ancestors endured. His command “slaves obey your masters” was clearly followed in our southern states, where young slave girls were forced to bed their masters!

Then Paul says: “wives submit yourselves to your husbands”, justifying generations of wife beatings, and marital rape. So even the New Testament is condoning future cycles of violence.

Marital rape is not legally recognized in Islamic countries, maybe proving that the Islamic Allah and the Hebrew “Yahweh” are one and the same?
AN EYE FOR AN EYE-- SHARIA LAW, epitomizes the egregious excesses exemplified by the Yahweh of the OT – genocides, stonings and other barbarities.

What is most disturbing, is Christ predicting in Matthew 24: 7 that His Second Coming, of necessity, had to be preceeded by wars, FAMINES and earthquakes. While wars are man made, famines and earthquakes are “acts of God”

Our recent exposure to photo journalism of the most recent earthquakes, not to mention starving children in Somalia, underscores the horrors of these events.

Does a loving Saviour really find it necessary to herald His Second Coming with such God-made atrocities?

It seems the “vengeful God” will still be with us orchestrating the anticipated “time of trouble such as never was”.

Not an endearing thought!

I absolutely agree with you that OT stories do not connect with the Gospel
Was it not God Himself who instigated, set in motion, these “laws of nature”?
The Bible tells us the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, so when God withholds the rain,and the ensuing drought causes famine, is He not ultimately responsible? Likewise with hailstorms damaging crops.
God is the SOLE creator. ( Satan, himself a created being, has not such power )
So when locusts destroy crops, rodents destroy granaries, and the potato fungus causes one million of my Irish ancestors to die in the "Great Hunger"
did not God in His omniscience foretell these calamities due to the creatures He created?

Starvation is an horrific way to die.

That Christ would proclaim that huge populations would perish in this protracted, unpleasant way, as a pre-condition for His return, is highly PROBLEMATICAL!


Adventism builds its theology upon Dan. 8:14 and Rev 14. Christainity builds its theology upon John 3:16, R omans3-5’ and Phil 2:5-11. One uses fear, the other uses Love. TZ


We tend to think that the Scriptures were written by people who got their information directly from God - possibly even face-to-face, so that there can be no question that when it says “God told therm this, or that”, God actually did say that in some form. These people got their information from God in the same way we do - by impressions and perceptions, formed by culture and experience. If the culture around therm was violent, they perceived their God through the lens of their violent culture. If we’re not careful, the ardent believer is going to believe that God’s declarations in the Bible came straight from His mouth; and we are to adopt the culture, along with the intended lessons from the Biblical era described. This puts the OT at odds with the Christian culture that flows out of the Gospel message. This is all about “verbal inspiration”. Even though the SDA stated position is against verbal inspiration, in practice, it’s all about, “God said it, I believe it.”

It takes an incredible amount of maturity to be able to pick out the spiritual message from the narratives in the Bible. Th only benchmark in interpretion we have is the gospel - which is a problem for the SDA message. Kids are taught Bible stories, completely separate from the gospel. Whole sets of books tell the compartmentalized stories about David, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel etc as samples of God speaking to these Bible characters; and set them up as our examples of behaviour and trust. As adults, we have no continuity of these stories with one story that is central to the entire Bible - “Christ and him crucified”. Thus, we go off on tangents including behaviour, diet, dress, music, proper Sabbath activitiers etc. - all compartmentalized and distinct from the Gospel base.

The violence of nature has nothing to do with a violent God. Nature acts out of laws of nature. If, we humans, place our huts at the base of a volcano, the destruction is on us, not God. If we place miles of freeway on top of a fault line, it’s not God’s violence we experience.

Response to Robin:

God created the laws of nature. They are very complex. God doesn’t interject himself into all natural phenomenon in order to save people from the effects of weather, geographic conditions that cause drought or flood. The fact that Jesus forecast all these calamities doesn’t mean God makes them happen directly. They are just a part of living on this planet. We create our own famines by over farming (clear cutting trees) along with our economic policies. A prediction doesn’t mean God directly causes it.


Thanks for your fresh insights to old questions, some of them make sense. Yet to me the creation account does not fit the “first voice” you attribute to it.

Was not Eve honestly deceived? Was her actions evil? Was Eve not created with an inclination of trust and naivety? Was not Adam biologically bonded to Eve by physical-sexual love as well as a singular gift from God? Did not Adam choose to be unselfish and share any blame with Eve? Why then was their punishment so severe with unfathomable centuries of painful darkness? Does thousands of years and 100 billion human being receiving punishment—fit the crime? Did women deserve the curse, a fountainhead of misery, of subjection to men? Did innocent nature deserve the thorns? Did sheep and cows merit to be burned on an alter to appease God?

What does this say about a God that pushed his inexperienced and immature creation into oblivion, dooming all their descendants into the trappings of transgression? God seemed to meet, what we would today call a simple forgivable mistake, a teachable event, with extreme measures. I wonder what Jesus of the NT would have done? I wonder if loving-kindness or gentle reproof would have reformed Adam and Eve instead curses and eviction. In the garden after the event Adam & Eve did not count on the mercy or kindness of God. I only wish they had plead for mercy.

God did not create a chest of good-will at the start of human society. Society was messed-up at the start resulting in His second act. The mass drowning of an entire civilization, young, old, women and children. Did not the memory of the flood create a Babylon?


Another developmental factor important to note is the issue of egocentric thinking, the onset of abstract thinking and the ability to empathize. It is no coincidence that you were 11 years old when you experienced “the first time the view of the atonement.” Jesus was 13 years old when he went about doing his “father’s business.” We now know that at about 6 to 11 years old, children’s cognitive maturation enables them to do more complex operations as a result of the unfolding of their DNA. At this stage children can now understand others’ perspectives. Any religion which ignores this phenomenon and demands continued egocentric past adolescence from her members can be seen as destructive in nature and one that goes against God’s principles of nature.

In regards to “a Vengeful God,” the mark of a well-adjusted individual is their ability to integrate the “good and the bad” parts of God for the simple reason that “the good and the bad” origins are from one source but which is split off and separated as a function of our primitive egocentric thinking. Take for instance the example of a child. A child whose needs are fulfilled see the provider as good whereas if his needs were thwarted would see the provider as bad. Therefore the “good and the bad” has nothing to do with the provider but everything to do with the child’s needs and egocentric thinking. The same can be said of how a religious denomination sees the good and the bad. Any religious denomination which ignores this phenomenon and demands continued separation of the “good and the bad” parts of God past adolescence from her members can be seen as destructive in nature and one that goes against God’s principles of nature.

Kudos to Dr. Sheldon for incorporating behavioral science to the understanding of religion.


In his _Evils of Theodicy, Roman Catholic theologian Terrence Tilley suggests the following in a summary on

The thesis of this book is straightforward: Tilley argues that theodicy as a discourse practice creates evils while theodicists ignore or distort classic texts in the Christian tradition, unwittingly efface genuine evils in their attempts to justify God, and silence the voice of the suffering and the oppressed by writing them out of the theological picture. The result is often a theological legitimation of intolerable social evils.

His insight is reflected in a number of the comments made in reaction to Dr. Sheldon’s magnificent effort to account for OT violence. Our efforts to explain the inexplicable or make rational the irrational can and do often diminish faith in the love of God. As suggested in the book of Job, only confidence that behind and underneath it all is a mystery of the divine that only the divine can explain–whenever that moment arrives.

A bitter pill to be sure for an even more bitter reality, but what option is there if we would escape nihilism and meaninglessness? Faith in the God of Jesus Christ means, to me, that we defy it all and challenge its “final explanatory” assumptions that erase morality and compassion from the universe. This is one moment when faith means we cannot be completely rational but humble in the face of the unknowable, for at least the time being.


Just a personal note here. While a young editor at Pacific Press, one (if not the first) of Jean’s books came to me, and I was greatly blessed not just by the book but also by the evident communicative skills of its young author.

Years later, two of my daughters were privileged to sit in Dr. Sheldon’s classes at PUC, where they found not only knowledge but, in addition, someone who took a genuine interest in their personal life issues.

Finally, not long ago, it was my privilege to edit a significant chapter by Jean in a multi-author book and realize again what a blessing her intellectual and writing skills are to this church. So glad, Jean, that when disillusioned, you made the choice to stay in this leaky, flawed boat and ride it out to the end. I so thank you for your influence in my life and that of my two daughters.


I wouldn’t say that Jean is misrepresenting God. I would say that she is underrepresenting him.

When Christ was faced with a challenge pertaining to the character of his Father, he did not pull any punches. He went strait for the “It is Written” KO. No lengthy first-person-laced drawn out explanations.

An intentional assault on the character of God is the big one. The original one. The one that keeps rising it’s ugly head through the generations. The one that provides a smokescreen for all those who would rather not submit to the absolute sovereignty of God Almighty.

If there is a question, treat it specifically. If God of the Old Testament appears to be an unreasonable ogre, than gather the facts as to why He acted “vengeful”. (In that particular, isolated situation). And be fair. If you are willing to testify to the “fact” that God is “vengeful” than you also should be expected to testify to His goodness. Because all those actions are recorded right there with your “meanie” ones. In fact, the OT is overflowing with the unfathomable loving, forgiving compassion of the LORD. Why is it so easy to be so indifferent to these attributes? It is not being authentic to do so.

Instead of constructing this peculiar “God has a nice voice that I listen to sometimes and a mean voice that I have to rationalize sometimes” why not try:

For it is written; "The LORD is just in all his actions, and exhibits love in all he does, He is righteous in all his ways and compassionate in all his works.

Jean, an unfair assault on God’s character is a very big deal. It calls for a much stronger, balanced retort than I perceive you provide.

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Thank you, Edgar, for your kind words. You’re welcome. But I believe the thanks should really all go to Jean Sheldon!

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I think the points you have made reflect the feelings of many Christians regarding the God we find in the OT. I’d like to comment on a couple of things you said.

Regarding the Hebrew slavery in Egypt:

  • I think that the Egyptians would have had a most welcoming and positive attitude toward Jacob and his descendants for quite a long time after their arrival because of the sterling character of Joseph, his ability to interpret Pharoah’s dreams and his work of saving the nation from starvation.
  • The clan of Jacob which went to Egypt consisted of 70 people. The reason the Egyptians enslaved them was because, as a new Pharaoh said, ‘the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we.’. I would think that would have taken quite a few generations.
  • I’m guessing that the process of placing them under bondage would have been a gradual one of removing privileges and would also take time.
    Thus the captivity would not have been as long or painful as some have assumed.

The 70 year captivity in Babylon was brought about because Judah failed to honour the law of God regarding sabbath years. One of God’s patterns that some commentators have discerned is that He likes to deal in 490 year-long time periods. (The prophecy of the 70 weeks of years (70x7) in Daniel 9:24 is just one example of this). In the period leading up to the Babylonian captivity, the Jews had not given the land and the people who worked it its sabbath rest every seventh year as the law of God had prescribed. So, God corrected this in one chunk by moving them off the land for the 70 years of rest owed it (see Dan 9:2, Jer 25:11). Even at the last minute God graciously offered to forgo this judgment if the people would change and comply (see Jer 34). They started to but reneged so the judgment was carried out. God’s law is to be respected.

You say that Paul endorsed the slavery his ancestors endured. I don’t believe this to be so. Paul knew the law and so he understood that God had included rights for slaves to avoid their abuse. The slave was indentured only as long as it took to pay off his debt to the one the court had decided he had wronged (his master for this period). He could, of course, be freed at any time by a kinsman redeemer who was willing to pay the debt. If he was physically abused during his service he could go free (See Ex 21).
Yes, Paul did admonish wives to submit to husbands but he also told husbands to love their wives (Eph 5:25, 28) and it is remarkable to me how he equates the roles of the two partners in marriage in 1Cor 7.

Almost everything in the Bible has been perverted by mankind in one way or another. I think showing us this (and thus ourselves) is one of the Bible’s purposes.

Prof. Sheldon,

About four years ago I began what you suggest we all do. As best I could, I decided to set aside what I had been taught about God and start over - reading and studying the Bible from start to finish on my own (something I had never done). It’s funny how one’s perspective changes. Years ago I would not have even noticed these statements of yours: ‘…people insisted on the Babylonian way of thinking, forcing God to communicate with them in language they would understand…’ and ‘God was forced to communicate His character to people who believed whole-heartedly in violence.’ Is God gracious enough to accommodate us? Absolutely. Can we force God to do something? No. He is God and His thoughts and ways are above ours. I now have quite a different perspective on God and His plan of salvation for humanity. In Ez 18:4 God says, ‘All souls are mine’. Do we have a degree of freedom in this age? Yes, but as our creator (and thus owner) God is ultimately responsible for each of us. Thus, I believe that He is not finished with the Midianites He ordered killed, the Egyptian firstborn kids He killed at the time of the Exodus or the Israelite kids He ordered killed (Ez 9:6). My heart goes out to those of you struggling with trying to love a God who has ordered such acts. I believe that He has something wonderful planned for all, especially those who have suffered.

2000 years ago, the Jewish religious leaders/teachers formulated a messiah with an agenda, character & personality from their warped concept of scriptures.
Jesus didn’t match up and was rejected & killed. The Jews were victims of deception & idolatry.

Same issue prevails today. This is why there are so many churches/denominations.
The issue of idolatry persists.

Polls have revealed that 75-90% of churchgoers have never even read the whole bible once in their lives. Because of this ignorance and lack of personal bible study, they embrace the type of God that their teachers promote. There are thousands of Jesus idols and anti-Christs in Christianity.

There is a simple explanation for the mean God of the OT and the nice God of the NT. After Adam’s fall, his authority over the earth was usurped by Satan. Satan thus claimed the entire world as his lawful domain and its inhabitants as his subjects. In the eyes of most of the universe, his claims were valid which is why he was allowed to enter into God’s throne room as earth’s ruler. Only the Israelites and other righteous non-Israelites like Job were claimed by God as His subjects as long as they showed by their obedience their faith in God. However, by choosing to reject God and His covenant with them, they chose to place themselves under the suzerainty of Satan again. Thus, legally, God was unable to protect them. Satan, as ruler of the world, had the right to set certain rules and God, due to His sense of fairness and justice, chose to follow them, as well. Satan has always said that God was unfair and has demanded that God immediately punish sinners since, in his own mind, God was unfair and unmerciful to him by not allowing him back into heaven. God has always wanted to delay punishment and show mercy to sinners but since the world was not His, He was not able to do so and be fair to Satan and his claims.
Jesus came to show the universe that God is love, just, merciful, and fair. He came to win back the rulership of this world from Satan by overcoming as the second Adam. Satan tried to tempt Him by offering to give Him the rulership of the world the easy way with no effort and sacrifice. Jesus rejected this temptation and redeemed the world from Satan the proper way. By His death and resurrection, He exposed Satan as a liar and murderer and bought the world and humanity back. Jesus was now the legitimate ruler of earth in the eyes of the universe and Satan was no longer allowed to enter heaven. As the the rightful ruler of the earth, Jesus was now able to institute the rules that He had always wanted to institute from the beginning. That is why, since Jesus’ resurrection, punishment is now delayed because the world is no longer under Satan’s laws but is now under God’s laws.

Jean, thank you so much for this clear presentation of the history of the OT. I have come to many of the same conclusions as you over my 80 years. I believe the OT represents the searching of a primitive people for their God, in the context of their time. Yes, they portrayed a violent God at times, because that was how they saw the world. After the Exile, they decided they must obey God to avoid punishment, and added many rules to try to protect themselves further. Jesus/God, who knew the future, realized that in the end, he would have to come and reveal the true face of God’s love, not only to his people, but to all the world, since they had not shared their knowledge of God.

As Jesus told his disciples, there were still many things he had not told them, and that they were not yet ready to understand, so he promised to send his Spirit to guide them into all truth. I see a growing minority of people who are gradually, over the centuries, coming to see things more like God does - war is no way to find solutions to the world’s problems; all people should be treated fairly - women, children, those of other races, those of sexual minorities, those with handicaps; we need to care for our world and think of future generations, etc. While I don’t think the world is ever going to get better overall, I do think there are some people who long and work toward a better world.