November 19, 2009

Is God Bipolar?

Critics of Christianity often point to, and Christians themselves are often troubled by, the apparent differences between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God”. How did an Old Testament God, who was all about laws, judgment, and “eye for an eye” vengeance, transform Himself into a New Testament God who is all about grace, forgiveness, and “turning the other cheek”? Does this prove that the Bible is inconsistent? Is it just a work of fiction, in which the New Testament writers forgot to check for continuity errors? Did God undergo some kind of transformation between the Old and New Testaments? Does God suffer from bipolar disorder?

For those of us who are sometimes uncomfortable looking back at the God of the Old Testament, it’s worthwhile to remember that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had just the opposite problem. They were quite comfortable with Old Testament theology. God fit nicely into the box they had constructed for Him; but there was no place in that box for this “new” view of God.

From whichever direction we view it, it is the apparent change in what we deem unchangeable that bothers us.

Fortunately, there’s a way to view scripture that I think offers a reasonable and consistent perspective to these apparently contradictory descriptions of God. For me, it’s a view that helps bring a new understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament (yes, even Leviticus). But I believe it also has much to say to us about how we interpret new information about God and about His creation in a scientific age.

The concept I am talking about is called “Progressive Revelation”. There are passages in the Bible that describe a God so terrifying in His power and glory, that were He to fully reveal Himself to us, none of us would be able to survive (Ex. 33:20). Such a God would have to reveal Himself to mankind in general, and to us as individuals, a little bit at a time, in amounts that we are able to handle.

For the new nation of Israel, as it was coming out of slavery in a pagan culture, God revealed a measured portion of His character through the Old Testament Law. To a culture of vengeance, He set a limit: no more than the crime deserves (hence, an “eye for an eye”). To a culture of immorality, He prohibited murder and adultery. To a culture of selfishness, He required that a minimum of 10% be given away.

1500 years later, Jesus came preaching a message that seemed to contradict the Law, but in reality was just pulling back the curtain to show us more. He began with the “glimpse” of God that the Law provided, and then revealed a deeper look into God’s nature that didn’t contradict, but actually fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17).

To a culture that had become comfortable with “an eye for an eye”, Jesus added “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). To a culture that agreed with prohibitions against murder and adultery, He added that true godliness would require not even thinking such thoughts (Matt. 5:22, 28). To a culture used to tithing, He proclaimed that godly character required willingness to give everything away (Matt. 19:21).

Over and over, we see this pattern. God gives us little glimpses of what He, or His creation, is like. We go ahead and construct a comfortable world view (our “box”) around those glimpses. Then God spoils everything by revealing a little bit more of Himself, and we have a decision to make: do we resist what seems like a “change” because it doesn’t fit into our “box”? Or do we embrace it as another step in God’s progressive revelation of Himself to us, and enlarge our box?

Let’s apply this concept to the book of Genesis. There are those who would say that Genesis tells us all we need to know about creation – that if science discovers anything different from what is recorded in Genesis, then that science must be rejected. Yet those same people already accept things like the shape of the earth, the orbits of the planets, and the existence of billions of galaxies at distances billions of light-years away, that contradict what earlier generations believed. So why is it that we’ve come to accept truths about creation that weren’t recorded in Genesis?

First of all, we understand that inspiring the author of Genesis to describe planetary orbits, galaxies, and the theory of relativity, would have made no sense to the people of that day. Not only would they have been unable to comprehend such a description, they would likely have dismissed it as sheer lunacy.

Secondly, we need to understand that God’s intent was to reveal only as much of Himself as the people of the day could accept. So rather than correct all the errors in the prevailing view of the universe, He instead chose to correct only the part of the story most in need of being corrected with new revelation. In this case, what was important was the “who” and “why”, not the “how” or “when”. That change to the “who” and “why” of the story was what set this creation account apart from those that preceded it, and what would have caused the original audience to sit up and take notice.

Revealing Himself a little glimpse at a time, or revealing Himself through both His word and His creation, doesn’t make God bipolar. It’s only the boxes we construct around some of those glimpses that make Him seem that way. People of faith tend to look for truth in scripture, and build a confining box around science. People of science tend to look for truth in nature, and build a confining box around faith. And both miss out on the greater truth that could be theirs if they were willing embrace all of the ways in which God reveals Himself.

For people of faith, my advice is to continue studying God’s word for answers to the “who” and “why” questions. But stop building boxes around science because it dares to ask “how” and “when” questions. Be willing to examine the revelations of truth that science continues to discover, and you might just find more answers to the “who” and “why” questions as well.

And for people of science, my advice is to continue studying nature for answers to the “how” and “when” questions. But at the same time, recognize that you may have to turn to another source for answers to the “who” and “why” questions – and that your scientific quest for truth might just involve some steps of faith.


  1. Phil...regarding Genesis... have you ever read, "Genesis Unbound" by Sailhamer? The argument posed blows the disagreement between evolutionists and creationists right out of the water!! Would love to hear your perspective on this book if you ever get a chance to read it. V.Dare