Q. The pastor of my church has preached for years about how loving, forgiving and merciful God is. But in the Old Testament, there are many occasions in which God destroys men or threatens their destruction (Noah’s ark and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the avenging angel with the firstborn in Egypt, etc.).
So did the nature of God change after the birth, death and resurrection of his son? Or am I supposed to disregard the readings of the Old Testament? (Cherry Hill, N.J.)
A. You raise a perennial question. Not infrequently, readers of the Scriptures point to what they see as a contradiction: a wrathful, violent God of the Old Testament versus the loving, compassionate Father of the Christian Scriptures. That, though, is an oversimplification and creates a false dichotomy.
The Old Testament does not portray a primitive, warlike God who delights in destroying wrongdoers, and the Christian Scriptures do not present a “soft” God who refuses to judge and to punish sinfulness.
Justice and mercy are twin attributes of the Lord of all ages. Think, for example, of the Lord’s nearly endless patience with the Israelites despite their recurring infidelities. Consider, too, the story of Jonah, whom God called to preach a message of repentance to Israel’s enemies in Nineveh; despite his reluctance, the Lord used him as a messenger of divine mercy.
Then move forward to the New Testament and see clear warnings of God’s wrath against unrepentant sinners. In Matthew 23:13, for example, Jesus says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.”
Paul is even more graphic, observing that those who do not obey the Gospel of Christ “will pay the penalty of eternal ruin” (2 Thes 1:9).
All sides of God’s personality are on display across the pages of the Old and New Testaments. That having been said, it’s a fair observation that, in the providence of God’s progressive revelation, compassion and forgiveness come across most clearly when Jesus arrives on the scene — both in the loving acts of Christ and in his words. (See, for example, John 14:1-2: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”)
Q. What is the church’s teaching on killing insects, rodents or any of God’s creatures if they are doing you no harm? (I’ve seen children try to burn ants with a magnifying glass.) (Morrilton, Ark.)
A. Genesis clearly states that human beings are stewards of the rest of creation and are commissioned (Gn 1:28) to “have dominion over … all the living things that crawl on the earth.”
Yet the authority we exercise is not absolute. Animals give God glory, and we owe them respect. For a child to torture ants by burning them with a magnifying glass is a clear moral wrong and violates the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says in No. 2418 that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or to die needlessly.” Against the contention of some activists, however, the catechism does clarify in No. 2417 that “it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing.”
As to your question about killing insects or rodents, which, at the moment, might be doing you no harm, I would allow it under the rubric of dominion. Such animals can clearly inflict pain, can seriously disturb the tranquility needed for humane living and may, by their presence, contribute to unsanitary conditions that can lead to health hazards.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.
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