The Immutability of God
[NOTE: During the February 12, 2009 Darwin Day debate with Kyle Butt, Dan Barker listed 14 alleged Bible discrepancies as evidence against God’s existence. His first claim (six minutes and 25 seconds into his opening speech) was that the Bible gives contradictory descriptions of God because it says that God changes and does not change. His allegation is refuted in the following article written by Caleb Colley in 2004.]
The Bible plainly asserts that the qualities of God have never changed, and will never change. Consider a sampling of what the inspired writers penned concerning God’s immutability:
Psalm 90:2: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the Earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”
Psalm 102:25-27: “Of old You laid the foundation of the Earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.”
Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I do not change.”
Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
James 1:17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”
Some assert that the concept of an unchanging God is ridiculous. As one critic put it,
Christians believe that [a] their God is “unchanging.” They also believe that [b] their God is jealous, as mentioned explicitly in Exodus 20:5, and that [c] their God is also full of wrath and anger (numerous citations can be found in the Bible which support this). If the Christian believes [a], [b], and [c] above, then according to them their God must always be jealous, angry and wrathful (i.e., God must be pretty miserable) [Thorn, 2000, parenthetical item in orig.].
Of course, the fact that our unchanging God has emotions such as anger and wrath (and emotions that are antithetical to anger and wrath, such as happiness and gladness, which Thorn ignored completely), based on His perfectly righteous nature, does not detract from His deity. After all, if God’s nature did not cause sin to anger Him, and righteousness did not please Him, His nature, as revealed in the Bible, would be both false and irrelevant. God would be incapable of making decisions based on His objective standards, and would be unqualified to be our God.
God, in His relations with humans, is unchanging in that He opposes all sin and unrighteousness, while approving and appreciating righteous living, and giving all men the opportunity to be saved. God certainly is capable of changing His mind without changing His nature. For example, God tested Moses by telling him to get out of the way, so that God could destroy the “stiff-necked” nation of Israel, and make of Moses a great nation (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses, however, pleaded with God, and He “relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people” (verse 14). God knew ahead of time what Moses’ answer would be, just as He knew that Abraham would do His will when He tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his special son, Isaac (see Genesis 22; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 94:9-10; John 2:25). In this instance, God simply presented Moses (later labeled the meekest man in the entire world—Numbers 12:3) with the opportunity to become the ancestor of the divinely chosen people, but Moses refused, choosing to appeal to God’s mercy. God considered Moses’ humble appeal when He decided to preserve Israel; it was the unchanging nature of God that caused Him, in this particular instance, to act as He did (cf. Genesis 6:6; Jonah 3:10).
God had not promised a particular punishment to the people of Israel for their disobedience—God did not break a promise to Israel. God cannot lie, and He certainly did not do so in this case (see Colley, 2004a). God had merely told Moses what He intended to do, and reciprocated Moses’ “repentance,” on the behalf of the entire nation, with His own.
Inherent in the fact that God cannot lie (see Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Romans 3:4; Hebrews 6:18) is the fact that His characteristics do not change. If they did, the righteous attributes of humans that please Him one day might not please Him on the next day, and humans would never know what to do in order to satisfy Him. Worse still, we might approach the judgment seat of Christ in the Day of Judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10), only to discover that God had created different rules, of which we were unaware.
To twist Exodus 32:9-14 into an attack on God’s reliability, then, is blasphemous. Instead, we should understand the clear implications of the passage: (1) the fervent prayers of righteous people really do “avail much” (James 5:16); (2) it is unpleasant for God to destroy His creatures (2 Peter 3:9; see Keil, 1996, 1:468); and (3) God allows Himself to change His purpose when the actions of humans justify it (Jonah 3:10; see Coffman, 1985, p. 444).
Some assert that the Bible is not reliable because it makes evident that God changed the requirements for serving Him when He nailed the Old Law to the cross of Christ (Colossians 2:16). They assert that when God put away the Old Law and brought the New Law into effect, God evinced that He can change, so, even if He does exist, He cannot be trusted. Indeed, if it were true that God’s changing of some requirements rendered His divine nature altered, then the biblical concept of God would be shattered, because, in that case, God frequently would have stood in complete contradiction of Himself. And so would Jesus when He spoke certain teachings while in human form. As one skeptic, writing for Agnostic Review of Christianity, commented: “If Jesus has always existed, has always been the same, and is also God, then this deity is psychotic. He issues laws that he ignores, commands people to obey these laws, rebukes them for trying to follow the laws, and practices situational ethics” (“Sticks and Stones…,” n.d., emp. added). First-century gnostic Christians, in attempting to reconcile perceived differences between the character of the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, asserted that two distinct gods were responsible for the two testaments. They believed that the Old Testament god, Jehovah, was bumbling and inept, while the god revealed in the New Testament was the true god (see Layton, 1987, p. 134).
However, God did not change His nature in order to bring the New Testament into effect. The New Testament church, in which men can be saved from damnation, was in the mind of God from before the Earth was established; it was His eternal purpose (Ephesians 3:10-11). In fact, the Old Testament contains many prophecies concerning the church (e.g., Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 2:2-3; Daniel 2:44; see Silcox, n.d.), helping us to see that one purpose of the Old Law was to prepare humanity (in several different aspects, not the least of which was the establishment of Christ’s lineage) for the coming of Christ and His Law (Luke 24:44; Galatians 3:24). When the Old Law was nailed to Christ’s cross, the rules for obedience were changed in order to allow men to appropriate the blood of Christ to their souls (to wash away sin; see Acts 22:16). The blood of bulls and goats no longer was necessary in order to appease God’s anger, because the perfect Lamb had been sacrificed once and for all (Hebrews 9:12; 1 Peter 3:18).
Finally, observe that the fact that God is not opposed to all change does not impose upon His immutability. He instituted the changing seasons (Genesis 1:14), and Psalm 102:25-26 illustrates that the Earth can be changed by an unchanging God, a fact that also was illustrated quite graphically by the Noahic Flood (Genesis 6-8). And, when we leave this life to slip into the timeless side of eternity, we will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
God is not going to budge in His firm stand against sin. Ultimately, unforgiven sin will be punished (Romans 6:23; see Colley, 2004b). However, just as sin always has demanded strict punishment in every dispensation, God always has freely offered salvation to those willing to obey His message. God will pardon, through Christ’s sacrifice, those who repent and obey Him.
Coffman, James Burton (1985), Commentary on Exodus (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Colley, Caleb (2004a), “God Cannot Lie,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2561.
Colley, Caleb (2004b), “God’s Mercy and Justice,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/1860.
Keil, C.F. (1996 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament—The Pentateuch (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Layton, Bentley (1987), The Gnostic Scriptures (Canterbury: SCM Press).
Silcox, Preston (no date), “The Church Promised and Prophesied,” [On-line], URL: http://www.gospelpreceptor.com/SilcoxP5.htm.
“Sticks and Stones, or, Jesus the Son of God Thumbs His Nose at God the Father” (no date), Agnostic Review of Christianity, [On-Line], URL: http://members.fortunecity.com/brad1/stick_stone.html.
Thorn, Anton (2000), “An Unchanging God?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1019/Unchanging_God.htm.