Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 2)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born.

In my first post in response to this question I discussed the statement in the book of Joshua.  Let me now consider the one you cite from the book of John.  And next time I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

This statement is actually a quotation from Isaiah, as John notes.  In Matthew and Mark the same quotation is used to explain Jesus’ method of speaking in parables.  John uses it instead to comment on Jesus’ method of revealing who he was through “signs.”  But in both cases it refers to a method that can either conceal or reveal, depending on the state of a person’s heart.

In Session 2 of my study guide to Isaiah I explain the background to5811 this statement.  Isaiah has just had a vision of God in the temple:

“God asks, ‘Who will go for us?’ and Isaiah eagerly volunteers. But the assignment turns out to be a perplexing one. The new prophet is to bring messages from God to the people of Judah. But they will so persistently ignore these messages that they will become less and less able to understand what God wants. As a result, the nation will ultimately be devastated by its enemies. Only a faint glimmer of hope will remain in the end.

“Even though it sounds here as if God wants the people to resist and be destroyed, this is quite unlikely. We’ll see in the rest of the book of Isaiah, as we also see throughout the Scriptures, that God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. Rather, the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”

In the study guide I then invite groups to consider questions such as these:
~ C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure.” Do you agree?
~ How can we distinguish between those times when a hard truth needs to be spoken to another person, even if they’re unlikely to be able to hear it, and those times when it’s best to say nothing and wait for the person to become more open?

This was the problem that both Isaiah and Jesus faced: They needed to proclaim something vital about what God was doing in their day, but many of the people who heard them were so set against God that this proclamation would only harden their resistance.  But it couldn’t be abandoned on that account.  So even though God tells Isaiah to “make the heart of this people calloused . . . and close their eyes,” and John paraphrases this by saying that God himself has “blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,” it’s the people’s stubborn resistance, intensified by encountering this proclamation, that’s actually responsible.

It’s kind of a no-win situation for God’s prophets and his Messiah:  say nothing about the new thing God is doing in the world because most people don’t want to hear it, or proclaim it for the sake of those who might hear, even at the cost of hardening those who are resisting?  A difficult problem, caused by people, for a God who is not willing that any should perish.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

15 thoughts on “Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 2)”

  1. The passage in Peter that “not willing that anyone should perish” is taken out of context – it is referring to those members of the church who are sinning – not the world of the lost. It says, “God is patient toward usward….not willing that anyone should parish.” We have erroneously used this Scripture in Gospel presentations – it is one of my pet peeves – look at the “Books of the Bible” and see the context!

    1. Actually, I see the context as addressing “scoffers” who are trying to deny the reality of faith in Jesus by asking, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” (Meaning the Second Coming.) Peter explains that Jesus’ return has been delayed in order to give more people the opportunity to choose to follow him, because “the Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I find it hard to limit the terms “anyone” and “everyone” to members of the church. The context is addressing a broader audience outside the church that is questioning the faith because Jesus hasn’t returned yet.

      1. I guess that verse will be debated by Bible scholars and I see what you are saying…I tend to see the “scoffers” that Peter is addressing are the members of the church since he makes the statement that “judgment must begin in the house of God.” The point I see is that if the church cleans up their act they won’t be judged like the rest of humanity and that God is loving and gracious to us to get our act together to avoid judgment.

      2. I can certainly understand and respect this interpretation. But I still think that “anyone” and “everyone” is a very broad reference that would include people outside the church, even if the immediate context might be speaking to people within the church. (The reference to judgment beginning in the house of God is actually in 1 Peter, so the apostle is not necessarily addressing the same people here in 2 Peter.)

  2. I had a conversation about this with a friend recently. He asked me, if God is all powerful, why couldn’t He just unharden a person’s heart so that when they do hear a message that their sinful selves would not want to hear, they can accept it and be saved?

    Maybe this ties back into the question about God’s sovereignty and our free will?

    Thoughts?

    1. Yes, I think this relates directly to the issue of God’s sovereignty and human free will and moral responsibility. If God sovereignly “un-hardened” a person’s heart so that they would believe when they heard, that person wouldn’t be choosing freely to love and serve God. A similar question might go something like this: if you’re a parent, if you could force your children to choose to obey you, would you do that? Probably not (although there are many days when you’d be tempted to!), because ultimately you want them to recognize why it’s good and healthy for them to go to bed on time, clean their rooms, treat others with respect, etc. You want them to become the kind of people who will be helpful to others, good to themselves, and ultimately genuinely appreciative of all you’ve tried to do for them. You don’t want robots, you want real human children who may someday enter into a loving adult-to-adult relationship with you. And that, by definition, requires free choice rather than force.

      All that said, I think it’s also the case that God does work actively to counteract the hardening effects of sin, by the Holy Spirit, by common grace in the world, and through the example and testimony of the community of Jesus’ followers. God might not “un-harden” sovereignly in individual cases, but God is at work generally to counteract the hardening of hearts.

      1. Thanks for the response.

        My mind is almost exploding as it tries to wrap itself around salvation.

        How does God bring salvation to an individual?

        Does it not require God to unharden one’s heart so that when they hear the Gospel, they believe? Unhardening one’s heart does not necessarily mean that God is forcing someone to believe in Him and follow Him. He is just enabling them to believe, whereas before, in the hardened heart stage, they would never have been able to believe.

        Is this correct so far? Or am I missing something?

        Then comes the trickier part….

        Does God unharden all hearts? Once a heart is unhardened, does that mean that person will be saved?

        I feel like there are only two conclusions…but please let me know if there are more:

        1) God chooses to unharden all hearts, but the sinners still choose not to believe. But then this would suggest that God’s attempts to save fail…which would come into conflict with His omnipotence.

        2) God only chooses to unharden some hearts…in which case, I struggle with why God would only choose to save some, and not all? Maybe I think that it would be “best” if God saved all…but maybe God’s ways are higher than mine and it’s actually better to not save all? (That’s so hard for me to believe…)

        Thoughts?

      2. I’m aware that different people would answer your question differently, but here are my thoughts. I tend to prefer the idea that God seeks to save everyone by sending grace into their lives which, if received, would soften their hearts sufficiently for them to hear and believe. But because people have genuine freedom, they are free even to resist God’s grace. I don’t see this as incompatible with omnipotence. Just as I say in this post that “it’s not a failure of omniscience not to know what cannot be known,” so it’s not a failure of omnipotence not to compel what cannot be compelled (the free choice to love). Salvation is indeed mind-exploding, as you say. I think it involves some mysteries that our human minds can’t wrap themselves around. But we do know and understand much about the character of God, that God is “patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I think that understanding can guide us as we work to try to grasp the rest.

  3. The question remains, why would an all knowing God ever create a soul that He knew would resist all his attempts and grace and salvation and be condemned for all eternity?

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