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 to 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.