Are our lives determined by God from the time we are born?

Q. Do you think our lives were determined by God the day we were born? Is it a fixed destiny regardless of the twists and turns? Or is changes from time to time?

I think the discussion in this earlier post will largely address your concern:

Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

That post responds to a question asked from the perspective of God, rather than from the perspective of human experience, as your question is but the answer is really the same either way. As I say in that post, God is not the only free moral agent in existence, but God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish His purposes.

So I would say that our lives are not determined the day we are born; God has built a beautiful but terrible freedom into the moral universe that allows us to make choices by which we might bring joy and blessing to ourselves and to others, or by which we might cause great suffering. But God hasn’t left us alone to make those choices and to deal with their consequences; rather, God is an active free moral agent right in the mix, and with His infinite wisdom and power, He is constantly at work to help us make our choices work out, if we will live in fellowship with Him and depend on Him. So we should pray for wisdom and strive to develop godly character, so that we can cooperate with God in his plans for the created universe.

As I say at the end of that post, I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next. I’m sure I can do something with it.” We should respond, “Please do, and let me know how I can help!”

If we have freedom of choice, how can God be all-knowing?

Q. Some people say you have freedom of choice, however, if you believe that God knows all things, then he knows what you are going to choose. People think they have a choice but if you really think about it, you really don’t. If you say yes you do, then you don’t believe God knows all things. We may think we have a choice, but he knows what you are gonna choose. Yes or No. Peace to you. Oh, by the way, back in the ’60s when I asked this question I was slapped in the face.

First of all, let me say how sorry I am about the experience you had when you asked this question before. Though it was probably fifty years ago, I’ll bet it still hurts, physically and emotionally. I call this blog Good Question for a reason. I honestly believe that questions like yours are good. They allow us to probe more deeply into what we believe, to see what we can understand better, and to recognize that there are maybe some other things we just won’t understand in this life. But there’s no such thing as a bad question, if it’s asked out of a genuine desire to learn and understand. May God give you grace and peace to deal with the memory of that slap. It should never have happened.

Your question is one that has actually been asked before on this blog, from a number of different angles. For example, one person asked how God could ever have created Satan. Even though he began as a glorious angel (Lucifer), didn’t God know that he would disobey, fall, and turn into a monster who would wreak havoc on the earth for all of human history? In my response, I rephrase the issues this way:

“How do we explain the creation and continuing existence of Satan?  Is God not all-knowing?  (He didn’t realize Satan would rebel?)  Or is God not all-powerful?  (He thought he could stop Satan but then wasn’t able to?)  Or is God simply not all-good?  (He doesn’t care whether his creatures are destroyed?)”

I think you’re getting at some of these same issues in your question. So here’s what I say in that other post:

“I think the solution to this problem lies in appreciating the radical nature of the freedom that God has endowed each of His intelligent creatures with.  It’s hard for us to understand this because we are created and finite, but an eternal and infinite God can make creatures who are so free that their moral choices are not predetermined and so cannot be known in advance.

But isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and know everything, even the choices that we’re going to make?  No, it is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.  And the freedom God has given us is so radical and profound that the essential moral choices we will make cannot be known in advance.”

I develop these thoughts further in that post, and in a follow-up that deals in more detail with the issue of how our freedom can be reconciled with God being all-knowing. At the end of the first post there are links to some other related posts as well. (As you can see, many people have this same question!)

I hope that this blog will always be a place where you and others feel comfortable and safe asking any questions you want.

Are names written in the Book of Life, or blotted out of it?

Q. I’m reading a book that says names are not added to the Book of Life, they are blotted out.  The book refers to the place in Exodus where Moses prays, “But now please forgive their sin, but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written,” and God replies, “Everyone who has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”

I’d always thought our names were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life when we accept Christ as our Savior (as in the hymn, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory”).  However, if our names are already there, it seems to make more sense.  After all, it is not God’s will that any should perish.  Names would only be blotted out if a person refused forgiveness of their sins.  This would explain why infants who die and the mentally handicapped are able to enter heaven: they have not attained the capacity for accountability, therefore their names have not been removed.  It also explains why the whole human race is the beneficiary of what Jesus did.  Salvation is provided for all, but only becomes an individual reality when a person asks Him for it.

A. I find the idea very appealing that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life when they are born (or conceived), in the hopes that they will embrace salvation, and only blots people’s names out of the book if they definitively reject salvation.  Since none of us humans can ever really tell whether another person has done that, we can keep hoping and praying and reaching out friends and loved ones, patiently inviting them to embrace the love God has shown to them through Jesus.

In addition to the Scripture passage you mention in Exodus, the letter to Sardis in the book of Revelation seems to support the idea of names being blotted out, rather than written in, based on a person’s response. Speaking of those who do not deny Him in order to save their lives in this world, Jesus says, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

Moreover, in Psalm 69, speaking of those who are his “enemies without cause,” David prays, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”  Interestingly, a couple of passages from this psalm are treated as Messianic in the New Testament.  John says that when Jesus cleansed the temple, “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” And John later says, “So that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty,'” and he was given vinegar to drink.  This seems to be an allusion to another statement in Psalm 69, “They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”  All four gospels actually record this incident, and Luke specifies that the vinegar was given mockingly.  So if we see David as a type of the Messiah, then the enemies whose names he asks to be blotted out of the book of life can be associated with those who definitively choose to reject Jesus, to mock rather than accept the salvation he accomplished for us on the cross.

I would observe, however, that the case is not entirely clear-cut.  Some other Scriptures seem to suggest that names may be written into rather than blotted out of the Book of Life.  For example, there are a couple of different ways we might interpret Paul’s comment in Philippians about the co-workers whocontended at [his] side in the cause of the gospel,” that their “names are in the book of life.”  On the one hand, it doesn’t seem necessary for him to describe their genuineness this way if being written in were the default, and that nothing short of a definitive rejection of Christ would blot someone out.  On the other hand, he may be contrasting them with the people he has just described, who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and whose “destiny is destruction.”  In that case, Paul would be saying that his co-workers, by contrast, have not been blotted out like these people.

One more reference to consider is the one in Revelation that says the beast from the abyss will impress and terrify “the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world.”  This seems to suggest that not everyone’s name is written in from the start.

So how we might resolve this difference?  We should admit that it’s unlikely that there’s an actual physical book somewhere in the spiritual realm into which names are entered in ink, or blotted out with ink. Instead, we should perhaps understand the Book of Life as a metaphor that biblical writers use for salvation, speaking either of names blotted out (most commonly) or written in (in a few apparent cases).

Nevertheless, this metaphor represents a genuine spiritual reality.  As Paul put it in his second letter to Timothy, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.'”  In other words, the Book of Life, however physically or spiritually we understand it, exists somewhere, somehow, as a representation of God’s sure knowledge of those who are His.

That may be one good takeaway from this investigation:  If we have genuinely trusted in Jesus, we never have to wonder whether He knows that and will honor it.  As He said to the people of Sardis, “I will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

And I do have to say that I personally come down on the side of your statement, “Salvation is provided for all.”  If pressed to choose one understanding or the other of the Book of Life, I’d say that all names were written in first, and they would only be blotted out in cases where a person understood but definitively rejected God’s offer of salvation through Jesus.

This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God's offer of salvation through Jesus, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?
This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God’s offer of salvation, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”? (Part 2)

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

In my previous post I began to respond to this question by talking about prayer and faith.  Let me now address these two passages from Romans, starting with the one about Pharaoh.

It’s very important to realize that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not determine his eternal destiny—that is, it did not cause him to be “lost.”  Rather, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart with respect to one specific thing: his response to the order given through Moses, “Let my people go.”  (God says to Moses, anticipating in advance the entire sequence I’ll describe in the next paragraph, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.“)

After some of the earlier plagues, Pharaoh promised to do this, but once he was delivered from these plagues, he “hardened his heart.”  Moses even warned him, as the plagues progressed, not to do this again, not to “act deceitfully,” but he continued to break his promises and “harden his heart.”  After a while, God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart himself, in order to fulfill a larger purpose: “The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.”  (Pharaoh had first greeted the order to “let my people go” with scoffing, asking, “Who is Yahweh?”  He would find out!)

Not just the Egyptians, but all the surrounding peoples, learned of Yahweh’s reality and supreme power through the plagues that came because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart, and then God hardened it for him.  When the Israelites finally entered Canaan, for example, Rahab told the spies Joshua had sent in that everyone there had heard of what God had done to the Egyptians, and “our hearts melted in fear . . . for Yahweh your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” 

This awareness helped fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that through him “all people on earth” would be blessed.  Rahab herself came over to Yahweh’s side, and according to the gospel of Matthew, she apparently married an Israelite and through her son Boaz—who brought another foreigner, Ruth, “under the wings” of the God of Israel—Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus the Messiah!

So the purpose of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not so that he would be lost, but so that many would be saved, from many nations.  (Conceivably Pharaoh himself could have still come to faith in the God of Israel, though we don’t know whether this happened.)

Paul appeals to this episode as an analogy in the course of a long and complex discussion in Romans to argue that something similar is happening in his own day.  God is once again hardening the hearts of some people in response to one specific thing, not so that they will be lost, but so that many will be saved.  Paul explains that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  That is, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.”  God, Paul says, has been restraining the response of Jesus’ Israelite contemporaries to the proclamation of his Messiahship so that this proclamation will be redirected to the Gentiles.  Then, seeing the blessings the Gentiles receive from welcoming Jesus as their Savior will make the Israelites want to do the same.

It is true that permanently rejecting Jesus as Messiah would keep someone from being saved.  But Paul says very clearly that this is not God’s purpose here. God wants “all Israel to be saved” and is hardening some of their hearts in order to bring this about.  Paul makes the statement “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” in order to argue that hardening hearts is a means God may legitimately use to reach such ends.  Hardening is not an end in itself, designed to keep anyone from salvation.  I’m not aware of anywhere in the Bible where God is said to harden someone’s heart in order to keep them from being saved.

I believe this includes the other statement in Romans you asked about, which says that God predestined those He foreknew.  It’s important to realize that this statement comes not in the first part of the epistle, where Paul is talking about how we are saved, but in the next part, where he is discussing how we are sanctified, conformed to the image of his Son.”  Note what leads immediately into the statement:  “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Paul is talking here about how God works in the lives of people who have already been restored to relationship with Him. 

Amazingly, God has been able to experience that restored relationship with us from before all time—He “foreknew” us in the sense of already knowing relationally those who would ultimately embrace his offered love. And in light of this, He has planned all along to bring us into His family, “that [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  Once again the goal is to bring people in, not to keep them out.

To state the matter as simply as possible, in this other statement in Romans, Paul is discussing predestination to sanctification, not predestination to salvation.  Once we become part of God’s family, He then works to bring about a family resemblance between us and Jesus.

So once again I would encourage you to pray with faith and perseverance for the salvation of your children.  You cannot be going counter to God’s purposes when you do.

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”?

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

To go right to the bottom line first, I don’t think that any of us should conclude, if our prayers for the salvation of loved ones haven’t been answered yet, that God has not predestined them to be saved, but has hardened their hearts instead, so our prayers are of no use.

I’ll address those two statements by Paul in my next post.  They come within a long, complex argument about which there is much disagreement among interpreters. I want to say here that I think we do much better to draw our conclusions about the value and efficacy of our prayers for loved ones from biblical statements that are much clearer and more straightforward, such as what Peter writes in his second letter:  “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  In Psalm 103, David presents a similar picture of God graciously extending salvation:  “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He . . . does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”

So I would encourage you to keep solidly in mind a picture of God as a loving heavenly Father who wants to fold your children in His arms and welcome them back into His family.  Thank you so much for your prayers for your children!  They’re accomplishing far more than you realize.

And don’t be concerned about how much faith you have.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  So take the faith that you do have and put it to use in continuing to pray for your children, keeping a picture of our loving God in mind.  You can even thank God by faith for the work He’s doing your children’s lives, even before you’re able to see it. 

It’s been aptly said that faith is like a muscle.  The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.  And I can’t think of a better way to put our faith to work than by using it in prayer for those we love, asking that they will understand and accept God’s own love for them.

 

Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

Q.  I recently heard it said that the “sovereignty of God” means that nothing ever really happens by chance; rather, God is responsible for everything that happens.  What do you think of that?

The notion of “sovereignty” has to do with freedom to act.  We speak of a nation as being “sovereign” if it can conduct its own affairs without being restricted by outside powers.

Consequently in the Bible the “sovereignty of God” usually refers to God’s rule over all the kingdoms of the world, as expressed, for example, in the statement repeated several times in the book of Daniel, “The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

In Christian theology, this idea is applied more broadly to God’s unrestricted freedom to act to accomplish His purposes.  For example, in his book The Attributes of God, A.W. Pink explains, “Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases.”

Personally I have no problem with this.  (In fact, I find it very reassuring!)  I would be careful, however, of extending the idea, as you heard done, to claim that because God can do anything He wishes, then God is responsible for everything that happens.

One website I came across in writing this post claims, for example, that “the sovereignty of God is the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second, which I don’t feel follows necessarily from the first.

Why not? For one thing, there would be a serious moral problem with God being responsible for the many evil and tragic things that happen all around us.  It would be very difficult to reconcile that with the Bible’s portrayal of God as good, loving, and just.

But there’s also a logical problem.  Just because God is an agent with unlimited freedom and power to act, that doesn’t mean that God is the only free moral agent in existence.  Humans and other spiritual beings, I believe, also have at least some freedom to act, so that what we encounter in our lives may be the result of their activity.  I think that God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes—that’s one important way I see God exercising His sovereignty to bring about His desired ends.  This gives us hope that even in the troubles and tragedies of this life, God can be at work for our good and for the ultimate advancement of His kingdom.

Beyond this, some of what we encounter in life may be simple chance.  I think God has built enough freedom into the world that this can be the case.  The Bible seems to talk about this at times.  There’s this famous statement in Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

And Jesus himself invoked the concept of chance in his parable of the Good Samaritan:  “Now by chance a priest was going down that road . . .”

However, the way to make the case that the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that nothing happens by chance isn’t by collecting individual statements like this from throughout the Bible.  Rather, as I said before, we may simply observe that just because God acts with unrestricted freedom, that doesn’t mean that God is the only moral actor in existence, and that God may have built so much freedom into the creation (as a reflection of His own attribute?) that things really can now happen “by chance.”

I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next.  I’m sure I can do something with it.”

Does God choose who will go to heaven?

Q. Does God know who are to go to heaven (those with His seal)? Or it is an individual who makes a choice between light and darkness?

You’re asking a question that thoughtful people of faith have wrestled with throughout the centuries: What ultimately determines whether a person is saved, God’s sovereign choice of them, or their response to God?

I believe that this is one of those mysteries of our faith that we must respond to by embracing both sides of a paradox.  If we let go of either side, we lose something essential.

We need to hold onto the idea that our salvation is entirely the work of God, because none of us human beings can save ourselves.  This principle would extend even to the act of choice:  we are not even capable of choosing to be saved because of the deeply imprinted effects of sin on all areas of our being, including the will.  So God must choose us.

However, we must also hold onto the idea that we are morally responsible in some way to respond to the overtures that God makes towards us, that is, to the gracious influences that God brings into our lives to lead us to salvation.  Our inability to save ourselves does not absolve us of the responsibility to seek salvation and to accept it when it is offered.

I believe that the Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility—sometimes in the same breath!  For example, Peter told the crowds in his Pentecost sermon, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [divine sovereignty], you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [human moral responsibility].”

So we need to embrace both sides of the paradox to have a full understanding of where our salvation comes from.

It’s been said that as you walk towards the gates of heaven, you see written above them, “Whosoever will to the Lord may come.”  But after you walk through the gates, you look back and see written above them, “Chosen from the foundation of the world.”  I think that about sums it up.

Doesn’t the Bible teach election based on God’s foreknowledge?

Q. Doesn’t 1 Peter 1:2 teach that election is based on foreknowledge? Then why do people preach otherwise? Isn’t it very wrong to do so?

I believe that God’s sovereign choice in election and our morally accountable response to God are two sides of a mystery or paradox, and that we need to hold to both sides at once in order to be faithful to the full counsel of God in the Scriptures.

It’s true that there are statements in the Bible that seem to say that people are saved essentially because God has chosen them in election.  For example, Luke describes in the book of Acts how Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, and he describes the response to their proclamation this way:  “All who were appointed for eternal life believed.”

But other statements in the Bible make it appear that salvation depends on our response to God.  When Jesus is speaking of the resurrection in the gospel of John, for example, he says, “Those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”

Some statements even seem to have no problem proclaiming divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility in the same breath.  Peter says in his message on the day of Pentecost, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

So I don’t think it’s wrong to preach and teach that the principle of human moral responsibility complements the principle of divine sovereignty in a well-rounded understanding of the Bible.

As for the particular passage you asked about, it’s interesting to me that what Peter says we have been chosen for is not salvation, but sanctification.  He writes to those “who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.”  In the same way Paul says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  And I understand the foreknowledge here as relational knowledge (in a sense, God has been in a relationship with us since eternity past), not an advance knowledge of what choice a person will make.  I don’t think that is predetermined.  (See this post for a longer discussion of God’s foreknowledge in connection with a different question.)

So election based on foreknowledge is only part of the story, and it’s not wrong to bring out the other parts of the story.

Why did God create Satan?

Q. Did God really know that Satan would rebel?  Why would such a monster be allowed to live?  I just don’t think He would have let Satan near His other angels, or more importantly, near His earthly creation.  I love my children, and if someone threatened them in any way I would do anything in my power to stop it. Satan went after Adam, and ever since then he’s been messing with people’s chances for salvation. God’s judgement was harsh on the enemies of the Israelites. Satan was and is much more wicked. Why hasn’t he been annihilated long ago?  Is God really more powerful?

It’s difficult for us to reconcile the belief that God supremely loves his creatures with the thought that God created a monster that he knew would wreak horrible and eternal devastation among them.

So how do we explain the creation and continuing existence of Satan?  Is God not all-knowing?  (He didn’t realize Satan would rebel?)  Or is God not all-powerful?  (He thought he could stop Satan but then wasn’t able to?)  Or is God simply not all-good?  (He doesn’t care whether his creatures are destroyed?)

I think the solution to this problem lies in appreciating the radical nature of the freedom that God has endowed each of His intelligent creatures with.  It’s hard for us to understand this because we are created and finite, but an eternal and infinite God can make creatures who are so free that their moral choices are not predetermined and so cannot be known in advance.

But isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and know everything, even the choices that we’re going to make?  No, it is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.  And the freedom God has given us is so radical and profound that the essential moral choices we will make cannot be known in advance.

Perhaps an illustration will help.  The question of how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good at the same time, and still allow Satan to exist, is comparable to another question that has often been asked about God:  If God is omnipotent, can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it?

The answer is “No.”  Not because God isn’t omnipotent and therefore can’t either make the rock or move the rock.  The answer is no because the contemplated action involves a logical contradiction and is therefore impossible, and it is no failure in omnipotence not to be able to do the impossible.

The logical contradiction is this:  Any created thing is by definition finite, including the largest rock God could possibly make.  A rock so big that God’s infinite power couldn’t move it would have to be of infinite mass instead.  But nothing can be both finite (created) and infinite at the same time.  This question is ultimately asking whether God can do the logically impossible (make something that’s “A” and “not-A” at the same time), and that’s something that by definition can’t be done.  (I’m not talking about miracles here; God can do what is naturally impossible and beyond the scope of any earthly power.)

It’s a similar logical contradiction to ask whether God can know in advance what choice a truly free moral agent will make.  Can God know what cannot be known?  No, no one can.

The implications of this are that when God created the great angel Lucifer, who became Satan when he chose to disobey, God didn’t know for a fact in advance that Lucifer would fall.  God’s intentions in creating Lucifer were not to turn a monster loose on his creation.  Rather, God intended Lucifer to be an agent of good and blessing just like the archangels Michael and Gabriel, who throughout the Bible are recognized, in glimpses at least, as powerful agents of God’s salvation.

Imagine what good Lucifer could have done if he had used all of his splendor, intelligence, and might to serve God’s purposes in the creation!  Imagine what any evil person could have done if they had used their powers in a positive way, and you’ll get a sense of what God had in mind when he created them.

Perhaps one question still remains:  Why would God give his creatures freedom if the consequences of bad choices would be so devastating?  Here’s the best way I’ve been able to understand this:  God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world in which there is freedom, and thus the potential for both love and suffering, is infinitely better than a world that has no freedom, and thus neither love nor suffering, and God also knows that these are the only two possibilities.

Anything beyond this is mystery.  But we don’t need to wonder about the goodness and power of God.

This post has generated a great deal of conversation.  For an exchange with a reader about this post, see this follow-up

For responses to the questions asked in the comment below about why a loving father would allow anything evil to tempt his daughter, see this post, and about whether God is so different in His dealings with us today as to be almost a different God from the one in the Bible, see this post.

For an answer to the question asked in another comment below about whether God knows in advance what choices the Antichrist will make, see this post.

Angel GlasgowThis photograph of an angel sculpture from a church in Glasgow suggests the beauty, power, and potential for good that Lucifer had when he was originally created. (Photo by Norma Desmond)

Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 3)

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 looked at the statement from the book of Joshua.  In my next post I considered the one from the book of John, which was actually a quotation from Isaiah.  In this final post I will share some reflections about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Benjamin West, "Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh"
Benjamin West, “Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh”

It’s often observed, quite accurately, that Pharaoh actually hardens his own heart after each of the first five plagues (as well as the seventh), and it’s only after that, as if to confirm Pharaoh in a course of action he’s already chosen, that the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart after the sixth, eighth, and ninth plagues.

However, this interpretation does not take into account sufficiently God’s statement to Moses about Pharaoh before any of the plagues started, before Moses even returned to Egypt: “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”  This makes it sound as if God’s action of hardening was prior to Pharaoh’s choice to harden his own heart.

But I think we need to go back even earlier than that.  The basic question over the course of the plagues is whether Pharaoh will “recognize” Yahweh (in the diplomatic sense).  Pharaoh tells Moses, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go”–“know” in the sense of “recognize,” “acknowledge.”  To Pharaoh Yahweh is just a desert deity who has no business trying to make demands of the ruler of the civilized world!

This is why God tells Moses even earlier, at the burning bush, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” Pharaoh lived in a might-makes-right world, and since he had the might, he was used to being right.  That was why he allowed himself to oppress people like the Israelites so severely.  In other words, it’s the character of Pharaoh, as a merciless, despotic ruler, that starts the whole chain of events in which Yahweh is required to demonstrate his might in order to free his captive people.  Through the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (which didn’t require much divine intervention to start with), Yahweh is effectively saying, “If you insist on a demonstration of power, I’m going to make sure you get a real one.”

We may still be uncomfortable, justifiably, at the way so many Egyptians suffer from the plagues, particularly at the way the firstborn of Egypt are all killed in the last plague.  But we can’t overlook the way countless Israelites also suffered and died in Egyptian slavery over the preceding centuries.  Pharaoh’s actions, one way or another, were bound to affect a lot of people because he had so much power.  The world is a tightly interconnected web of relationships and God can’t deal with one person without this necessarily affecting other people.  So while we can and should be distressed at the way the Egyptians suffered, we should also ask ourselves whether other people are being positively influenced by our own cooperation with God or rather negatively affected by our resistance to God.