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.

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.

Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 1)

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. 

Thank you for these excellent questions.  I’ll take some time to answer them.  In this post I’ll talk about the reference in Joshua to God hardening hearts and showing no mercy.  In my next post I’ll take up the passage you cite from John.  And in a final post I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

The question of people and nations being hardened, so that they are destroyed rather than saved, comes up several times (quite understandably) in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.  As I tell groups when they first read through Joshua, “This aspect of the book . . . creates one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.” So let me begin answering your question by sharing what I say about it in the Joshua study guide.  I’ll take up the passages you cite from John and Exodus in subsequent posts.

In Session 4 of the guide, when groups consider the destruction of the city of Jericho, when no one is spared except Rahab and her family, I offer these observations:

Esteban March, "Joshua at the Walls of Jericho"
Esteban March, “Joshua at the Walls of Jericho”

“The Bible sometimes describes judgments of total destruction like this, but at other times God’s judgments are limited and tempered by mercy.  The challenge for readers of the Bible is to determine which kinds of episodes are normative and which ones are exceptional, and why those occurred.

Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.

Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are exceptional.  So why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?

“This is a question that thoughtful interpreters have offered different answers to, but here is one possibility to consider.  It may be that God had determined that Canaanite society had become so corrupt that it couldn’t be redeemed.  This society was particularly violent, oppressive, and degraded.  . . .  If this society was never going to change, then it had to answer the demands of justice.  Moreover, if the Israelites imitated the Canaanites, they’d rapidly be corrupted themselves.  So their influence had to be removed completely.

As God had earlier used flood and fire to purge away irredeemably wicked societies from the earth, now God chose to use the Israelite armies for this purpose.  This was not an ordinary war; these armies were on special assignment as agents of divine judgment.  This is why, in the case of the opening battle of Jericho, the soldiers weren’t allowed to take any plunder.”

I then invite groups to interact with these comments, to say whether they think they might be on the right track, even if they don’t completely agree with them, or whether they’d account for episodes like this one in some other way.

Then, in Session 7, groups take up the part of Joshua that summarizes the conquest of the nations living in Canaan. There we find the statement that you asked about:  “It was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.”  When we read this statement on its own, it does sound as if God wanted all the Canaanites to perish, in direct contradiction to what Peter writes.  But we need to understand this statement in its context.  I suggest the following in the Joshua study guide:

“The author’s primary concern here is to document that Joshua faithfully carried out what ‘the LORD commanded Moses.’  Canaanite culture was so corrupt and oppressive that God didn’t want it to supply any part of the model on which the new Israelite society would be built.  But this meant that Canaanite influence had to be completely eliminated.

So God led the Canaanites ‘to wage war against Israel so that he’—Joshua—’might destroy them totally . . . as the LORD had commanded Moses.’  The fundamental goal is the complete removal of the corrupting Canaanite influence, so that a new society can be built on God’s laws, as a model for the rest of the world.  Everything else–the hardening, the war, and the destruction–follows from that.”

If this is the case, then paradoxically the indirect but ultimate goal here is to make it possible for people to follow God, not to prevent them from doing so.  And so, as I observe further:

“If the ultimate goal is to make it possible for the Israelites to model God’s ways for the rest of the world, then it’s consistent with that goal for some people outside Israel, at any point, to choose in favor of God.  But this means that the hardening must have been general, on the Canaanites as a whole, and not specific, in each one of their individual hearts.  (The text uses the collective singular: ‘It was from the LORD to harden their heart.’)  To seek the God of Israel, an individual person or city would have to make a choice contrary to what everyone around them wanted to do.  In this culture of corporate identity, this would not have been easy.  But as the cases of Rahab and the Gibeonites show, it wasn’t impossible.”

Indeed, if we understand the episodes of total destruction in the book of Joshua by analogy to the judgment of the flood, then only the earthly destiny of the Canaanites was at stake, not their eternal destiny.  In an earlier post I’ve explored the biblical statement (also by Peter) that Jesus went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who perished “in the days of Noah.”  This is only speculative, I must emphasize, but it’s possible that the spirits of those who perished “in the days of Joshua” might also have been “imprisoned,” awaiting a proclamation of the gospel that they could understand from Jesus himself.

Do people choose or refuse to believe, or does God choose who is saved?

As my small group was using the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, a question came up in 2 Thessalonians.  In one section, Paul says that some will perish “because they refused to love the truth.”  But in the very next section, he tells the Thessalonians, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved.” The first statement seems to place agency in the hands (and hearts and minds) of individuals, while the second one seems to imply God’s agency in determining who is saved. How do we reconcile ostensibly contradictory statements that are right next to each other?  What is the bigger picture we are missing?

This isn’t the only place in the Bible where God’s sovereignty and human moral responsibility are asserted in the very same place.  For example, Peter says about Jesus in his message on the day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

Image
Benjamin West, “St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost”

It seems to me that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two sides of a mystery or paradox that we today have much more difficulty reconciling and living with than the biblical authors did.  So how can we reach the place where we’re as comfortable with this paradox as they were?

I find it helpful to think about this by analogy to the understanding the community of Jesus’ followers eventually reached, after centuries of debate, about whether he was divine or human.  The answer was, “Both.”  The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed in AD 451 that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  That is, he was somehow 100% divine and 100% human at the same time, without it being possible to say which things he said and did as God and which things he said and did as a man, and without either nature getting in the way of the other.

We might say similarly that when a person is saved, this is the result of a process or action that is “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, after all, that when people “refuse to love the truth and so be saved,” “God sends them a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie.”  Divine and human agency working simultaneously—in this case, unfortunately negatively, but the same thing happens positively when a person is saved.

The practical takeaway is to acknowledge that we have a human moral responsibility to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation through the gospel, but also to acknowledge in all humility that our salvation is a work of God achieved only through the incarnation, life, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus.