Why does God harden peoples’ hearts?

Question:

I was reading my Bible this morning and I wanted to ask a questions regarding what I read.  I read in Joshua and it was talking about how God said he would harden peoples’ hearts….  As Joshua was going to fight them. Why does God harden or allow peoples’ heart to harden?  In the devotional I read it said He hardens our hearts so that he can glorify Himself and bring benefit to others…..what does that mean?   Thanks

Answer:

I have answered questions like this a few times at my web site (www.evidenceforchristianity.org), so I am copying and pasting the Q and As below. Please let me know if this is not sufficient.

God only “hardens” the hearts of those who have already willfully turned their back on him and rebelled against him. He does so as an example to others–those who might still repent. In a couple of cases of history, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh or Judas, but he did so because he had predestined a particular event which led to our salvation. Even when he predestines a situation, such as that with Pharaoh and Judas, he does so for the sake of all of us and he left both Pharaoh and Judas free to repent.

John Oakes

earler Q & A’s are below:

Was Judas destined to betray Jesus? If so, in what sense is God just in this case?

Question:

About Judas , it seems that he was destined to betray Jesus? If so, then

it seems that God isn’t just. Please correct me if I am wrong. It seems

that God caused Judas to betray Jesus so the scriptures would be

fulfilled. What do you think about this?

Answer:

You raise one of the most difficult theological questions one can ask. I

believe there is no easy answer to this question. The general issue

raised by your question is what appears to be a contradiction between two

aspects of the character of God.

1. Although the term free will is not mentioned in the Bible, it certainly

seems that God gives us free choice to follow him or not. God holds us

accountable for what we do with that freedom.

2. It is clear that God intervenes in the world through the lives of human

beings to carry out his soveriegn will.

There are a number of examples of the second aspect of the nature of God.

The situation with Judas is certainly one of these. In Zechariah 11:12

one can find a clear prophecy that God would be “priced” at thirty pieces

of silver. Clearly, God knew long beforehand that Judas would betray

Jesus into the hands of his enemies. If God knows we will do something

bad ahead of time and does not stop us, is he not responsible for the evil

we do? Actually, there is a seemingly even more troubling question. It

would appear that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was at least in some sense

caused by God. Jesus even said to Judas, “what you do, do quickly.” (John

13:27). Immediately after that, Satan entered into Judas. In this case,

it appears that God somehow prompted Judas to do an evil thing so that

something better, ie. the death of Jesus for our sins would result.

The case that God will harden a person’s heart for his own reasons is put

forcefully in Romans chapter nine. Here, Paul puts the following words in

God’s mouth; “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is

formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not

the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some

pottery for noble and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20,21). Perhaps

even more striking is the statement in the same chapter, “What then shall

we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have

mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have

compassion.” It does not, therefore depend on man’s desire or effort, but

on God’s mercy. For the 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. (Romans

9:14-18)

When we read this passage it certainly can appear that God is pushing

people around and that he is being unjust. Yet God makes it plain that he

is just. How are we to find agreement between the idea of free will and

God’s soveriegn power?

I have thought about this apparent conflict quite a bit. Please let me

express my opinion about this, and let you come to your own conclusions.

First of all, I do believe in free will. There are many passages in the

Bible which clearly lay out that God gives us a choice. Deuteronomy

30:19,20 makes this case. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses

against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and

curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that

you man love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to

him.” As another clear example of ultimate choice on the part of humans in

their relationship with God, I would mention Joshua 24:15, “But if serving

the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day

whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the

River, or the gods of the Amorites,?” Jesus clearly believed in “free

will,” even if he did not use that philosophical term. “If anyone would

come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow

me.” (Luke 9:24). And consider John 7:17, “If anyone chooses to do God?s

will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I

speak on my own.” Evidently, God has a particular will for our lives, but

also evidently, he allows us to choose to accept that will or to reject

it. Dozens of passages which clearly teach at least the idea of free will

could be mentioned.

So how are we to understand free will and God’s soveriegnty? Let me make

two points about this. First of all, God exists outside time. He knows

past, present and future. He knows the end before the beginning.

Therefore, when God prophesies the future, that does not necessarily mean

that he is forcing it to happen in the sense that it would seem to us.

When God prophesied that Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of

silver, that does not necessarily mean that he forced the events, because

God is not effected by time as we are. Second, it is my opinion that God

will intervene in individual’s life so that his will is carried out, but

he does not arbitrarily choose people to go to heaven or hell. Consider

Judas. God may have used the fact that Judas’ heart was turned toward

greed as part of his plan to fulfill prophecy and for Jesus to die for our

sins. I believe, however, that Judas was ultimately given a choice by

God. He could have repented after betraying Jesus. Peter betrayed

Jesus. He could have ended up with as tragic a fate as Judas, but he

repented. Judas chose to take money from the money bag. He chose to

conceal his sin. It may very well be true that God manipulated the events

to acheive his soveriegn will, but I see no proof that Judas’ ultimate

free will was violated.

Many other examples could be mentioned. Romans nine has God challenging

us to say who are we to talk back to God? That is a good point. If we

try to challeng God on his justice, he does not have a lot of patience

about that. This may explain the tone of the passage. God is just. God

is loving. Who are we to question him? Yet, even in the case of Pharaoh,

I believe that God did indeed “harden his heart.” God set about a series

of events which led to the Pharaoh’s choice to not only let Israel go into

the desert to worship. Pharaoh’s heart was so hardened that he finally

sent Israel away entirely. Yes, I see God intervening here. I see God

exercising his will over Pharaoh in order to bring about the prophetic

events of the Passover. However, I would hold out that even Pharaoh had

the choice to soften his heart. He could have repented, even after

letting God’s people go. He could have humbled himself and been “saved”

from his sin.

My conclusion is that God will intervene in history and in human lives to

bring about his greater will. I trust God, although I cannot absolutely

prove it, that he is just–that he may remove our completely free will in

order to bring about the greater good, but that even when he intervenes in

history and individual lives, he still gives each of us the ultimate

freedom to choose to serve him or to serve Satan. For you or me, this

would be too much power. It would be a responsibility we could not bear.

But God is great. He claims to be just and the one who justifies him who

has faith in Jesus. God is sovereign over the nation, yet somehow he

still gives each of us a choice to serve him or not. That, at least, is

how I see it.

John Oakes

Joanne

How is the teaching about God hardening our heart consistent with the teaching that we can repent and be restored?

Question:

I don’t understand the whole “hardening your heart” idea in the Bible. For example in Hebrews 6:4-7, is the situation that the person can try to repent and cannot be restored or is it because their heart is hardened so they won’t repent or turn to God? The Bible says that He will always forgive us when we turn to Him, so is it that when He takes His Holy spirit from us, it’s because He knows that we won’t turn to Him anyways?

Answer:

From the way you word this question, I get the impression you have a pretty good handle on the question already. I have learned a general principle in my Bible study. When I find two Bible teachings/statements which appear at first glance to be in contradiction, this is my experience. First of all, the contradiction is always only apparent–not real. Second, when I come to an understanding how both teachings work together, then I gain a new and deeper insight into God.

This applies in the present question. God is loving and he is just. Because of his love for us, God gave us “free will.” With that free will comes both the opportunity to do right and to do evil. Through the blood of Jesus, God’s love for us and God’s justice can be satisfied at the same time (Romans 3:21-26). Like you say, if anyone repents, God is waiting and ready to offer forgiveness. However, the Bible teaches in many places, but especially in Hebrews, that one can get into a position that it is literally too late. Our decision to turn our back on God–to thumb our noses at his love for us, can cause us to be in such a bad spiritual situation that it becomes literally impossible for us to repent. This state is described in more than one place in the Bible as God hardening our heart. One example is in Hebrews 12:14-17. The Hebrew writer tell us that Essau found himself, because of his bitterness, in a place from which it was impossible for him to repent, even if he wanted to. For a person who has become a Christian and willfully returns to a full blown life of sin, eventually, “no sacrifice for sin is left.” (Hebrews 10:26-31). As you seem to imply in your question, when one falls away in this biblical sense, the Holy Spirit will abandon such a person, removing their “deposit” of salvation. The way Peter puts it, those who turn their back after being saved are worse off than they were at first. They are like a dog returning to its vomit (2 Peter 2:20-22). For such a person, it is impossible for them to be renewed to repentance (Hebrews 6:4-7).

This teaching certainly does not contradict the Bible concept already mentioned earlier, which is that if anyone repents and turns to God, he will respond to that repentance by being willing to forgive our sins. It is just that for some people, their heart can become so hardened that God judges them while still in the body. God “hardens their heart” so that they can no longer repent.

John Oakes, PhD

What is the significance of God using the firstborn son in Exodus 4:21-23, and how is this connected with Jesus? Also, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart and then blame Pharaoh?

Question:

I was reading chapter 4 of Exodus this morning and a few things confused me. I am hoping that you can explain them or direct me to the answers. 1. (v 21-23) The LORD references Israel being his firstborn son. I’ve never noticed this before. Are there other references in the OT like this? What then are the connections and implications of that relationship to Jesus? 2. (v 21-23) Why did the LORD harden Pharaoh’s heart then treat Pharaoh as if it was his own choice? if it ment that in the end he would have to kill all of the first born sons? 3. Verses 24-26 surprised me and confused me. I had to read it three times. Would you be able to give an explanation to the senario?

Thanks!

Answer:

Yes, there are many references to being a firstborn son. This is a theme throughout the Bible. First some background. In Mesopotamian culture, when a father had many sons, it was his first born who inherited a double portion of the inheritance, and, more importantly, became the patriarch of the family. An important example of this is in Genesis. Esau was the firstborn son. He and Jacob were twins, but Esau was born first. However, he sold his birthright as firstborn son for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:27-34). Later on, Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing (Genesis 27). The “blessing” he stole from Esau was the blessing normally given to the first born son–in otherwords he became the inheritor of both the double portion (Gen 25) and the place as head of the family. The importance for the biblical story of this is that the inheriting the “blessing” of Abraham and Isaac meant that this person was to be the one through whom the Messiah will come.

Israel was also, spiritually, the “firstborn son” of God. Israel was his chosen people. They received “the blessing.” They are the ones through whom and to whom God sent the Messiah. This is the meaning of Exodus 4:21-23.

For your information, and as evidence that the concept of firstborn is important, the word “firstborn” appears in the English Bible more than 120 times.

The idea of the firstborn son is applied to Jesus in the New Testament. In both Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, Jesus is called the firstborn from the dead. We would have to understand the Jewish concept, as described above, to understand this very Jewish way of saying something. What Paul and John are saying is that Jesus is the preeminent among those who will be raised from the dead. He is the inheritor, the one who receives the blessing and the most important of all those who are or will be resurrected. Colossians had Jesus also described as “firstborn over all creation.” Again, this means that he is the preeminent one–the inheritor–or all creation.

I answer the question about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart at my web site. You should do a search of the word Pharaoh. This can be confusing, as it seems that for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart is to violate his free will. A passage which can be helpful for understanding what happened with Pharaoh is Romans 9:6-25. Here God says to the Jews who challenged him for letting Gentiles be saved, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God” (v. 20). God says that he will harden who he will harden (v. 18). Here is what I believe is going on with God’s plan and Pharaoh. God gives us free will, but he is at the same time, sovereign. What he wills to happen will happen. The hardening of the heart of Pharaoh led to the Passover, which was a wonderful prefigure to our salvation by our “Passover Lamb” Jesus. The entire situation of the Jews being in slavery and freed by Moses (who is a prefigure of Christ) was planned by God to be a picture of our salvation and freedom from spiritual slavery by the work of the New Moses (ie. Jesus). What I have discovered in scripture is that any historical event which was reqired to prepare the way or to create a prefigure of Jesus, God was willing to step in and to cause these things to happen. I also believe that God only does such things for a very good reason. I also believe that, even though God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring about his will to free his people, he did not, ultimately, steal Pharaoh’s free will. Pharaoh could have repented if he wanted to. I believe he nearly did. God is so wise that he can both work his sovereign will and still leave us with free will.

Now, it is true that Pharaoh did in fact refuse to let Israel go. I believe that God used a trait in Pharaoh that he already had. It is similar to Judas. Judas chose to take money from the purse. He had already betrayed Jesus in his heart. When God “hardened” Judas’ heart, it was something he had already done of his own accord. I assume that something similar was the case with Pharaoh.

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