Challenge #7: God Hardens Hearts vs People Harden Their Own Hearts
Who is ultimately responsible for a hard heart that rejects God, despises His will, and seeks harm for God’s people? This paradox is usually tangled with within Christianity. We Christians are rightly curious about the scope of God’s sovereignty. There is also a heavy philosophical question on our minds about whether we are really in control of what goes on in our lives.
As we read the account of the Pharaoh just before the Exodus, we can get the impression that the human agent is not the one in control. It seems clear that it was God who was responsible for the hardening. For some reason this does this not settle well with us. Is it because of pride and a lust for power? Or is there something innate in humans that convinces us that we are creatures that freely act. I want to look at these verses and verses that might provide additional insights.
On the question of free will and agency, theism really holds all the marbles. Without going too in depth, atheism can offer no solid explanation for the belief that humans have the ability to act freely. In atheism, programming, wiring, DNA, and signal response would account for every choice and action. This is what atheism is left with since these are the non-supernatural agents that atheism could involve as an explanation. It would be an honest position for each side to take to conclude that we can only derive attributes from already existing characteristics. Yet atheist and theists alike will conclude from experience that free will and thought exists in the human mind. For the atheist, non-will must have somehow resulted in will. For the Christian, free will resulted from a necessarily existent Being Who has the ability to act on it.
Denying free will has proven to be unsatisfying and self-defeating. Anyone that denies free will spends their efforts trying to convince others that they should deny free will. They assume that it is a good conclusion to come to even though they had no cognitive assent in the matter. Arguing for free will is the only consistent position to stand on. On the other hand, belief in total human will has a way of being unsatisfying also. We can’t help but believe that the things we desire and do are a part of a greater purpose.
Knowing this, how are we to take what the Bible says about the hardening of a heart? Of the 42 references to hard hearts, 18 of them refer to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (one other refers to the hardening of Pharaoh’s army). The word harden literally means “made strong,” which makes it sound like Pharaoh had a great deal of self-confidence and feelings of invincibility. That may be deriving too much from the literal wording, but I think it is consistent with Pharaoh’s attitude.
We don’t know exactly how responsible and guilty Pharaoh was over this; but we do know that Pharaoh was at least a participant in having a rigid heart. Some lighten the text by saying that Pharaoh had a hard heart, therefore God allowed it to be hardened more. I don’t think that does the text justice. The first few mentions say that God would harden, and not that Pharaoh had already hardened, his heart. God’s intent was always to show His power through Pharaoh through the hardening of his heart.**
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart brought about some of the purposes that God was intending to accomplish. It appears that, in this situation, God was wanting it to be a great challenge. It brought vulnerability and desperation out of Israel. It gave them something to remember for the rest of their history. God was doing something significant, so it wasn’t going to be a breeze. God’s glory was more evident as Pharaoh’s heart got harder. Sometimes God softens a heart the most by hardening it first (there’s a whole long lesson wrapped in that idea).
Moving on to get an overview of what the rest of the Bible contributes to this teaching. The rest of the Old Testament has 3 occurrences of God hardening hearts and 5 occurrences of man being responsible for their own hardening. The New Testament has 4 occurrences of God hardening hearts and 6 occurrences of people hardening their own hearts. 2 additional verses are very unclear, which could provide the best hint to the complete meaning of this paradox.
Again, I call these things paradoxical while others may prefer to call them a contradiction. I say paradox because a contradiction implies that both things could not be at work. So I ask, is it possible that God hardens hearts and man hardens hearts? Certainly. This is possible in two ways. First, God may only chose to harden (or soften) certain hearts, leaving others fully responsible for their own hardening. Second, God could do some of the hardening and man can add to it through his own will, or vice versa.
Romans 1 gives indication of this. Many people are marked as unrighteous and ungodly as they suppress the truth (verse 18). Their ideas were meaningless and their hearts were darkened (verse 21). Then in verses 24, 26 and 28 God is said to give them over. He gave them over to the lusts and impurity they were craving and driving toward. He gave them over to the degrading passions of homosexuality. He gave them over to a depraved, messed up mind to desire things that are twisted and wrong. And in this cluster of verses I believe we find the more full truth of the paradox. People drive their feet toward actions and thoughts that harden their hearts. God holds them back from becoming more hardened until the time that he sees proper. If He lets up, people’s feet drive them forward into a deeper hardening of the heart. Therefore, we are fully responsible while God is also capable of adding or taking away from the hardening.
Romans 9:18 is the central challenge. Paul was well-aware of the philosophical challenge posed through him to God. Maybe he had heard the challenge before: “Hey, if God turns people away, then why does He still blame them for turning away from Him?” Paul gave them an intensely reverent response: “Excuse me!? Who are you to accuse God of doing wrong?” He seems to be implying (as in 9:14), “Do you really think that God is going to judge any of you unfairly?” Along with this comes a necessary and humbling acknowledgement that God has complete rights to do whatever he sees fit for each person.
There is a bigger context to what Paul is explaining through this chapter that reveals what God intention was all along. Hardening and showing mercy was something that resulted in God’s glory and (presumably?) the benefit to the most nations. Remember, God is willing to go to great (human) lengths to reveal something significant about His true nature. Israel strayed from God over and over, and God always brought them back and remained faithful to everything He promised them. Israel’s rebellion highlighted God’s goodness, faithfulness, mercy, and justice. For a time, people must have wondered why God would cause, or allow, for the hearts of the Israelites to be hardened. But their rebellion led to the inclusion of the non-Hebrew nations (this can raise more questions, but serves well as an example). Then, in Romans 9, Paul is telling the very non-Hebrew Romans that they are included in the chosen nation of people. God had predestined the likes of them to inherit the blessings that were reserved for the original chosen people. But, as Jesus came and fulfilled the mission of Israel for them, Israel became the totality of people in Jesus, the true Israel.
To summarize the paradox and the biblical lesson within it: There is something that I believe we need to ask of the Pharaoh situation. Was this a unique situation or is God always doing this? God had apparently a unique and particular hardening of a heart to do. God is free to do this whenever He pleases, because we are His workmanship. At the same time, we, in our natural fallen nature, have a constant propensity to sin. We are fully capable to have hard hearts even without God specifically roughing it up. God will often restrict our rebellion, resulting in a softer heart. At other times, God will respond to our rebellion by bringing it to its apex by giving us over to our animosity against Him. God asks for a humble heart from us. Therefore we are also responsible to respond to Him appropriately so that we may receive mercy rather than harsh discipline or hardening, becoming stubborn.*
*”Harden” also seems to be a word synonymous with discipline, or making things difficult.
**There are some that believe that the Hebrew understanding of the verb tense of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart indicates Pharaoh’s participation of having a hard heart. In this case, God would be allowing Pharaoh’s heart to be hard and disciplining him accordingly. God choosing not to soften a heart that he could have softened has practically the same results as Him actually hardening a heart. But it’s important to remember that God is not responsible for anyone’s sin, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. He does release His influence, which leads the person into self-striving and sin.