Thursday, June 22, 2017

IS GOD UNJUST? DOESN’T HE HARDEN AND DECEIVE?



There are several verses claiming that God does harden hearts, even, seemingly, to commit sin. Paul had written several verses that seem to indicate that God is unjust – hardening and deceiving certain people. Let’s look at them. Afterwards, we will try to answer each:

  •   2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. [see Ezekiel 14:9; Revelation 17:17]


2.    Romans 9:17-18 (ESV) For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” [quoting from Exodus 9:16] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

3.    Romans 11:7-10 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” [quoting from Isaiah 29:10; 6:9-10]  And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” [quoting from Psalm 69:22-23]

Let’s start with the first example. This one is relatively easy to explain. In this case, it is clear that God hadn’t deceived the innocent but rather those who were already practicing self-deception. They had refused to “believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” They had committed their lives to the darkness in favor of the light (John 3:19-20).

However, as Paul explained elsewhere, this is the result of a gradual process of rejecting the truth. Only after continually rejecting the light, God gives them over to the desires of their heart to believe those things they want to believe and do:

·       Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24-28)

There is no indication here that they were born with “dishonorable passions” or a “debased mind.” Instead, this corruption was the result of exchanging “the truth of God for a lie,” as Paul had claimed in 2 Thessalonians 2:10: “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

Also, Paul is explicit that when we suppress the truth about God (Romans 1:18), we are “without excuse”:

·       For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Instead, had we been born without the ability to choose God, we would have a perfect excuse for our rejection of God – “We just couldn’t have done otherwise, right!” However, when we fail to combat such reasoning, we mitigate sin and place the responsibility for our sin on the wrong party – God.

Admittedly, there are a number of verses that claim that we cannot come to God on our own. However, were we born with this inability, or did it result from our own choices?

This brings us to my second example – God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purposes through him. Again, God was not unjust? Rather, it seems that He gave Pharaoh just what he wanted.

Pharaoh wasn’t a mindless puppet in God’s hands. He too had been a willful, purposeful moral agent who had hardened his own heart:

·       But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:15)

·       Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. (Exodus 7:13-14)

While some verses indicate that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, others indicate that he had hardened his own heart. If we are going to understand the justice and righteousness of God, I think that we have to accept the oft-mentioned Biblical fact that God is able to direct us, even through our freewill choices, as some have correctly commented: “Hell is God giving us what we want.”

Our natural inclination is to conclude that it was either Pharaoh or God who had hardened his heart. Why not both? Perhaps our God is great enough to accomplish His plans through our freewill choices! There are many verses that indicate that both parties are morally responsible. While Paul claimed that he had worked harder than the others, he also claimed that whatever good had come out of his life was the result of the Spirit working through him:


·       But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Admittedly, this is a great mystery, but it is also the glory of God and the message of His Word. While Scripture is entirely “God-breathed” out (2 Timothy 3:16), unsurprisingly, it also reflects the humanity of its writers – their vocabulary, associations, feelings, and experiences.

Let’s now go to the final example:

·       And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” (Romans 11:10; Paul quoting from Psalm 69:22-23)

Why had David uttered such a damning curse on Israel? Because Israel had hardened their hearts and had given themselves over to rebellion! Immediately before these verses from Psalm 69, David had written:

·       You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink. (Psalm 69:19-21)

These were not innocent people. Rather, David had been cursing the very people who God already given over to the hardness of their own hearts because of their rebellion, as we had read in Romans 1. In light of this, David was merely asking God to give them the darkness that they had already chosen for themselves.

God’s justice requires understanding. If we neither understand human motives or God’s motives, how can we indict God’s justice? Nevertheless, we do.

Let’s look at one last verse that has often been quoted in the New Testament (Matthew 13:14-15; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-27):

·       And he [God] said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Were these Israelites born this way or did their rebellion make them this way? In each context where the Bible teaches about Israel’s inability to come to come, there is never a hint that this inability was the result of the Fall or God giving birth to a depraved Israel. Instead, we hear the opposite message – that God had given Israel everything they had needed:

·       …My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? (Isaiah 5:1-4)

Israel had accused God of many things. However, never once did they accuse God of not giving them the freedom or inclination to come to Him. Instead, Scripture is consistent in insisting that we must take total responsibility for our rebellion – that we are “without excuse.”

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