Monday, January 25, 2010

God’s Sovereign Decision to “Harden Hearts”

This is certainly not a full treatment on the subject; of course, I don’t imagine anyone could ever accuse me of writing a full treatment on anything, especially not this. These were just passing thoughts as I was reading Joshua 11, and I recorded them mainly for the sake that I would not lose them. I share in case anyone is interested.

The Lord’s decision to harden the hearts of certain figures throughout the biblical history, most notably that of Pharaoh, has perplexed some and led others to come to less than reasonable conclusions. Some of these conclusions were, of course, based on the already established hermeneutic of the theologian reading the text. In short, some have used these examples as proofs that human existence is (pre)determined (if only as secondary proofs).

Consequently, the determinist continues to suggest that life is so determined that even our “choice” of accepting Christ’s gift of salvation has already been decided, with no concern to the heart of the individual. Indeed, the Lord’s sovereignty is demonstrated in His ability to “harden hearts.” And no matter how much one might try to stretch the text, there is no denying that God does, in fact, determine His desired outcome in these instances. However, do these instances in the biblical text give warrant to some using them to support such a radical claim as predestination, as defined by the determinists?

Read the following accounts for reference: Joshua 11:19-20, Exodus 14:17, Exodus 4:21. You may wish to read the whole account in each of these cases for fuller understanding.

In these stories, God is using evil men, men who do not serve Him, to fulfill His will. In each instance, it seems that the person the Lord uses could have chosen another path for the sake of self-preservation, allowing Israel to do as it pleased. However, the decision to do so would not come from a moral desire to help Israel. Instead, it would only serve to protect them, an already evil people. It does not seem that these men were kept from choosing the good. For example, even if Pharaoh had decided to release the Israelites without further protest, he would not have been choosing to do the “good” thing. The only true good humans can do comes from following the will of the Lord. Pharaoh, the Egyptians, nor the Kings of the cities of Joshua’s conquest were kept from choosing the good. If they had wanted to serve the Lord, the story might be different. Instead, God’s will required a certain outcome, and if these rulers had chosen self-preservation and God had not intervened, His ultimate will would have been defied.

The Lord’s decision to intervene in these instances in no way interferes with the doctrine of free will. Those who hold that God gave humanity free will as an expression of His image have never suggested that this free will does not have its limits. In fact, true freedom comes in following His will for our lives. However, we are capable of choosing our own will over His will for us to a certain degree, the degree to which He allows us (thus insuring His sovereignty is not brought into question. This is known as God's permissive will.). For example, we can choose not to follow Him, which is the sad choice of damnation. However, God has an Ultimate will that cannot be transgressed by humanity. For those who are followers, we do not have to worry that God will harden our hearts, for followers of God are followers of His will, and “heart hardening,” as we see in the text, is a power used to keep evil men inside the confines God has chosen for humanity and not an expression of total determinism.

So do the episodes of God’s hardening hearts have any correlation to predestination? In each instance, God uses evil men for His own good. From this, there seems no reason to make a connection of God causing men to perform evil tasks against their will. Their will was already set on evil. Furthermore, if a person wanted to suggest this was an example of God forcing man to do evil and this was an example that could be used to demonstrate predestination, it seems quite one sided. There is no evidence of God forcing men to become good (the closest event to this being Paul’s conversion, and even here Paul does not seem to become possessed and forced to choose good).

As stated above, God does not keep evil men from changing their hearts to choose good, to choose Him. Just as with many other instances in the OT, these men had chosen evil lives and at this point in the story judgment is passed upon them. God only keeps them from escaping their judgment for motives of self-preservation. In fact, there is no suggestion of these men ever wanting to choose good. He only keeps their hearts on a course they had already chosen (and I cannot stress enough the fact that if they had chosen the alternative from which God was preventing, they still would not have chosen good, only self-preservation).

In point-of-fact, to suggest God had to harden their hearts to perform certain tasks indicates that they necessarily had freewill. Thus, “heart hardening” is a rare occurrence to prevent the freewill of humanity to interfere in God’s ultimate will. God had chosen for certain events to pass for the sake of Israel, and He would not allow evil humanity to stand in His way.

In conclusion, although there is certainly a certain level of determinism for certain moments in certain figures in the Bible (however, note that their prior choices led to this point of determinism, and there is even textual reference to the person himself hardening his own heart along with God doing the hardening: See Exodus 8:15. Thus the judgment passed is related to the choices of man and God, not God alone), there seems to be no correlation between these events and the determinist view of predestination. God does not make these evil men evil; He only uses them for His good. There is no prevention of these evil men to choose Him as Lord, no forcing them away from salvation; however, their evil does seem to cause the Lord to finally pass judgment upon them as they fall under His might and Israel’s sword. The fact that God hardens hearts suggests prior free will ability, and the explicit mentioning of these few cases shows this intervention as selective and rare. Theologically, these verses do demonstrate the mighty sovereignty of the Lord by demonstrating His power, even over free willed humanity. Thus, no theologian can ever claim that freewill is an infringement upon His sovereignty, for He can take it away in an instant, just as He can with any other gift He gives.