A Christian openly living his or her faith will eventually be asked, “Why did God _______?” One such Christian asked AnOldSinner how to respond to a question he was asked by someone he described as a skeptic. In this case, the question was, “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” Before sharing my response, let’s spend a few minutes thinking about questions like this.
First, there are some who believe many questions are simply statements in disguise. One self-appointed expert on television with quite a following is fond of saying 80-85 percent of questions are statements in disguise. He is often criticized by more academic types, but there is reason to believe, in many instances, questions are statements in disguise.
A second point to consider is why the question is being asked. Take the case of a new Christian. Many new Christians, and many long time church goers, have little if any knowledge of the Old Testament. Therefore a question such as “Why didn’t God stop slavery” may be a legitimate question, and not the opening gambit in an objection to the basic idea of God.
Finally, as far as questions are concerned, what is the purpose of the question. One should always be aware the person asking the question may be interested in more than a direct answer. Consider the question above concerning Pharaoh.
The person asking the question is seeking information, even if his question is really a thinly veiled accusation against God. It is possible the questioner is seeking a substantive reply. It is also possible that is not the case. Rather, the person is likely attempting to gather information about the one being questioned.
How one responds to such a question helps the person asking the question in several ways. First, he, or she, will have a feeling for the respondent’s knowledge of the Bible. Second, he will gain some insight into the person’s level of faith, commitment, and ability to handle objections or challenges. In short, how one responds to such a question will tell the person asking the question a good deal about the Christian being questioned. Which brings us back to how one responds to questions such as the one posed above.
When asked how I would respond to the question about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, I had an immediate response. It is not one I recommend, as I will discuss later, but based on my own thoughts in this area it made sense. Also, it somewhat parallels God’s reasoning when He tells Moses He is hardening Pharaoh’s heart to show His power to the Egyptians, and so His story can be told to future generations of Israelites. (Exodus 10:1-2)
My response was He hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make a point and teach a lesson. I said God could have simply changed Pharaoh’s heart and commanded Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The problem is that would make us a race of puppets, not beings with free will. My answer made sense to my friend, but there could have been a problem if he had responded in that fashion to the person questioning him.
A more mature believer might accept, if not completely understand, that God was using the situation to teach a lesson. A nonbeliever or less mature believer might be appalled that God could be so cruel. In fact, at one time in AnOldSinner’s life I might have asked such a question, hoping someone would be foolish enough to answer that God was teaching mankind a lesson. You see, I would have been one of those people asking a question that was really a statement.
If I had asked the question about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, I would have been thinking you worship an evil god, if such a being actually exists. Additionally, I was fully prepared to dismantle any rationalization, explanation, or excuse for your god’s behavior that you made. Which brings us to the point of this piece.
Trying to answer a question such as why God hardened someone’s heart is usually a mistake. Certainly under some circumstances it isn’t a mistake, but in a conversation with a skeptic or atheist it probably is. It is likely a mistake for several reasons.
First, they are probably prepared for any answer you could make. Second, they are really not going to listen to your answer, as they are already formulating their reply to any answer you make. Third, it is likely you do not know their real reason for asking. It is possible they are really seeking understanding, they may simply be wanting to argue, or they may be trying to find out what kind of a religious nut you are.
Instead of answering their question, ask them one. For instance, I might say, “That is a great question. What makes you ask?” Another variation would be, “I’ve struggled with that question myself, do you have any thoughts on the matter?” The idea is to avoid being defensive or combative, and to get the other party to do the talking.1
I discussed this matter in more detail a few years ago in “A Defensive Position.” The bottom line is getting them to do the talking. As I was taught, and later taught my negotiation students, if you can keep the other party talking, he or she will tell you everything you need to know to settle the deal. Of course, you must be listening. If you are, you will discover the real reason they asked the question, and if there is any way to help them understand God’s Word.
In closing, it is important you have a response to their original question. You may not need it at that moment, but you may need it later. Accordingly, if AnOldSinner’s plan works out, my next piece will be an argument one can make in response to someone essentially accusing God of being evil or fostering evil.
1. The statements leading into the question in these examples are for rapport building purposes. If you don’t think it is a great question, or you’ve never struggled with that or some similar question, say something else. The idea is to build rapport, disarm, and encourage the other person to talk. Simply asking someone why they are asking the question might sound defensive or confrontational. If so, that ends any hope of a conversation.
© AnOldSinner – 2017