As promised, this piece will deal with the question, “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” For the purpose of clarity, it is important to remember Pharaoh’s is not the only heart that God hardened or allowed to be hardened. In fact, hearts are hardened to this very day, but discussion of those hearts must wait for another time.
In “Why Did God …?” I noted I quickly came up with a possible response to the question. I also noted that was likely not a good idea. Instead, I suggested asking the person to elaborate on his question or his underlying concerns. The point in trying to obtain more information from the questioner is twofold. First, it buys a little time for you to gather your thoughts, as long as you can gather your thoughts and listen. Second, the individual will, hopefully at least, provide information that will help you understand how to answer the question.
The last phrase above, understand how to answer the question, might give some the idea I am suggesting a tailored or weasel worded answer that skirts the truth. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, I am advising you to remember the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Which means, engaging in a heartfelt discourse with someone who simply wants to argue may not be the best use of one’s time and energy.
The truth is that God has the right to do or not do whatever he pleases. This is clearly expressed at the end of Exodus 33:19, when God tells Moses, I … “will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (ESV) Paul makes the same point in Romans 9:14-16. Making that claim to many believers would not go well, and to a skeptic it would simply be the same as pouring gasoline on a fire.1
It does not take much imagination to envision a response such as, “So, your god just treats people like ants, doing to them whatever he wants.” Unfortunately, that is a legitimate understanding of the translation to one who is a skeptic, new believer, a New Testament only believer, or mature Christian in a crisis of faith.2 To avoid suddenly being put on the defensive in that manner, avoid making such a take-it or leave-it answer.
For the record, my immediate response was not that confrontational. Still, it was not one I would have made to someone I did not know well or expected to be argumentative. At least it is not one I would have made if I had taken time to think about it. Essentially, my response was God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to teach him and his people a lesson. Also, He was making certain everyone, including the Israelites, knew He was the one true God. Again, while that makes sense, it could sound a bit arbitrary and capricious to a lot of folks.
In fact, it might generate another question from a skeptic, “Why did God need to teach anyone a lesson, couldn’t he simply make Pharaoh let them go?” This and other questions one can imagine here are based on the question of God being all-powerful and loving. The real question is, “If God is all-powerful and loving, why couldn’t He just change Pharaoh’s heart instead of hardening it?”
The same question could be, and is, asked about a number of incidents. For example, why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Or, why did God command the Israelites to destroy the occupants of the land they were promised. Even in the New Testament, what kind of God would let a man be born blind just so Jesus could heal him later? For that matter, why would God allow any form of evil in the world, if He is indeed all-powerful and loving?
It is likely for most of us, the correct way to respond to or answer such a question is, “I don’t know for certain, but I’d love to look into it and get back to you.” This is after you’ve done everything you can to understand why the person is asking the question. This answer, or a similar answer, is recommended for three reasons.
First, you will find out if the person is actually seeking to understand. People who are not interested in your response will likely not agree. Someone simply wanting to argue or push your buttons will likely not care about your response. In fact, they may try to goad you into a response they can attack. Second, if they agree to the arrangement, you are buying time to polish your response or learn more about the matter yourself. Third, you are opening the door to the possibility of establishing a new or deeper relationship with the person.
AnOldSinner will admit this advice is much easier to give than to accept. When one believes strongly in something, it is difficult to listen to someone attack it without triggering a variation of the fight or flight response. Another issue is fearing the other person might see you as weak or simply someone who drank the kool-aid. Those are certainly possibilities, but there are a couple of other points to keep in mind.
One, you may not be prepared to fully answer the question. It is unlikely the person asking the question has never asked it before. The fact the person is asking why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is a dead giveaway. Someone focusing on that particular aspect of the story is more than casually familiar with the scripture.
Two, it may not be your job to answer the question. Some believe they must stand up for their belief against every challenge. While that is true, unless one is strong in his or her faith and knowledge, trying to debate an atheist or skeptic may be a mistake. Such a person is often well prepared to attack a believer’s faith, with the hope of sowing some seeds of doubt. It is possible, if you are not certain how to answer a challenging question, the skeptic was placed in your path to urge you to become stronger and more knowledgeable in your faith.
A final point to remember is God has hardened hearts at times. He is also the one who can soften hearts. Those who study the issue of evangelism much more deeply than AnOldSinner believe God will soften those hearts he chooses, and harden those he chooses. They also believe God may use multiple believers to soften someone’s heart. Your job might just be to hear the skeptic out, and offer to introduce them to someone more knowledgeable. God decides when it is the unbeliever’s time, and He may use multiple incidents and testimonies to prepare the heart of an unbeliever.
God decides when an unbeliever’s heart is softened. It is great to be part of that experience, but it comes in God’s time, not ours.
1. Experts in the area of Bible translation point out this phrase is hard to understand. One commentary makes the point, “Commentators point out that the Hebrew phrase used here does not imply any abrupt arbitrariness on the part of God, as its English translation might suggest. It simply draws attention to the fact that these are qualities of God which may be seen in certain specific historic instances, without going into further detail.” [Exodus: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 2, p. 236 )]
2. See “Of Job and Ants” for more on why one might respond that way.
© AnOldSinner – 2017