In an article entitled, Does God Harden Hearts?, Dr. Bob Barrier writes about sharing his faith with an old man who had been exposed to Christian witnesses all his life. “With chilling finality he responded: ‘I've said ‘no’ to Jesus for so many years that I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to.’" Then Barrier concludes, “Now, it is possible to say ‘No’ to the gospel of Christ so many times that God finally says, ‘OK, if that is the way you want it, I'll harden your heart and I'll never ask you again.’"[i]
When I read this article, something sat wrong in my spirit. I know that there are several places in the Bible that say God hardened certain people’s hearts, but the concept seems hard for me to grasp. Are there actually people who couldn’t become Christians, even if they want to? John 12:37-41[ii] addresses this issue. Quoting Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, John writes:
But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:
“Lord, who has believed our message?
To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”
But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,
“The Lord has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and have me heal them.”
Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory.
The Bible speaks of God blinding the eyes or hardening the hearts of unbelievers in several places. Exodus 7:3 and 8:15 speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let the Israelites go. 1 Timothy 4:2 says, “These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead [seared].” Romans 1:24 says, “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired.” So with a cursory reading it seems there are people who are so wicked that God says, “Fine, then! Be that way!” And God writes them off.
But can we blame God for disbelief when the Bible also says people harden their own hearts? Hebrews 3:15 quotes Psalm 95:7-8 as imploring the listener not to turn God off like a light switch: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.” Ephesians 4:18 says of rebellious people, “Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him.” So just as there are passages that support the idea that God hardens people’s hearts, there are others that say people harden their own.
In Isaiah 63:17, the people’s seeming repentance is overshadowed by the fact that they blame God for their own pig-headedness: “Lord, why have you allowed us to turn from your path? Why have you given us stubborn hearts so we no longer fear you?” So, does God give anyone stubborn hearts so they can’t follow Him? Jesus says in Matthew 18:14 that it is not God’s will than any should perish. In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:11-32), the father never writes off his son because he strayed just a little too far. Instead, he waits eagerly for the son’s return. The merciful heart of God wants all to come to repentance.
Rather than blaming God for the unbelief of lost people, the Bible says that “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).” In Luke 8:11-12, Jesus explains the parable of the scattered seed: “The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.” In his blog, Evangelist Jesse Morrell explains it this way:
To interpret John 12 to mean that it was God’s will for these men not to believe because God doesn’t want them to be saved, is accuse God of doing that which the Bible elsewhere blames the devil for. And if it is blasphemy to credit to the devil the work of God, then it is equally blasphemy to credit to God the work of the devil. It is the devil that exerts energy and influence to keep men from salvation, not God. God is the one who is exerting His energy and influence to save as many as He possibly can, in consistency with the freedom He has granted to the universe.[iii]
Personally, I don’t believe that there’s anybody who’s beyond the point of salvation. Yes, some people seem to have their hearts hardened from the outside, and sometimes people harden their own hearts. Instead of making salvation impossible for them, this hardening simply makes it harder. In Matthew 19:23-26, Jesus presents a seemingly impossible scenario, saying:
“I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
So how do we understand these different kinds of hardenings? I look at it this way: When I was in school, I did very poorly in math. I used to joke that I suffered from “numeric dyslexia.” Recently, I found out that that’s a real thing—the tendency to transpose digits is called dyscalculia. So, when I was doing math, I’d see a 51 and write 15. Most kids who have difficulty with math simply need to learn certain math principles and they’re ok. Being bad at math might represent one kind of hardening, where a person has a simple struggle with, or tendency toward sin. Dyscalculia then represents that some people have magnified issues with sin, that may be based on their internal makeup—say, a tendency toward addiction. Then, there was another problem that I had. Once I realized I had a problem with math, and that I had this tendency toward reversing digits, I got the notion in my head that I couldn’t do it—and that created a third kind of hardening. Instead of pushing myself to overcome the issue, I just gave in and decided I couldn’t do math. In the same way, some people with extreme spiritual dyslexia might throw their hands up and say, “I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to."
Another issue that I had in math is that because of my bad grades, I got it in my head that my teacher didn’t like me. So I’d say, “The teacher is too strict!” A lot of people feel that way about God. That’s why Jesus says in John 12:47-48, “I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” It’s not the teacher who judges whether I’m right or wrong—it’s MATH that decides. It’s not Jesus who judges, but the TRUTH that decides. Just as the teacher simply sheds light on math, Jesus simply illuminates the truth. It’s up to me to overcome whatever mental blocks, excuses, and spiritual hardenings I may have. I do this through the exercise of faith.
All the while I was struggling with math, telling myself, “I can’t,” God was saying, that nothing shall be impossible with God. Even when I was blaming God for making me bad at math, blaming my own inabilities or my dyscalculia, or declaring that the teacher didn’t like me, God was still for me. Even though we harden our hearts in sin, or decide there’s no hope for us—even when we blame God or the devil or some other source for the hardening of our hearts—God refuses to write us off. To those who despair of ever finding faith, Jesus says, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” He extends his arms to everyone, not a select few, that anyone who desires may come (Revelation 22:17).
[i] Barrier, Roger. “Does God Harden Hearts?” http://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/ask-roger/does-god-harden-hearts.html. June 29, 2017.
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.
[iii]While I can’t endorse all his theology and methods, Jesse Morrell explains quite nicely how attributing this hardening to God is tantamount to the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. “Does God Blind The Eyes and Harden the Hearts of Unbelievers? Is this Predestination?” Posted on July 31, 2013. https://biblicaltruthresources.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/does-god-blind-the-eyes-and-harden-the-hearts-of-unbelievers-is-this-predestination/. June 29, 2017.