God hardens people’s hearts
Pharaoh readily comes to mind in his encounter with Moses when God hardens his heart. The reference in Romans 9 is understandably often used in deterministic reasoning, and I shall address that shortly. For now, the concern is with a passage in 2 Thessalonians that says that God sends people a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie (2:11). To prepare for our discussion of Romans 9, here is a relevant point to make: Scripture teaches that God can “harden” people’s hearts. As it should be obvious by now, however, we must be careful to delineate the boundaries and understand the nature of such an act. It seems like God hardens people’s hearts when they get to a point of no return—that is, when such people get to a point when they will never believe even if given eternity to choose. Also, there appears to be distinct forms of hardening described in scriptures. There is a kind carried out by God and another by individuals against God. Besides. it also seems like a hardening of heart may be temporary. We shall address some of this later under the treatment of Romans 9. For now, however, here is the relevant passage in full:
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie,and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie,and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Thessaloninas 2:9-12)
This passage explains what preceded the hardening of heart or fixation in a state of believing the lie: “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” The people had a choice in the matter. They could have loved the truth and be saved. They chose not to. They delighted in wickedness. This passage does no service to determinism unless one already presupposes the truth of the doctrine.
The Israelites will be enslaved in Egypt.
There is a somewhat unusual dialogue in Genesis 15. Abram wanted to know definitely whether he will ever father a child since he was getting old. In response God says, “Yes, Abram. Many people will trace their ancestry to you.” The account says that Abram believed God. But then, in the next breath, Abram poses an epistemological question: “how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?” (15:8) To that, Yahweh responds by telling Abram that his descendants in the distant future will be enslaved in a foreign land. Somehow, Abram seems to find this response satisfactory. The relevant question here is whether God caused the enslavement of Abram’s descendant. Obviously, that would read too much into the text. There are no data to support such a conclusion. I think this prophecy is a mere announcement consistent with divine foreknowledge. God merely announces in advance what the government of Egypt will freely do to the Hebrews. It is like a reporter who time-travels forward (without setting off anything else in the cosmos) to, say, 2023 and came back to tell us who will win the Nigerian elections. There is no sense in which we could say the reporter caused the victory. She merely would have reported what she observes. This way of understanding things accounts for the guilt of the Egyptians and God’s mercy to the Hebrews. There is nothing in the passage that suggests that God will cause the enslavement of the Israelites.
Judas betraying Jesus
Like the one above, God merely announces the details (including the 30 silver coins, the field of blood, and other details) of how the messiah would die. The messiah need not die this way. It is important to understand that Judas freely betrayed his master. If Judas would choose not to betray his master, then the prophecies (and the content of divine foreknowledge) would have been different. Judas did not betray his master because of what is written; instead, the prophecies were written precisely because Judas would betray Jesus. It makes no sense of biblical justice to say that God caused Judas to betray his master and then eternally condemn him for the same act!