Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Did Pharaoh have a choice?

The first fourteen chapters of the book of Exodus are set up as a clash between the true God of Israel and the false gods of Egypt. On the one side is God demanding that Pharaoh release the Israelites and on the other side is Pharaoh hardening his heart and refusing to obey. But did Pharaoh have a choice?

Exodus 4:21 seems to say that he did not:

"And the LORD said to Moses, 'When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.'"

It really seems like God is causing Pharaoh's heart to be hardened. Does this mean that Pharaoh was not making the choice to keep the Israelites captive? And if that is the case then how does God hold Pharaoh accountable for something that he is being forced to do?

The real question comes down to that of free will. How much free will did Pharaoh have in this matter?

Greg Koukl addresses this very same question as it relates to salvation. He frames the question this way:

"I think a vital question at this point is what does it mean for a decision to be free? This is a question that many people have never really thought about carefully because they think they understand that there are only simple and obvious alternatives: We are either determined, puppets on a string making mechanical decisions completely dictated from the outside like one domino falling against the other, or we’re not determined and we’re completely free with all choices available to us. If the choice for salvation is ours, as the Bible seems to indicate in many places, then we must be free and not determined. But Calvinism teaches, and it’s because the Bible also seems to indicate in many places, that the choice is God’s and He decides who is going to be saved and, therefore, it seems that Calvinists do not believe in freedom. Instead, they believe in determinism."

What Mr. Koukl is saying is that we often think about either having free choice or being forced to do something in terms of being opposites of each other. But he points out that free choice isn't only having a decision to make between different options:

"This suggests that there are two different ways for an act to be free. One, an act is free if we choose it ourselves. In other words, it’s our choice. The only condition for this kind of freedom is that we make the decision. Nobody is forcing us. There isn’t some force on the outside that requires us to act this way. We are free on the single condition that we choose the thing we choose of our own will and volition. That’s one sense of freedom.

"The other sense of freedom has that condition to it, but adds another condition. In the second sense of freedom, an act is free if we choose it and, the second condition, we could have done otherwise. Philosophers call that libertarian freedom, although there is some debate about the nature of that term. Generally, an act isn’t free unless we choose it and we could have done otherwise."

He goes on to say:

"Our hearts are set against God. Our wills are inclined against Him. It’s not that we cannot choose God, that some external thing is preventing us from exercising our choice...It’s that we will not choose God because our own desires incline us against that choice. We are steadfastly and immovably in defiance of God"

It is our very nature to be disobedient to God. We choose to be disobedient because of our nature. This means that we may have no choice except to choose disobedience but it is still our free choice. The same is true for Pharaoh. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is not what caused him to be disobedient to God. It was already Pharaoh's nature to be disobedient to God. There are a number of passages that make it clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart as well (see here, here and here). The hardening of Pharaoh's heart (whether done by God or Pharaoh) was making the already present disobedience resolute.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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