Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.