Apologetic Wednesday: Does God Set Us Up for Failure?

What is God like? Is He the equivalent of some cosmic kid pulling the wings off of a fly? Does He wear a radiant, white lab coat to conduct experiments behind the scenes on unsuspecting man? Does He place people in situations that He is fully aware they will fail at, only so He has a reason to punish them?

What are we to make of situations in the Bible, such as those found in Exodus where God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”? Why would God create Adam and Eve and tell them not to eat of the fruit if He knew full well that they would? Does God set people up for failure and then penalize them when they mess up?

Some would say that arguments such as these make God a bully, but one does need to examine the broader context of scripture. Does the rest of the Bible point to a God that enjoys seeing people fail? The preponderance of scripture points to God as being loving, selfless, merciful, just, and righteous. I understand that someone outside the faith might view this as begging the question, but we need to examine the entirety of scripture before we construct a theology.

So what about “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart”? Exodus 9:12 clearly says, “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” Then, once Pharaoh’s heart is hard, God sends a bunch of nasty plagues into his life for having a hard heart. Poor Pharaoh, he just can’t win.

The question we must ask is, did God literally give Pharaoh an unresponsive heart, or did Pharaoh become closed off to God due to his own volition? The truth of the matter is that Pharaoh chose to harden his own heart. Egyptian Pharaoh’s believed they were divine. For Pharaoh to bend the knee toward God would mean admitting that he was not God. Instead of submitting to God he chose to resist. God gave Pharaoh every opportunity to submit, but Pharaoh continued to resist and with each plague he hardened his heart more toward God. Norman Geisler puts it this way. “The sense in which God hardened his heart is similar to the way the sun hardens clay and melts wax. If Pharaoh had been receptive to God’s warnings, his heart would not have been hardened by God.” God did not override Pharaoh’s freedom of will, rather God worked within the choice made by Pharaoh not to submit and allowed his heart to be hardened towards God. The difficulties God sent into Pharaoh’s life caused his heart to be hardened, but Pharaoh could have responded by surrendering to God. Pharaoh was perfectly culpable for his actions and could have avoided taking his divine dose of medicine had he chose a different response.

So what about Adam and Eve? Of course God knew exactly how they would respond when He gave them one rule to abide by. This by no means implies that God caused them to break the rule He established. It really boils down to the decision of whether man should be free to choose whether he will follow rules, or whether God should have preprogrammed everyone to obey.

I have asked a multitude of people the question, “Would you rather have free will with the potential for suffering and pain or live a predetermined life devoid of any problems?” I have never had anyone respond with the desire to live a life without freedom. We all see the value in having our freedom, and this is precisely how God created us.

I think those of us that are parents really have a grasp of this whole scenario. When my wife and I decided to try and have a child we knew he would do bad things, mess up, and potentially choose a destructive path at times. Even in light of knowing the risk, we still chose to have a child. It was no different for God. You see, love takes risks. God knew what the plight of man would be. He knew some would choose to disobey and decide not to return His love. He loved man enough to give Him the freedom to choose.

But the story doesn’t end there. Even though God knew that man would disobey and death would enter the world, He made a way for man to be brought back unto Himself. He had a plan for full restoration and has sought man ever since the fall. Before Adam and Eve ever sinned, God had determined the way that man could be restored should they choose. Why? “Because God so loved the world?”

God does not set us up for failure. He simply gives us the potential to choose.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” – Joshua 24:15

Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.


  • Curly Miri says:

    Such a compelling post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kristina DeVillier says:

    I should have read your post before responding to Devon. Iol. Very good and I enjoyed it.

  • chrisgagner says:

    “Some would say that arguments such as these make God a bully…”

    The first time I read the Old Testament, that’s exactly is how I pictured God. He put a curse on Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit, then he kicked them out of the garden. Sounds like God is a jerk. What’s going on here?

    But after God opened my eyes, I could see His love & patience throughout the Old Testament. When Adam & Eve sinned, God could have killed them on the spot and been done with it. He warned them not to do it. But He didn’t kill them. Instead, He got them away from the Tree of Life so that their sinful condition would be temporary, and He put into action a plan to save mankind from their own sin.

  • Rick M says:

    Sorry, but I don’t get the apologetics here. The scripture reads, and you describe it as “clearly”, “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” You then immediately muddy the waters by introducing a choice; “did God literally give Pharaoh an unresponsive heart, or did Pharaoh become closed off to God due to his own volition?” Well, the verse “clearly” portrays God as the active agent. So we can answer, Yes, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But you say, No, “the truth of the matter is that Pharaoh chose to harden his own heart.” I can’t help but see that as a contradiction. You are reassigning the Pharaoh as the active agent. Norman Geiser’s analogy further muddies the water. Clay and wax have no choice but to be hardened or melted by the sun’s energy. Similarly Pharaoh had no choice because God hardened his heart. Why can’t it be that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, plain, simple, and clear?

    You offer Pharaoh a solution, “Pharaoh could have responded by surrendering to God.” Granted, but then we wouldn’t have the satisfying revenge of the plagues. Why would a ruler, raised from birth to consider himself a god, surrounded by a thousands-of-years-old culture that legitimized his godness be swayed by a slave demanding his acquiescence? Exodus 10 explains why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It wasn’t to give Pharaoh a chance to submit to Him at all. “For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” This is God’s explanation to Moses and it ought to be a good enough reason. He used Pharaoh, He subverted his free will and it’s “clearly” explained why He did it. He wants to be known as one tough s.o.b. Granted that doesn’t comport well with our modern moral outlook but I’m sure it fit in well with the other campfire stories an ancient nomadic peoples would tell about themselves.

    • Josh Fults says:

      I feel an apologetic response is very applicable here, besides the fact that I was given an inquiry on this specific passage. Coming to a correct understanding of passages such as this help us arrive at a proper theology. What is God like? Is He just? Does man have free will? Does God “harden hearts” and then punish the person for having a hard hurt? This greatly affects our understanding of God.

      I see no contradiction at all here. God is an active agent, but only in respects to sending the plagues into Egypt. Pharaoh chose his own response here. God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart indirectly, but Pharaoh chose to harden us own heart directly. God operated entirely through Pharaoh’s own free will.
      It is important to notice that in chapters prior, Pharaoh hardened his own heart toward God (Ex. 7:13, 8:15, 8:32, etc). So you have Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and later God hardening his heart. Again, God does so indirectly through Pharaohs free will and Pharaoh does so directly by personal choice.

      If a child does something wrong. The parent chooses to discipline that child in hopes of correcting the behavior. The child can choose to respond by correcting their behavior or by “hardening their heart”. The child is active in choosing to “harden their heart”, but the parent is also an indirect active agent by sending the discipline. The same idea is at work here.

      Thanks for your thoughts and for reading.

      • Rick M says:

        Josh, what I object to is your attempt to reverse this ancient story to fit a modern view of God. If this story was included in a reading comprehension test and you answered the question, “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” with the answer, “Pharaoh chose to harden his own heart” you would get a fail. The person(s) who developed the Exodus saga wanted to show that the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt was humbled, made impotent by YWHW. The God of the Hebrews says to Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” His concern here and elsewhere in the old books is with His children alone and great woe to the other peoples. Your analogy of parents and children isn’t apropos because Pharaoh and the Egyptian people are not God’s children. It wasn’t until Paul that the notion of a universal God developed. Jesus seems to be of both minds concerning gentiles.

        Does God set us up to fail? Not if He is the God of our modern, egalitarian notion of individual responsibility and free will. It takes fanciful apologetic gymnastics to fit the God of the Hebrews into our contemporary vision.

      • Josh Fults says:

        I do not feel that I have attempted to strip the ancient story of its context and cram into a modern view of God. What I have attempted to do is garner from this story a picture of God that is consistent with the rest of scripture. When we come to a passage this does not fit with what we know of God, we hold it up to other scripture. As they say, “scripture is the best interpreter of scripture.”

        The Bible teaches that people do have free will, and are free to make personal choices. We also find that God’s nature is loving, just, and kind. God acts consistently within his nature. I do not think a picture of God where He creates a person so he can use them, force them to defy him, and punish them for doing so, is consistent with who God is across scripture.

        I agree that the mighty Pharaoh was humbled and made impotent by Yahweh. I agree that God did harden his heart through the plagues he sent
        indirectly, but I see no contradiction in the fact that Pharaoh could have responded differently, but he chose to allow his hard to be hardened. It was both God’s demands and Pharaoh’s prideful stubbornness that led to his heart being hardened. It does not take “fanciful apologetic gymnastics” or smoke and mirrors to make this point.

        As far as reading comprehension goes, what does one do with Exodus 8:15? “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.” Here Pharaoh is recorded as hardening his own heart? So which is it? Did God do it or Pharaoh? I think the answer is both, God indirectly and Pharaoh directly. It could have been different if Pharaoh had submitted. God would still have been presented as triumphant and all powerful.

      • hammer says:

        God hardened the heart directly, but in response to Pharoh. See Pharoh had a choice of who to submit too and God had a choice of what to do with Pharoh. Pharoh decided and then God responded with the necessary consequence.

        There is constant interaction in two annimate objects, this is not as simple as baking earthen material, this is two conscious individuals conducting a relationship.

  • Joe says:

    I agree more with what Rick M – has said. God’s SOVERIGN choice (which is expained in detail in Romans 9) means He does what He wants when He wants to do it. Keeping in mind that God is bound by His Word and His Active Covenants……. I simply believe pharaoh was a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction,” as Romans 9:22 describes. So does God set us up for failure? YES some of His creation was and still will be pre-ordained for everlasting destruction.
    In Christ

    • chrisgagner says:

      I actually believe that BOTH Rick and Josh are onto the correct path. The mysteries of God are sometimes not as simple as black or white. I do believe that we are “predestined” in such a way that God either chooses to save us or not. Pharaoh was predestined for destruction. However, if we’re not careful, we can apply this to our own lives and blame God for our sin. “It’s not my fault that my heart is hard, God caused it…”

      We still have a choice. Pharaoh had a choice. I agree with Josh’s statements that God isn’t some bully that created us so that He could just watch us fail.

      I’m enjoying sitting back and watching this debate. It’s great to see people come together and discuss things that we’re likely not going to understand on our own. :)

      • Josh Fults says:

        I think God elected to save all of mankind. “For God so loved the world”. Yet, God leaves it up to mankind to respond.

        I think we all have freedom of choice. I think this is how God created things to operate.

        Very good point about us blaming God for hardening our hearts!!

    • Joe says:

      Also it reminds me of Proverbs 21:1
      The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
      he turns it wherever he will.

    • Josh Fults says:

      I am going to have to respectfully disagree on this point. I do not subscribe to limited atonement. I don’t think the preponderance of scripture can be squared with God delving out “cosmic screw you’s”.

      I definitely agree that God’s sovereign will shall definitely come to past and that God’s will cannot be thwarted, but I think God accomplishes His will through the free will of man.

      • Joe says:

        I am going to offer a few things not to change your mind on this subject because i DO NOT believe this topic to be an essential for salvation. On the other hand i must tell you that i have studied this in depth (at least enough to where my pea sized brain couldnt take any more.) Definition of Limited atonement – is the teaching held in Reformed (Calvinist) circles of Christianity which states that Jesus bore only the sins of the elect, and not that of every individual who ever lived due to the legal nature of the atonement and its necessary cancellation of the debt (Col. 2:14). It sees “the world” as all nations and maintains that the sacrifice was sufficient for all(general call), but intended for the elect(effective call). With that being said there are many Brilliant people who are on both sides of this argument as a matter of fact the SBC just released a statement on this recently here is the URL(http://sbctoday.com/2012/05/30/an-introduction-to-%E2%80%9Ca-statement-of-the-traditional-southern-baptist-understanding-of-god%E2%80%99s-plan-of-salvation%E2%80%9D/#comment-22466) It was not on the 5 pointers side of things if you get time you should read it. Anyway…….. I hold to the belief that Our Soverign Creator is just that SOVERIGN and the potter has full right over the clay. For example, in a sermon entitled, “Doctrine of Predestination,” Dr. Criswell quoted Isaiah 46:9-11 and then said,

        That’s our God! Now that’s what you call foreordination. That’s what you call predestination! That’s Calvinism! And I am a Calvinist. That’s good old Bible doctrine, and I believe the Bible! These things are in God’s hands, and ultimately and finally, He purposed it and executeth all of it!
        He preached a sermon in 1983, in the early days of the conservative resurgence, on Romans 9:15-16. The sermon is entitled, “The Bible Kind of Salvation.” It is a masterful piece of homiletical work and includes a lengthy, favorable quote from Spurgeon near the end. Before that quote, Dr. Criswell made following observations:

        There is a general call, but there is also an effective call. In the great general call, most of them did not respond, most of them did not hear, most of them did not believe, most of them did not come; but always some came, some heard, some were saved—the effectual calling of God.

        I read in Acts 13, verse 48, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the Word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” I turn the page again, and I read in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, “Brethren beloved, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, whereunto He called you by our gospel.” There is an effectual call. There are those who listen. God opens their hearts. God speaks to them, and they hear their name called, and they respond; the effectual calling of the elective choosing Spirit of the Lord.

        Soli Deo Gloria
        In Christ

    • Josh Fults says:

      I also want to say thank you to all of you for heightening this discussion. I greatly enjoy it and all of your friendship (though I have never met you). =)

      • Joe says:

        Thank you Josh for giving us a place to talk about theology – i know i appreciate your hardwork and diligence for keeping this blog going!!
        In Christ

  • Kim Melancon says:

    probably not always fun being God, sometimes it hurts him to discipline his children as much as it hurts to chastise our own… Mold me father!! correct my faults, make me a godly man. ;o)

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