In this article we will address the following two basic questions:

  • Does God harden people’s heart so they will do what is wrong?
  • Does God tempt people to do what is wrong?

Does God Harden People’s Heart So They Will Do What Is Wrong?

Various passages in the Bible indicate that God sometimes “hardens people’s heart” or “tempts” them to do what is wrong.  Neither of these actions seems to be righteous or just.  On the other hand, numerous verses in the Bible teach that God is righteous (e.g., 2 Chronicles 12:6; Ezra 9:15; Nehemiah 9:8; Psalm 7:9, 11:7, 116:5, 119:137, 129:4, 145:17; Jeremiah 12:1; Lamentations 1:18; Daniel 9:14; John 17:25; Revelation 16:7, 19:2).  How can these apparent discrepancies be resolved?  [Note:  When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]

In Exodus 4:21, God tells Moses that He intends to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so Pharaoh will not let the Israelites leave Egypt.  If Pharaoh did not act of his own free will, wasn’t it unfair for God to hold him morally responsible for his actions?

In addressing this matter, it is important to be aware that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues and also after the seventh plague. The Bible does not state that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart until after the sixth plague and then after the eighth and ninth plagues.  This suggests that, after Pharaoh had been given an ample number of opportunities to do what God wanted him to do (i.e., allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt), God decided not to give Pharaoh any more chances.  As a result, as indicated in Exodus 10:1-2 and 11:9, God apparently made certain that Pharaoh would respond to the subsequent plagues in such a manner that God would gain the respect He deserved from both the Hebrews and the Egyptians.

John W. Haley, in his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, asserts on page 90, “[T]he divine mercy to Pharaoh in the withdrawal of the plagues . . . became the occasion of increasing his hardness. . . . God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by removing calamities, and bestowing blessings. . . .”  In other words, to the extent that God did harden Pharaoh’s heart, God’s role was indirect (i.e., He only caused the circumstances that led Pharaoh to harden his heart).

Another perspective on this matter is offered by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A.  On page 65 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they state, “[T]he sense in which God hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart is similar to the way the sun hardens clay and also melts wax.  If Pharaoh had been receptive to God’s warnings, his heart would not have been hardened by God.”

Does God Tempt People to Do What Is Wrong?

James 1:13 says that God does not tempt anyone. On the other hand, some translations of several other biblical passages – perhaps the most notable example of which is Genesis 22:1 – seem to indicate that God does tempt people. According to these translations, God “tempted” Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. However, recent versions of the Bible generally do not use the word “tempted” in translating Genesis 22:1. Instead, they translate the Hebrew word nacah as “proved” or “tested.”

In Inerrancy, another book that Geisler wrote, he says on page 80 that the same Hebrew word that should be translated as “proved” or “tested” in Genesis 22:1 “is used in reference to David’s trying Saul’s armor [1 Samuel 17:39], and the queen of Sheba’s testing the wisdom of Solomon [1 Kings 10:1].” This is substantiated by Strong’s Concordance of the Bible. Therefore, there is no valid reason to use the word “tempted,” instead of either “proved” or “tested,” in translating Genesis 22:1.

Furthermore, there is a significant difference between testing a person to determine if they will do what is right (i.e., to prove them faithful) versus tempting someone to do what is wrong (i.e., to commit sin). The first definition given for the word “tempt” in Webster’s Dictionary is “to entice to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain.” This is not what God did. God did not entice Abraham to do wrong. He tested Abraham to determine if Abraham would do right (i.e., be obedient to what He asked him to do).   Haley, on page 81 of his book, states that God “never places inducements before men merely in order to lead them into sin. His ultimate object is always good.”

It is also important to keep in mind that God did not allow Abraham to kill his son.  As Abraham was about to kill his son as a sacrifice to God, an angel told him not to do so (Genesis 22:11-12).  Earlier (verses 7-8), Abraham had indicated his confidence that God would do the right thing – and God did!

What about Matthew 6:13, which is part of the model prayer of Jesus Christ?  Why was it necessary for Jesus to instruct His followers to request God “not lead us into temptation. . . .”?  On page 334 of their book, Geisler and Howe explain that “this is a plea for providential guidance through the mine field of sin in this fleshly sojourn.”  In other words, Jesus was not asking God to refrain from tempting those for whom He was praying, but rather He was asking God to help them avoid temptation.

Is there also a satisfactory explanation for 2 Samuel 24:1, which states that God “moved David” to take a census of Israel and Judah – a sin that subsequently resulted in severe punishment from God (2 Samuel 24:15)? There is no indication in the twenty-fourth chapter of 2 Samuel that God was just testing David to determine if he would do what is right. Furthermore, 1 Chronicles 21:1 says it was Satan who “moved David” to take the census. How can these apparent inconsistencies be explained?

According to Geisler and Howe, both God and Satan were responsible for David’s actions.  On page 177 of their book, they declare,

Although it was Satan who immediately incited David, ultimately it was God who permitted Satan to carry out this provocation. Although it was Satan’s design to destroy David and the people of God, it was God’s purpose to humble David and the people and teach them a valuable spiritual lesson. This situation is quite similar to the first two chapters of Job in which both God and Satan are involved in the suffering of Job. [Gleason L. Archer, on page 188 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, asserts, “God’s purpose was to purify Job’s faith and ennoble his character through the discipline of adversity. Satan’s purpose was purely malicious; he wished to do Job as much harm as he possibly could. . . .”] Similarly, both God and Satan are involved in the crucifixion. Satan’s purpose was to destroy the Son of God. . . . God’s purpose was to redeem humankind by the death of His Son. . . .

Conclusion

We conclude that, although God may cause circumstances that result in certain people doing what is wrong, He initially gives everyone a choice as to how they respond. God does not cause anyone to do what is wrong, unless He has given them ample opportunities to demonstrate that they don’t want to do what is right.