Divine Will and Human Choice Pt. 2: Pharaohs, Traitors and Persecutors
Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
- St. Paul (Romans 9:21)
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul references the enigmatic act of God recorded in the Exodus story in which He hardened the heart of Pharaoh to demonstrate His signs of wonder, so that the people of Israel and Egypt would know that He is Lord. Given the multiple plagues and afflictions that were visited upon Egypt, it seems that any leader in their right mind would have acquiesced to the demands of the prophet Moses and let the slaves go free. Yet, in this particular text it seems that Pharoah's choice in the matter was taken away, so that God's will could be done.
Another example of God seemingly imposing his will over or upon the individual can be seen with Judas Iscariot who infamously betrayed Jesus Christ. Judas was the treasurer of the limited monetary resources that Jesus and the disciples shared amongst themselves and the poor. The Book of John says that Judas was a thief and collectively the gospels indicate that Judas' betrayal of Jesus was motivated by financial gain. It is also clear that Judas had a role to play in God's divine plan for redemption of humanity. After conspiring with the chief priests to ensnare Jesus, Luke writes that Satan then entered Judas (22:3). This verse brings to mind the relationship between God and the devil in the Book of Job, in which Satan is portrayed as being somewhere between semi-potent pawn and rabid dog on a leash. The devil can not do anything that God does not allow, but in the case of both Pharaoh and Judas, human agency seems to set the stage for a hostile takeover of one's faculties. Pharaoh was a symbol of idolatry and rebellion against God, as well as oppresor of His people. Judas was selfish and short-sighted at best and deviant and greedy at worst before his personal choices were usurped by providence.
Through the eyes of the Gospel writers, Paul was no better than Pharaoh or Judas, for he was responsible for the killing of the disciple Stephen and the wrongful imprisonment of many early Christians. When Paul (formerly Saul) is dismounted from his horse on his way to Damascus by the power of God's spirit, Jesus asks him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Yet Paul's destiny was not to be one of dishonor. Instead Paul would be called out of his unrighteousness to glorify God and serve His people as an apostle. He neither asked for, nor deserved the grace and mercy he received and could have been left in his iniquity like Pharaoh or Judas. When his eyes were opened to the truth of Jesus Christ, he determined to be a faithful servant to the best of his ability.
But, what of the Pharaoh and Judas? Did they go to hell? Well we know they both died tragic deaths according to Scripture. That seems to be punishment enough to me. Is it necessary for God to torment these individuals and many others who do not fall within our rather narrow understanding of salvation for all of eternity? The Bible is much more ambiguous on the issue than many Christians would have us believe. We have a much greater preoccupation with hell (and heaven) than the ancient Jews or the early Christ followers. Even when Jesus used images of hell and fire he was making important commentaries about socio-economic injustice and making clear his identification with the most disadvantaged members of society (Matthew 25).
Some theologians believe the hell-fire language of the Bible is primarily rhetorical while others read it more literally (It's worth noting that modern thinking on hell tends to be influenced by the ancient Greek concept of "hades"). If Scripture is correct in depicting some individuals as chosen for grace and others for wrath and if the former translates into eternal bliss, while the latter denotes everlasting torture, than we Christians will continue to have a heck of a time trying to explain why and how God is just. It is one thing to say that in the midst of human sin and imperfection, God exercises divine prerogative to leverage our sin for a higher purpose. It is something else all together to say that God creates some people specifically for iniquity to fulfill His will, and then subsequently assigns them to eternal damnation.
People come to a variety of conclusions when it comes to the question of divine sovereignty and free will. Our theological assumptions tend to be based on our religious traditions. What is most important for Christians to realize is that had God not chosen to send His only begotten Son, we would have no choices. The only reason we can choose Him is because He first chose us.