Why And How God Hardens Hearts: Studies in Mark, Pt. 28

Humans can harden their hearts but we also read in the Bible that God hardens hearts too. This has baffled many and leads to the question: Why does God harden hearts? There are a number of instances in the Scriptures where God does this. Perhaps one of the most well known of these occasions is when God repeatedly hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus). For our purposes here, Mark’s Gospel account is in focus.

Anyone who has read Mark’s work knows that from time-to-time, Jesus notes that persons, including the disciples, have hard hearts (Mk. 2.8, 3.5, 6.52, 7.6, 8.17, 10.5). This is where it gets interesting. Often, when Jesus brings this up, it is said in the perfect passive (see the listed verses). This is to say that the tense is in the past and that the hearts of the disciples were hardened by someone or something other than themselves. I want to submit that we should not overlook or oversimplify this. I also want to submit that the perfect passive reveals that, as with Pharaoh, God has a part in hardening the hearts of the persons (including the disciples). (*Note: I do not think that hard the perfect passive refers to the Pharisees/Herodians hardening the hearts of the disciples. Nor do I think it is meant to be taken in a reflexive sense.)

So, what does this mean? To be straightforward, I would suggest that God only hardens hearts that have already been partially hardened. Put differently, God is never the initiator in hardening a heart but rather, when someone has a hard heart only then, will God harden it the rest of the way. Of course, the question arises here: Why would God want someone’s heart to be harder than it already is? Furthermore, what does it suggest about God if He has a hand in hardening hearts?

Perhaps I should explain here, my understanding of what the phrase “hard heart” means. Firstly, a hard heart is not the opposite of a soft heart. As much as we are inclined to think in these dualistic terms, we should not. Secondly, the opposite of a hard heart is freedom. Thirdly, then, a hard heart is the equivalent of determinism. I know, I know, this seems ridiculous but keep reading anyways. Let me explain: A hard heart is a heart set on denying God. The result of denying God is losing knowledge.

In fact, that’s what sin is: losing knowledge of God, self and others. So, when one repeatedly sins or hardens their own heart, they move further and further away from true knowledge of God, self and other, every time. This path of the loss of knowledge can be viewed as a path that gets narrower and narrower until finally, those walking it are altogether closed off from true knowledge of God, self and other. And really, what else does this culminate in but the place we refer to as hell?

To summarize the argument to this point, then: When one continually hardens their heart, they lose knowledge of God, self and other—a path that culminates with hell. As we have seen, this narrow path is one of determinism. This path is not open to others. This path is not open to God. This path is not open to change. This path is closed. Because there is a lack of knowledge of the truth about God, self and others on this path, there are no relationships on this path and there is no interaction on this path. Thus, there is no freedom to live a meaningful life on this path.

This is why the opposite of a hard heart is freedom. When one does not have a hard heart, they are free to know the truth about God, self and others and to live life in a meaningful way. Now, here’s the thing. When persons begin to head down the path of determinism, when they harden their hearts towards God, He does not just give up on them. In fact, He continually tries to woo them back to Him. Yet, there comes a point when God gives some “last chances.” These last chances or “the” last chance that God gives, is nothing other than God hardening one’s heart the rest of the way. Humans hardened it first; God hardens it the rest of the way.

This hardening, then, is actually an act of grace on God’s behalf: He is reaching out again—even if a last time. Heschel has said that God knows that a half hard heart will remain obstinate. In my opinion, this is why God hardens humans hearts the rest of the way. God knows that some, in the pits of despair will cry out to Him. He also knows that none sitting on the fence of a hard heart will seek Him. So, God hardens hearts as last chance effort.

In Mark, when Jesus asks if the disciples hearts have been hardened, I think that Jesus is asking them if God has hardened their hearts or put differently, if they have hit the depths of despair yet so that they might cry out to God. This, then, is why and how God hardens hearts; it is an act of grace, a call out of determinism and into truth and freedom.


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