Christianity 201

October 27, 2015

Does God Stack the Deck Against Us?

It’s been a couple of years since we last visited the blog of Joel J. Miller; and this article is a very, very good fit here at C201. You may have noticed I usually give the republished articles a different title above than the what follows below, but today I think the author’s title very accurately captures the dilemma in reading the Matthew and Exodus passages.

Click the title below to read this at the author’s blog along with some comments people have added there.

Does God stack the deck against us?

There is a curious passage in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus rebukes several cities. “Woe unto you, Chorazin!” he says, repeating the same for nearby Bethsaida and Capernaum (11.21, 23).

Why? Because Jesus performed miracles in each city and they ignored the wonders. They observed the miracles and did not repent. They failed to respond as they should have. But can we blame them?

Who’s fault is it?

Right after upbraiding these cities, Jesus thanks God for hiding “these things from the wise and understanding . . . for such was thy gracious will” (vv. 25-26). How can these cities be responsible for not responding if God denied them understanding?

It’s really the same question that arises from the Exodus. We hear repeatedly that Pharaoh hardened his heart. But we also hear that God hardened his heart. How can Pharaoh be responsible for his actions when God prevented him from showing mercy to the Israelites?

The answer lies in the opening of Romans.

“[T]he wrath of God,” says Paul, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (1.18). God can be “clearly perceived” in his creation (v. 19), but according to Paul, we’ve pushed that perception out of our consciousness.

What we have in the case of the three cities and Pharaoh is not a case of God judging for what God makes impossible. Rather, God’s denial of revelation is simply confirmation that they’ve rejected the truth that was already available to them.

God did not, in other words, stack the deck against. He confirmed the already-existing state of affairs—that they had denied the truth and wanted nothing to do with him.

Him who has, him who has not

Jesus gives us another angle from which to view this problem a bit later in Matthew. After Christ tells the Parable of the Sower, the disciples ask him why he won’t give it to his listeners straight. Why all these opaque stories?

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given,” says Jesus. “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (13.11-12).

The curse of the cities manifests the drama of this dynamic. The three cities have little, and what little they have is being taken away. Meanwhile, the disciples have much and so to them more is given.

Why do they have little? Because, as Jesus quotes Isaiah, “this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed. . .” (v. 15).

This is just another way of saying what Paul says in Romans 1—only perhaps more so because, as Paul also says, the Jews had extra revelation from God.

They closed their eyes to the revelation that was offered. What right do they (or we) have to complain for God’s refusal to grant more?

Joel J. Miller is a writer and editor with more than fifteen years of experience in the publishing industry, including as a vice president and publisher for Thomas Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins. He is part of the Orthodox tradition and blogs at Theology that Sticks.

Digging Deeper: How does today’s article relate to the subject of free will versus divine election?


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