Why does God Harden our Hearts, and Why are We Held Responsible?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Steve:

Dear Lee,

Could you help answer this for me?

Romans 9:14–23 speaks of God making vessels of honour and vessels of dishonour. Also there is John 12:37–41 where the scriptures speak about God blinding and hardening people so that they could not believe or understand with their hearts. If that is so then how can they be held to account? How are they responsible? It’s as though their free will is taken away from them. Christ warned the Pharisees about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit but if God hardened and blinded them then how are they accountable? Could you explain this please? I know that God is fair but I can’t see the fairness in my present understanding.

Kind regards,

Steve

Thanks for the great question, Steve! People have been scratching their heads about this for many centuries. Here are some principles that I hope will help:

  1. The Bible often speaks according to the human appearance rather than the divine reality.
  2. This is necessary for the Bible to achieve God’s purpose for it: to save our eternal souls.
  3. God will not allow us to achieve enlightenment that we are unable to sustain.
  4. God’s love and mercy is turned into its opposite in people who are opposed to God.

We’ll expand on each one of these one by one. But first, let’s look at the biblical background.

Clay in the Potter's hands

Clay in the Potter’s hands

The Bible on God hardening our hearts

Clearly people have been scratching their heads about this issue for centuries. In Romans 9:14–23 Paul faces that very question: Why does God blame us if God is the one who hardens our hearts?

The example of Pharaoh

Paul refers to the example of Pharaoh:

The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)

There you have it! It’s God’s fault that Pharaoh wouldn’t let the people of Israel go! It’s God’s fault that the Egyptians had to suffer all those plagues!

But even in the story itself, covering Exodus chapters 4 to 14, there are hints that it’s not quite so simple. Yes, ten times it says that the Lord hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his officials. But seven times it says that Pharaoh and his officials hardened their hearts. So who did the hardening, God or Pharaoh?

The example of God blinding our eyes

In John 12:37-41 Jesus, referring to the Jews who refused to believe in him, quotes somewhat freely from Isaiah 6:10, making it even harsher than the original:

He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.
(John 12:40)

This certainly sounds as if God is the one who made it impossible for the unbelieving Jews to believe in Jesus. So how can they be held responsible for their lack of belief?

The example of the Potter

And what if, as Paul suggests in Romans 9:19–23, God is the potter who has made some pots (meaning some human beings) for glory and others for destruction?

If you read these verses very carefully, they don’t actually say that God created any pots (or “vessels”) for destruction. Only that God makes “some pottery for special purposes and some for common use” (Romans 9:21), and that there are objects of God’s wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22). But Paul certainly gives the impression that God has created some pots for wrath and destruction—and that is how many Christians read his words.

Paul didn’t come up with the potter metaphor himself. He is referring to the Parable of the Potter in Jeremiah 18. The Lord tells the prophet Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house, where the Lord will give Jeremiah a message. Jeremiah sees the potter forming a pot on the wheel. But since the pot did not come out right, the potter used the same clay to make a different pot. The Lord then says to Jeremiah:

“Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.” (Jeremiah 18:6)

We could naturally draw the conclusion that however we turn out, whether good or evil, it’s the Lord’s fault, not ours, because the Lord made us that way.

But that’s not what the chapter says, as you can see if you read it for yourself. Rather, it is a warning to the people that if they do not repent, God will bring disaster upon them, but if they do repent, God will not bring the planned disaster upon them. So the point of the Parable of the Potter is not that the people have no choice because they are what God made them, but rather that God has the power to destroy a “marred pot,” meaning a person or nation that stubbornly refuses to follow God’s laws.

The Bible itself shows that there is more to the Parable of the Potter than the common idea that God creates us good or evil, and there is nothing we can do about it.

We don’t have time for a detailed exegesis and explanation of all of these passages. But let’s look at some general principles that may provide a better idea of what’s going on here, and whether God is really as unfair as it seems.

1. The Bible often speaks according to the human appearance of things

Christians commonly say that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. But many of them have only a vague and simplistic notion of exactly how it is the Word of God.

In the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist wing of Christianity, that vague and simplistic notion boils down to the idea that everything written in the Bible is pure, inerrant divine truth that is absolutely and literally true exactly as written, no matter what the subject. For people who believe this way, no amount of science, reason, or even common sense will dissuade them. And if you’re among that group, you might as well stop reading right now.

But if you’re willing to look deeper, consider this:

The Bible isn’t God talking in a vacuum. It is God talking to human beings.

Let’s say your first language is English, but you want to talk to people who speak only French. How would you accomplish that? You could either learn French or hire a translator.

We humans don’t speak God’s language. God’s mind is divine and infinite. Our minds are human and limited. If God were to speak in God’s own language, not a single one of us could understand it. It wouldn’t even be like speaking English to people who understand only French. It would be more like delivering a lecture on nuclear physics to a flock of flamingoes. At least the French speakers would realize that you’re trying to say something, even if they can’t understand it. The flamingoes would have absolutely no idea what was going on.

That’s why God speaks to us in the Bible in our language, not in some language of infinite, absolute divine truth.

It’s more than just language

Yes, in the Bible God speaks in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Does anyone seriously believe that God actually thinks in those human languages? Obviously, God’s message has been translated into Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in the minds of the human authors who wrote the various books of the Bible.

But it’s much more than that. The languages we humans speak reflect our particular experience, culture, and perspective on life. We have words and language only for the things we know about. Ancient Hebrew had no words for “computer” or “automobile” or “galaxy” because those things either didn’t yet exist or were unknown.

When God spoke to the people of Bible times, God not only had to speak in their particular language, but also in the concepts they knew about and believed. There was only so much God could say without completely losing his audience.

In the New Testament, Jesus was well aware of the limitations on what he could say even to his closest disciples. That’s why he said to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). He could tell them only as much as their minds (and hearts) were capable of grasping at that time.

That’s how the entire Bible is written. It is not a divine lecture on heavenly physics. If it were, we’d be like those flamingoes, clueless about what was happening. Rather in the Bible God puts a divine message into human words and concepts so that the people of this earth will have some hope of actually hearing and understanding it.

The result is that the Bible expresses things the way they appear to us finite, limited, and often very dense human beings—not the way they actually are with God and in heaven. For more on this, please see: “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”

In short, many things in the Bible are crude human approximations and appearances that are the closest many of us are capable of getting to the truth.

And there’s a very good reason why God wrote the Bible that way.

2. This is necessary for the Bible to achieve God’s purpose for it

God didn’t give us the Bible to convey abstract knowledge, like a lecture on nuclear physics. God gave us the Bible to save our eternal souls and bring us into heaven. Everything in the Bible is focused on that goal.

And for God to save our eternal souls, God has to reach us where we are—which is very far from where God is in heart, mind, attitudes, and actions.

God is willing and able to use even our limited, faulty, and wrong ideas to lead us toward eternal life.

For example, people in Old Testament times commonly believed that God required animal sacrifices. Later on, the Prophets made it clear that God has no interest whatsoever in animal sacrifices, but that what God really wants from us is a willing, obedient, and loving heart. See, for example, Isaiah 1:10–20, Jeremiah 7:21–23, and Amos 5:21–25.

And yet, in the Old Testament there is chapter after chapter giving detailed instructions to the ancient Israelites on exactly when and how to offer sacrifices to God.

Why?

Because God knew that these people believed that God was pleased with animal sacrifices, so God used that already existing belief to turn them toward listening to God and obeying God. The sacrifices became a way for these ancient people to be faithful to God until we humans could learn higher and deeper truths about what God actually does want.

Today, neither Jews nor Christians offer animal sacrifices to God. But both Jews and Christians do know that God wants us to honor and obey God, and to follow God’s commandments with a willing heart. We have grown spiritually to the point where our old practice of animal sacrifice is no longer necessary to keep us focused on honoring and obeying God.

Does God really harden our hearts?

Now let’s apply the same principle to the Bible’s statement that God hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his officials.

The people of Bible times were not philosophers and theologians. They were mostly ordinary, uneducated folks. For them, God was all-powerful, and that meant that God could do anything God wanted.

  • If God was angry with you, God could open up the ground under your feet and send you down to your death in the chasm.
  • If God was angry with your city, God could rain down fire and brimstone and destroy it.
  • If God was angry with your nation, God could bring a vast foreign army against it and make you into a conquered and enslaved people.

So if you knew what was good for you, you’d better make sure that you stayed on God’s good side!

In other words, God used these people’s own limited and faulty ideas about God’s anger and wrath to cause them to follow God’s commandments, such as, “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13–16). God’s main concern is to make us into better people, and ultimately, into angels of heaven.

Now perhaps it is clearer why the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart—and yet in other places it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart against God.

The reality is that it was Pharaoh, not God, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But the people of Israel needed to believe that God was all-powerful—even more powerful than the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt, who had held their people in abject slavery for generations. That’s why the Bible presents God as controlling even Pharaoh for God’s own purposes.

That way the people would fear God and follow God instead of fearing and following Pharaoh or any other earthly king and conqueror.

Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) expresses it:

When it says that the Lord made Pharaoh’s heart hard, the meaning in the internal sense is that Pharaoh himself made his heart hard.

In ancient times everything bad was attributed to the Lord for the benefit of simple people. It was attributed to the Lord because simple people could not have known, and most of them could not have understood either, how the source of the things that happened could be anywhere else but in the Lord. Nor could they have known how to understand the truth that the Lord permits the devil’s crew to inflict evil and does not stop them, when yet he is all-powerful.

Since simple people could not have grasped these matters, and even the intelligent could have hardly grasped them, it was said, in keeping with what many people believed, that the Lord was the author even of what was bad or evil. This is a common feature of the Bible, whose literal meaning is accommodated to the beliefs of simple people. The evil that is attributed in the Bible to the Lord actually has its origin in human beings. (Secrets of Heaven #7632)

In the final segment we’ll say more about how evil actually comes from human beings even though it appears to come from God.

Meanwhile, here’s the basic answer: When the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, it is stating what actually happened. When the Bible says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it is speaking according to the way the simple-minded people of those times thought—and the way many ordinary people still think today: that God causes both good and evil, which means that we’d better shape up, or God is going to punish us miserably.

But the genuine truth is that God never does anything evil or destructive at all. God does only good and constructive things. And God certainly doesn’t harden people’s hearts in order to bring destruction upon them. The pain and punishment that we suffer is not from God; our own evil actions bring it upon ourselves. For more on this, please see, “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

3. God will not allow us to achieve enlightenment that we can’t sustain

Now let’s turn to Isaiah 6:10. In the original Old Testament version, it reads:

Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.

But when it is quoted in the New Testament John 12:40, it says, “He [God] has blinded their eyes,” and so on (as quoted earlier in the article). Once again, in some places the Bible attributes things to God that it does not attribute to God in other places. And it is for the same reason: simple-minded people need to believe that God is all-powerful, and able to do both good and evil, so that they will fear God, listen to God, and obey God. For many people, that literal fear of God is the only thing that will get them to straighten out their lives and become good and decent people.

But the reality is that we are the ones who stop our own ears, shut our own eyes, and refuse to comprehend, and to turn and be healed.

However, there is also a deeper lesson in these words.

We humans commonly think that if only everyone could hear and understand the true nature of God, spirituality, the Bible, Christian living, and so on, the world would be a much better place.

But that’s not necessarily so.

Consider priests and ministers who use their positions of spiritual authority to take advantage of the people they are supposed to be caring for. Consider priests who use their position of authority to sexually abuse children, or ministers who use their position of authority to seduce their church secretaries. Corrupt religious leaders can use their position to do tremendous damage.

Wouldn’t it have been better if they had never become religious at all, and had stayed out of those positions of spiritual leadership where they are doing more harm than good?

The very reason God closed the eyes and ears of the Pharisees to the deeper truth he was delivering to the world was to prevent them from falling into greater blasphemy by seeing and understanding deeper truth than they were temperamentally able to sustain.

It’s not the truth, or hearing the truth, that changes us. It is what’s in our heart that changes us. And if our heart is not able to follow, it does more harm than good for us to hear, understand, and accept spiritual truth.

If God sees that we do not have it in our heart to remain faithful to new and greater spiritual truth for the rest of our lives, God will metaphorically stop our ears, shut our eyes, and prevent us from understanding, turning, and being healed. Yes, God does want to heal us. But if God sees that the healing will be only superficial, and that we will inevitably backslide into our old ways, God will not heal us because God is thinking of our eternal welfare.

“Healing” us at that point would be like slapping a bandage over a deep wound. Though it would cover up the problem and make our arm or leg look better for a while, it would only seal in the infection and cause us to lose the entire limb to gangrene.

This superficial “healing” of those who do not have the heart or the character to sustain it is what Jesus was talking about when he said:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation. (Matthew 12:43–45)

In short, sometimes God’s mercy withholds spiritual “healing” from us in order to prevent us from falling into an even worse spiritual state. To put it simply:

God will not give us more spiritual enlightenment than we can handle.

For more on the principle that we are not given deeper truth unless we have the ability to remain faithful in it for the rest of our lives, see Swedenborg’s Divine Providence #221–233.

4. God’s love and mercy is turned into its opposite in people who are opposed to God

The general conclusion from what we’ve covered so far is that although God does only good, sometimes it appears to us that God is doing evil. Sometimes, for our own eternal good, we need to believe that God does evil. And sometimes the Bible says things the way they appear to us rather than the way they actually are—once again, for our own eternal good.

It’s not that the Bible is “lying” to us. It’s that the Bible commonly speaks to us according to our own perspective on things.

To use a simple example, nature is not lying to us when we see the sun rise in the morning, move across the sky all day, and then set in the evening. But the reality is that that’s not what’s happening at all. It’s just how it appears to us, since we are standing on the surface of a planet that seems to us to be standing still, but is actually rotating on its axis once per day.

Now I’ll lay one more concept on you:

God does power everything in the universe, both good and evil. God is the only source of power in the universe. Anything that God did not power could not function, nor could it even exist. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

And he said to Pilate:

You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (John 19:11)

This was when Pilate was about to sentence Jesus to death by crucifixion—certainly an evil action!

But if God does only good, and never evil, how can God power everything in the universe, both good and evil?

Let’s turn again to our friend Mr. Swedenborg.

In Exodus 4:11, God says to Moses:

Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?

Here is Swedenborg’s commentary on those final words:

“Is it not I, the Lord?” means that these different conditions exist as a result of the life flowing in from the Divine. This becomes clear from the fact that the different conditions that are meant by “the mute,” “the deaf,” and “the blind,” as well as by “mouth” and “the seeing,” arise in a person as a result of the life flowing in from Jehovah or the Lord. For from that life arise both the evil things and the good that exist in every single person. Yet the evil arise from us, and the good from the Lord.

The reason why the evil things arise from us is that the life—that is, goodness and truth—that flows in from the Lord is turned by us into evil and falsity, meaning into the opposite of life, which is called spiritual death. It is like light from the sun, which is converted into particular colors by the objects receiving it. In some objects it is converted into vivid and lively colors, in others into death-like and dreary ones.

Now since it appears as though the Lord, being the One who gives life, is also responsible for what is evil, that which is evil is attributed in the Bible to Jehovah or the Lord due to the way it appears to us—as we can see from a large number of passages. The same applies here to God’s making the mute, the deaf, and the blind. Because these conditions arise from the life flowing in from the Divine it is said that Jehovah brings them about. But the inner meaning presents and teaches the true nature of the matter, not the apparent nature of it. (Secrets of Heaven #6991)

This sounds philosophical and complicated, but it’s not really that complicated.

Consider Swedenborg’s example. The sun shines down on everything with the same beautiful, full-spectrum light. But things that are dark, dingy, and dying turn that light into death-like and dreary colors due to their own nature, while things that are living and beautiful turn it into vivid and lively colors due to their own nature.

That’s exactly what happens when God’s love and wisdom flows into different human beings. When it reaches us, we turn it into whatever matches our own character.

  • If we are loving, thoughtful, and kind, God’s love and wisdom shines out of us as loving, thoughtful, and kind words and actions.
  • If we are hateful, insensitive, and cruel, we take God’s love and wisdom and twist it into something contrary to its nature: into hatred, insensitivity, and cruelty.

When we accept God’s love and wisdom as it is, it shines through us with its own warmth and light. But when we twist God’s love and wisdom into something it isn’t, we turn it into evil, falsity, and destruction.

It therefore may appear to us as if God is the creator of evil, falsity, and destruction, because the power to do these things actually does ultimately come from God. But we’re the ones who turn it from good into evil, and from light into darkness. Is it the sun’s fault that a rotting corpse turns its warmth and light into maggots and putrefaction?

So why didn’t God just explain that to us in the Bible?

However, these are tricky concepts to wrap our head around.

That’s why the Bible doesn’t attempt to explain all these philosophical subtleties, but instead says things such as:

I am the Lord, and there is none else.
I form the light, and create darkness;
I make peace, and create evil;
I the Lord do all these things.
(Isaiah 45:6–7)

Imagine God having Isaiah give a Philosophy 101 course to a bunch of shepherds, farmers, and merchants of several thousand years ago:

“Technically, everything that flows from God is good. But when it reaches a recipient vessel, such as a human heart, if that recipient vessel is evil instead of good, then the good that flows in from God is converted by the recipient vessel—meaning the human being—into evil. So even though the actual truth is that God is nothing but good, when God’s goodness flows into people’s evil, it is converted into evil. This means that God’s good powers everything, both good and evil, but God is still only good. So you see . . .

“Hey! Stop throwing rocks at me!!!”

Instead, Isaiah delivered the pithy and pragmatic words that these simple-minded people needed to hear. They didn’t need a philosophy lesson. And neither do many ordinary people today. At their level thinking, they just needed to know that God is all powerful, and that they had better listen to God and obey God if they valued their skin. In the preceding verses, Isaiah says:

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me.
(Isaiah 45:5–6)

And he goes on to speak in the following verses about God’s power to shape the people like a potter, and to save God’s people—as you can read for yourself in Isaiah 45:8–19.

The Bible says to us what we need for our salvation

Yes, the Bible often speaks to us in simplistic ways according to our human perception of things. But behind its statements there is always a deeper meaning. And behind its sometimes harsh and even contradictory words there is always God’s love and mercy reaching out to us and seeking to save us if we are willing to be saved.

Yes, it’s much easier for many people just to stick with the simple idea that God creates both good and evil, and both hardens and softens human hearts, at will. And if some people need to believe this in order to respect, honor, and fear God and to motivate them to turn their lives around, then who am I to argue?

But if these sayings in the Bible trouble you, and make God seem unfair and unjust, then I hope these principles will help you to view God’s Word from a deeper perspective. With these concepts in your mind, I hope you will be able to reconcile some of the harsh literal sayings of the Bible with the divine love and mercy of God, who seeks to reach us and save us no matter how simple-minded we may be, and no matter how recalcitrant we may have become.

Here are these principles once again:

  1. The Bible often speaks according to the human appearance rather than the divine reality.
  2. This is necessary for the Bible to achieve God’s purpose for it: to save our eternal souls.
  3. God will not allow us to achieve enlightenment that we are unable to sustain.
  4. God’s love and mercy is turned into its opposite in people who are opposed to God.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in All About God, The Bible Re-Viewed
11 comments on “Why does God Harden our Hearts, and Why are We Held Responsible?
  1. Rohan Pereira says:

    Hi Lee

    If we treat the bible as an elementary description of higher truths especially th OT then it raises an interesting question.

    Did God intend for any of his literal commandments to be eternal across the ages?

    I get that Love is the highest commandment but the manifestation of love still requires instruction .e.g. how can I show explicitly love to the governor of my community?

    If you look into Judaism, they seem to focus excessively on ‘instruction’ on how to love in the modern age. For example, they may say that excommunicating the adulterer from the community is a manifestation of love as justice is a manifestation of love.

    When we look into Jesus in the gospel, he does not seem to give literal instruction on how to love (in fact he once said ‘who made me judge between you two’ – Luke12:14) . So does this mean that priests/spiritualists are in authority to provide advice (law) on how to love?

    I think many denominations and religions want instruction on how to live life (how to treat parents, what is the best form of government, is excessive social welfare good?, how to handle inheritance?). They have too many spiritualists who provide ‘advice’ on which position to hold but really most people just fall back to the tried and trusted ancient advice from the OT/Bible. People may reluctantly use Paul’s advice on submission.

    So did God intend to give humans literal commandments on how to live life?

    • Rohan Pereira says:

      Just to add to this.

      It seems to me that Catholicism recognised early on that the bible was not the final word of God to humanity. They had the same perspective that Swedenborg had which was that some truths were not able to be conveyed to the masses in its purest form and that some were conveyed confusingly in various biblical passages (like for example as you noted: ‘God hardened the heart of the pharoah’).

      Hence the early catholic chuch restricted the bible’s distribution and language (Latin). They also added to canon with the writings of various theologians, law passed by the pope and tradition. They recognised that some truths were only to be made available to those that had reached a higher state (i.e. those that had been vetted through seminaries and orders) and established a centralised hierarchy.

      I believe the protestants eventually realised that Catholicism had deviated too far from the will of God and hence went back to square one. i.e. restricing themselves to the bible as the only source of truth. Hence all of their fundamentalism.

      So its begs the questions. How much intrepretation is necessary to live life?

      I used to repair computers at a catholic institution and I spent a great deal of time with a famous theologian here in Australia. Over the last few decades, he produced many books on ethics for medical professionals. Some of the topics were really complicated such as euthanasia. I can see that some of his work actually later on because the official position of the church (thereby elevating it to ‘law’ in some form).

      So law and instruction on how to live life somehow seems to be a natural human process for spiritual societies.

      • Rohan Pereira says:

        Hi Lee

        Sorry to be a pain with my long comments but would you be able to comment on whether God intended to advise man on how to practically live life for their neighbour? Really look forward to your perspective.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rohan,

      To avoid tangled threads, I’ll make my response to your comments in a reply to your first comment.

      As you suggest, there is a phase shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament with regard to specific instructions about how to live.

      Most of the Old Testament was given to guide a low-level obedience-based culture. Most people in such cultures are not motivated by love of God and the neighbor, nor even by faithfulness to truth and principle, but by the necessity of obedience to strict laws enforced by punishments for those who break the law. Needless to say, there are still many millions of people in the world today who are at this low spiritual level.

      For such people, it is necessary to spell out clear and specific behavioral laws in many areas of life. Without such clear and specific laws, these people will continually follow their natural desires, which are generally for personal pleasure and profit even if it comes at the expense of the wellbeing of others. So we find in the Old Testament—and in other sacred books aimed at different cultures that are at this stage of spiritual development, such as the Quran—detailed lists of laws about how to behave in various situations, and the punishments to be imposed upon those who violate these laws.

      The New Testament represents a paradigm shift to a different spiritual level and a different basis for people to live good and law-abiding lives. Instead of being about specific laws and punishment for violators, the New Testament focuses on living from faithfulness and love, and following cultural, legal, and spiritual laws on that basis rather than on the basis of obedience and fear of punishment. So in the New Testament, there are nowhere near the detailed listings of specific behavioral laws that there are in the Old Testament.

      This is not to say that there are no behavioral laws at all in the New Testament. Jesus affirmed the basic laws of the Ten Commandments (see, for example, Matthew 19:16–19), while modifying at least one of them: the commandment to keep the Sabbath (see, for example Matthew 12:1–14).

      However, Jesus made love for God and the neighbor the central commandments. And Paul made it clear that all of the other rules and laws that we are to follow flow from and are based on love:

      Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8–10)

      By this he did not mean that we are no longer subject to any laws as long as we love our neighbor. Rather, he meant that when we love our neighbor, we will keep the laws that involve how we actually love the neighbor practically speaking, including the specific ones he references from the Ten Commandments, not just because we know we know we must or we will get punished, but because we don’t want to do anything that will harm our neighbor, but instead want to do things that will help and serve our neighbor. That’s ultimately what God’s commandments are for.

      So in general, the New Testament affirms the basic laws of the Ten Commandments with some modifications, while providing a different basis for keeping them. And it allows many rules and regulations to lapse that were required for a very low-level (spiritually speaking) society based on behavioral obedience, including all the laws of sacrifice, and many of the other ritual and behavioral laws.

      So in answer to your specific question, though many laws in the Old Testament, and even some in the New Testament (such as some of Paul’s statements about marriage) are aimed at specific times and cultures, the Ten Commandments, with some modifications, represent eternal divine laws. They also have deeper meanings that broaden and deepen their applicability, as you can see briefly outlined in this article: “The Ten Commandments: Our Spiritual Inventory List.” The two tables of the Ten Commandments relate to the two Great Commandments given by Jesus: love for God and love for the neighbor.

      As for how to act in specific circumstances, that is often very circumstance-specific. Spelling out detailed laws for every conceivable circumstance would require whole libraries of books, which nobody but professional lawyers would actually read. But the idea in Christianity is that if we are actually motivated by love for God and the neighbor as Jesus commands us, then we will seek out the best ways to act in various circumstances. And one of our spiritual tasks is to teach one another how to handle various circumstances and behave in various circumstances. These are things we can work out among ourselves if those overarching principles of love for God and the neighbor are kept at the center.

      The Catholic Church, of course, can spell these things out for its own members—and it has done so in an extensive body of canon law. However, it really is just another group of human beings. Its dictates don’t apply to anyone outside of its membership, nor does it have some special pathway to God giving it authority on earth to stand in Christ’s place as Christ’s vicar on earth, as its own doctrine very erroneously and blasphemously holds. Many of its behavioral laws are very wrong and very destructive, and increasingly so since they were mostly formulated in medieval times, and human culture has progressed greatly since then, while Catholic canon law has been slow to change and adapt. That is just one of the reasons the Roman Catholic church is steadily losing its influence over Western society.

      The Protestant reformers rightly saw, as you say, that the Catholic Church had gotten far off track. And they made some needed reforms, such as giving the Bible back to the people. But they had no greater enlightenment about spiritual matters than the Catholic Church did, and doctrinally they actually made matters worse with such utterly false doctrines as justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and predestination. So neither can Protestantism fulfill the role for humanity of detailing specific laws by which to live. Those conservative Protestant sects that attempt to do so mostly dish up their own idiosyncratic mix of Old Testament laws and laws from Paul’s epistles. And as with the Catholic Church, these particular mixes apply only to the members of their own particular sect.

      Ultimately, in Christianity, it rests with each individual to adopt a particular set of principles and laws by which to live. That’s because in true Christianity, we have a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ; we do not have human priestly mediators between us and God, because God in Christ is God’s own mediator (see: “Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!”). Even if we choose to let an organization delineate the laws for us, it is still our choice to belong to that particular organization and to accept its rules as a condition of our membership. If we decide we don’t agree with that organization’s particular list of laws, we can and commonly do leave for another church organization that we find more compatible with our own views, or we leave the organized church altogether.

      In short, for true Christians, there is no avoiding the responsibility of adopting a set of principles and rules for ourselves. And that is as it should be. A detailed set of laws goes out of date with time, and is commonly not updated fast enough to keep up with cultural and societal changes. Even secular law has vast numbers of laws that simply aren’t enforced anymore because they no longer make sense, but repealing them all is too time-consuming and costly. So we follow some of the laws that still make sense and/or are actively enforced, and ignore other laws that have gone out of date.

      There is no substitute for or escape from an active engagement in building and continually updating a set of behavioral rules, laws, and norms for ourselves both as societies and as individuals. Adhering to particular codes in various sets of scriptures is not necessarily helpful, because those scriptures stay the same while society changes. As I said earlier, even many of the laws given in the New Testament—especially by Paul, but even by Jesus—were adapted to their particular time and culture, and no longer work so well in today’s society. And as the New Testament itself says, we have to look beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

      All of those laws had some purpose, and were designed to carry out that purpose within the particular cultures in which they were given. Our job is to understand the underlying purpose—which at the core always has to do with love for God and the neighbor—and articulate for ourselves laws, rules, and principles that achieve the same underlying purpose in our particular society.

      • Rohan Pereira says:

        Hi Lee

        Thanks for your valued response. I agree that if one wants to be a member of a society or group, then one has to respect their law.

        This is consistent with the bible encouraging people to respect caesar and law of the land or the hired hand to be faithful to his master or the son to his father’s household or the wife to her husband’s household instead of her own parent’s household.

        There is even a great example of Jesus paying the temple tax (coin retrieved from fish’s mouth).

        I guess it all comes down to how the relationship was first contracted. But if the relationship was first contracted in an egalitarian manner, then there is no divine need for submission.

        Truly it would take a explicit divine intervention to go against convention (as in the case of Swedenborg’s departure from the traditional church)

  2. Tony says:

    hi lee

    Is it the sun’s fault that a rotting corpse turns its warmth and light into maggots and putrefaction? woah I thought the body just simple decomposes into bones I did not know the sun does that.

  3. John says:

    If God will not allow us to achieve enlightenment that we are unable to sustain. How did it occur in the people Swedenborg describes as having backslid mixing evil with good such that they could neither be in heaven or hell? Ex: Divine Providence S-226

    • Lee says:

      Hi John,

      Unfortunately, God cannot do away with our free will without destroying us as human beings. Presumably those people had the ability to sustain their enlightenment, but chose not to.

      • John says:

        Thank you for the reply. I guess I have trouble understanding (given God’s foresight) why God would create someone destined to such a poor existence. It seems counter productive and contrary to a loving nature. I’m sure that’s not the case, but I’m unable to make sense of it.

        • Lee says:

          Hi John,

          Yes, it’s a tough one. But if God starts tinkering around with our free will, and not creating us if we are going to make the wrong choice, where does it stop? If God can prevent us from going horribly wrong, and from having a horrible existence, then God could also prevent us from going just a little bit wrong, and having a slightly lousy existence. And then pretty soon we would have no free will at all, and we’d no longer be human.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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