Good Question...does God's judgment violate the free choice of His creatures?



Updated  June 5, 2001; additional minor material added Jan/2003

I received this thoughtful question a while back...

Hello folks,

For some reason the past few days I've been heavily drawn into the Christianity argument. Fascinating. I would define myself as a former Christian (strongly so) who left the flock several years ago.

I also was bothered by what seemed to be the cruelty God exhibited in the OT.  Having read through your arguments (very good responses by the way to the Christ Copy Cat theories) I found the one about God's wrath uninspiring.

The problem for me is this. When God destroyed the twin cities of evil, wasn't he wrenching an individual's natural time on earth from him? In example, what if some of those people would have come to repentance in later years?

The anticipated response that God foresaw no one would repent doesn't satisfy my feelings of injustice; that being the case, why doesn't God just destroy everyone at birth who won't bend to his will? Where is the free will when God intercedes with catastrophes such as the flood?  I thought that was the point of us being on earth-- to choose. Why cut the game short? And is it really possible in a time of following law (not being washed by Christ's blood) that NO ONE else on earth was righteous as God saw Noah? Really? Doesn't seem likely.

Secondly, and related in my heart is a passage (Romans??)
where Paul informs us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart ot show his power to the Jews. Paul also uses the word predestined.

Usually, a minister will wriggle around this and say God is just using foreknowledge. Foreknowledge and predestination are not the same.

And predestination seems to be what Paul is stating for he anticipates my reaction of " Hey,  that's not fair. How can God blame anyone then? Who can withstand His will?" To which Paul replies ( I hate this reply!!!) Who are you to question God if he wants to make something for noble or ignoble use? In short, Paul is clearly placing the word predestination into a context that can't be mistaken.

thanks for your response and already I do appreciate your deep investigative nature and scrutiny of your beliefs, rather than being satisfied with what your grandmother taught you when you were a child.  Sincerely, and still open to possibilities, X


I really like the way you have formulated this/these question/s, friend, and I have turned this over and over in my head since you sent this in.

There seem to be three different questions in here:
 

  1. Does God's judgment in time unfairly compromise someone's 'free will'?
  2. How likely is it that Noah was the only righteous person on the whole earth, at the time of the Flood?
  3. Doesn't Paul's argument in Romans 9 pretty clearly indicate that people's free choices are determined by God--without consideration of free will, etc.?
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Let me first take a look at the "free will" versus in-history judgment issue...

There seems to be a couple of relevant aspects to this first 'free will reduction' issue:

First, what seems to be the case here (i.e., God cutting a person's time on earth short, for reasons of judgment on abusive/violent/disruptive behavior) is that an individual's time on earth (and hence, time for making/changing one's mind about how one treats other persons/Persons) is affected radically by any actions they do to shorten/steal other people's time-for-choosing.

For a hypothetical example, imagine that a 40-year-old man routinely hunts down children under 12 and kills them. In this hypothetical case, this person's time-for-choice is being used/abused to shorten many other people's time-for-choice. The "system" of human community life (including the various types of community-enabling/supporting government and judicial systems) is supposed to exile/eliminate these people before they do "too much" damage. This is simply practical governance issues, and we normally accept that one person's freedom to move about and affect others needs to be restricted/eliminated in cases where they are truly/clearly a threat to a much wider/larger group of other people. Most ethical systems accept that incarceration (and even execution, in some extreme cases)--a definite curtailment of freedom--is the correct moral choice in cases of abuse of freedom and power.

And, as was seen in the cases of God's "wrath" in the OT/Taanach), a similar dynamic is visible. He was/is "wrenching an individual's natural time on earth from him"--just as we would in cases of repeated, sustained, and/or large-scale violent/murderous crimes...notice, however, that the OT situations are not generally one-off or single-act scenarios, but situations of large-scale, community-wide, or long-reaching violence/oppression...and the few individual act situations involve issues such as rulers setting bad examples for their communities/leaders...so Proverbs can say on a smaller scale: "If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked" (29.12), and the example of Manasseh "leading Israel to sin" is a vivid case in point...

I remember a teacher back in junior high school telling our class that "your rights end where another's begin"...and their point was that my freedom is relative, and bounded by the freedom of others. Freedom is not some absolute that is given without bound to us creatures. We have to use that freedom in such a way as to not destroy/reduce/weaken the freedom of others (e.g., via murder, extortion, abuse, deprivation, exploitation, or psychological oppression), but rather (hopefully) use that freedom to expand the freedom of others (e.g., freedom from ignorance, bigotry, disease, legalism, hunger, oppression, false religion).

This last paragraph brings up another important point (IMO)--that is it not only an issue of removing someone else's choice via murder, but also an issue of choice "distortion"--via oppression and/or deprivation. I can conceptualize at least two variations of this:

1. "choice reduction" through suppression of the choice-making human faculty...this would include situations of physical deprivation (e.g., its very hard to think freely when you are starving) and/or physical distortion (e.g., its very hard to think freely under situations of extreme fear/panic, or pain-from-torture).

2. "choice distortion" through psychological conditioning...this would be where a person developed a 'closed-minded' and 'anti-person' attitude, on the basis of repeated experiences of betrayal, abandonment, treachery, abuse, etc...in this case, the range of 'reasonable choices' for this person are narrowed, to the exclusion of choices of openness, respect, confidence, trust, and respect--the very core components of 'belief' (i.e., open-hearted trust in the good-heartedness and for-you work of God in/through the person of Jesus).


So, I think general ethical principles would support the principle of 'reduction' (by outside, authorized, protective agents of the community) of the freedom/power of certain abusers of that power/freedom ...

Second, we should also recognize that how one uses free will always conditions future use of that free will, sometimes radically restricting its range of use in the future. For example, if I use my free choice to cut off my right arm, my future free will to use my right arm are severely restricted...Or, if I use my free choice to expand my horizons, and open up to new ideas, approaches, and attitudes, my range of choices might actually increase. [Choices to engage in exercise, for example, often increase the range of activities that I might could undertake.] What this indicates is that free-will is also 'reduced' by our own choices (and the consequences of those choices). If we choose to reduce the choices of others, for example, the response by the community to our unlawful and abusive behavior could almost be considered "self-inflicted consequences" of our own choices (even though administered by others)

Third, I don't' think foreknowledge is part of the equation at all (in spite of what some others might have suggested). Our analysis so far would indicate that the main factor has to do with how one uses or abuses their power of choice. It is not focused on their personal future, but is focused on the present of the community--how much damage are they doing now--and on the immediate future of the community--how much more damage will they do if we let them continue abusing their 'free will'?

A human example from my personal experience might illustrate this point:

As an executive , I have been responsible for team projects in which I have had to remove one of the original team members due to divisive and/or disruptive behavior. They were essentially functioning as saboteurs, and holding the rest of the group back from reaching their success. In one particularly memorable case, the individual in question, however, was exceptionally bright, talented, and someone that I felt would eventually become a great leader, contributor, and even perhaps manager sometime in the future. But this promise of the future (even if I would have had "infallible foreknowledge" of that future) could not be the deciding factor in whether I let this individual stay on the team (and sabotage its success). The decision had to be made on the basis of present values, and the rights/values of the others in that team/community. I could not let the accepted future success and future 'turn-around' of the divisive individual override the importance of success and a good experience for the other team members in the present. This would have been tantamount to eliminating the 'freedom' and possibilities of success, enrichment, and development of a wider community (i.e., the project team),  in favor of letting one individual express free will in a destructive fashion.

What this illustration/analogy would suggest is that foreknowledge cannot be a deciding factor on whether the person is allowed to remain in full 'use' of his/her freedom to abuse/violate others. It could be used, of course, in trying to architecture ways to remove the person, and still allow them to develop (e.g., God's patience with all of us), but while the abusive situation is still in existence, the decision must be made on the basis of broader values than simply one individual's free choice. [BTW, in many modern penal systems, the hope that a convicted criminal with be 'rehabilitated' is always "implemented" while the criminal is still in prision...in other words, the value of isolation/exile/removal (as a protective measure for the community) is STILL accepted as a higher value than the value of letting them 'run free' while they 'rehabilitate'.]

Fourth, we might notice that the targets of God's choice-restriction (via exile/dispersion, execution, or removal from positions of authority) are generally those in culture-transmission roles. They are rulers, teachers, religious authorities, warrior class elites, and the economically powerful--those who perpetuate their own exploitative/destructive values through the use of power, and who in that process, 'control' the culture which shapes/influences/dominates each subsequent generation.  These individuals are not first-time-offenders, occasional perpetrators, or the morally 'confused'--they have already 'sold themselves' to do these acts, they are consistent and deliberate perps, and their characters/hearts/habits/worldviews are completely integrated around these reversal of values. They "call evil good", and model this behavior to their descendants and community. This is not a case of God "busting them when they simply slipped up", but rather a more difficult issue of how God could 'wait so long'--allowing them to victimize so many--before He dealt with the violators. [BTW, part of the Problem of Innocent Suffering arises because of God's tendency to be as patient as possible with these people, creating the illusion that He doesn't care about suffering enough to consistently intervene in history upon every intention of ours to hurt someone...] Frequently, OT judgments involve overthrow of a king, removal of a religious figure (e.g., priest or prophet), destruction of authority structures through dispersion of a peoples (e.g., Canaanites), or removal of a peoples from a position of independence (e.g., the exile of Judah). In most cases, it looks like the few examples we have of actual interventions of God in the OT are not targeted at the common folk, but at those who are "dug in" in holding exploitative values.
 

Which brings us to the second question--that of the destruction at the time of Noah...

If I understand your question correctly, it is something like "isn't it unlikely that only ONE person on the earth was considered righteous by God?" I would assume that your reasoning had to do with world population size(?)--that with a large enough population, wouldn't it be "likely" that more than one person was 'good'?

Assessing this situation is very difficult, since our sources are so limited in how much detail they give us, and even the interpretation of much of it is speculative.

We don't have a lot of data to work with about this situation, but let's see what is available:

In Genesis 6 we read (NASV):

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
5 Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 7 And the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
9 These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah became the father of three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
13 Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. [emphasis mine].
This passage gives us nothing about the size of the population at the time of the flood, so our analysis of this group will have to make many assumptions. Let's try to estimate the size of the population first, and then analyze the 'moral' aspects of the culture of that time.

What information might we consider in trying to estimate the size of the pre-flood population?

1. The biblical data only gives us around 25 named individuals in the text, and which implications of only another 40-60 (e.g., unnamed wives, daughters).

2. There are only  ten generations mentioned from Adam to Noah, but there could be generations deliberately omitted by the author, as was sometimes done in both the Bible and in the ANE. Conservative scholars have long recognized this, esp. in the Genesis/Chronicles lists:

"There are three general areas in which genealogies function: the familial or domestic, the legal-political, and the religious. In the domestic area an individual's social status, privileges and obligations may be reflected in his placement in the lineage (see 7:14-19); the rights of the firstborn son and the secondary status of the children of concubines are examples from the Bible. In the political sphere genealogies substantiate claims to hereditary office or settle competing claims when the office is contested. Land organization and territorial groupings of social units may also be determined by genealogical reckoning--e.g., the division of the land among the 12 tribes. In Israel military levies also proceeded along genealogical lines; several of the genealogies in Chronicles reflect military conscription (5:1-26; 7:1-12, 30-40; 8:1-40). Genealogies function in the religious sphere primarily by establishing membership among the priests and Levites (6:1-30; 9:10-34; Ne 7:61-65).

"As to form, some genealogical lists trace several lines of descent (segmented genealogies) while others are devoted to a single line (linear genealogies).

"Comparison of genealogical lists of the same tribal or family line often brings to light surprising differences. This fluidity of the lists may reflect variation in function. But sometimes changes in the status or relations of social structures are reflected in genealogies by changes in the relationships of names in the genealogy (see 1:35-42; 6:22, 27) or by the addition of names or segments to a lineage (see 5:11-22; 6:27; 7:6-12). The most common type of fluidity in Biblical materials is telescoping, the omission of names from the list. Unimportant names are left out in order to relate an individual to a prominent ancestor, or possibly to achieve the desired number of names in the genealogy. Some Biblical genealogies, for example, omit names to achieve multiples of 7: For the period from David to the exile Matthew gives 14 generations (2 times 7), while Luke gives 21 (3 times 7), and the same authors give similar multiples of 7 for the period from the exile to Jesus (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38).

"The genealogies of Chronicles show variation in all these properties; the arrangements often reflect the purpose for which the genealogies were composed prior to their being adopted by the Chronicler as part of his record. [The NIV Study Bible, at the introduction to I Chronicles]

3. One Jewish tradition asserts that Adam had 33 sons and 33 daughters.

4. Another Jewish tradition (Pseudo-Philo) gives 24 descendants for Adam, and gives an average number of offspring of 7-8 people (or 3-4 couples), for each of Seth and his descendants. Using this average family size [in a "generous" geometric expansion], we would only get a maximum world population in the range of 15,000-20,000 by the time of Noah. [This doesn't factor in any mortality rates or unmentioned generations in the genealogy.]

5. A small family size might be suggested by Noah's having only three sons, and Lamech having four sons.

6. Procreational activity was apparently slower back then, with childbearing only beginning somewhere in the 65-190 year ranges (for the male). Ancient Lagash kinglist legends indicates that maturation processes were also slower around the time of the flood:

"An amusing sidelight--at least new to me--falls on their amazing longevity from a text listing kings of the city of Lagash. It makes clear that these ancients not only lived extraordinarily 'long' but also, apparently, lived extraordinarily 'slowly,' that took their time about growing up. The Lagash Kinglist says about the generations immediately after the flood had subsided: 'In those days a child spent a hundred years in diapers...After he had grown up he spent a hundred years without being given any task (to perform)'" [ISI:134, where he also points to the 100-year childhood in Hesiod]
7. We need to adjust whatever estimates we come up with, by the obviously rampant murder/violence rates in the pre-flood time. The killing of Abel by Cain, and Lamech's "seventy-seven fold vengeance" in Genesis 4 would suggest that God's judgment in Genesis 6 [that "the earth was filled with violence"] was an accurate statement. This would, of course, cause us to adjust downward whatever population figures we would estimate based on procreational productivity.

8. Enoch is called 'seventh from Adam' in the NT book of Jude--and this might argue for their being exactly 10 generations from Adam--but this is not decisive, since numbers WITHIN a geneaological reference can be 'odd', and not to be taken at face value. So, for example, Matthew speaks of 'fourteen generations from Abraham to David' (etc.), but we believe that this number is a rounded-off number for memory-usage purposes. The 14 is thus not to be taken as 'literally' but as 'helpful, in using the genealoogy'. Likewise, in Hebrews, when the author there is refering to Melchizedek, he uses the phrase "without father or mother". We take that to mean that Melchizedek's lineage is not recorded IN THE GENEAOLOGY, and NOT that he was created without parents. So, references within a geneaology cannot be pushed too far numerically. "Seventh from Adam" could be simply a reference to 'seventh' as a sublime number (as per several commentators on the passage).

9. Any mathematical modeling of these generations needs to factor in infant mortality, within the geometic progression. Infant mortality in the ancient world is estimated at between 25% and 50%. These numbers show up in our earliest records of civilization, so there would be some reason to suspect that these types of figures were operative in the post-Fall, pre-Flood world. Needless to say, a 35% infant morality rate would greatly reduce the population total, the smaller the number of generations was.

10. If we factor in (a) significant gaps in the genealogy; (b) late/low procreativity; and (c) abnormally high incidence rates for infant mortality and for murder/war [see below] we might establish a broad range of population estimates, varying from 15,000-25,000 (the size of the ancient city of Tiberias, or perhaps the combined population of Sodom and its sister cities in Gen 19) to an order of magnitude greater 150,000-250,000 (the size of the ancient city of Nineveh [OT:CityAM:97]).


Next, let's try to ascertain the moral character of this group:

1. Acts of violence and attitudes of violence are noteworthy in the scant material we have. From the initial fratricide of Abel/Cain, to Cain's fear of violence himself, to the arrogant violence of Lamech, the character of humanity seems to be summed up in the word hamas (used in Genesis 6). Haag, in TDOT 4:482, defines hamas as:

"cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality"


2. The strange situation described in Genesis 6.1-4 is most likely one of oppression and exploitation of others. So, The Bible Knowledge Commentary:

"Many have suggested that the sons of God were the godly line of Seth and the daughters of men were the Cainites. But this does not do justice to the terminology or the context. Others view the “sons of God” as angels (as in Job 1:6), who cohabited with women on earth. This, however, conflicts with Matthew 22:30.

"The incident is one of hubris, the proud overstepping of bounds. Here it applies to “the sons of God,” a lusty, powerful lot striving for fame and fertility. They were probably powerful rulers who were controlled (indwelt) by fallen angels. It may be that fallen angels left their habitation and inhabited bodies of human despots and warriors, the mighty ones of the earth.

"It is known from Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Daniel 10:13 that great kings of the earth have “princes” ruling behind them—their power is demonic. It is no surprise that in Ugaritic literature (as well as other nations’ literature), kings are described as divine, half-divine, or demigods. Pagans revered these great leaders. Many mythological traditions describe them as being the offspring of the gods themselves. In fact bn'lm (“sons of the gods”) in Ugaritic is used of members of the pantheon as well as great kings of the earth. In the Ugaritic legend of the Dawn, the chief god of the pantheon, El, seduced two human women. This union of a god with human women produced Shr (“Dawn”) and Slm (“Dusk”) who seem to have become goddesses representing Venus. Thus for the pagans, gods had their origin in copulation between gods and humans. Any superhuman individual in a myth or any mythological or actual giant would suggest a divine origin to the pagans.

"Genesis 6:1-4, then, describes how corrupt the world got when this violation was rampant. It is also a polemic against the pagan belief that giants (Nephilim; cf. Num. 13:32-33) and men of renown (Gen. 6:4) were of divine origin, and that immortality was achieved by immorality. The Canaanite cult (and most cults in the ancient Near East) included fertility rites involving sympathetic magic, based on the assumption that people are supernaturally affected through an object which represents them. Israel was warned to resist this because it was completely corrupt and erroneous.

"The passage, then, refutes pagan beliefs by declaring the truth. The sons of God were not divine; they were demon-controlled. Their marrying as many women as they wished (possibly this is the origin of harems) was to satisfy their baser instincts. They were just another low order of creatures, though powerful and demon-influenced. Children of these marriages, despite pagan ideas, were not god-kings. Though heroes and “men of renown,” they were flesh; and they died, in due course, like all members of the human race. When God judges the world—as He was about to—no giant, no deity, no human has any power against Him. God simply allots one’s days and brings his end.

I have noted elsewhere that the clause "whomsoever they desired" might refer to wife-stealing (cf. 2 Sam 11.4) or even the hated "right of first night":
"It is more likely that this is a reference to the 'right of the first night,' cited as one of the oppressive practices of kings in the Gilgamesh Epic. The king could exercise his right, as representative of the gods, to spend the wedding night with any woman who was being given in marriage. This presumably was construed as a fertility rite. If this is the practice referred to here, it would offer an explanation of the nature of the offense." [OT:BBCALL].
Or Wenham's statement of the position in WBC:
"In support of this view it is pointed out that judges are apparently identified with gods and the sons of the Most High in Ps 82. Certainly the Davidic king is called God's son in 2 Sam 7:14 and Ps 2:7 and at Ugarit King Keret is described as El’s son. On this interpretation the kings were guilty of an abuse by marrying “whoever they chose,” i.e., compelling women to join their polygamous harems. It is urged that only an interpretation which identifies “sons of God” with men as opposed to angels can explain why men are judged for the intermarriages that occurred."


So, the biblical data indicates a very destructive culture of the time, but would there be any extra-biblical support for this understanding?

We might be able to marshal the insights of anthropology/archeology in trying to understand the probable nature of that time.

Anthropology professor Lawrence Keeley (University of Illinois at Chicago) makes a powerful case [War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Oxford:1996] that prehistoric humankind was exceptionally violent--much more so than "historic" man--and uses ethnographical data from modern primitive societies for comparison. Even though the identification of the antediluvian civilization with any of the specific prehistoric cultures discovered by archeology is exceedingly problematic, the data we have suggests that the earliest humans were quite violent (quotes are from the above work, emphasis mine):

There are of course HUGE problems trying to correlate this data with the Genesis passages, but the point of the above quotes was to document high levels of atrocity at all prehistoric periods and areas. In this way, the Genesis data would be included "somewhere in there"...
 

In addition to the biblical data and the archeological data, we might at least notice that the literary data from extra-biblical flood traditions generally indicates a 'race-wide' memory of the treachery of the pre-Flood generation.

If one peruses the various Flood traditions, one can see that most/many of the extra-biblical Flood traditions (i.e., ones that delineate any causes) describe the flood as a judgment upon humanity's corruption.

Some examples would include:


Eliade summarizes: "However, if we examine the myths that, in other cultures, announce the coming flood, we find that the chief causes lie at once in the sins of men and the decrepitude of the world." [WR:HRI1:63]

So, what this data--biblical, archeological, literary--would indicate/strongly suggest is that the pre-Flood generation was exceptionally violent.

So the culture of the world at that time was excessively violent-- but why would we suspect that the biblical portrait of "only Noah was good" was an accurate assessment of the total situation? What kinds of evidence or argument might support the biblical portrayal?

The only extra-biblical "semi-evidence" we might could marshall here would be from sociology and from the literary Flood traditions.

The literary Flood traditions very, very often refer to the concept of only one human, one pair of humans, or one family as being 'righteous' in their stories. The pre-historic "memory" transmitted in the various Flood stories would thus support the "noah-only" (or "noah-and-family-only") model of Genesis. In other words, ancient cultures 'remembered' that most/all of humankind was treacherous/violent, and that only one human/pair/family was 'good'. This provides some support for the notion that the survivor(s) of the flood [sent because of judgment on barbarism and violence, in those Flood stories] were NOT treacherous and violent. And this would indeed be the story of Genesis 6.

From sociology/cultural anthropology, we know that the more homogenous/integrated a culture is, the more strongly social pressures to conform are applied by that culture on its membership. In tribal (with strong kinship structures) situations, external threats of violence have a massive effect on self-understanding. Constant roles of warfare and violence (for whatever reason) produce changes in character:
 

"That nice people can be corrupted by evil situations is evident even in experiments that involve only minimal coercive social pressure [as opposed to the more famous Social Psychology ones, e.g., of Milgram and Zimbardo]. Numerous studies indicate the powerful effects of occupying a social role. Although a new role may at first feel artificial--we can feel that we are 'playing' it--the sense of phoniness soon tapes off. We absorb the role into our personalities and attitudes. Participating in destructive roles can therefore corrupt a person. Soldiers, for example, almost unavoidably develop degrading images of their enemy." [CS:PTEF:165f]


In the cases of constant external threats of violence, frequent mobilization of most manpower for combat, and the possible/probable presence of arrogant, powerful leadership ("heroes" and "mighty men"), the cultural systems for social control and conformity would likely efficiently eliminate social deviance (in this case, "good behavior"!). Monolithic and societies with efficient enculturation systems (e.g., isolated communities and "raiding nomadic" cultures) can frequently produce populations with small deviance. Strong kinship awareness can also contribute to tight social integration (cf. the "opposing" lines of Cain and Seth in the Genesis narrative). From this perspective, it is quite plausible that Noah might be an anomaly within the pre-Flood population.

In addition to the literary evidence and the "plausibility" evidence from the human sciences, we might also note that the biblical data does NOT 'over-glorify' Noah--a mark of sobriety and authenticity. The episode of Noah's drunkenness and his obvious failure in parenting (e.g., his sons are not 'righteous' in the narrative--only HE is) show him to be a 'merely human' figure too. One might also note that Noah failed to persuade any of his contemporaries--perhaps itself a sign of how 'deviant' he was in his culture.

All in all, although the data is not as strong as we perhaps would like, it nonetheless supports at some level the biblical portrayal of Noah and his community. [The data certainly offers no consistent contrary data to the biblical story.]
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The third question deals with Romans 9, so let's dig into that here...

There are many theological questions involved in this passage, but only a couple of them touch on your question.

As I understand your question/objection, it is basically that:

Free choice (concerning one's eternal destiny) is contradicted by the examples of Pharoah's 'hardening' and Paul's "vessel" argument (in Romans 9).
You mention the word "predestination" (which appears in chapter 8, but not in the chapter under discussion here--chapter 9). In chapter 8, it is clearly linked to 'foreknowledge' but its meaning in the passage has little to do with 'free choice'--it is rather a statement of guarantee, that believers will eventually conformed to the image of the Son...a different meaning than that commonly give to it in popular usage.

In popular usage, 'predestination' is often used to mean something more like 'election' or 'selection' (more to the point).

The issue of election/predestination per se has several layers of issues:

YOUR question deals with an exegetical issue--does Romans 9 teach that some people are pre-selected and 'forced' to go to heaven or to hell?

By itself, I personally (following many others of a conservative 'bent') do not believe that Romans 9 has anything at all to do with eternal destiny of individuals---that it only deals with matters within history and/or service to God. (I have been thinking about this passage for 30+ years, but am still not 'finished'...smile). A summary of my understanding of this  passage, in its context, would include the following major elements:
 

First of all, the passage doesn't deal with eternal destiny at all:
 

  • "We bring another assumption to this text which skews our hearing of it in a particular direction. Because of certain inherited theological traditions, we tend to hear this text in terms of predestination and eternal destiny. This theological tradition holds that our eternal destiny has been predetermined. The inevitable question to such a view is the one which Paul's hypothetical reader asks: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" (Rom 9:19)...This question has validity only if Paul is in fact concerned here with the matter of individuals' eternal destiny. On close reading of the passage, however, it becomes clear that he is not speaking about salvation and eternal destiny, but about God's calling of individuals to service, and God's use of events and persons in the accomplishment of his redemptive purposes, namely the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles" [HSOBX:559f]

  •  
  • "Neither in Malachi (1.2-3) nor in Paul's use of it (in Romans 9.13-15) is there then any warrant for the idea that God has determined in advance the eternal destinies of either the people of Israel or the people of Edom. The historical situations of the two nations, their 'election' or 'rejection', are but temporary evidences of God's sovereign freedom with which he moves history toward his redemptive purposes. "God so loved the world' (Jn 3:16), including Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom, Jew and Gentile." [HSOBX:561]

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  • "From this brief look at these crucial chapters (Rom 9-11), one point emerges clearly. Paul's focus is upon God's selection of the nation Israel in its historic role, not upon specific individuals for eternal salvation. Even the choice of individuals like Jacob was for their tasks in God's historic program with his people, not their personal salvation." [TH:NCP:76]

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  • "When he discusses the Egyptian pharaoh, Paul's concern is not his personal salvation....Whether or not they (for example, the pharaoh) receive salvation is an issue separate from their selection for a task" [TH:NCP:198]

  • Secondly, even if the passage were dealing with eternal destinies, the main focus on the passage is on groups, not individuals:

    "We should not act, however, as if this were Paul's only word on predestination and the hardening of people. Here he is making a point about how God has worked with broad groups of people, the Jews as a whole and the Gentiles as a whole. He is also pointing out that Jewish prophets knew about this plan of God long before it tool place. Yet Paul goes on to underline in the following chapter (10) that all of this happened through human choices. God chose to make his salvation available, not on the basis of the Jewish law, but on the basis of the grace of Christ. This was proclaimed to Jew as well as Gentile, so God did not coerce the Jews into hardening themselves. Yet, as God predicted, this good news was largely rejected the Jews and often accepted by the Gentiles." [HSOBX:562]

    "Paul affirms (in Romans 9:11) that God purposed to select Jacob above Esau. As God had named or counted Abraham's see through Isaac (9:7), so now the line would run through Jacob, not Esau. This choice of Israel's lineage was a sovereign divine act, and not motivated by any specific acts or responses from the twins. This was God's sovereign choice of an individual, though we hasten to add that the issue here is not his personal salvation. In reality, God made a corporate choice: he chose Jacob and his offspring to be his people rather than Esau and his descendants. As we noted above in our discussion of foreknowledge, in the section Ro 9-11 Paul struggles with the perplexing question, Has God rejected his people? God specifically chose Jacob, but not as an individual in isolation, nor for his personal salvation. Rather, Jacob became instrumental in tracing the ancestry of the people of Israel" [TH:NCP:173, italics his, bold mine]

    "Paul here (9.19-21) uses the language of Isaiah 29:16, 45:9 and 64:8, which the Dead Sea Scrolls often used in prayers. The point is that God made people, and God can therefore do with them as he wills. In the context this means that he can choose either Jews or Gentiles, not that his predestination is arbitrary." [BBC, in.loc.]

    "This verse (9.13) parallels what we have just observed...Paul quotes Mal 1:2-3 to confirm the point he has been making in this section--God has chosen Jacob over against Esau. Is this the election of Jacob to salvation? in Mal 1:2-3 the prophet's point is not salvation, but rather God's choice of the nation Israel over Edom. Thus, Jacob and Esau represent their progeny. In Malachi the nations Israel and Edom are mentioned specifically." [TH:NCP:173]

    Thirdly, even if the passage were dealing with eternal destinies, the categories/groups in the passage are not 'fixed' and 'closed' and 'inescapable':


    Fourth, even some of the word choices and language indicates in-history action (as opposed to some pre-history-action):


    Fifth, the general tenor of election passages have to do with broad typologies of people, differentiated by their 'humble' status:


    There are other issues involved in the passage that I would need to address more fully (e.g, what is 'glory' mean in the passage), but the above data should show that the text simply does not surface the kinds of problems we are discussing in this question.

    The in-history character of this, and its limited scope should be very obvious from the other similar, immediate-context cases. For example, a preceding generation has the 'election' promise ONLY going through Isaac--with Ishmael NOT being 'chosen'--but God EXPLICITLY blesses Ishmael at Genesis 17:20 (using a double-word emphatic construction--a clear case of 'blessing without election'!). And the later example of Manasseh and Ephraim, in which the 'lessor is chosen' over the first-born, still has a blessing placed squarely on Manasseh. Election to priviledge/responsibility is no indication whatsoever of lack of God's blessing and/or favor (at least in the context of Romans 9 and the Promises to the Fathers). This is in the general theme of God's chosing the 'non-elite' over the 'legally elite' (in these cases, the younger over the older).


    And that this doesn't involve 'cursing' or 'abandonment' of Esau specifically can be seen from Deut 2.5:

    and command the people, saying, “You will pass through the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful; 5 do not provoke them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as little as a footstep because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. Notice how the Lord would not let the 'chosen people' take a foot of ground from 'unchosen Esau'. God had blessed (and protected) this descendent of Abraham also--He just didn't use HIS lineage for creating the nation of Israel.

    [I have dealt with the issue of Pharaoh's hardening elsewhere (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/gutripper.html#harden and http://www.christian-thinktank.com/hharden.html) but he would also be a good case of our first point above--that of one's choices restricting one's own future choices via community response (in this case, God as benefactor/protector of Israel).]

    Now, let's be sure we understand that God clearly over-rides us in some situations, just as we over-ride one another's freedom sometimes. In God's case, most of it seems associated with judgment-after-patience, but He does nonetheless have a presence in our history and governance roles in our universe. But these 'special cases' (such as Pharaoh) are [1] not out-of-line with His moral stance (e.g., they are often after-patience judgments, and in-line with what we would do 'on a good day'...),  [2] nor wholesale infringements of a person's entire range of free choice (including the choices relative to response to God), [3] nor ends-in-themselves (they always "serve" the expansion of mercy and freedom);

    So, I think the Romans 9 passage shouldn't create a free-will (relative to individual, pre-time, eternal destinations) problem for us.

    [Needless to say, there are many, many more issues and passages that need to be discussed relative to the broader questions of election, etc., but as far as this question goes, I have to agree with the various commentators cited above, that Romans 9 is focused on other issues than those.]

    Hope this helps some...and thanks for such a open-minded approach to these issues,

    Warmly,
    Glenn Miller
    April, 2001


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