Vessels of Wrath

There is a lot of evil in the world. No one really denies that, it’s the essence of the problem of evil. Probably the biggest argument used to defend the presence of so much evil in the world is the issue of free will. God had to allow for the potential for evil in order to give human beings free will, which apparently, he values extraordinarily highly. In light of this let’s look at a small passage of Scripture:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.”

So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”

On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?

Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

Romans 9:17-22 (NASB)

This passage is loaded with statements about God’s sovereignty and human free will, or more specifically the lack of it. I won’t go through and examine every single verse, but that would make for an extremely interesting exercise. What is easy to extract from this passage of Scripture is that human beings don’t have free will. Yes, I know that there are other scriptures which suggest that human beings do have free will, but that only further compounds the problem. This is a part of the Bible’s internal inconsistency. There are scriptures which appear to support the idea that humans have free will, and scriptures which very clearly deny the idea that humans have free will. You would think that if the Bible was God’s Divine message that he would have made up his mind as to whether or not humans have free will before passing the message to the scribes. But for the purposes of this article we are going to presume that this particular passage is correct in its understanding of human autonomy. The second verse tells us that God dishes out mercy in whatever arbitrary manner seems right to him. He hardens who he wants. The act of hardening suggests that God actually changes the nature of a person’s will so that they will choose to do what he wants them to do rather than what they would otherwise do. The next passage says that no one can resist his will. This absolutely denies the idea of free will. If God wants you doing something or believing something you’re going to do it! This passage espouses determinism. Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will. As a result determinism implies that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. What are the implications of this for Christianity and any other religion which is confronted by the problem of evil? Well, if we live in a deterministic universe then we cannot have any free will. If we do not have free will then there is no reason for God to place us in a world that has evil. This is because it will be impossible for us to exercise free will in order to make meaningful decisions about right and wrong, because we don’t have any free will in the first place. Therefore, if we live in a deterministic universe there is no solution for the theist in regards to the problem of evil.

In my observations over the years I have noticed that Christians treat the Bible as though a whole bunch of scriptures don’t actually exist. They will pass over those particular “troublesome” passages without any thought. This is a form of mental redaction. It is also a type of cognitive dissonance. Believers are prepared to regard certain passages of scripture as though they are the living word of God and completely untouchable and unchallengeable, while at the same time just ignoring the existence of other passages of scripture. The scriptures which are ignored will generally fall into one of the following categories: they are either too difficult to understand; they strongly suggest that God is in fact evil; they contradict our current understanding of science; or they contradict other passages that the theist wants to believe. So, many Christians believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God while at the same time rejecting parts of it wholesale, generally just writing them off as being part of the old covenant. If you investigate properly however you will find that these passages cannot actually be so easily dismissed. It is amazing how much you can overlook when you are actively trying to make a belief system work through the use of a particular literary tool.

God must surely be fairly unhappy with me at the moment, if he currently exists. So I suppose that I can count myself as one of these “vessels of wrath” mentioned in Romans 9. Let’s explore that for a moment. If indeed I am a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction it means that God has actually had to predetermine that I would be resistant to his belief system. In fact beyond that he would have had to arrange it so that I was accepting of his belief system at one point in time and then changed so that I would not believe it any more. In this sense it would mean that God had hardened my heart.[1] But hold on, where is my free will in this process? If God is the one who has made me believe and then not believe, how can I possibly be at fault for my own decisions? They are, after all, not really my decisions at all. They are God’s decisions. At no point in this argument does free will play a role. There is no point in here at which I have free choice, I am simply doing what God forces me to do. I am like a robot awaiting programming, I simply follow the code that God punches in. So if you value free will, then you better make this one of those scriptures that you redact from your Bible. Just look at verse 18, isn’t that marvellous: he has mercy on whom he wants and he hardens who he wants, so basically God is just saying f**k you, you don’t have any free will, you’re just going to do what I make you do. And then I’m going to reward you or punish you for it – sounds pretty reasonable doesn’t it? Perhaps you don’t have a heart and are thinking “I’m saved so I don’t really care what happens to anybody else.” Okay, but just remember that I was also saved at one point in time. So you too may be a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction. And it’s not going to be your choice as to whether or not you change from a believer into an unbeliever, that’s totally God’s call! But doesn’t God desire for all to be saved? Sure, I guess, but, apparently, not permanently.

The great Christopher Hitchens often said that, according to Christianity, we are created sick and then commanded to be well. This accurately depicts the type of mental gymnastics that have to take place in order for the believer to think that God is using a just method of determining who is naughty and who is nice. The passage in question reveals the true nature of the matter – whether you are naughty or nice, you are so because God created you that way. In fact, you may have been created nice and then turned naughty because God decided to harden your heart. I challenge you to spot human free will anywhere in this equation.

[1] Not the first time that he has done this, refer to (Exodus 10:1, 11:10, 14:8).

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