God’s trustworthiness is taken as foundational for many Christians or presumed on the basis of His other attributes (e.g. His absolute goodness), but this is theologically tenuous because the Bible attests that God engages in deceptive behavior.
Sometimes this is a matter of others doing God’s work through deception. For instance, Exodus 1:17-21 where Hebrew midwives lie to Pharaoh so that male infants are not slain, and God rewards them. Or when Micah proclaims that the Lord “has put a lying spirit in the mouth” of the prophets of king Ahab before him (1 Kings 22:23). We recall Job, where Satan is subordinate to God in the heavenly court and only acts with God’s permission.
But God sometimes deceives without use of intermediaries:
- God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he doesn’t attend to the wonders and miracles that Moses and Aaron perform (Exodus 4:21, 7:3–4, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4).
- Concerning Israelites or foreigners who have taken “idols into their hearts” and come to a prophet asking about God: “I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them; I will make them a sign and a byword and cut them off from the midst of my people; and you shall know that I am the Lord. If a prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet” (Ezekiel 14:7-9).
- “You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed” (Jeremiah 20:7).
- “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children'” (Matthew 11:25).
- When Christ comes again many unbelievers will be deceived by Satan. God assails them similarly. He “sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-2).
- “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28).
Jesus is also deceptive:
- “Therefore Jesus told [his unbelieving brothers], ‘My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.’ After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee. However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret” (John 7:6-10).
- Jesus teaches in parables in order to conceal the truth of the kingdom of God from outsiders and prevent their being forgiven (Mark 4:11-12, cf Matthew 11:25).
- While hypocrites wish to show off their righteousness by fasting and praying openly, Jesus tells his followers to disguise themselves: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).
What’s common to these cases of deception? All except possibly Jeremiah 20:7 involve God or Jesus befuddling their opponents, whether they be Pharaoh, false prophets, “all who have not believed the truth,” hypocrites, or outsiders of the kingdom of God.
Augustine holds a similar position, although he emphasizes God’s justice: “Therefore, whenever you read in the Scriptures of Truth, that men are led aside, or that their hearts are blunted and hardened by God, never doubt that some ill deserts of their own have first occurred, so that they justly suffer these things” (as quoted in van Hoozer, Kevin; “Ezekiel 14”; Theological Commentary). John Calvin admits that “nothing can be clearer than the many passages which declare, that he blinds the minds of men, and smites them with giddiness, intoxicates them with a spirit of stupor, renders them infatuated, and hardens their hearts” but insists that the Holy Spirit tells him all this is the “just judgement” of God (Institutes I.18.2).
I’m not convinced that all persons deceived by God deserve His deception because God also acts to demonstrate His sovereignty, and God would not be sovereign if He is compelled to only punish justly. God’s interaction with Pharaoh is telling. Pharaoh sometimes hardens his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34), but that only happens after God expressed a prior intention to harden his heart (4:21, 7:3–4). God says: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (14:4). Also: “But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth” (9:16). So God’s goals extend beyond punishing the wicked and serving justice.
Calvin writes helpfully in Institutes III.24.13: “Nor can it be questioned, that God sends his word to many whose blindness he is pleased to aggravate.” I agree with him. Whatever God’s motives, it’s clear that He has sufficient motive to deceive some people. We aren’t entitled to the assumption that God never deceives. He deceives by means of his own prophets, as Ezekiel 14:9 has already shown us. Being a good Trinitarian, Calvin isn’t entitled to trust the Holy Spirit when it tells him that God and Jesus only deceive for reasons of just judgement. He like us must entertain the possibility that God deceives through scripture.
So a different assumption is required. We must trust that we aren’t one of God’s opponents or victims, that we aren’t on His “bad side.” It’s unclear how this assumption is warranted, so we have reason to account for God’s trustworthiness. I’ll explore how this can be done in a later post.