Through the first chapters of Exodus up to the literal exodus, God kept telling Moses that he would harden Pharaoh's heart. Does this mean that Pharaoh didn't have (Jacobus Arminius definition of) free will?

  • 1
    This might be better considered on Biblical Hermeneutics as the wording is crucial. 'The Lord' hardened Pharaoh's heart has a meaning of 'the presence' or 'the person' (meaning his very existence) had an effect on Pharaoh. Faced with the presence of God - in the presence of Moses - Pharaoh had a reaction to the very existence of the Person of God. The Hebrew needs to be examined.(+1) for a good question.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 8:08
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    Pharaoh's heart never appeared to have been particularly soft to begin with (Exodus 1:8-22).
    – user46876
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 9:18
  • @NigelJ do you think this should be migrated, or asked as well over there regarding the wording? Commented May 8, 2020 at 14:37
  • @IvanGarcíaTopete can you define freewill in your question (i.e. St. Augustine and John Calvin might have different opinions on the matter). I know there are some decent sounding answers, but this is a really free-wheeling question open to interpretation if the answer is "it depends on what one means by free will".
    – Peter Turner
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 22:27
  • 2
    @PeterTurner Jacobus Arminius definition of free will Commented May 14, 2020 at 17:49

6 Answers 6


It depends on what one means by “free will.”

If, by free will, one means, a person (in this case, Pharaoh) can make free choices ACCORDING to his nature, then yes, Pharaoh had free will. He had a sinful, fallen nature, so he was able to freely act in accordance with that nature—to sin and practice evil.

All who are born in Adam have a fallen nature, free to be what they are: sinners. But no one has the freedom within that fallen nature to not sin, nor to obey God, because their desire is for sin and their mind is corrupt. It requires a NEW NATURE to be able to obey God, and only God can grant that new nature to a person, according to the good pleasure of His sovereign will, to the praise of His glorious grace.

Man fell (in his nature) when Adam sinned, and this act of rebellion was decreed by God from all eternity, even though Adam was truly free to either obey God or disobey God, as in his original state, he did not have a fallen nature and could do what he wanted without the propensity to sin, unlike ourselves (and Pharaoh).

When it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it doesn’t mean Pharaoh acted against his will; it means that he acted according to his already fallen nature, which was hardened, and so God carried out His will through Pharaoh, to not free the Hebrews upon Moses’ plea, until such a time that God could display His great power and glory against Egypt, which was a type and shadow of bondage to sin (exactly what the sinful nature is). Ultimately, God is control of all things, and if God had freely chosen to show mercy to Pharaoh, he would have. But His purpose for Pharaoh was different.

Romans 9:17-18

17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith - On Free Will 1


If on is uncomfortable with the idea of Pharaoh not having free will then it seems to me that the only possible conclusion of that idea is that no one has free will.

  1. Then, each of us is "locked into" the person we will be--by God--without any chance to change?
    • Then, "choosing" or "rejecting" salvation is only a matter of waiting. If I am "pre-ordained" to "be saved," there is literally nothing for me to do: I can live as I choose, without fear of divine retribution.
    • Conversely, if I am "pre-ordained" to "be lost," there is also literally nothing for me to do: my "best" and most sincere efforts to find and serve God will be met with the reality of hell.
    • I am not convinced this is a Scriptural position.
  2. Pharaoh's hardened heart did not originate with God.
    • God knew of it and God predicted it.
      • Exodus 4:21, MEV: "I will harden his heart, so that he shall not let the people go."
    • However, God did not "pre-program" his hard heart. How do we know?
      • His heart was hardened before God called Moses.
        • The Egyptian Pharaoh regarded himself as the incarnation of an Egyptian deity; indeed, he considered himself a god, and wanted to be worshipped as such.
        • This explains his reaction when Moses told the leader what "the God of the Hebrews" commanded. "And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” [Exodus 5:2, MEV]
        • Being a god had its privileges; to Pharaoh, the God of the Hebrews was only one of many peers.
      • During several plagues, Pharaoh reconsidered his position, and thought about releasing the Israelites. Though he relented each time, his contemplation of another path shows he had free will.
  3. I think what happened to Pharaoh is best illustrated by a verse the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
    • 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 [MEV]: 8Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth, and destroy with the brightness of His presence, 9even him, whose coming is in accordance with the working of Satan with all power and signs and false wonders, 10and with all deception of unrighteousness among those who perish, because they did not receive the love for the truth that they might be saved. 11Therefore God will send them a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie: 12 that they all might be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
      • The strong delusion from God will come after people have made it clear they have no love for the truth. The order is important: first, I choose whether I love the truth; if I reject it, I may [eventually] be subject to a strong delusion from God.
      • A similar thought was expressed centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah.
        • Isaiah 66:3, 4 [MEV]: "...They have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose their punishments and will bring their fears on them, because when I called, no one answered; when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did evil before My eyes and chose that in which I did not delight."

Pharaoh had free will; each of us has free will. There is a significant difference between fore-knowledge and pre-destination.


The article God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That? lists all Exodus verses where sometimes God hardened Pharaoh's heart, and other times Pharaoh hardened his own heart. The article also lists "hardening hearts" by other people categorized by:

  • "God 'causing' it"
  • "Man causing it"
  • "No cause directly indicated"

as well as "If... Then..." conditional prophecies.

In connection to free will, this is a quote from the article (emphasis mine)

God allows such people their freedom to rebel, which in turn entails the devil getting in there and making things worse (just as God allowed the devil to tempt Job: Job 1:12). So in a sense to say that “God did so-and-so” when He simply allowed it to take place, is an assertion of God’s overall Providence. God is asserting that He is in control. There is also a strong sarcastic element in this sort of biblical concept (that we see in Job and often in the prophets), as if God were saying, “okay; you don’t want to follow Me and do what is best for you? You know better than I do about that? Very well, then, I’ll let you become blind and deluded. See how well off you’ll be then.”

Strictly speaking, that isn’t how God thinks or acts, but it was an anthropomorphism to help practical, concrete, non-philosophical Hebrew man be able to relate to the mysterious, transcendent God.

The bottom line is that men harden themselves in rebellion and God allows it. Hence we have in Scripture, many “if . . . then” conditional prophecies. If people rebel, God will withdraw His grace and protection from them, and so in a sense He did it.

See also answers to this earlier C.SE question: If God controls our decisions, does this mean we don't have free will?


Based on the text itself, free will was never an issue. Pharaoh had none. Christian theology is uncomfortable with that, though, so various methods have been developed to explain how Pharaoh could've had free will and still had his heart hardened. That "Pharaoh willed it and God allowed it, then made sure he didn't change his mind" is probably the most popular explanation.

But God passively allowing something is different from God actively doing something. And it is simply a fact that God sometimes (actively) does things in the Bible that make us choke on our theology (seeking to kill Moses in Ex 4:24 is an excellent example). Even in the case of Job, God didn't just passively ALLOW the satan to test Job, He instigated the whole way. The satan was His agent of accomplishing His will (for Job's good, incidentally, but that's a whole different discussion).

According to the text, God actively, intentionally caused Pharaoh to reject Moses and refuse to allow the children of Israel to go. God even tells us why he did this in Ex 10:2 - "that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD." And sure enough, this story of the Exodus is repeated OVER and OVER again, every time Israel needs to be reminded who her God is. God needed a big example his people would never forget. If Pharaoh had simply said, "Okay, go for it," then who would really remember it centuries later?

If you're uncomfortable with the idea of Pharaoh not having free will, I suggest looking at a broader picture. God had plenty of people to choose from when he put Pharaoh in office, just like Jesus had plenty of people to choose from when he called Judas Iscariot. God is outside of time - he knows us by our past, present, and future. When he put Pharaoh in position, it was with the full knowledge of what kind of person he was and how he would assist in accomplishing God's will for the children of Israel.

  • I'm not really uncomfortable with the idea; after all, God is sovereign! The question was stuck in my head and I couldn't get the "God's presence" as a real answer because of the activeness that you talk about. Great answer! Sometimes we are stuck in the theology box. Commented May 8, 2020 at 14:24

Did Pharaoh have free will?

Many misconstrue free will to be freedom of action. This is not so. Our free will is of the mind and heart. We can desire to do good or evil, be selfish or selfless, serve or demand. It is the heart's desire that we are free to have. God guides and controls our actions in accordance with his plans. We may get to act on our desire, we may not.

This is why at the thought of sin we have sinned.

  • Matthew 5:28 KJV  But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

It is not our actions that damn us, but our hearts desire. Which is why we cannot be saved by our works.

Yes, Pharaoh had free will and God used him and his evil desires for his purposes.

  • Proverbs 16:9 KJV  A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

  • James 4:13-15 KJV  Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:  14  Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.  15  For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

Pharaoh desired to assert himself against God but was getting weak kneed and beginning to fear the repercussions so God had to harden his heart so he would continue on the course God wanted.


A careful reading of the text of Exodus shows that none of the hardening took place until after Pharaoh refused the first request to let the Israelites go.

To me this indicates that Pharaoh did indeed have free will at the beginning, but he abused it (by choosing evil), and for this reason God stripped his free will from him.

This is a sobering reminder of God's sovereignty. Although I have the assurance that God is benevolent, and that He will provide me as many opportunities to repent and turn to Him as I may need, it is also true that God is omniscient and knows my heart, and thus knows if I am in a state where I will, by my own choice, squander every such opportunity. In short, it is within my power to irreparably alienate myself from God.

Thus did Pharaoh.

And so as He said that He would do, God used Pharaoh, making Pharaoh do things that Pharaoh regretted doing.

A second lesson I draw from this is that there are times where we will have exactly one opportunity to do the right thing, and that the best possible outcome will be ours only if we do that right thing when the choice first confronts us. We clearly saw this with Pharaoh. He was asked by God (through His prophet) to forgo the labor of the children of Israel for a brief period of time (they were going to go into the wilderness to worship and then return). When all was said and done, he was bereft of that labor not just for a few days, but in perpetuity, and also bereft of the firstborn child in every family in his nation (including his own firstborn son), as well as a substantial part of his army (which perished in the Red Sea), and the cattle and crops that were lost in the plagues, which he otherwise would have kept.

The third lesson is that each of us has an individual responsibility to correctly deduce right and wrong, beginning when we acquire the capacity for it, and that this responsibility stands even when we are surrounded by people who present to us a corrupt moral frame work. Pharaoh, from his youth until the moment that Moses first appeared before him (and doubtless for some time after), was told by everyone around him that he was in line to become a god and that extracting labor from the Israelites, by the cruelest force, was his right. There are those who say that it is not fair to judge Pharaoh by our twenty-first-century standards, but the narrative in Exodus makes it very clear that Pharaoh was expected by God to jettison all of the rationalizations for keeping the Israelites in bondage, and set them free, at the behest of a God whose name he had never heard until that day.

There are other lessons to be drawn from this, which I will leave to others who may be interested.

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