I am told the earth’s probation is almost over and that the door of mercy will close, ending everyone’s chance for salvation. In this view, while God accepts repentance now, it will soon be too late for us to repent and receive forgiveness. When the world’s probation has closed, it will be doomed because God will no longer be merciful.
I don’t like this idea, as it portrays God as an austere probation officer who treats humans like criminals and is only concerned with identifying parole violations. Rather than measuring the limits of God’s mercy for the world, I prefer an understanding that defines a bracketed period of time in which humanity’s relationship with God is clarified. I don’t think God will ever cease to be loving and forgiving. God does what any loving Father would do; He hopes that His deserting children will get the chance to come home.
It is not that God will someday no longer forgive or show mercy but rather that some will no longer want to repent or seek forgiveness. This time will not reflect a closed probation but closed hearts. Only by keeping open communication with God can our hearts remain receptive. This seems to be John’s message in the Book of Revelation. The people do not wish to repent anymore because their hearts have become hardened (Revelation 16:9). I think that John is alluding to the time Pharaoh hardened his heart. Just as God challenged Pharaoh with wonders and plagues, so will He challenge the claims of the world.
I have contemplated this idea of closing hearts in light of Pharaoh’s hardening stance. In the Exodus story, we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but in other verses, this hardening is attributed to God. Sometimes, we are simply told that hardening occurred. So which is it? If God hardens hearts, it raises some serious questions about our free will. Perhaps there is a way in which all three expressions are true.
God gave Pharaoh many opportunities to free the slaves, but again and again, he chose to close his heart. Pharaoh closed his heart so many times that hardening was inevitable. Probation’s closing does not just happen—it comes to close choice by choice, decision by decision. I think that every choice I make is a choice about my heart. Hearts become closed through the decisions we make; with every bad choice, hearts become stiffened and lose a little more opportunity to do right. It thus gets easier and easier to be hard until one day, it’s impossible to change and one is set as the hardened person they’ve chosen to be.
In the Exodus story, we see God revealing Himself in a grand and glorious way. Through the plagues and wonders He displayed in Egypt, God wanted the Egyptians to know Him (Exodus 6:29; 7:5). I found it interesting to learn years ago that the word first used to describe Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the same word used to describe God’s weighty glory as in full of compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness (Exodus 33:18–19; 34:6). It seems that God was revealing the truth to Pharaoh to make his heart more compassionate, but every time Pharaoh resisted by hardening his heart, he became less capable of yielding.
During God’s displays of signs and wonders, Pharaoh said, “I have sinned this time. The Lord is righteous, and my people and I are wicked” (Exodus 9:27, NKJV). It would be out of character for God to harden hearts against Himself while asking them to change. I think God was encouraging Pharaoh’s free will to choose differently. God used supernatural wonders and plagues to reveal the evil around Pharaoh—exposing the false gods to help his heart become capable of compassion and mercy. God tried to help Pharaoh, but he repeatedly refused, stiffening his heart. Every time he hardened, he moved closer to the point of no return.
Might there be a collective hardening, in which the world is placed under similar pressures that require individuals to make simultaneous, repeated choices until every persons destiny is determined? What will happen at the close of probation? Why are there plagues? According to John in the Apocalypse, plagues are responses to the hardening of human hearts. People refuse to repent because their hearts are hardened (Revelation 16:9). They have made up their minds, and probation is thus closed.
If history is brought to a similar period in which everyone faces pressure to choose a side, these choices will define people’s habits, characters, and world views. Probation would close not because God closes it but because people have made their choices. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh reached a point where he could not change from the self-centered, arrogant person he had become. He chose to lack compassion and any sense of mercy until it was no longer available to him. God gave Pharaoh multiple opportunities to change, but he repeatedly chose to harden his heart (Exodus 9:34). The story ends with Pharaoh’s heart turning on itself (Exodus 14). God allows our evil choices to destroy us. We all risk similarly calcifying our hearts through bad decisions—just a little each time until hardness comes naturally. In such selfishness, we will be consumed by self-absorbed motivation, unable to help ourselves.
I don’t see God arbitrarily removing His mercy and forgiveness from our world; I see Him describing probation from a different angle, using Pharaoh’s hardened heart as a metaphor for the condition of our world. We close probation on ourselves, and in the end, hardened hearts will signal the end of opportunities and the undoing of the opposition. When the work is done—for good or bad—further delay is pointless. “It is done!” (Revelation 16:17).
So where does this leave me? God’s love will ever change for me as I change. Pharaoh made his choices and reaped the consequences. God did not do anything to make him that way. Every choice I make affects my heart and what happens to me. If choices matter this much, we should utilize their power to become more loving—remaining open to God’s goodness and compassion—because only faithfully witnessing who God is will lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When we realize that this will help change our vision, we recognize the precious opportunities we have been given to direct our thoughts and actions towards becoming that which we permanently wish to be. “Today, if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15, NKJV).
May I choose to continue keeping my heart open so that I may reflect God’s love and forgiveness. When I become who I naturally am, I want to reflect His glorious self-giving and compassionate character.
Craig Ashton Jr.