I have two questions. What is meant by the expression, “God sends them a strong delusion,” as found in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians (2 Thess. 2:11)? How does this harmonize with the concept of God’s goodness? Also, is it possible for a person to become so hardened in sin that he is beyond hope?
With reference to your first question, let us carefully view the text under consideration as a whole.
And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to naught by the manifestation of his coming; even he, whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thes. 2:8-12 ASV).
In this context, the apostle speaks of a coming defection from the original New Testament pattern of Christianity. In connection therewith, he addresses the kind of disposition that is a prelude to apostasy.
For example, he speaks of that mental attitude that does not embrace a “love of the truth.” Rather, it takes “pleasure in unrighteousness.” This reveals a character that is incredibly resistant to the will of God.
The Strong Delusion
Now to the first question, in what sense may God be said to “send a strong delusion” or a “working of error” (ASV)?
Clearly the statement is not to be taken literally. Such a view would contradict what we know regarding the qualities of our great and loving God. Jehovah is a God of goodness (Acts 14:17; Jas. 1:17) and truth (Dt. 32:4). He cannot do that which is a violation of his own nature (cf. Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
One must, therefore, look for another explanation for the language employed in this controversial passage.
It is fairly well known among advanced Bible students that there is a common idiom (figure of speech) in sacred literature, by which God is said to actively do that which, in reality, he merely allows in human beings — to whom he has granted freedom of will.
Consider a few examples.
Concerning Pharaoh, the Lord said: "I will harden his heart. . . " (Ex. 4:21). Elsewhere, however, we learn that the Egyptian monarch hardened his own heart (cf. Ex. 8:15).
The solution to the seeming conflict lies in the fact that God made demands upon the ruler that he resisted, and, exercising his own stubborn will (cf. Ex. 7:14), he refused to obey Jehovah.
Pharaoh actively hardened his own conscience. God permitted it, i.e., did not overrule the king’s power of choice, thus, in a figurative sense, the Lord was said to be the cause.
Ezekiel represents Jehovah as saying, “I gave them [the Hebrew people] statues that were not good” (Ezek. 20:25). In the larger context of the passage, the meaning is this: “When my people became determined not to listen to my law, I permitted them to follow the ways of paganism. They chose wickedness, I honored the exercise of their volition.”
This is precisely the sentiment of the following passage." So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart, that they might walk in their own counsels" (Psa. 81:12).
This puts the issue in balance.
A Deceived People
Jeremiah laments: “Lord God, surely you have deceived this people” (Jer. 4:10). Again, the meaning literally is this: “The people were determined to follow lying ways; you let them proceed.”
Sometimes the only way folks can learn is by being allowed to drink the bitter dregs of their own concoctions.
The Model Prayer
Christ taught his disciples to petition God, “Lead us not into temptation” (Mt. 6:13). Clearly God does not “lead” people into temptation (cf. Jas. 1:13-14).
The sense of Matthew 6:13, therefore, would seem to be this: “Father, do not permit us to be overcome by temptation.” Sometimes the active voice is put for the passive for emphasis.
In his exhaustive discussion of biblical idioms, James Macknight has observed: “Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (1954, 29).
The Matter of Hardening
Now, to the next question: “Can one so harden himself in sin that it becomes virtually impossible to abandon it?”
It should be noted first of all that the Scriptures indicate that it is possible for anyone who truly wants to obtain forgiveness, to do so—provided he submits to the divine plan of redemption. Ideally, the Lord would have every single person reach heaven (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Tragically, however, such will not be the case (Mt. 7:13-14).
The question, then, becomes this. Is it possible for a man to harden his own heart to the extent that it becomes psychologically impossible for him to ever desire change?
That well may be the case, though it certainly is not our prerogative to determine who such individuals may be. But reflect upon the following.
“Could not believe”
The apostle John describes a certain disposition of some Jews in the first century.Though these people had witnessed Jesus performing numerous miracles, they had so resisted the evidence that they could not believe (see Jn. 12:37-39).
A hardness of mind seems to have set in, that made their souls impenetrable.
Paul described certain pagans of his day in the following way.
[B]eing darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness and greediness (Eph. 4:18-19).
The expression “past feeling” is significant. The Greek term is
apalego, and it means "to be so inured that one is not bothered by the implications of what one is doing, become callous, dead to feeling, without a sense of right and wrong (BDAG 2000, 96).
This is a tremendously sobering warning.
In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul speaks of those whose consciences are “branded” (“seared” ASV fn) as with a hot iron. The Greek term is
kausteriazo, which may hint of the background of a criminal who has been “branded” (BDAG, 536).
A cognate form of the term is related to our English term “cauterize.” The imagery is that of a complete lack of sensitivity. The spiritual “nerves” are dead! (See: Brown 1976, 2.574-75).
These passages, in concert, contain a strong warning, with the implied admonition that one should cultivate his conscience constantly, keeping it pliable, and sensitive to the instruction of God’s Word (cf. Heb. 5:14b). It is a dangerous thing to knowingly and persistently resist divine truth.