RESPONSE: First of all, I cannot say with certainty where Pharaoh will spend eternity. It is not a huge leap to imagine that he did not go to heaven, but ultimately, only God knows. Additionally, I think that jumping to the question of Pharaoh’s eternal destination is not necessarily warranted for this question. Clearly, God could harden someone’s heart for a particular time/purpose and that person could still be saved. However, your question really seems to be about the problem of God holding someone accountable for something over which they had no control. So, my first question in going back to the biblical text would be, “Did Pharaoh have any choice in the hardening of his heart?” Because, if he did, then the question of fairness evaporates. If not, then it would seem that he is off the hook. My second question would be, “Did God have a purpose to accomplish by hardening Pharaoh’s heart or was it totally arbitrary?” If He did, then we should not take issue with him doing so. If He did have a purpose, we will want to find out what that reason is--if Scripture reveals His motives. So anyway, let’s look at the text.
God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites. However, he also tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex 7:3). Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh, perform a sign (staff to serpent), but we are told that “Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said” (Ex 7:13). At that point, the plagues against Egypt begin. After the first plague (Nile to blood), we read, “Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned around, went into his palace, and didn’t even take this to heart” (Ex 7:22-23).
Up to this point, it might seem like God hardened Pharaoh’s heart just so He could have an excuse to conjure up a sweet plague. But then look what happens after the second plague (frogs). Pharaoh begs Moses to ask God to remove the plague and promises to release the Israelites. The plague is removed and then we read, “But when Pharaoh saw there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” Wait a second, now Pharaoh is the one hardening his heart! Not only that, we might now read the earlier passages in a bit of a different light. After all, it doesn’t specifically say that God was the one doing the hardening in either of the first two scenarios--just that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. We just assumed that because God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart back in chapter 7. However, God also predicted (just one verse later, 7:4) that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen. Lo and behold, after each of the first two signs, it explicitly tells us that Pharaoh ignored them. All of that to say, it seems that something a bit more complex is going on here than simply God playing games with Pharaoh in order to flex His muscle.
The third plague (gnats) gets the attention of Pharaoh’s magicians and they advise him to realize that God is the one at work. However, he does not listen. Then, after the fourth plague (flies), we see Pharaoh making another promise to release Israel. And once again, after the plague relents, we are told, “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also and did not let the people go” (Ex 8:32). The fifth plague (death of Egyptian livestock) follows, and it says once again simply that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Ex 9:7).
It is not until the sixth plague that we are explicitly told, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses” (Ex 9:12). Why the sudden change of wording? If Moses intended to communicate in the earlier passages that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, why didn’t he just say so like he does here?
The seventh plague (hail) brings us to another false promise from Pharaoh about setting the people free. When the plague is removed, we again read that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” From there, we have two final instances where it explicitly says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And to be fair, in both of these cases, there is no mention of the fact that Pharaoh “did not listen,” like in all of the previous cases (including the 6th plague).
So, back to the two questions that I mentioned at the beginning. 1. Did Pharaoh have any choice in the hardening of his heart? It appears that on at least one occasion he was totally responsible. It also seems likely that on all but three occasions, he played some role (ignoring, not listening). And on those occasions, where it specifically says that God did the hardening, there are only two of them--the last two before Pharaoh finally relents--where it says nothing at all about Pharaoh’s involvement in the decision. My modest conclusion from all of this is that, at the very least, Pharaoh is not off the hook. More boldly, I would like to suggest that God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart in response to Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart. This would seem to be in concert with the notion presented in Romans 1 where Paul says that after a certain point, God turned people over to the desires of their own sinful hearts (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Now, suppose that prior to that point, God was sustaining those people in a state of gracious patience, desiring that they might repent. If that were true, then in a manner of speaking, by “turning them over” to the desires of their hearts, God “hardened their hearts.” But what was required for that hardening? Simply that God remove His gracious hand from their lives. That hardly seems like he is playing puppet master. Furthermore, it was only in keeping with their own desires. Both the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart were acts of judgement (Ex 7:4), and God does not exact judgement unjustly, whether for future events, or things for which people bear no responsibility. All that was required in order for God to harden Pharaoh's heart was to remove his hand of grace and leave Pharaoh's heart to it's own desires.
Now to the second question. 2. Did God have a greater purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Basically, what I want to argue is that God was not arbitrarily messing with Pharaoh, but that He had a reason (and if God has a reason, it is by necessity, a good reason). If someone wants to argue that they simply don’t like God’s actions or His reasons for doing things, that is a whole other matter--and one that really has no bearing on the truth of the Bible or God’s existence. Anyway, God does not always reveal his motives, so we are fortunate that in this particular scenario, He has made them fairly explicit. From the very first verse that I quoted, God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to “multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt…[so that] the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I stretch out My hand against Egypt, and bring out the Israelites from among them” (Ex 7:3,5). This prophecy is fulfilled at various times throughout the plagues themselves. In at least two places it tells us that Pharaoh’s own officials began to fear the Lord. So God’s purpose was to make himself known to a pagan land. That only make sense considering that plagues clearly demonstrated God’s power over earthly things that the Egyptians worshipped as false gods.
Furthermore, God reveals (before the 8th and 9th plagues where it explicitly says that God did the hardening and Pharaoh apparently had no choice) that the purpose was to be an eternal sign to the children of Israel of God’s power in bringing judgement (Ex 10:1-2). That may seem a bit severe, just to set up a reminder to the future children of Israel, but severe compared to what? If we take the Bible seriously, God raised up Israel to bring about the Messiah, the savior of the world. That is pretty serious stuff. And He is the only one in a position to know exactly what means to employ in order to ensure those ends.
In short, Pharaoh is not off the hook with regard to the hardening of his heart. God acted in accordance with Pharaoh's own stubbornness. God’s hardening was an act of judgement. Additionally, God was not acting capriciously, but had a purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart when he did. He knew precisely what was required in order to accomplish His immediate and eternal purposes.