Why do people refuse to believe?


A number of years ago, I spoke on the theme of unbelief at a conference for church leaders.  I asked the question, “Why do people refuse to believe the gospel?”  

We explored the issue from four perspectives:

  1. Theological (the work of theologians): creation, the fall and redemption.
  2. Epistemological (the work of philosophers and apologists): cognitive issues and the noetic effects of sin.
  3. Missiological (the work of missiologists): evangelistic and cultural issues.
  4. Practical (the work of pastors): dealing with barriers like ego and sinful lifestyles.

We also discussed the psychology of atheism. In psychology classes at the university, consideration will often be given to the psychology of theism. What is the psychological wiring of these people who feel the need to believe in a god? I reverse this and ask what it is that leads atheists to believe there is no God. What is the psychology of atheism? (see: Psalm 10;14; Romans 1)

Unbelief is treated in Scripture in a variety of ways:

  1. An Identification: Jesus said, “You do not believe because you are not my sheep” (John 10:26).  Since you stand outside of those who belong to Christ, you do not/can not believe in Him (Acts 13:48; John 6:44, 63-65).
  2. Condition: “Since they did not consider it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28). Those who love darkness (John 3:19-20; Ephesians 4:17-18).– The blinded (2 Corinthians 4:3-4;Acts 14:1-2).
  3. A Response: A choice (John 5:39-40; John 5:42-44; John 7:15-17; Revelation 22:17).
  4. A Judgment: God’s permissive agency hands them over to their desired deception (Romans 1:18-26a). See also: 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Isaiah 66:3-4- Notice they “refused”, then God ratifies their choice (Psalm 81:11-12). God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8); Pharaoh hardens his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34-35).

Another perspective:

Why do people refuse to believe? Consider Jesus’ words, “I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 cf. John 4:14).

From these words, we learn that belief is not merely an agreement with facts about God and truth. It is also a matter of appetite, of longing, of hungering and thirsting and finding satisfaction and fulfillment.

Belief is not merely thinking correctly about God and Jesus. It’s turning to Jesus as the source of nourishment for life (tasting and seeing).  Do some think correctly about God and Jesus without turning to Jesus as the source of nourishment for life? Yes.

Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8). Blessed are the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty.  Augustine prayed, “Hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee…”  We add that hearts are hungry until they find satisfaction in God; hearts are thirsty until quenched by God.

Unbelief, therefore, involves a turning of one’s heart away from God to search for satisfaction from something or someone else. Rarely is unbelief solely or mainly a matter of changing one’s mind about facts. It’s a turning of heart away from the Creator and Redeemer.

Steve Cornell

See also: I hope there is no God

Thought from J. I. Packer:

“The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference.  Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so.  The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.”

“God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty…what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (Knowing God, p. 139).

About Wisdomforlife

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This entry was posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Depravity, Evangelism, Gospel, Witness, Worldview. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Why do people refuse to believe?

  1. This might be pedantic, but why is it you didn’t simply think to ask a nonbeliever why they don’t accept the gospels as authoritative? If you use scripture and what it says about the reasons for nonbelief you will never come to the correct answer or even a satisfying one.

    • thinkpoint says:

      It would be interesting to hear more reasons for unbelief from unbelievers (I have heard many) but I am not sure hearing them would objectify the discussion in a satisfactory way. I am also quite certain of overlap between contemporary reasons with those explained in scripture itself.

  2. armchairantichrist says:

    There is no psychology of atheism because atheists do not require any cognitive biases to be atheists. Atheism is not a belief. Rather, it is the lack of belief.

    The reason atheists don’t accept scripture is because textual evidence can never amount to evidence for miracles let alone God. There are always more probable explanations for things than either of those.

    In fact, it is probably the worst tactic to convince atheists if you go straight to scripture. Atheists want real evidence, not just a bunch of cherry picked feel good verses.

  3. incomposmentis says:


    I have compiled a set of ten questions for Christians and would greatly appreciate if you weighed in on them here: http://incomposmentis.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/tough-questions-for-christians/

    Also, I don’t know if you ever viewed my essay, Attaining Atheism: http://incomposmentis.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/attaining-atheism/

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  6. Max Payne says:

    In order to understand why someone thinks outside the bible, you must also think outside the bible. The world we live in gives us answers that are alot more accurate then the ones found in scripture. Granted the scripture was the best answers they had at the time, similar to how science represents the best answers we have now. Athiests recognize religion as a tradition, but inaccurate as far as being realistic answers to lifes questions. Contrary to popular beliefs, athiests are not possesed by satan nor are they attempting to vanish religion (although some do lead such a campaign.) Athiests are people that generally think, generally intelligent, and in most cases have used logic to move away from the religious beliefs that their parents imposed on them while they were young. It is also important to note that athiests get their morals from the same place christians do. From within. If this were not true, then why don’t all christians punish their children with death upon being cursed at? Leviticus 20 9 All these assumptions about athiests can and have been adreessed extensively, you simply need to do a google search or even read a book on the subject. You will find most athiests have, because they feel the need to understand things. They are generally curious by nature, and artificial explanations don’t satisfy their quest for knowledge. Keep in mind here, I do not speak for every athiest, and so I suggest if your truely wish to understand the question at hand here, to simply ask yourself, do you really want to know the answer? Or does it just bother you that someone could possibly think differently then you do? I personally encourage curiosity, and so if you want to know more about athiests, find what you seek within their explanations, not the bibles.
    -May you all lead long and happy lives.

  7. Jim says:

    “Why do people refuse to believe?”

    Simply, they don’t refuse. If someone does not yet believe it is because God has not yet given them faith.

    1Cor. 12:3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

    Rom. 11:32 For God has bound all men over to unbelief (disobedience) so that he may have mercy on them all.

    It is GOD’S choice when to give us faith, not ours. Any other claim is unscriptural.

    • thinkpoint says:

      Presenting it this way might fit one’s theological system but it is not the way the Bible presents unbelief. It reduces it to fit a system of theology by isolating and absolutizing one part of what the bible teaches without respectful consideration to the other things Scripture reveals. For a wonderful handling of these matters by an outstanding NT scholar, read D.A. Carson’s book, “How long O Lord?” Two chapters in particular address this with exception biblical wisdom.

      • Jim says:

        “Presenting it this way might fit one’s theological system but it is not the way the Bible presents unbelief.”

        Please excuse me, but that is exactly the way the Bible presents unbelief… or didn’t you notice that I quoted the Bible? You are absolutely correct that we must always include careful consideration to all that scripture reveals – but just what does scripture reveal? That nothing happens without God’s direct involvement. You are mistakenly operating under the assumption that man created himself and is thus responsible for his own nature and in his own ability to believe, and yet the Bible says otherwise.

        Here then, must be another way that the Bible doesn’t present something, namely God’s sovereignty:

        Philippians 2:13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

      • Jim,
        Just read the Scriptures in my post and it will validate that we cannot (if faithful to the Scriptures) present God’s sovereignty or human responsibility in a way that mitigates the authenticity of the other.

  8. Jim says:

    “we cannot (if faithful to the Scriptures) present God’s sovereignty or human responsibility in a way that mitigates the authenticity of the other.”

    Then you have misinterpreted the scriptures.

      • Jim says:

        Very simply, God cannot be sovereign if man is responsible. God can only be sovereign if He is responsible. Your interpretation of certain scriptures which claim otherwise must therefore be in error.

        You are in effect claiming that the potter has authority over the clay, AND claiming that the clay has the responsibility to mold itself — essentially you are claiming salvation by works. You are trying to take credit for molding yourself, for giving yourself faith, for saving yourself. You need to decide which it is… are we saved by GRACE – God’s work – or our own? Your claim that man is responsible is nothing less than declaring salvation by works.

  9. But the Potter MADE the clay to be responsible, or did he just feign it. Are his words to be taken for what they say or treated as inauthentic showmanship? We must not try to resolve tensions in these matters but respect the Word that is spoken by God. To reject man’s comprehensive responsibility (every idle word that man shall speak he shall account for) is to discredit and disrespect that word of God. Or, to read into it a human based logic that forces all things to conform to finite minds. None of this conflicts with grace based salvation. You are ignoring large portions of Scripture or forcing them to conform to your system instead of taking them for what they actually say. If you desire to handle Scripture accurately, two truths must be honored:

    1. God is unconditionally sovereign
    2. Humans are responsible and accountable

    These two truths are presented repeatedly in Scripture as authentic and compatible realities. If we teach either one in a way that diminishes the other, we do not faithfully represent Biblical truth. But the mystery behind this compatibility is not fully known. It is simply and clearly taught and we are called to honor all that the Bible teaches and to live faithfully within what is to us a tension. Passages of Scripture to learn from: Genesis 45:1-8; 50:19-20; II Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Philippians 2:12-13; Acts 4:23-30; 13:38; 18:9-10.

    “The Bible insists that God is sovereign, so sovereign that nothing that takes place in the universe can escape the outermost boundary of his control; yet the Bible insists God is good, unreservedly good, the very standard of goodness. We are driven to conclude that God does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. In other words, he stands behind good in such a way that the good can ultimately be credited to him; he stands behind evil in such a way that what is evil is inevitably credited to secondary agents and all their malignant effects. “ (D. A. Carson)

    “At no point whatsoever does the remarkable emphasis on the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty mitigate the responsibility of human beings who, like everything else in the universe, fall under God’s sway. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.” (D. A. Carson)

    “Many Christians today think that if human beings are to be thought of as morally responsible creatures, they must be free to choose, to believe, to disobey, and so forth. But what does ‘freedom’ mean? Sometimes without thinking about it, we assume that such freedom must entail the power to work outside God’s sovereignty. Freedom, we think, involves absolute power to be contrary, that is, the power to break any constraint, so that there is no necessity in the choice we make. If we are constrained to choose a certain option, if what we decide is in fact utterly inevitable, then how could it be ours? And if not truly ours, how can we be held morally accountable?” (D. A. Carson)

    Examples from the Bible:

    In the crucifixion of Jesus, “Herod and Pontius Pilate and the rest conspired together; they did what they wanted to do, even though they did what God’s power and will had determined beforehand should be done. That is why many theologians have refused to tie ‘freedom’ to absolute power to act contrary to God’s will. They tie it, rather, to desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose.”

    “Joseph’s brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate and the rulers of the Jews did what they wanted to do; the Assyrians did what they wanted to do. In each case, God’s sovereignty was operating behind the scenes: the human participants, to use the language of the early Christians, ‘did what God’s power and will had decided before hand should happen.’ But that did not excuse them. They did what they wanted to do.” (emphasis mine)

    “Taking this a step further, suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of scripture cries against the suggestion.”

    “Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s ‘power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed one to die in their place?”

    “God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God.” (D.A. Carson “A Call to Spiritual Reformation” p.156)

  10. Jim says:

    It is interesting that you would choose to quote D.A. Carson in support of your theology. As a Calvinist he believes that before the foundation of the world God chose to make some vessels for honor (election), and some for dishonor (non-election), and that they would be eternally locked to that decision. He claims that man is so totally depraved (apparently by man’s own choice BEFORE birth) that he is completely UNABLE to come to God without God’s GRACE. Essentially, according to his Calvinism, man does NOT have a “free” will because he is in total BONDAGE to sin. But he then completely contradicts his own belief in man’s TOTAL DEPRAVITY by claiming that man is responsible for repenting and coming to God, as if he is ABLE to. The ridiculousness of Calvinism is its assertion that only God can give us faith but that God will damn us to eternal hell for NOT having faith, as if that condition was OUR choice and not GOD’S.

    Just as you are attempting to do, Carson (or any other Calvinist) claims that God is sovereign – He can choose to make the clay vessel however HE wants – but that the clay vessel is responsible for how it was made. Frankly, that is pure nonsense. Either God makes the clay vessels, or they make themselves. Either God gets all of the credit (or blame as appropriate), or the clay vessel does. As a SELF-righteous Christian you are demanding credit for your own salvation by claiming that YOU chose to have faith, that you are “better” than unbelievers for choosing to make yourself into a “better” vessel. The original article that we are now commenting on was simply your own attempt to prove your righteousness by implying that YOU did not REFUSE to believe. The mind of your flesh is convinced that there is something BETTER about you (and all other Christians) than unbelievers. You are trying to show God how you DESERVE His grace – His UNMERITED favor – which by definition is impossible.

    The so-called “paradox” of compatibilism is simply your refusal to give up the credit for your own salvation, and yet the only way you can do so is by claiming that these two “truths” are in some mysterious “tension” that cannot be explained but is somehow nevertheless “true.” God has no logic that is different than our own IF we would just use our own God-given minds to think it through. The scriptures are filled with seeming contradictions and paradoxes with which God is leading us to discern for ourselves what makes sense and what does not. Do you honestly take all scripture LITERALLY? If so I would challenge you to prove that you are a true believer by drinking poison (Mark 16:18), or by cutting off your own hand to escape hell (Matt. 5:30). And if you insist on taking that last scripture literally then you must believe that heaven will be filled with self-mutilated, mindless corpses, for after all it is the mind that causes our hands to steal and our eyes to wander lustfully, is it not?

    You assert that “We must not try to resolve tensions in these matters but respect the Word that is spoken by God.” How then do I respect the word of Christ which tells me to both “love my neighbor” AND to “hate my mother and father?” Do I try to resolve it, or do I just accept His words and hate my mother and father? Should I believe scripture which tells me that “God is love,” or should I believe Calvinists who tell me God has chosen to hate most of mankind – His own creation? And they do it by “quoting” scripture as well.

    If you are a Calvinist, could you “choose” to hate your own children now? Or are you waiting to be made in God’s image before you have that “amazing” power? Can you honestly say that you would love and worship a “god” who has the power to save (heal, redeem) ALL people, but instead REFUSES to do so? Does it actually glorify God to destroy His own creations – the vessels that were “marred in HIS hands” (Jer. 18:4) – rather than repair them?

    There is certainly a lot of “tension” in the choices I have given you above. How do you resolve it? Blind trust in the “traditions of men” – Calvinism? Or faith in your heavenly Father’s goodness?

    The clay can do nothing more than how it was made, and yet you claim that the clay was made to “BE responsible,” but somehow “chose” to be irresponsible. We INHERIT our nature, we do not CHOOSE it. Can a bear be anything other than a bear? Can a sinner be anything other than a sinner? In your theology apparently it can. Apparently we INHERITED a sinful nature but must choose to remake ourselves into creatures without sin.

    If you choose to insist that God is not responsible for the clay vessels that HIS OWN HANDS MADE then you can go on believing that YOU saved yourself. The choice is yours.

    • This is a sad example of someone going into the Bible assuming what it MUST mean and forcing it to MEAN what I assume. Notice that there is no adequate response to the statements I quoted from Carson.

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  12. Ray drake says:

    If you miss the fall you’ve missed it all. If God sent everybody to hell he would not owe anyone an apology. All are hell deserving sinners. Romans 5:12 is very clear on where we all stand. Therefore if he saves anyone, that’s what grace is. In his Sovereignty that’s his perogative. Pharoah, Esau, Cain,Judas. Romans 9 is best at explaining this. Either you are offended at this or you rejoice that he’s in control. Luke 7:23 Blessed are those who are not offended in me. Probally the foulest thing in Jericho was saved because there was a sheep in Jericho. Thank God he’s in control.

  13. O says:

    Why do people refuse to believe?

    The simple answer is because every single religious person they have ever encountered has failed to prove that they are related to the divine. Religious arguments only work on people who are already predisposed towards a faith-based justification, and yet religionists keep talking to them like they’re members of the flock, they aren’t. You’re going about it the wrong way. You can’t fit a square through a circular hole.

    Oh, plenty of religious people, like plenty of non-religious people, are likeable, charitable, kind, lovable, etc. But really, why would God curse the earth with religion? Look at history, for the longest time religion has more often than not enabled totalitarianism, murder, slavery, war, etc. Even the ancient Greeks had a theocratic system which considered atheism a crime and piety a sign of goodness; piety has no correlation to morality. It’s not the only cause of such things, obviously, but look at it from our perspective.

    Christianity and Islam have been around for a long time, and the meek Christianity of the present is only so because it has been forced from a position of power, whenever religion has full control of society it showed no Godliness, it was a totalitarian system, like the Catholic Church in the medieval era,enabling monarchs to exploit their serfs as slaves. And that’s how we would still be, some of us burned at the stake for rejecting the Church’s opinions, unless people suggested that at least part of a religion was invalid. God didn’t care when he was the commander-in-chief. Or didn’t exist. If we assume God is a font of morality, then religion and faith are the work of the devil, and science and logic God’s pride.

  14. Reblogged this on Wisdomforlife and commented:

    Why do people refuse to believe?

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