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:
- Theological (the work of theologians): creation, the fall and redemption.
- Epistemological (the work of philosophers and apologists): cognitive issues and the noetic effects of sin.
- Missiological (the work of missiologists): evangelistic and cultural issues.
- 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:
- 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).
- A 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).
- A Response: A choice (John 5:39-40; John 5:42-44; John 7:15-17; Revelation 22:17).
- 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.
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).