When someone says that he or she is not a believer, what does this mean? How does the Bible view belief and unbelief? We can find five ways that Scripture explains unbelief.
- Unbelief as 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/cannot believe in Him (Acts 13:48; John 6:44, 63-65; 8:47).
2. Unbelief as 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). Consider those who love darkness (John 3:19-20; Ephesians 4:17-18) and those who are blinded (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
3. Unbelief as a response – a choice (John 5:39-40; John 5:42-44; John 7:15-17; Revelation 22:17).
“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. . . . 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” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 139).
“Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. However we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).
4. Unbelief as a judgment – God’s permissive agency hands some people over to their desired deception (Romans 1:18-26a;cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Isaiah 66:3-4 – notice how they “refused” and God ratifies their choice; Psalm 81:11-12). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8); Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34-35).
5. Unbelief as lack of appetite – (John 6:35 cf. John 4:14). This understanding of unbelief deserves more focus than it typically receives.
Rarely is unbelief solely or mainly a changing of one’s mind about facts. It is also a turning of the heart away from the Creator and Redeemer. 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). Many people think correctly about God without turning to Jesus as the source of nourishment for life. But “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3-4).
Blessed are the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty. Augustine prayed, “Hearts are restless until they find their rest in You…” Hearts are also 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.
“Unbelief is a failure to be satisfied in Jesus. It’s a failure to go to him as the living water and the bread from heaven and the light of the world. It’s a failure to go to him as a satisfaction that’s deep enough and strong enough to satisfy me when I am tempted to go in a sinful direction to indulge an appetite” – John Piper