THE MYSTERY OF UNBELIEF
A great mystery troubled me for a long time: Why do some believe in Jesus and some do not? I say troubled because this is not simply a speculative question of curiosity or merely an intellectual item for discussion: There are consequences of the utmost severity for those who do not believe in Jesus. An eternity in the fires of hell (2 Ths. 1:9, Mark 9:47,48), or its equivalent, is not a trivial matter. When you think about this, then, it does trouble the heart, especially when you think of loved ones close to that heart.
Perhaps I was not ready to understand the truth about this great mystery during that time period; I don’t know. If that was the case, however, I would not be the first to have been in that situation, for Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:12).
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things”(Jn. 14:26).
The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, has come and he has taught me, just as he has taught you, if you belong to Christ. Therefore, you and I are now able to receive more of what the Spirit is ready to give to us concerning this matter or any other.
“Among the mature we do impart wisdom . . . (which) God has revealed to us through the Spirit . . . Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:6,10,12,13).
This being so, then, I ask for this same Spirit’s presence as you read the following, which is what He showed me over time regarding this great mystery of unbelief. May the Spirit who has revealed this to us in the Holy Scripture quicken our own spirit to receive what he shows us. As we proceed here, may the working of the Lord and his Spirit so work in our hearts that we will be able to say the same words said by the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32).
THE REALITY OF THE DIVISION
It hardly needs to be stated that there is a true divide in this world’s reaction to Jesus Christ: Some do believe and some do not. In fact, no other single matter so defines our world as this one issue: Who is Jesus Christ? Further, it will be the main dividing issue in a war that will engulf the whole world in the end times, as the opponent of Christ seeks to dominate the world. Jesus himself predicted this great divide among the peoples of the world:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).
The one great question of every person’s life–the great decider and divider–is the question that Jesus asked Peter:
“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?'” (Mt. 16:15).
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'” (v. 16).
That is the true answer to that question–but not everyone believes that. That is why, later, the apostle Paul asked for prayers of protection, “. . . that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men; for not all have faith” (2 Ths. 3:2).
Here, Paul also voices his own experience of this mystery, that not all believe. These are the two responses to the great question of life. Jesus can be accepted as who he truly is, the Son of God, or that truth can be rejected. Truth is the single issue around which belief or unbelief revolves, therefore it is one’s attitude towards truth determines whether one will believe in Jesus or not. It is this–one’s attitude towards truth–that now demands our attention, for it holds the key to unlocking this great mystery.
TRUTH: THE KEY TO THE ANSWER
Perhaps you thought the matter of truth was overstated in the last section. Does it really hold the key to discovering why some believe in Jesus and God and some do not? It most assuredly does–especially, as was stated, one’s attitude towards truth.
From birth to death to judgment after death, all is based on truth.
Birth: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (Js. 1:18).
Death: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ (who is the truth: Jn. 14:6) among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Cor. 2:15).
Judgment after death: “God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth” (Rom. 2:2).
Everything that is of God and existence–life, death, and judgment–revolves around truth and Jesus Christ, who is truth.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created (birth): things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (life). And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead (death), so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Col. 1:15-19).
And judgment: “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16).
Jesus, who is declared in God’s Word to be the truth (Jn. 14:6). is the one around whom everything exists. He is the ultimate reality, the rock-bottom, foundational truth upon whom all reality depends for its existence and meaning and purpose. That is the basic truth about all that exists. Therefore, if any person rejects accepting Jesus as Lord of all that he created, including the person doing the rejecting, then it is clear that that person is rejecting truth, for Jesus is the truth about all reality. A person’s attitude towards the truth, then, is where we must look to understand the mystery of why a person does not believe in Jesus. We must look at a person’s heart and mind to understand this mystery.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER IS THE HEART ITSELF:
DO YOU LOVE THE TRUTH IN YOUR HEART?
It is a matter of the heart. This cannot be stressed enough, for it is a person’s attitude or heart towards the truth that determines whether that person will believe in Jesus or not. Despite a person’s claims that he or she does not believe in Jesus because of intellectual reasons (How can there be three gods in one? Who created God? etc.) or moral reasons (Why is there evil if God is good? etc.), there is really only one scriptural reason why people do not believe: They do not love the truth. Permit me to give an example of this truth from real life.
I once had a recent college graduate job-shadow me at my job as part of his training for his employment where I worked. When we had some free time, we talked and, as usual, the conversation got around to more serious topics, including the deepest of all, God. I inquired as to his beliefs, and in the course of responding, he raised all kinds of questions that he said prevented him from surrendering his life and soul to the Lord, as I had told him he needed to do.
At first I responded to his objections, but as he kept raising more and more, it became plain to me that this was only a smoke screen he was raising to hide his real reason for not wanting to surrender to Christ as Lord. So I interrupted his stream of objections and said, “If I could satisfy all of your objections, would you then surrender your life to Christ?” He was quiet for a moment and then simply said, “No.” When I asked why not, he said, “Because then I would have to tell my girlfriend to move out.” I was glad for his honesty. It was completely quiet after that; the conversation had ended. Truth has a way of doing that. I glanced over at him occasionally after that and could see that he had a troubled look on his face and seemed lost in thought–hopefully, I was thinking, about his relationship with God, as well as his relationship with this woman.
This young man was unwilling to accept Jesus because he knew that doing so would force him to confront his sin, who he really was. The truth would expose his sin.
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (Jn. 3:19,20).
The truth about this young man’s relationship with a woman revealed a relationship that is not real, based more on lust than on love, and it is love that is to be the true foundation for what God intends relationships to be. From God’s perspective, his relationship was an illusion, not real.
The psalmist calls out to God to save him from all that is not real, not true, and appeals to the supreme, ultimate Being who is God and truth to do this:
“Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth” (Ps. 31:5).
Jesus is God in human flesh (Jn. 1:14) and he is truth (Jn. 14:6). This God who is truth is the ultimate foundation of all existence. All that exists depends upon him for its existence, for he created all things (Col. 1:16). He is life itself and truth, that is, the ultimate foundation for all that exists. That is reality; that is what truth is: what really is or exists.
But not everyone accepts this. Many would rather that they were the basis for their own existence. Therefore, they reject this One who rightfully claims to be their Creator and Lord. They prefer falsehood to the truth, and since he is truth, they reject him.
“These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!'” (Is. 30:9-11).
Amazing! People prefer illusion and deceit to the truth–even when they know that this is what they are doing! That is because they have no love for the truth. They love themselves more than the truth. And the main reason for this is that they do not like the truth about themselves. For truth reveals their sin, that they are evil and need a Savior.
I can give you another example from real life to illustrate this matter. I once had a temporary work assignment in an office set in the middle of a factory. Every day, just before shift change, the men would come into that little office to check out at the time clock, so I got to know them and we talked about many things, including God. I asked them if they would mind if I gave them a sheet of paper that summarized what the Bible said about God and salvation, and they were very open to that. So I did. I watched as they silently read that sheet to themselves, with occasional grunts that indicated something had made an impression on them.
But then one young man suddenly exclaimed, “Whoa! What’s this? I am evil?” The rest quickly went down the sheet to where he was reading and they all started buzzing with words of disbelief and repudiation that they might not be perfect but they weren’t evil.
I explained the matter as best I could, but was silently wondering if I had made a mistake and had put in too severe a form what the Bible says about us sinful human beings. It seemed to be putting them off from hearing what God had to say about themselves. But since then I have decided that, no, I had not used too strong a language. To sin against God and his glory and majesty and love is nothing but evil, no matter how “small” we may think such sins are. We are evil. But that is not a message the human heart and mind likes to hear. So we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not as bad as all that. And deception separates us from the truth:
“Evil . . . deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” ((2 Ths. 2:10).
Jesus made this deception very clear in his words describing those who have no love for the truth:
“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well” (Jn. 15:23).
Because Jesus, who is the truth, came and spoke to them the truth about themselves, that they were sinners in need of him as their Savior, they now had no excuse for their sin–and they hated him for that. They hated the truth, therefore they hated Jesus who is the truth.
When Jesus got right down to the deepest parts of their lives in talking with his religious opponents, the Pharisees, he told them bluntly, “You do not have the love of God in your hearts” (Jn. 5:42). In this same conversation with these religious leaders, Jesus went on to state the natural consequence of this hatred of the truth in their hearts, that it was what prevented them from believing in him: “How can you believe? . . . ” (v. 44).
How indeed? They were prevented from believing because they did not love God, who is truth. It is impossible to believe in God, and his Son, if there is no love for God in one’s heart. It all stems from that one, single quality–or rather the lack of it: love for the truth. One cannot love God, who is truth, if one has no love for the truth in one’s heart. Love of truth is love for God, who is truth. Whether or not one has a love for God, therefore, is determined by whether or not one has a love for his Son, Jesus Christ. If a person denies Jesus, then he denies the Father who sent him; such a person denies the truth:
“No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).
They could not believe in Jesus because they had no love for his Father, who is truth, just as the Son is truth. And no one who denies the Son has the Father, for whoever loves the Father loves the Son. The reason they did not love the Son was that they did not love the Father. That is why Jesus told them, “You do not have the love of God in your hearts.”
If the above seems to go around and around in circles between loving God and loving truth and believing in Jesus, it is because these three are so intertwined with each other that it is indeed impossible to separate them. Once you concentrate on one of them, you must go on to admit the others because it is impossible to separate one from the other. They all form one cohesive whole.
If a person is true and honest, he will want to know the truth, no matter where that truth leads. The question has been posed by atheists and other opponents of Christ, “If Christianity were not true, would you want to know that?” Putting aside the usual lack of sincerity in their asking this question, the only correct answer for a Christian to make is, “Yes! I definitely would want to know.” For a Christian should be a seeker of truth. That is why he should be a Christian in the first place, because he knows his own sinfulness and also knows that Jesus is the answer to that sinfulness and putting him right with God, because Jesus is the truth and came for this very reason, so that all who desire the truth, even if it means–especially if it means–revealing the truth about themselves, can be freed from the consequences of that truth about themselves, that they are sinners in need of a Savior.
“”For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn. 18:37).
Because Jesus testifies to the truth of the sinfulness of human beings, he is rejected. Some reject him because they fear the truth about themselves and do not want it exposed; others, because they have been deceived into thinking that there is no such thing as truth–as Pilate seemed to think, as revealed by his answer to Jesus’ words, when he replied, “What is truth?” (v. 38), apparently in a scornful tone. Because he did not believe, apparently, that it was possible for such a thing as truth actually to exist, he did not recognize it even when it stared him in the face. This is the awful irony of one who does not love the truth in his heart: that he will not even recognize that very thing that his heart needs most when it presents itself to that heart.
Is it any wonder that a man known around the world for his wisdom, Solomon, issued this warning about paying attention to the condition of one’s heart?:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23).
Above all else . . . nothing is more important, nothing is higher in priority than to have a heart that loves the truth. For if that love is not there, the heart will miss the one thing it cannot live without: Jesus Christ, who is the way and the truth and the life without which the heart cannot live. And if it is there, then a person cannot help but believe in Jesus, for he is the truth.
“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (Jn. 7:17).
In other words, if a person really loves the truth and wants to do God’s will, he will believe in Jesus. It is as natural as a piece of metal being drawn to a magnet. Jesus, who is truth, draws to himself all who desire the truth–and they will believe in him.
“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:32).
In another place, he said that it is the Father, who is the God of truth, as the psalmist stated, who draws people to himself.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44).
People are drawn to Jesus because of who he is. But only those who are willing to accept the truth about who he is and about who they are–sinners in need of him as their Savior–will accept and believe in that to whom they are drawn. The heart is drawn to where its treasure is.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21).
But it is not enough simply to have a desire in one’s heart. You must act on that desire and put into action what your heart leads you towards. This truth brings us to the next aspect of solving the mystery of unbelief: obedience.
Much was made in the previous section about the importance of the attitude of the heart, that the underlying reason for not believing in Jesus is lack of love in the heart for the truth. Love comes from the heart. But anyone can say that he or she loves some thing or someone; talk is cheap. What is the proof that one truly loves someone? It is found in obedience, whether it be in obedience to one’s marriage vows to love and to cherish and remain faithful, or obedience to one’s parents, or just true to reality in general, of which God is the highest and deepest part of that reality. Obedience is the chief witness that you truly love someone. Jesus himself said:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:15-17).
Anyone can say that “Jesus is Lord.” But to say it and mean it from the heart will prove itself by whether or not one obeys what Jesus says. By their fruits you will know who loves the truth and who does not: by whether or not those who call Jesus Lord obey him.
“Why do you call me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk. 6:46).
“We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:3,4).
“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples'” (Jn. 8:31).
But perhaps some will ask just what is it that we are supposed to do to be in obedience to God?
“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent'” (Jn. 6:28,29).
Disbelief is disobedience. It is as simple as that. Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, “To obey is to believe, to believe is to obey.” The two cannot be separated. That is why, even though we are saved by grace/faith alone, Scripture also says in numerous places that God will judge us by our works (Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 2:23, 20:12). That is what the whole book of James is about, the fact that there is no such thing as faith alone but that it must be accompanied by good works. This does not mean that those good works save us, only that it is impossible to have true saving faith without them. They are evidence of that saving faith.
Just as there is no such thing as a one-sided coin, the two-sided coin of salvation has faith on one face of it and works on the other. Therefore, all God has to do to see if a person has saving faith in his Son Jesus is to look at his works, for they reflect the faith that gave rise to them. Those works do not save the person, but they do present evidence, if you will, in the court of judgment that there is saving faith in the accused sinner.
Elsewhere, Scripture describes good works done in obedience to the truth of Jesus Christ as that which purifies us:
“They . . . receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Ptr. 1:22).
Two things are worthy to note in the above two passages of Scripture. First, notice that one emphasizes faith and the other obedience. Again, it is impossible to have faith without acts of obedience that prove that faith is really there. Second, when mentioning obedience, the last passage quickly moves on to the matter of love in the heart. God has commanded us to love one another as well as to love him. When we show real, true love, we are in obedience to this command–not that it is a mere, formal observance of a command, thus making it a sort of duty that we feel compelled to do whether we want to or not, but that the love for truth that has brought us to Jesus, and that love comes from God and moves us in that love to love others with a real and genuine love.
All of this is a far cry from the dead, formal, intellectual–and meaningless–religion that far too many profess but do not live out in their lives. Rather, it is a living love for God and others that stems from a love for the truth and that has as its source God himself:
“We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
Obedience follows love. Once a person loves the truth and the God who is truth, he cannot but help living or doing deeds that are for that truth:
“For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Cor. 13:8).
What can be said about obedience, then, in conclusion? That it is a necessary evidence that one loves the truth and believes. Where there is no obedience to the truth, there is left only the terrible consequence of judgment for having no love for the truth. That judgment is the next aspect of this unfolding mystery that must now be examined.
“All will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (2 Ths. 2:12).
Notice that this verse contrasts not belief and unbelief but believing in the truth and delighting in wickedness; in other words, belief versus what your heart delights in, that is, what you love. What you love determines what you will believe. If you love the truth, you will believe in Jesus, who is the truth.
“For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Rom. 2:8).
Therefore, if a person loves himself–is self-seeking–that person will reject the truth, because the truth is that self must die for belief and trust in Jesus to come into that person. Therefore, if a person continues to seek self instead of the truth, that person will suffer God’s wrath and anger.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18).
It isn’t that such people do not know the truth; they do know it, that they are a sinner and that Jesus is the truth. They know it, but they suppress that knowledge because it is knowledge they do not wish to acknowledge. Such knowledge from God can indeed be suppressed within an individual, but only for a time. In the end, all is revealed; every hidden motive of the heart is exposed before the searching presence of the Holy Spirit and his Word:
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12,13).
“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Mt. 10:26).
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Rev. 20:11,12).
That is the Great Judgment of all humanity by God. Besides confirming that all is revealed in this judgment, it also is another instance of where all that God needs to do to see who has saving faith is to look at the record of their deeds performed while alive on earth. Not that those who did good deeds are saved by those deeds, but, as was mentioned earlier, they are simply the other side of the faith/salvation coin. Looking at the deeds side tells whomever looks what is on the other side–the faith and love that prompted those good deeds.
All of the above passages from Scripture show the extreme consequences of failing to have a love for the truth in one’s heart. It is as Solomon said and as was earlier quoted here, that this one issue is paramount for every individual. We are to guard our heart above all else, for from it come the issues of life and death. If a person has a love for the truth–about reality and God and himself–then that person will believe in Jesus. If he does not believe, it is proof that that person does not really have a love for the truth, because Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And if a person does not love him who is the truth and believe in him, that person will perish.
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Ths. 2:10).
There is no clearer statement in God’s Word than this about the cause of person’s being lost and going to hell. “They perish because they refused to love the truth.”
Being a sinner may condemn one to hell, but God has furnished a way to escape that condemnation:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1,2).
But to refuse to accept the truth about ourselves and God’s rebuke of our sinful self brings down his wrath over our sin. God reminds us of our sinful self and rebukes that self, time after time. It is up to us to pay heed to those rebukes and come to our senses and accept the truth. But if we do not, then the righteous judgment falls upon us.
“A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy” (Prov. 29:1).
What chilling, sobering words: without remedy. The time for salvation is now. The time for letting the Spirit of God break the hardness of our hearts is now. And it all begins with letting him put the love of God and truth into our hearts.
“God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:5).
It is through the Holy Spirit that God performs his work of salvation in any person.
“No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
That is why Jesus said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the unforgivable sin. Since it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that a person can come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, if a person rejects that working of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart and dies in that rejection, there is no more hope for that person: He has rejected the only way that God has provided through which a person can come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
These are thoughts and truths of terrible weight and it indeed weighed upon my heart–and still does. But at least now, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in my own heart, I now understand better why it is so, why some believe and some do not: because some have a love for the truth in their heart, no matter what that truth may be, including that the truth that they are a sinner in need of a Savior; and some do not have this love for the truth in their heart. It all comes down to that. It is all a matter of accepting or rejecting the truth of the Spirit of God.
“The Spirit is the truth” (1 Jn. 5:6).