When I was in college, I came to talk to one of the pastors at my church about how we could reach more college students. We talked about moving our only service from 9am to a later time. We talked about including applications and questions relevant to college students, as well as some other possibilities. He listened politely and expressed his concern for the college students I was working with. However, when I finished, he had a fairly brief answer for me. He said something like, “Nic, I know that you want to reach students and give them answers to their questions. But you need to understand that at bottom, their rejection of the gospel isn’t about philosophy, apologetics or better preaching; it’s about unbelief. They don’t want to believe. And when people don’t want to believe there is no reason good enough and no information complete enough. And the university is septic with that kind of unbelief.”
I knew there was something wrong with that answer, but I had a hard time teasing it out. On the one hand, I knew he was partly right. Unbelief is the most recurring sin in the Bible and the most predictable attitude of the human heart. God talks about it constantly, and the narratives of the Bible show us everywhere what it looks like. The prophets explain its fruit and Jesus attacks it regularly. Unbelief is the great sin.
Yet I also knew he was partly wrong. Not every difficulty believing in the Bible is unbelief. Jude says to be “merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 1:22). Even where the word “unbelief” (apistis) is used, there are situations where is it not considered a sin. Like the father that said, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Yet, even for Christians, unbelief is still the greatest enemy in the mind and heart. It says it this way in Hebrews 3:12-15:
“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
The author calls the unbelieving heart the “sinful” heart and says that it is the result of our hearts being hardened by “sin’s deceitfulness.” That is, unbelief is a kind of dishonesty and unreality. It is a rebellion against God’s truth: a “turning away from the living God.”
Five biblical categories for difficulty believing in God
- Ignorance: A lack of education. Not knowing about God’s truth.
- Doubt: A weakness of heart. When knowledge fails to strengthen the heart with the courage of faith.
- Non-belief: Having information, we remain unpersuaded. Lack of persuasive reasons to believe.
- Disbelief: A lack of conceivability. The gospel seems too good to be true, or too bad to be considered.
- Unbelief: A moral failure to believe what should be believed. A refusal to believe and a subversive attitude. A turning away from God.