The Perilous Challenge of Unbelief
The news has come from Great Britain that the Girl Guides and Brownies organizations, forerunners to Girl Scouts of America, are making what has been called one of the biggest changes in their 103 years of history. The change involves removing all references to God in the traditional Girl Guides pledge and replacing it with “a more individualistic pledge to ‘be true to myself.’” Stephen Evans, campaign’s manager of the National Secular Society of Great Britain said: “By omitting any explicit mention of God or religion the Guide Association has grasped the opportunity to make itself truly inclusive and relevant to the reality of 21st century Britain” (qtd. in Bingham, Guides)
A TIME OF UNBELIEF
What is “the reality of 21st century Britain”? The reality is that more than two-thirds of young people in Great Britain say they have no religious belief (cf. Bingham, Scouts). According to a 2012 poll in Britain “more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God” (Higgins).
What has happened in Britain is the microcosm of what is happening across Europe as a whole. Higgins in a June 2013 New York Times article states, “Church attendance is falling across Europe as belief in God wanes. . . . The continent’s fastest growing faith is now Islam. . . . In the European Union as a whole, according to a 2010 survey, around half the population believes in God.” Western Europe should have learned a long time ago about the perilous (hard, difficult, dangerous) nature of unbelief.
. . . [I]n the decades before Hitler’s rise to power . . . universities became the breeding ground for what was known as “liberal theology.” Scholars actively worked to strip the Bible of its divine authorship. According to them, figures like Abraham or Moses were mere legends. Miracles became myths, and they developed a flexible concept of God as being shaped in each man’s own image, rather than the biblical view that all humans were created in the image of God. Both the Tanach [Old Testament canon] and the New Testament were stripped of everything supernatural and divine.
This opened many doors to abuse and disbelief. . . . [T]he scriptures [were] downgraded to a mere human document rather than God-inspired. . . . While most liberal theologians of that time did not necessarily subscribe to Nazi ideology, they undermined the foundations of the . . . ethic which had served to safeguard society. Today, we see societies in Western Europe moving even further away from these biblical values. . . .” (Buhler 19)
Clearly, it is evident that this is not a time of unbelief in Europe only, but the landscape of unbelief is also widening in America. The Pew Research Center has released statistics from recent surveys that provide evidence for the conclusion that a decline in religious commitment in the U.S. as a whole is occurring. As of 2012, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown to the extent that “fully a third of U.S. adults say they do not consider themselves as a ‘religious person.’ And two thirds of Americans—affiliated or unaffiliated alike—believe that religion is losing its influence in Americans’ lives” (Pew). America is becoming a less religious country.
It is a mistake to conclude that the decline of religion in America is solely the rejection of “organized” religion. It includes such, but it is more than this. Hardcore atheists are one of the fastest growing demographics in today’s culture. In their 2008 book—Religious America, Secular Europe?—three professors (Berger, Davie, and Fokas) address the growth and influence of unbelief in the western world. Concerning America they write the following:
. . . Since the middle of the twentieth century (things were different earlier, as we shall see presently), there has been an American intelligentsia much more secular than the rest of the population. This intelligentsia forms a cultural elite, with considerable power in education, the media, and the law. . . .
Two milestones in recent American history have been the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools and legalizing abortion as a constitutional right. . . . Most Americans are somewhere in the middle on the cultural issues being fought over by the activists, professing what Nancy Ammerman, an American sociologist, has called “golden-rule Christianity”—a somewhat vague and broadly tolerant form of religion. . . .
. . . Raymond Aron once called France the heaven of intellectuals, America their hell. This was certainly an exaggeration. But the United States has been from its beginnings a commercial and therefore a pragmatic society. . . . This too has been changing, probably beginning with the “brains trust” of the New Deal. One may say, then, that the American intelligentsia has been “Europeanized,” in its attitude to religion as in other matters. But this new American intelligentsia (lately also described as a “new class”), unlike its European counterpart, has had to contend with a strong popular adversary. . . .
. . . European intellectuals have created a strongly secular “high culture.” . . . [M]ore and more people outside the intelligentsia take their cultural cues from the latter. Thus in Europe to be modern, to be with the times as against being backward, has come to mean being secular. This was not the case in the United States—more precisely, not until recently. The “Europeanization” of the American intelligentsia must probably be dated from the 1950s, reaching its full force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today there is indeed an intelligentsia in America for whose members religion comes, if at all, in plain wrappers. . . .
. . . Unbelief in Europe is varied, but remains a significant element in most countries; it is growing rather than shrinking. In the United States, it is also growing. . . . It is also clear that the culture wars of modern America show no sign of diminishing. (12, 18-19, 57)
Interestingly, what the aforementioned professors call the “two milestones” (i.e. Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public school and legalizing abortion as a constitutional right) occurred in 1963 and 1973 respectively. The receding of religious belief in America and the growth of skepticism, and secularism in the form of atheism and agnosticism, are directly related to these monumental decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, fifty and forty years ago respectively.
Is America better because of this increasing growth and influence of skepticism? James A. Haught, editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, addressed this question in an op-ed published in the June/July 2013 issue of one of America’s most influential skeptical magazines, Free Inquiry. Haught says,
The good news is that religion is dying in America, as it did in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other advanced democracies. The number of secular Americans keeps rising. It is now at fifty million adults and beyond. People who don’t attend church are the surest backers of liberal political and social beliefs. Their steady increase portends more progress.
Looking back over my long life, I see an historic parade of victories for secular humanism. They have made America fairer, kinder, more humane, more honest, and more decent. And it will be a blessing if humanists continue winning, onward into the future. (43)
The results of a recent nationwide survey by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life disagreed with Mr. Haught’s applause concerning “religion dying in America.” The survey asked Americans whether “having more people who are not religious” is a good or bad thing, or does not matter for American society. A significant number of people (48%) say it is bad that religion is declining in American compared to only 11% who think it is good. Four-in-ten (39%) say it makes no difference. Other significant work such as the fifty year study of W.H. Brady Scholar, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, concurs with the conclusion that the loss of religious faith (especially faith connected to the Judeo-Christian background) is not good for American culture. Murray, in his book, Coming Apart (2012), says “all [the Founders] were united in the belief that Religion was essential to the health of the new nation” (138). In light of such information is it not noteworthy that the “Father” of America, George Washington, affirmed in his Farewell Address (19 September 1796) the following?
Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable. . . . In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars [religion and morality] of human happiness, the firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles. (qtd. in Bryan 100-01)
Washington’s conclusion is a reminder that unbelief presents a perilous challenge for individuals and nations because, without the objective reference point of God, morality is “nothing more than an arbitrary imposition of one man’s will over another, or the will of one group over another” (Harden 229).
Nathan Harden, a 2009 graduate of Yale University shows in his book, Sex and God at Yale, just how obviously perilous unbelief is during this period in the history of his alma mater. Harden soundly argues that without “the rationale for human dignity that religion once provided, morality is reduced to a consensus of feelings. When that consensus breaks down, there is no objective standard to appeal to. And nihilism knocks at the door” (230). Harden’s book is a shocking story of how this prestigious university (i.e. Yale), which has educated three out of the last four presidents, and two of the last three justices of the Supreme Court, has become a cesspool of perversion. It is a jaw-dropping account of Yale’s “profound moral aimlessness” (221) which has resulted in a crisis that exists because of “lost faith . . . abandoned when God fell out of fashion” (229). Yale began, as did most of America’s earliest colleges and universities, as a religious seminary to propagate the Christian Gospel. However, today at Yale, as is the case at many colleges and universities around the world, professors “who teach about Christianity get hired only if they don’t believe in it” (224). Harden writes that Yale’s administrators are “uneasy about Yale’s Christian past and are uncertain of how to reconcile that past with Yale’s secular present” (225). Christianity at Yale is usually treated as intellectually unserious. Therefore, this recent Yale graduate describes how “Yale is a moral vacuum . . . almost anything goes . . . the decline of a great university . . . a prophetic vision of America’s descent into an abyss of moral aimlessness at the hands of those now charged with educating its future leaders” (231).
Recent studies manifest that a strong case can be made that America has been moving into a more obvious time of unbelief from the 1950s and mid 1960s (cf. Berger, Davie, and Fokas; Murray). The landmark lawsuit filed and won June 17, 1963, in the Supreme Court by Madalyn Murray O’Hair was just one of a number of several Court decisions linked to a growing secular (unbelieving, skeptical) mindset that has made American culture in general, and its public schools, colleges, and universities in particular, a mortal danger to the lives and souls of young people. The perilous nature of the challenge presented by unbelief is well documented by what happened to American culture following these decisions of the highest court of the land that, for all practical purposes, drove the final stake into the heart of Bible reading and prayer in America’s public school system. Our nation’s public education system has never really recovered.
William J. Murray, son of Madalyn O’Hair, was at the time the 14 year old plaintiff representing his mother’s deep hatred of God in the June 17, 1963, Supreme Court decision. He made a public apology to America in his book, My Life Without God, published 20 years later. He said, “I would like to apologize for whatever part I played in the removal of Bible reading and praying from public schools. . . . I now see the damage this removal has caused to our nation in the form of loss of faith and moral decline” (247). This Supreme Court decision has played a major part in putting our nation into perilous times. Long-time U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, said of the decision—“Somebody is tampering with America’s soul” (qtd. in Moore 362). How could any honest person deny the peril into which America was cast because of this unbelief?
After Bible reading and prayer were removed from public schools (in the early 1960s), every indicator of social decay began to increase. In the two decades following this removal of absolute moral authority from public schools, the nation’s divorce rate increased 100%, drug use increased 500%, violent crime increased 350%, unwed pregnancies climbed 500%, standardized test scores dropped 18 years in a row, premarital sex zoomed 1000%, and suicide increased 250%. (Kleiss and Kleiss Nov. 3)
Dr. Thomas B. Warren made a keen observation more than 40 years ago when he wrote that “the primary challenge facing the Lord’s church today. . . . The greatest challenge is that of skepticism: atheism, agnosticism, materialism, humanism, etc . . . .” (589-90). He concurred with the conclusion of the prominent conservative thinker, William F. Buckley, Jr., who had written more than 20 years earlier that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world” (xi). Has anything happened since the time of these two great thinkers (i.e. Buckley and Warren) that should lead one to conclude today that unbelief is not the greatest challenge with the most awesome, perilous consequences? Whether it be in academia, where it is widely accepted that more than 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists, or in much of organized religion where belief in God has been watered down to become what is really a form of agnosticism, this is a time of unparalleled unbelief in Western civilization. A professor of anthropology at Stanford in a NY Times article well documents this time of mixed-up, ramped-up unbelief with a statement from comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith who died in 2000. Smith said:
The affirmation “I believe in God” used to mean: “Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.” Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: “Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, I announce that my opinion is yes.” (qtd. in Luhrmann)
A TEXT FOR UNBELIEF
In this time of what may be unparalleled unbelief in America, the Bible is uniquely relevant to the reality of 21st century skepticism. It offers an inexhaustible affirmation of God and an unanswerable defense against unbelief. From this inexhaustible and unanswerable arsenal of relevant texts for unbelief, I set forth just one basic passage as an affirmation of Christian faith and a defense against the perilous challenge of unbelief. The passage to which I refer is Hebrews 3:1-19. If the eleventh chapter of Hebrews can be called the faith chapter, then the third chapter could be seen as the unbelief chapter. This remarkable passage implies the basic causes, character, and consequences of unbelief that make it the perilous challenge it is. The passage, in light of the totality of biblical revelation, also implies the means to victory over the perilous challenge of unbelief (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, secularism, and unbelief of all kinds). This way to victory is true Christian faith (cf Hebrews 11:1-40; Ephesians 6:16; 1 Peter 1:3-21; 1 John 5:4, et al.).
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house. For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God. And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward, but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
The problem with which the above passage is concerned is identified in the following two verses that I suggest are the crux of the entire passage of nineteen verses: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).
These two verses sum up the basic problem with which this passage is concerned (i.e. the problem of unbelief). Unbelief here relates to “the unending existence of God” (Rogers and Rogers 522), and the authority that the living (everlasting, cf. Psalms 90:1-2; Hebrews 9:14; 10:31; 12:22), God has over, on, and in a human life. This authority is revealed through His word that only profits someone when it is “mixed with faith in those who [hear] it” (Hebrews 4:2). But even when His word is not believed, it remains “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure His indignation” (Jeremiah 10:10, NASV).
To “take heed” (KJV, ASV), “beware” (NKJV), or “take care” (NASV, ESV) comes from the Greek blepo. Structured as it is in this crucial text, with the negative situation following (i.e. “lest there be in any . . . “), it “expresses a warning and fear regarding a [present] inevitable reality, indicating the warning should be taken very seriously” (Rogers and Rogers 522). Here it “represents intellectual functions” (Dahn 515). Such also implies that what we are dealing with here is very perilous and dangerous.
What is this that is so perilous? It is “an evil heart of [which is] unbelief” and results in “departing from the living God.” It is more than “unbelief . . . rather disbelief, refusal to believe . . . no mark of intelligence then or now” (Robertson 358, emp. added). To fall away or depart means “to stand off from” or “to step aside from” (358). Thus, in a broad sense it can describe everything from theoretical atheism or agnosticism that refuses to stand with God (cf. Romans 1:28) to the apostate Christian who departs from the faith (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 1 Timothy 4:1ff). In fact, in the immediate context of the passage under consideration it is this latter situation being warned against. The situation is well described in the following glance at New Testament words that summarize the seriousness of it:
[T]he serious situation of becoming separated from the living God . . . by falling away from the faith . . . is a movement of unbelief and sin . . . also expressed by other words. . . . Expressions equivalent in meaning . . . include . . . suffer shipwreck, [1 Timothy] 1:19 . . . miss the mark, [1 Timothy] 1:6; 6:21; 2 Tim. 2:18 . . . go away, Jn. 6:66. . . turn away . . . deny . . . change, alter . . . do not abide, Jn. 15:6 . . . it emphasizes strongly . . . the part played by the human will in the loss of faith. (Bauder 608, emp. added)
It is “a deliberate refusal to believe” (Thompson 55-56). Philosopher Thomas Nagel manifests this attitude when he writes: “I want atheism to be true. . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God. . . . It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God! I don’t want the universe to be like that . . .” (qtd. in Sztanyo 29).
However, in the contextual flow of this passage, those addressed are not atheists but “brethren.” These have at one time intellectually acknowledged the authority of God and the truth of the gospel of God, but now may be on the brink of falling, or already have fallen, into living as if God does not exist. Here is atheism in a practical form. Instead of allowing Christ to be one’s personal Lord, through the volitional commitment of one’s life, based on an informed intellect (cf. Sztanyo 102-06), one trusts in his own plans, purposes, pleasure, property, presumption, possessions, et al., rather than ultimately trusting in the person , power, purposes, and providence of God through Jesus Christ. In his valuable work, Atheism’s Faith and Fruits, James D. Bales wrote these extremely relevant words:
. . . [A]theism is not the only form of unbelief. . . . [S]uch forms of unbelief as agnosticism and skepticism—when they become a person’s settled outlook on life—are for all practical purposes atheistic since they cause a person to leave God out of his life . . . live as if they knew that God does not exist. Such people . . . need to know the faith and fruits of atheism . . . they are logically bound to accept if they are convinced that they are justified in living as if God does not exist. These are atheists in life whether or not they are in profession. (8)
The peril (danger, difficulty, potential destructive power) of the challenge of unbelief is implied in the passage through (1) the Denials in which unbelief is grounded, (2) the Deception of heart by which unbelief is caused, and (3) the Destiny to which unbelief leads.
* Denials of Unbelief (vv. 1-6)
There are three great affirmations of Christian faith denied by unbelief that are implied in the opening verses of this passage on the challenge of unbelief. The first is the glory of Jesus Christ. After having set forth the identity of Jesus as consisting of His majesty of deity (chapter one) and His manhood of humanity (chapter two), the writer of Hebrews concludes the section with the following:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses was also faithful in all His house. For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses as He who built the house has more honor than the house. (Heb. 3:1-3)
It is fitting that the Sun is used in the Scriptures to describe the awesome glory of Christ. His “face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). His countenance was “like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:10-12, 16). In the context of the passage before us, Jesus is affirmed to be “the brightness of His [God’s] glory, and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus does not reflect God’s glory (light). But as the Sun radiates its own light, so Jesus shows forth His own brilliant radiancy from the person of God,” i.e. who He is (cf. Rogers and Rogers 516). The “express image of His person” means He is the very image of God’s person. He is the “exact reproduction of essence, substance, nature, and reality” of God (Rogers and Rogers 516). Unbelief denies the foundational proposition that Jesus Christ is the glory of God. Unbelief denies that Jesus is “the incomparable Christ. There is nobody like him; there never has been, and there never will” (Stott 17). And yet, in denying the glory of Christ, unbelief is perilous because Jesus said, “. . . [I]f you believe not that I am He you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). And Jesus taught that if one dies in his sin “where I go you cannot come” (John 8:21). Therefore, unbelief leaves man in the most perilous of all situations, because it leaves man without Christ and, without Christ, one faces ultimate peril!
A second basic denial of unbelief implied in this passage is that of the ground of creation. Unbelief denies the obvious truth that “every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God” (Heb. 3:4). In what I believe to be one of the best apologetics textbooks published in recent years, Dick Sztanyo, author of Graceful Reason, says,
No one is so foolish to argue that a house just appeared on day, out of thin air. Time won’t help us here either. No one suggests that the house just evolved over long eons of time from lower, less organized and non-structured materials. We all know that the house was built by someone. Suppose that this “someone” is never observed by the ones who see the house. Would that lessen their knowledge that “someone” built it? Of course not. We all reason from the effects (in this case, a house) to the cause (“someone”). The author of Hebrews tells us this is precisely the same move one makes in arguing the case for God. . . .
By analogy, the author of Hebrews argues that we use the same procession coming to know that the builder of all things is God. Indeed, Scripture consistently suggests that this is the proper way to know that God exists (cf. Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:19-22; Acts 14:15-17, et al.). (67, 80-81)
Not only is it the case that unbelief (1) denies the greatest person in human history (i.e. Jesus Christ), and (2) denies the greatest power a human mind can consider (i.e. the creative power of God), but unbelief (3) denies the greatness of Christian confidence and hope. The text reads: “Christ [was faithful] as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (Heb. 3:6). Confidence here is from hupostasis. It is the same word used in the classic description of true biblical faith—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for . . .” (Hebrews 11:1, emp. added). This confidence is basically synonymous with faith. The opposite of it is apostasy (i.e. unbelief) (verses 12-13). The challenge is to “hold fast” (cling to) our confidence (faith) and that which is our rejoicing—our hope—in Christ. The duration is to keep on believing “firm to the end.” Lenski says, “It embraces all that we have in Christ as something of which we love to speak as our highest, richest possession so that it sounds as if we made it our boast” (108). The objective ground and basis on which this confidence (faith) and hope rest is Christ (cf. Galatians 6:14). To do the opposite of this is to fall into unbelief as those described in verses 8-11, 16-18. It is to be deceived in the worst possible way as we consider in the following.
**Deception of Unbelief (vv. 8-10, 12-13, 15)
The deceitfulness of heart by which unbelief is caused is another reason implied as evidence for unbelief being the perilous challenge it is. The problem here is “an evil, unbelieving heart” (v. 12, RSV). This is an evil heart of (or equivalent to) unbelief. The unbelief that results in one departing from the living God comes from a hardened (vv. 8, 13, 15), rebellious (vv. 8-9, 15-16), evil (v. 12), deceived (v. 13), and disobedient (v. 18) heart. Be aware that theoretical atheism (i.e. Romans 1:20-32), as well as practical atheism, are in the heart, and the heart in which such resides is gravely deceived. God is the ultimate ground of reality. “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God . . . their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). Unbelief is the exchange of truth for a lie (cf. Romans 1:25). God is the ultimate truth, and unbelief is the ultimate deception. The basic approach of the devil is to cause unbelief by hardening hearts to the truth about God. “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth. . . . [T]here is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
Hearts become evil hearts of unbelief through deception (i.e. through what is not the case, not reality). For example, hearts become evil hearts of unbelief through the presumption of one thinking that he is what he really is not (cf. Galatians 6:3). “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
Unbelief claims to be reasonable, rational; it is, in fact, the height of irrationality. It claims to act with sanity; it is wholly devoid of sanity. It puts up arguments; its arguments do not rest on premises of facts; the towering facts demand the one, true, opposite conclusion. Unbelief damns itself by its own utterances, deliberately challenges God and Christ to its own doom in spite of the doom that all past unbelief has already met. (Lenski 64)
Additionally, the perilous deception of unbelief works through the pleasures of sin (Hebrews 11:24-26) and procrastination (cf. Hebrews 3:13-15). Sin deceives us into unbelief that causes us to fail to weigh the issues of time in the balances of eternity, and causes us to think that there is “time enough yet” when the truth is that one’s life, in reality, is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). There is a real sense in which “soon it is gone and we fly away” (Psalms 90:12). Reality argues “there is but a step between me and death” (1 Samuel 20:3), and no one knows the day of his death (cf. Genesis 27:2). I once said to a prominent atheist, “Dr. Price, you need to remember we all are getting older swiftly, and we soon will die.” He answered, “You are right about that!” But his theoretical atheism has no solution to the problem. Unbelief sees life as a “jigsaw puzzle invented by no one and adding up to nothing . . . an absolute accident and . . . death is the arbitrary annihilation of all man has achieved or became: both are equally terrifying” (Varghese 329). However, in sharp contrast, Christian faith sees life as “‘being towards-the-Resurrection’ and, hence, C. S. Lewis parted from his friend Sheldon Vanauken with the words, ‘Christians NEVER say goodbye’” (353).
***Destiny of Unbelief (vv. 11, 19)
A final evidence that appears in this text concerning the absolute peril of unbelief is the awesome destiny to which it leads. Of those Israelites about whom David wrote in Psalm 95:7-11 (which text the Hebrews writer cited as the Old Testament example of the peril of unbelief) we read: “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). “Verse 19 is a summary statement in which the author states the relevance of Psalm 95 . . .” (Thompson 60). Unbelief was the reason why the Israelites, who did not enter the promised land, fell short. The relevancy of this should be obvious: “. . . [L]et us fear lest any one of [us] . . . come short” of Heaven (Hebrews 4:1). “Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience [unbelief]” (Hebrews 4:11).
There are only two possible ultimate destinations for mankind. Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). The word destruction in this text is translated such from apoleia. Its sense is not “the extinction of physical existence, but rather of an eternal plunge . . . a hopeless destiny of . . . an everlasting state of torment and death” (Oepke 396-97, emp. added). It is a word of extreme peril. It is connected, in the New Testament view of final things, with a word used by Paul, also translated destruction, in the following:
. . . [I]t is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, emp. added)
The destruction of this passage (v. 9) parallels that of Matthew 7:13, and the connection of the passages make it extremely obvious that this is the ultimate peril of unbelief. Paul used the word olethros in the Thessalonians text. This word has an awesome meaning. It is the loss of all things that give worth to existence (cf. Moulton and Milligan 445). It “does not mean annihilation” (Rogers and Rogers 483). The word is permeated with peril, danger, difficulty, and hardship to the most extreme degree—beyond anything one can experience in this world. I would suggest that the only time anyone in this world ever experienced anything parallel to this is when our Lord “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). He experienced this supreme instance of suffering so that you and I will not have to experience such in the next life (cf. Romans 8:32).
Here is the peril of unbelief whose adherents “shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). It is that place of absolute peril “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44). The chapter for unbelief closes with, “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). How powerful, persistent, and practical are the words of Lenski:
Would that “we see” were true of us “today”! At one time they could, but soon they could not. When grace is exhausted, judgment descends. The cause . . . was—“unbelief.” Scoff at the idea that unbelief is so fatal, that faith should be so decisive. Is it easy to scoff at the thought of those graves? (124).
We live in a time of perilous challenges to Christian faith, and unbelief is the ultimate challenge we face. However, there is available to any who honestly will go after truth an arsenal of spiritual and intellectual weaponry to meet every challenge (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). It includes the glory of the Christ, the solid ground of creation, and the greatness of Christian hope. It will defeat the deceitfulness of sin and prevent us from making shipwreck of the faith. And so we will be enabled to be guided to the desired safe haven of our eternal home where there will be eternal rest.
There is a resiliency about Christian faith that is inspiring. When one thinks of the persecutions that faced the early church, and then thinks of the unchristian pressures that were about them on every side, when one remembers that the early Christians were outnumbered hopelessly and ridiculed widely, it hardly seems that Christianity had a chance. But Christian faith has survived through all the centuries, and we confidently believe that it will survive under the pressures of our day, too, and will continue until the end of time. “Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” The answer is “Yes.” (Baxter 232)
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