What’s the problem with unbelief? (Heb. 3:14-19)
We live in an intellectual environment that makes faith in God, not to mention faith in the truthfulness of the Christian Scriptures, look uncool and unreasonable. Unbelief in such things is seen today not as the hallmark of wrongful sin but of rational sense. You don’t have to look far to hear people say that the existence of God is something that simply has never been and cannot be proven. These are people who think of themselves as modern and scientific. I had a student once who told me flat out that he didn’t understand how I could be a mathematician and a pastor at the same time. It boggled his mind that someone could embrace science and faith simultaneously. For him, and for many others, these are irreconcilable contradictions.
So for many people around us, religious unbelief is not only not bad, it’s good. Which makes the passage we are considering this morning very counter-cultural. For the main idea of this passage is that unbelief is not only bad, but that it comes with terrible consequences.
Let’s get to the passage itself. In verse 14, we are given a reason why we should exhort one another to persevere in the faith. The reason is that “we are make partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.” This is very similar to the statement in verse 6, that we belong to the household of Christ, “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” We’ve argued that passages like these show that perseverance in the faith is not optional, and therefore we should use every available means that God has given us to press on “toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
In verse 15, we are reminded of the Psalm (95) that the exhortation of verses 12-13 is based on. It also provides the context for the following verses (16-19). And in these verses, we are told that the main reason why the wilderness generation of the Israelites failed, and why they did not end up entering themselves into the Promised Land, is because of unbelief.
Verse 16 in the KJV is translated as a statement, but in almost every modern version, it is rendered as a question. So, for example, the ESV translates it this way: “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?” Now it doesn’t materially affect the overall meaning, but I think the modern translations are correct. One of the main reasons why they put this as a question is because of the parallelism in verses 16-18. All three verses are pulling from the imagery and language of Psalm 95, quoted in verses 7-11. Verse 16 corresponds to verse 8, verse 17 to verses 9-10, and verse 18 to verse 11. So if verses 17 and 18 are a question, shouldn’t we also translate verse 16 as one? This seems to me to be a very strong argument for rendering it in the same way.
Now you may wonder why this is even a problem. Why not see which verses have a question mark and which ones don’t? Problem solved! Well, the reality is that the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were uncials, which means in part that they didn’t have much punctuation. That was added later, and so in some sense question marks are themselves an interpretative addition to the text by later copyists and translators. That doesn’t mean that it is in general hard to discern where they should go. But in a few cases, there can be a question made about question marks! However, I do want to reaffirm that whether or not you put verse 16 as a statement or a question doesn’t materially affect the meaning or the interpretation of the overall text. The basic idea remains the same.
But what is the basic idea? The author is reminding us why the wilderness generation of the Israelites were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. They weren’t allowed to enter because they provoked God by their rebellion (16), because they sinned (17), and because they did not believe (18). But what I want to underline here is that all of this is summed up in terms of unbelief in verse 19: “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.” In other words, their unbelief was the summit of their rebellion and sinning. And it was therefore their unbelief that was the fundamental reason why God did not allow the rebellious Israelites entrance into the Promised Land.
Now I want to focus on that reality today. In particular, I want to show you why God considers unbelief so bad, and therefore why we should continually maintain and grow in our faith. But to do that I first need to push back on the idea that faith is bad, that religious faith and faith in the Bible is only for cultural Neanderthals, and that to be intellectually grown up we have to reject our religious commitments. Having done that, I want to go on to consider what faith is and to think about some reasons for faith as the alternative to unbelief. And finally, I want to show that unbelief is primarily not based on reason but on rebellion against God, and how therefore unbelief in particular dishonors God. That is to say, this morning we want to consider the faith of unbelief, the alternative to unbelief, and the evil of unbelief.
The faith of unbelief
As we’ve already pointed out, a lot of people today will claim that religious faith is untenable today, that the scientific mind cannot consistently be religious. And they will triumphantly claim that there is simply no proof for the existence of God, end of story.
Many times, you will find that the argument goes like this: you are religious, and I am secular; you base your ideological commitments on faith, and I base mine on proof. And to them, this shows the superiority of the secular mindset to the religious one: science versus faith, proof versus piety. But there is a real problem with this line of reasoning. The problem is that no one has beliefs that can be proven down to the bottom. Or another way to put it: everyone has beliefs that they cannot prove. That is to say: we all live by faith. There are no exceptions to this! The person who rejects Christianity for the secular mindset has not gotten rid of faith commitments. They have simply replaced one set of faith commitments for another.
How is this, you might ask? Well, if someone tells you that there is no proof for God, you might ask them what constitutes proof. For many people, when they say that they want proof for God, what they mean is that they won’t believe in God until science proves God. And what they mean by that is that there must be scientific evidence for God that everyone will accept. Or that you must have an argument that everyone will accept, no matter what.
Now I do think science points towards God, and that the universe itself and the laws which govern its motion point to God (of which more later). But that aside, let’s consider the problematic statement that one will only accept scientific statements about God. It’s a problem because it cannot bear its own burden of proof. What they are essentially saying is that science is the only door to knowledge or that I cannot know anything apart from the deliverances of science. But how do you prove that by science? How do you prove scientifically that science is the only way of knowing? What sort of experiment will you run for that? The answer is that there is none, and there isn’t one because to say that science is the only door to knowledge is not a scientific statement, it’s a philosophical one.
Or consider the statement that we should only accept propositions that can be rationally proved, like a mathematical theorem. Don’t get me wrong: I think reason is good, but again, that’s not a statement you can prove. As one theologian has put it, “Obviously, you cannot prove a norm of rational proof without using it. So reason can make a case that it is the way to truth only by appealing to itself.” He goes on to write that “both the statement ‘there is no supernatural reality beyond this world’ and the statement ‘there is a transcendent reality beyond this world’ are philosophical, not scientific, propositions. Neither can be empirically proven in such a way that no rational person can doubt. To state that there is no God or that there is a God, then, necessarily entails faith. And so the declaration that science is the only arbiter of truth is not itself a scientific finding. It is a belief.” 
Is secular unbelief better than the Christian faith? Is it a good thing to abandon faith in God? Well, no, and what I am trying to point out is that one of the main reasons that people give for this is inadequate. They think they can prove everything they believe, and religious people cannot, and therefore the secular accounting of things is better than the Christian one. But this is false. They too accept things which they cannot prove. They too live by faith. They too accept things without absolute and unassailable proof. It’s simply not enough to argue that if I cannot pull God out of a test tube, therefore God must not exist. For you too have beliefs that cannot be proven in any laboratory.
Some things that people cannot prove but accept are things like the belief in the progress of civilization, a belief in human rights, a commitment to universal human dignity, and a belief in right and wrong. Today there is a lot of kerfuffle about the environment. Okay, but why should we care about the environment? Why should I care about later generations? Why should I not be selfish, and what makes that wrong? You cannot prove that I should be selfless with respect to the environment or with respect to anything else for that matter by pointing me to science. Science doesn’t tell me what I ought to do; it simply tells me what the material world is like and how it operates. You don’t get ought from is, you only get is from is. Why then do you believe that we should protect the environment for future generations, if you don’t believe in God, and if the only basis for your beliefs is science? The answer is that you don’t get that from science at all; it’s a matter of faith.
C. S. Lewis once gave an excellent illustration as to why it is ridiculous to rest everything on science. When the first Russian cosmonaut came back from space, it prompted the Russian premier at the time to say that man had been to space and had not found God. As if a quick trip around the earth was enough to say that God does not exist. But Lewis responded that trying to find God in space was like Hamlet trying to find Shakespeare in the attic of his castle. In other words, trying to find God under the microscope or in the telescope assumes that God is part of the furniture of the universe. But he is not! He is not hiding behind Jupiter; he made Jupiter and everything else. If God exists, you will not find him by searching for him among material causes, for he is the one who made the laws of physics themselves. He is not in the attic of the universe; he is its author.
The bottom line is that the beliefs of modern man ultimately rest on faith. Science does not explain everything. It doesn’t even explain things that we hold most dear: things like right and wrong, human rights, and respect for the environment. Faith cannot therefore be so bad, and unbelief is not a sign of intellectual maturity. It is not a question of who is a person of faith; it is a question of whose faith fits better with the data of life and experience, and whose beliefs have more internal consistency? I believe very strongly that the Christian accounting of things is better, and I now want to move on to consider some of the reasons.
The alternative to unbelief
Most people think that faith is a leap in the dark. Unfortunately, some Christian thinkers have given credence to this (folks like Kierkegaard, and many of the neo-orthodox theologians). Faith is popularly viewed as something that has no rational basis for it. In fact, faith is almost endowed with creative powers – if you have enough faith, you can bring something out of nothing!
But that’s a problem. Who wants to embrace faith when it has no rational foundation? Isn’t faith then a sign of credulity and intellectual backwardness?
However, this is not a Biblical view of faith. Nowhere does the Bible tell us to believe things for no reason. You see this in the passage we are considering. Why was the unbelief of the Israelites so bad? It was because, despite all that they saw, despite all the reasons God had given them to trust in him, they still refused to do so. They had plenty of reasons to believe: the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, and on and on. Every day they encountered new miracles. And yet they did not believe. As the Lord put it to Moses, “Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their father, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it” (Num. 14:22-23). Of these same folks, the Lord complains, “How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (Num. 14:11). The problem with their lack of faith was not the lack of evidence. The problem was their lack of faith despite the abundance of evidence.
Now I realize that we haven’t experienced the same things. So people today might take the approach that they too would need to see Mount Sinai on fire before believing. However, though we might not have seen the Ten Plagues, God has not left himself without witness (cf. Acts 14:17). And so still the reason for our unbelief is not a lack of evidence. God does not ask you to believe something without good reasons.
When I talk about believing, of course I mean the Bible in general and the gospel in particular. The Israelites in the wilderness didn’t believe God’s word to them, but the author of Hebrews casts this as a rejection of the gospel: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2). Hence the unbelief which is here condemned is a refusal to believe the gospel. So what lines of evidence do we have for that? Now there have been whole books written on this, and I can’t reduplicate all the arguments in the short time that we have. But I want to give you some pointers to a few lines of evidence, and if you are interested in pursuing these further, I will be happy to visit with you or to point you to some helpful books.
Let’s consider how the apostle Paul does this in his letter to the Romans. And so I begin where he does there, with the existence of God (cf. Heb. 11:6). He tells us that God’s wrath comes upon men who suppress the truth. What truth is this? It is the truth that God’s exists: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). The apostle says that there is no reason why anyone should deny the existence of God or fall into idolatry. The evidence for God in the creation of the world is too great to be withstood or to leave folks with an excuse for their denial of the God of the Bible. Now some people today seem to think that science has taken away the need for belief in God’s existence, and that religious faith can only shrink as scientific knowledge increases. But this is false. It fails to grapple with the fact that there are different explanations for things and that science has not, and indeed cannot, explain everything about the universe.
John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician, puts it like this. Suppose you ask me to explain the Model T. I say, “It is explained by the principles of engineering that make the internal combustion engine work.” Well, that would be true as far as it goes. But it does not completely explain the Model T. Another explanation is Henry Ford himself. And these are not competing explanations: they are mutual and complementary – and they are both true. Saying that physics pushes God out of the equation is like saying that the laws of mechanics push Henry Ford out of the picture when it comes to explaining the existence of the Model T, which is ridiculous.
Creation points to God for the following reason: God exists because things exist, in the same way that the existence of the Model T points to Henry Ford. The key thing to remember here is that the things around us are not eternal, they do not necessarily exist. They are contingent. But for anything to exist, something or someone has to necessarily exist. In other words, for there to be something rather than nothing, God must exist. This is, I think, Paul’s point in Romans 1:20. You don’t need an elaborate argument for God’s existence; just look around you. The things around you are not eternal; they did not always exist. But if they began to exist, there must be a reason for their existence over their non-existence and that reason must go back to the existence of a Being outside the universe which necessarily exists, namely God. Physics can indeed tell us how the universe operates; but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or why there is something rather than nothing. The laws of physics cannot even explain themselves; God is their explanation.
But that’s not the only line of evidence. We come next to the presence of a moral order. In the book of Romans, in chapters 1-3, the apostle builds a case for the universal sinfulness of man, culminating in the statement that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Along the way, he argues that all men have an innate sense of right and wrong, even those who do not have God’s written revelation: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law [God’s special revelation], do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15). In other words, we don’t just inhabit a physical world; we also inhabit a moral world, a world in which it makes sense to call certain things wrong and other things right. We inhabit a world with sin and sinners, which is just Paul’s point.
No matter therefore how secular the world becomes, it cannot seem to get rid of a sense of right and wrong. There is a reason for that. It is because there is right and there is wrong. But you cannot have right and wrong without a lawgiver, without a standard of justice. Otherwise, everything becomes preference. I know that the problem of evil is a difficult problem. But you cannot have evil without justice, and you cannot have justice without a Judge. In fact, Aquinas made the point that because evil exists, God exists; not because God created evil, but because you cannot adequately explain the sinfulness of sin apart from the standard of God’s holy law.
And then there is the gospel itself, the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). What is the gospel? Paul gives it to us in Rom. 3:21-26, but he summarizes it succinctly in his letter to the Corinthians: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures; and that he was seen” (1 Cor. 15:3-5). The greatest argument for faith is Jesus Christ himself. Here is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead. In rising from the dead, he vindicated his claims as God’s Son. We have argued recently that the evidence for the resurrection is very strong indeed. To say that we can’t trust the record of his resurrection is both intellectually lame and lazy.
In the book of Acts, the apostles continually point to the resurrection of Christ as a reason to believe (Acts 2:24-36; 3:15; 5:31-32; 10:40-42; 13:30-39; 17:30-31). God raised Jesus from the dead, and exalted him as Lord and Savior at his right hand. There were witnesses to this; it didn’t happen in a corner. When Paul was presenting the gospel before Herod Agrippa, and was ridiculed as being “mad” by the procurator Festus, Paul responded: “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. For the king knoweth of these things, before whom I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest” (Acts 26:25-27). The gospel was not preached as if it were some kind of gnostic system with hidden knowledge; it was preached as being based on facts that everyone could observe. And it spread through the Roman Empire, not because it was false, but because it could be verified as true.
Not only is the gospel based on believable historical realities, but it rings true because it meets one of the most fundamental needs of the human condition and it does so in a way that nothing else can. It is the need created by guilt. How do you deal with your guilt? The world does not know how to do this without projecting it on others, or by denying that it really exists. But this is clearly not sufficient. Guilt is real, and it is personal. There are many religious systems that attempt to meet the need created by guilt by making man his own savior. We purge our own sins. But this too is insufficient if we are honest with ourselves.
It is guilt that pulls us to the solution presented to us in the gospel. Guilt reminds us that we live in a moral universe presided over by a holy God, by whom we live and to whom we are all accountable. And it also tells us that we cannot atone for our own sins: we need a Mediator. And it is this that the gospel gives us in the person of Jesus Christ. He is able to purge our sins by his atoning death. He could do this because he is both man and God. Because he is man, he can stand in our place, and because he is God, he can fully and completely atone for our sins. The gospel tells us that we don’t deal with our guilt by trying to remove it ourselves, but by trusting in the sacrifice that Christ made for those who believe in him. People all over the world in every generation have found this to be true. And they have found it to be so because it is true.
The alternative therefore to unbelief is not blind faith. The alternative is faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, “the words of truth and soberness” (Acts 26:25).
The evil of unbelief
And this brings us to our closing consideration. “They could not enter in because of unbelief.” The Bible tells us again and again that the reason why people reject the gospel is not fundamentally because of a lack of evidence. It is because of the condition of the heart, a condition rooted in a commitment to self-sovereignty. If evidence were all people wanted or needed, the Israelites in the wilderness would have been the strongest believers. And this is the problem today, as it was in Jesus’ day: “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (Jn 12:37). This is not a problem in Bible times only; it is a problem endemic to the human condition. We are all by nature like that generation of wilderness Israelites.
The unbelief there was rooted in a heart of rebellion and provocation (Heb. 3:15). The rebelliousness of the heart is what led them to moral and spiritual blindness, that left them unmoved despite all the miracles and mighty works of God’s power that they saw. It is the same today. This is one of the reasons why apologetics, no matter how cogently and winsomely presented, can leave people unconvinced. The reasons of a heart committed to doing its own thing and refusing to submit to God’s rule will not be interested in submitting to the righteousness of God in Christ.
And this is what makes unbelief so evil. Unbelief is not merely a psychological description of those apart from Christ; it is sin (cf. John 16:9). What we need to understand is that no one is neutral. The Bible tells us that we are either for God or against him; there is no neutral ground.
This is not to say that doubts are not real, or that if we deal with doubt God won’t have anything to do with us. That is not true, either. The greatest saints in the world have had doubts, like John the Baptist. Jesus didn’t rebuke John, but gently reminded him of the reasons to believe. The problem, however, is that we can imagine ourselves in our doubts to be in some objective, neutral position. That is false. Again, we are never neutral; we are always reasoning in conjunction with our hearts, will and affections. And if our heart is against God, is hostile to God, all the reasons in the world are not going to bring us to him. But hostility to God is sin and must be repented of. It is this sin which stands behind so much of the refusal to believe God’s word to us.
So how does this relate to you and me? Well, we are being warned here about the evil and the danger of unbelief. The evil of unbelief in that it is symptomatic of sin and rebellion. The danger of unbelief in that it keeps us from experiencing God’s greatest blessings. This is true on any number of levels. It keeps those who will not embrace Christ by faith from embracing the only hope of freedom of sin and guilt which is found in Christ. It keeps them from the rest that can only be found in him. This unbelief is fundamentally rebellion against God, and we must repent of it. But it can keep even true followers of Christ from experiencing God’s blessing as we could. Let us not think that unbelief is found only in those who do not yet follow Jesus; even those of us who have come to him and sometimes relapse in certain points to unbelief. It was to his own disciples that our Lord said, “Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?” (Mk 4:40). We too, often have a reason for repentance. We who have found God faithful again and again, how is it that we fall prey so easily to the sin of unbelief? Oh, let it not be said of us, and of this church, that “he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Mt. 13:38)!
How do we challenge the perennial temptation to unbelief? Well, once again, we do so by exhorting each other, by reminding each other of God’s promises and his character and his faithfulness. We do so by pointing each other to Christ and to the gospel. What a privilege and a blessing it is to do this. May we all be constantly encouraging each other to faith in the one who is worthy of all our trust, Jesus Christ our Lord.