Why Is Unbelief a Damnable Offense?

love of darkness

John 3:18-21: “18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”

Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus in secret and under the cover of the dark and, at this point in the text, we come to the conclusion of their conversation. If you go back and read the rest of the conversation, there are many magnificent words about the salvation of man and how men are saved through belief in Christ. With the conversation being full of the idea of salvation and men being saved, this may cause a question to arise: what are we being saved from? Why do we need salvation? Why is belief in Christ necessary for salvation? So, before the conversation closes, Jesus leaves Nicodemus with this necessary and sobering morsel of truth, found in these verses, concerning mankind, and it answers the reason to our question and for Christ’s coming to the earth. There is an underlying current in this conversation of being rescued from an impending doom or a perilous harm that will befall someone. There is a current sentence of everlasting condemnation upon the shoulders of humanity, and one day, that judgment will be executed against mankind. And the crime that warrants this everlasting punishment is… unbelief.

Many of you may be thinking: “That’s it? That is what sends people to hell? Mere unbelief? If there was something that should warrant such a punishment, it certainly should not be as simple or as minor like unbelief.” Despite the sentiments of man, Christ tells us  in verse 18 that unbelief is more heinous than many of us think it to be. In fact, as we unfold this text, we will see that unbelief truly is a thing that warrants the judgment of God.

This is the question that will be considered here: Why is unbelief a damnable offense? And this will be answered by looking at unbelief’s object, unbelief’s hate, and unbelief’s consequences.

Unbelief’s Object

Jesus begins His conclusion with Nicodemus by placing men within two distinct groups. There are the ones who are not condemned and the ones who are condemned already; those who are saved from the condemnation and there are those who are not. Take note of the word “already.” It implies that this is the present state of condition of those just described, this is something that is resting upon the heads of all mankind right now. The default state of humanity is under the sentence of condemnation. The reason for this sentence is stated in verse 18, “because they have not believed in the only begotten Son of God.” This unbelief is the crime that is deserving of an unrelenting, eternal, infinite, yet just punishment from God.

It may be a shock for many of us that the grounds for eternal condemnation is unbelief. There may be some of us who have been raised on the idea that mankind is generally good, and this is certainly the prevalent anthropology that our culture teaches. We are told that, despite some faults and some bad apples, people largely do good in their life and do morally upright things, so there is no way that they are deserving of eternal punishment. You may be thinking: “There are many things in this world that I do not believe in, and I am not punished for that! There are worse things in this world than not accepting certain statements found in an old book. This sort of extreme sentence should be reserved for the worst of the worst, the serial killers, sociopaths, or the Hitlers of our society.”

Yet, even for the worst of the worst, people under this same philosophy seek to justify or find some redeemable quality for them. They may say: “This man murdered ten people and felt no remorse, but he still found time to raise and nurture some pets. He may have done evil things, but he himself is not evil because, look, he still has some value for life. If such man as this is not totally evil, then what does it make your average person? A saint! Someone deserving something the opposite of everlasting condemnation!”

However, this perspective does not line up with Jesus’ perspective of mankind in this text. The qualifications for condemnation are not measured by how Hitler-esque someone is, but it is measured by whether or not someone believes in Jesus Christ. And Jesus gives us the correct perspective of what unbelief truly is, and “simply not believing in something that happens to be Jesus” is much more heinous and Hitler-esque than you think.

Jesus begins to explain the reason for this condemnation by saying in verse 19: “And this is the condemnation.” It could also be read as: “this is the judgment.” So it is as if Christ gives us a legal declaration, a statement of fact, like an accusation of the crimes that a person has committed that are worthy of an official sentencing. It is like God as the just Judge in His eternal courtroom saying, “this is the official statement concerning the of grounds of your guilt, and this is who you are and this is what you have done.” So, what is it that we have done? What is God’s judgment of man? What are the charges that lie underneath the crime of “unbelief”? We read on that “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” So, the grounds that unbelief is a damnable offense is because of the rejection of this light that has come into the world.

For a better understanding of the weight of this statement, we need to connect some verses to see the significance of this light. In John 1, we read that this light is more than just the photons that come from flashlights, or light bulbs, or the sun, but light is another word for illumination, a coming to the knowledge of the truth. So it is a light of truth that shines in the dark place of ignorance. We also read that this light is also called the Word, and words communicate ideas and bring forth truths. This Word, this light, is the One who was from before the beginning of the world and became incarnate. We read that this Word has shone upon all men, who were in the darkness of ignorance, whereby the Old Testament, namely the Law and the Prophets, and the forerunner, John the Baptist, have testified of the truth concerning the coming of this Messiah who is to take away the sins of the world. It is the gospel message that is declared to people even today.

So, we learn that God has promised men a Savior, has indeed gifted them with the incarnation of the good news and truth of God’s salvation, the Messiah who takes away the sins of the world. As we see from chapter 3 verse 16, it is Christ Himself, God’s only begotten Son. The One in whom He is well pleased. The One for whom and through whom all things are made. The One who stooped down from His infinite and majestic throne, put off His glory for a time, took on flesh, took on the form of a servant, took on our sins, and took on our punishment for them. This is the One who is the light, and verse 18 shows us that this is the One who is disbelieved and rejected.

Also, the function of light is to reveal an object as it truly is. Generally, the brighter the light, the more you can see the world as it is. If you were to go outside in the middle of the night when there are no lights on, you would not be able to see the trees, your driveway, the neighbor’s house, and probably not much in front of you, either. However, if the street lights are on, if the neighbor’s garage light is on, or if you had a flashlight, you would be able to see more and say, “Ah there is a sidewalk here, there is a tree here with bark, branches, and leaves, and it looks like the neighbor’s car is parked in the driveway.” And you could go on seeing things that you did not know were in the dark. Of course, the time that you will be able to see the most is in the middle of the day when the sun is shining directly overhead, revealing to us what a hundred light bulbs could not. This is the same purpose for the light described in the text; this is Christ.

So, God has given this light to reveal man as he truly is. Christ has come as the noonday sun and has shone on all men revealing to us who we really are and revealing to us who God really is. He does this by His words, verbalizing God’s perspective of mankind and His purposes for the world. He does this by His actions, showing how men are to live and how far short we fall of it.

And what is revealed is not that people are generally good. But, as we see in the text, it is revealed that their deeds are evil. The word used for “deed” in this text implies a habitual, consistent moral character. The nature of who man is will be revealed by the things that they do, and it is defined as evil. All manner of our speech, behavior, and desires of our heart have fallen short of Christ’s examples to us. Where He perfectly desired to do the will of the Father, we have sought our own lusts. Where He perfectly desired to serve the Father, we have rebelled against Him to serve ourselves. All things that He did was done in perfect harmony and conformity to God’s law, in thought, word and deed, and He shows that we have fallen far, far short of this. He shows us that this is the default position of man. Because of the nature of God’s holiness, these sins merit the condemnation that Jesus is speaking about.

This is the truth of man that Christ illumined for us and it is for our good. It is so that we may see that we all have offended God and how. It is so that we may see our need for repentance. He put a light upon the way toward life and salvation, and away from destruction.

One may think that if a person was good, honest, and true, and he were confronted with the truth about a quality of him that was not good, he would meet that observation with an acceptance and a desire to change it to good. In a similar way, Christ has come into the world as a shining light, confronting us with who man truly is, and He tells us who we are by showing that our natural manner of living and who we are from conception can only be described as evil. And one place we can find the details of these evil deeds is outlined in Romans 1:18-32.

There, Paul describes the mental and spiritual endowments of the natural, unconverted man. He states that the truth about God and humanity has been exchanged for a lie. Therefore, the default state of man is instead of worshiping the Creator, we worship the created; right thoughts of God are discarded for false thoughts of God; what we naturally think to be wise is foolish; and we think what God has called immoral and evil to actually be moral and good. Since the fall of man into sin, man’s heart, soul, and mind have been at odds with and antagonistic to God as He has revealed Himself.

However, Christ says in this text that instead of coming to the light and accepting these things that are revealed about us, we reject these things, close our ears and our eyes to hear and see them truthfully, and we would rather be in the dark. He explains that it is because we are evil that when we are shown this fact of our depravity, we do not feel sorry for these evil deeds, but we turn to the darkness instead because we love it.

If we take note of the word “love” in this text, we can see that it is not a mere inclination or arbitrary preference to these dark things, but this love indicates that men have strong affections for the dark. A desire for it, a clinging to it, and to hold it dear as his beloved. Natural man rejects this truth of his evil nature that He has placed before them, and they are inclined to want to continue in the things that are evil because they love them.

When the lights are turned on, our nature does not like it, so we scurry to the dark places that we love to continue in the dark things that are loved, like cockroaches who quickly scatter to seek shelter under the fridge when we turn on the kitchen light. It is a rejection of the truth to remain in a lie. This rejecting of the truth is a loving of the darkness, a voluntary placement under a delusion or dimness of mind, so that they can continue believing that these evil deeds are not evil like Christ has revealed them to be. Therefore, they do not need to feel sorry for doing them nor should they stop them. It is not just an inclination to flee to the darkness, but it is a love of these things.

The light of Christ reveals men to be wicked, debase, bad, worthless, malicious, full of all manner of sin and rebellion, void of any upright moral stature, spiritually dead, and in total need of repentance and salvation. Thomas Boston said it this way:

“The heart that was made according to God’s own heart, is now the reverse of it, a forge of evil imaginations, a sink of inordinate affections, and a storehouse of all impiety… the imagination of the thoughts of the heart, that is, whatsoever the heart frames within itself by thinking, such as judgment, choice, purposes, devices, desires, every inward motion; or rather the frame of the thoughts of the heart, namely the frame make or mould of these, is evil… The heart is ever framing something, but never one right thing: the frame of thoughts in the heart of man is exceedingly various; yet are they never cast into a right frame. ‘But is there not, at least, a mixture of good in them? No, they are only evil’ there is nothing in them truly good and acceptable to God: nor can anything be so, that comes out of the forge where, not the Spirit of God, but ‘the prince of the power of the air’ works.” (Human Nature in its Fourfold State, 61)

The Understanding is corrupt: The natural man has difficulty understanding the good light of God (Boston, 80) because the understanding is darkened and overwhelmed with spiritual blindness and evil (81), so that what is perceived is not understood aright, and what is judged is utterly mistaken (84), and he has a bias toward evil (86).

The Will is corrupt: There is an utter inability to desire what is truly good and pleasing to God. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (97). In fact, it is an aversion to good (99), and enmity against Him and His holy will (105).

The Affections are corrupt: “He is a spiritual monster… He loves what he should hate, and hates what he should love; joys in what he ought to mourn for, and mourns for what he should rejoice in; glories in his shame, and is ashamed of his glory; abhors what he should desire, and desires what he should abhor.” (127)

The Conscience is Corrupt: It is in a deep sleep or numbed like drunkenness. It does not work and prick the man as it ought. The conscience is seared or callous to the things that are against God. Where the conscience should prod and convict of guilt and wrong at any onset and commission of sin, it feels little to nothing.

The character of man’s sinful nature is to love the wicked things that are exposed to be evil and antithetical to God’s holiness and contrary to His original prescription for men’s lives. So, unbelief is that when this light is turned on to reveal these things as wicked, unbelief biases men to love the darkness that shrouds these things from what they really are; it keeps them from believing they are true, and it inclines them to scurry back to these dark things.

So, there will be a love for any process of thought, or any other belief that justifies what is contrary to or what outright rejects the truth of what the light has illumined. The first time that this had happened is when the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, saying “Did God really say?” There, the truth of God’s command to not eat of the fruit of the tree was exchanged for a lie, and the truth of God’s command was outright rejected. Eve, then, thought to herself that the fruit was pleasing to the eye, good for food, and able to make one wise as a way to justify herself around God’s command.  So, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, corrupting our nature so as to cause all of his pedigree to follow suit and believe the same by default.

So, today, we may jump to any self-justified conclusion that will twist the truth of God into a falsehood. And we may ask ourselves many things when confronted with the truth of God’s Word in our world: “Did God really say that Christ is the only way to salvation? Did God really say that all lying is sinful? Because I could really use a little extra cash on my tax return. Did God really say that homosexuality is sinful, because this is love, isn’t it? You don’t need to worry about reconciling with this person, because you are justified in your grudge. Don’t you say that I am a sinner because I like to do these things, it’s my life, and I’m a good person.”

These sorts of things are the dark, evil delusions that reject the light of the truth that God has given us, and these allow men to feel justified in continuing in their evil deeds. It is the backwards justification for immoral behaviors and immoral thoughts that are clearly stated to be against the will of God. This is the nature of unbelief. Not believing in the light of Christ, in the Word which God has given us, is calling God a liar for what He has illumined to be true so that they may continue to revel in their crimes.

Do not be deceived that the darkness of this unbelief affects only those unbelievers who are out there. How often do believers fight against any form of unbelief? We need to note that this is a judgment or a descriptor placed upon all mankind, which included you, believer. This is the world from which you have been rescued, and that sinful nature still clings to you. And though Christ has saved you from the ultimate consequences of this unbelief, has created within you a new heart of belief, and is conforming you daily to His image to a life of thankfulness of that deliverance, it does not mean that you are completely sinless and no longer have struggles or doubts. The nature of the old man and his unbelief is a lifelong battle and still clings to the believer.

So, how does this unbelief manifest itself in your life? When Christ says to love your neighbor as yourself, are you finding reasons to hold a grudge? When Christ commands us to take up our cross daily and follow Him, are you finding excuses to curtail your life of devotion to Christ, or cutting spiritual corners? When the Word commands fidelity to your spouse and sexual purity, do you believe that includes not looking lustfully at another woman, even at women on the internet? When the Word would have husbands love their wives as Christ love the church, are you not imitating Him in being tender, sacrificial, free, patient, enduring, cheerful, affectionate, or by promoting her spiritual welfare? Do you seem to be justifying yourself for not spending daily time in God’s word or in prayer? Do you feel that there are certain things that are not worth confessing to the throne of grace?

Or perhaps, believer, when the Word says, upon your true faith in Christ, God has removed your sins as far as the east is from the west, that you dismiss it and say that He could not possibly forgive this sin or that sin? Do you say that God could not possibly look upon you as His adopted son? This is the time to search the scriptures with earnestness and faith, to believe in the whole Word of God and submit yourself to it, to know that there is no sin large enough that He can’t forgive, and to know that there is not one square inch of your life that Christ does not demand wholehearted allegiance.

Unbelief’s Hate

We are seeing that there is more to unbelief than a simple dismissal of certain claims and propositions made in the Bible. Also, there is more to unbelief than a darkened and delusional mind. Yet, more, it has been noted that a part of unbelief is a love of things that are antithetical or opposite to the light, so the nature of unbelief is much darker than loving a deluded nature and to believe in the opposite things that Christ brings forth. Unbelief, as verse 20 shows us, is also a hatred.

It can be observed that love and hatred are closely connected. Out of a love for something, it will incline you approve of the things that would increase it, and to hate the things that seek to destroy it, undermine it, insult it, or take it away. For example, since I love children, I hate abortion. Since I love the life that God gives from the very conception in the womb, I hate the process that would seek to destroy that child’s life. Since I love marriage, I hate adultery. This is because I love the blessed covenant of union God has instituted for a man and woman, so I would hate any act that would seek to wreak havoc upon or distort that sacred bond. The same is for our matter of discussion in this text. Because people love their sins and their wickedness, they will love anything that will foster it, coddle it, nurture it, allow it to continue or grow, and this is the darkness. But they will hate whatever it is that gets in the way of it, that seeks to undermine it, contradict it, change it, or destroy it. This text shows us that they hate the light for this very reason. Unbelief is not merely a loving of evil things, but it is a hatred of what is opposed to it, or who would be opposed to it, namely Christ.

This is the most heinous reason why unbelief is a damnable offence. It is because of the object of unbelief’s hatred: the light, the truth, Christ Himself, the only begotten Son of God. This is not simply a dislike, a favor of something else, or a matter of intellectual preference/opinion, but the text says that it is a hatred. It is a strong abhorrence, loathing, disgust, detestation, of Christ and counting Him as an enemy.

Because they love the darkness and hate Christ, the light, men hate the one that has come from the very bosom of the Father, the only begotten Son of God, the one in whom God is well pleased and finds infinite satisfaction and love. This is the One that is dearest to God, who is the only One that is the express image of God, the One who is worthy of all manner of praise and honor, the One who’s glory transcends the angels and the heavens, the One whom God regards with the utmost respect and is the embodiment of His infinite love, and is the One who is the most perfect gift toward man. The One who has come to set the record straight with mankind, to show them how they ought live, that they are to repent from their evil deeds, and how they are to be saved.

Yet men find Him repulsive and count Him as their enemy. They scorn Him, mock Him, laugh at Him, insult Him, call Him a liar, and cast Him off as refuse. All of this is done because they love their evil deeds that Christ seeks to illumine. They have regarded their evil deeds more precious than the Son of God.

Therefore, those who hate the light seek to extinguish it. There is the staunch resolution to continue in the evil that he loves and will not allow the light to expose what he is doing as wrong because, as the text says, “lest his deeds be reproved.” Since their whole joy, purpose, and love in life is to do what Christ, the light and truth, regards as evil, they  the cover it with the darkness of unbelief or indifference so that they may persist in it. Any manner of attempt to expose their evil deeds, to shine a light upon it so that it may be seen for what it really is, be reproved for it, called to stop doing those things, to cut it off or pluck it out and cast it far from them, to repent of it, to be called to not love it any longer but to hate it, run from it, and kill it- all of this will be snuffed out at any extent. He will not be reproved of something that he loves, something that he delights in, something that seems to be so fitting to him, something that is like a first love that he has nurtured from his youth. It is as a Puritan pastor, Benjamin Needler, once said: “O, it goes against him to cut the throat of his darling lust!”

So, the light is smothered through persistent and intentional unbelief, suppression of the truth by fleeing from it, utter rejection of it, and a hatred of anything that seeks to undermine it. They hate Christ because Christ’s purpose of coming into the world is to call men to unto repentance and to free them from the evil deeds that they love. He is a mortal enemy to them, a villain, a rival, the one who is perfect and upright and shows that they are not.

This natural bend of man’s mind and morality against the only begotten Son of God is ultimately enmity against God. This unbelief, therefore, is deserving of the everlasting punishment as God’s enemy.

Unbelief’s Consequence

We are told of the consequence of unbelief at the outset of this text. It is condemnation. Because Christ is infinitely good and true, the only begotten Son of God, He deserves to be believed and embraced. Matthew Henry noted that since “God sent the One that was dearest to Him, shall He not be dearest to us?” The same commentator goes onto explain that it is their unbelieving hearts that condemn them because unbelief is a sin and it does not believe in the remedy for sin and disbelief. Unbelief does not acknowledge, assent, and hold dear one whit of the true Christ. Because of this, the wrath of God abides upon the sons of disobedience and upon unbelief. And the punishment for unbelief fits the crime because of the one whom it is committed against: the truth, the light, Jesus Christ. It will be a wrath that is everlasting because Christ is everlasting. It will be a wrath of infinite strength because Christ has all power. It will be a wrath most bitter, difficult, torturous, and unsatisfying, because Christ is the most sweet, pleasing, and satisfactory.

We need to dispel any false notions of this condemnation. The idea of hell and everlasting punishment is mocked in our culture, and there may be some of you that scoff at this idea, too. You may be thinking that it is simply not coming, that it is not as bad as they say, or that at least all your friends will be there with you. If this is what you believe, then you have been deceived and blinded by the darkness so that you may continue in the evil things you love. It is not fictitious, nor is it a figment of man’s imagination, but it is a real place the exists even in this day.

Though the first glimmers of dawn’s morning light may still largely be dark and you are able to still get away with some sins on earth, and you may be thinking that things are going on just as they always have ever since the beginning, the sun is still going to rise. When the sun does rise and sheds light upon your evil deeds, there will be no place to hide from it. No roof, no closet, no cave, not anything can escape the bright burning of the sun, save for faith in Christ. All of your deeds will be exposed before the panorama of humanity and in the full light of God’s glory. All of your deeds will be shown for what they are.

The judgment is certainly coming, and, no, you will not enjoy the company of your friends where you can continue doing the evil things you love in this day. The little satisfaction that you find in them today will be totally gone for eternity, and all that remains will be bitterness and agony. You will not be able to suffer along with your because they won’t be your friends any longer. Any dislike you have or annoyances against any person will be completely unrestrained, the grace of God that withholds the full exercise of your depravity and evil nature will be withdrawn, and all that there will be is pure hatred and loneliness.

Wilhelmus a’Brakel said: “The damned will have an eternal and essential existence; however, they will eternally miss all that which constitutes felicity, such as all light, communion with God and Christ, peace, rest, joy, love, and holiness. Yes, they will one day be deprived of all good things which God in His longsuffering permitted them to enjoy in this life… Since, however, they will then be deprived of all things and be unable to find satisfaction within themselves, they will be in a most horrible and grievous condition… they will be filled with unrest and anger towards God who will deprive them of all things, as well as despair, since this will endure forever without the least expectation of relief.” (1: 416)

Jonathan Edwards said: “It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If God should only withdraw his hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.”

a’Brakel continued: “Be alarmed, tremble, and repent, in order that you may escape the manifestation of this wrath.” Seek Christ this day while He may still be found, while there is yet time, while Christ’s doors of mercy are wide open and salvation from such a punishment is still freely available from Him through faith and repentance. Believe in Him and in His word, and no longer hate Him through your wicked deeds that He has exposed to be evil.

Let this discourse on unbelief be a motivation to those believers who may be struggling. Examine yourselves to see if there are any falsehoods in your life. Are there any excuses being made for sins? Are you justifying yourself for doing something that the light of Christ has exposed as sinful? What areas of your life are you allowing yourself to continue to be darkened? What are your reasons for doing so? Do not end in a mere external knowledge of these things, but apply it to your life, and make practical use of it. Hate Christ no longer in these things. Believe that God does not expose our sin to ridicule us or to mock us, but so that we may repent of them and be more conformed to the image of the One in whom He is well pleased, His Son. So, come into the light, and pray for it to shine brightly in your life, acknowledge that these things are evil, depend upon His grace and believe the truth that He is faithful and just to forgive us and purify us of all unrighteousness.


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