Do those who reject the gospel understand what they are rejecting?

Rejection of the gospel isn’t necessarily conscious rejection of Christ. Some people reject the gospel because they misunderstand it or because it has been misrepresented to them. This is partly why Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other biblical authors warned so strongly against hypocrisy and causing a truth-seeker to despair (Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 8:9).

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:9)

Scripture implies that rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ is often the result of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than conscious evil intent. Jesus doesn’t refer to unbelievers as “snakes,” “dogs,” “jackals,” or “scorpions,” but as “sheep” (Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:4; Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25). We can assume that the image of “sheep” (known for harmlessness and herd instinct) was chosen for a reason. Scripture also refers to unbelievers as “ignorant” and “wayward people” (Hebrews 5:1–2), “poor,” “oppressed,” “blind,” and “captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

Even when the gospel hasn’t been misrepresented, a world marked by disease, competition, and violence makes the gospel sound improbable to many people (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Harsh life experiences make us wonder how a loving God can be in charge. Even Hebrew believers who lived in the time before God “made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:10), had an ambivalent view. They believed their departed loved ones were at peace with God in some sense, but considered them unable to join in the joyous worship of the Lord’s people in the same way as when they were living (Psalm 88:10; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:3–6).

Jesus knew the obstacles to faith and understood His role in revealing God’s love to us. We should pattern our response to the lost on His compassion.

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. (1 Timothy 1:13 NIV).

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