The soul-shrinking, self-exalting, hell-deserving wickedness of Unbelief
One of the more astounding things that Jesus said is found in John 8:24. There he declares that “unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” The personal pronoun “he” is not in the original Greek text. Most times in John’s gospel this sort of statement is followed by a more explicit declaration of who Jesus is. For example, he will say things like, “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the good shepherd,” or “I am the door,” or “I am the resurrection and the life.”
But here it stands alone. He simply says, “Unless you believe that I am” you will die in your sins. Some think Jesus is referring to Exodus 3:13-14, where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and said, “’I am who I am.’ . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” In other words, it may be that Jesus is here claiming to be the “I am”, Yahweh himself in human flesh.
But I think it is more likely that Jesus had in mind several other declarations made by Yahweh, God of Israel. For example,
“Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isaiah 41:4).
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he” (Isaiah 43:10).
“Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can it turn it back” (Isaiah 43:13).
“even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).
“Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last” (Isaiah 48:12).
If the ESV is correct when they insert the pronoun “he” into the text, it simply reinforces what Jesus is claiming. He is declaring that he and he alone is the “he” of whom these OT texts are speaking. This is a claim made by God and God alone. For anyone else to remotely approach such a claim was regarded as the worst form of blasphemy. Either Jesus was blasphemous or he was and is who he claimed to be: God incarnate, Yahweh in human flesh!
And what are the consequences for refusing to believe this? Jesus doesn’t leave us guessing: “you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). This does not mean that they will be sinners all their days up until the day that they die. It means they will experience that death which is the just punishment and reward for sin. “The wages of sin is death,” said Paul (Romans 6:23).
All of us will die. But not all will die in their sins. You will die. That isn’t an option, unless you happen to be alive on earth when Jesus returns. The only relevant issue isn’t whether or not you will die, but whether or not you will die in your sins or in your Savior!
To die in your sins is to die with them unforgiven. It is to die under God’s wrath. To die in your Savior is to die forgiven and forever free from all condemnation.
The question is often asked: “Why is unbelief such a big deal? Why would someone’s failure to believe in Jesus lead to eternal damnation?”
It isn’t uncommon to hear something like this. “Sally is a really nice person. She’s faithful to her husband. She is a wonderful mother to her four children. She has never used profane language or committed a felony. She helps out her neighbors when they are in trouble. She serves weekly at a nursing home near where she lives. She’s never abused anyone. She’s really great to be around. But she doesn’t believe in Jesus. She doesn’t believe that he is the Son of God who came to earth in human flesh and died on the cross to redeem sinners. But now you tell me that ‘unless she believes’ that Jesus is who he claims to be, she will suffer forever in hell. That seems so disproportionate. Why should something so seemingly innocuous as unbelief merit eternal damnation?”
Perhaps you’ve heard that question before. Let me try to answer it, because we are confronted with this reality here in John 8. Once again, Jesus says it with unmistakable clarity: “unless you believe that I am he you will die in our sins” (John 8:24).
The problem with Sally and anyone else who might be like her is that she suffers from a profoundly warped sense of perspective. The question of why unbelief is so monumental is fueled or undergirded by what can only be described as a massively high view of human beings and an even more massively low view of God. Here is what I mean by that.
The problem in our world today, and in every age, is that people have a far, far too high a view of themselves and a far, far too low view of God. God is infinite in every respect. He is infinite in power, in authority, in goodness, in glory, in beauty, in majesty, in honor. He is infinitely more worthy of praise and gratitude than all of humanity combined. He is immeasurably wonderful, splendid, and fabulous in every conceivable way and in countless ways that we can’t even begin to conceive.
God is the supreme treasure in the universe. He is infinitely more worthy of our belief and trust and honor than anything and everything else that exists.
So, when Sally, or anyone else, says they don’t believe, they are saying, in effect: “God is of no value to me. God is useless. God is altogether of less worth than my car. God is less deserving of my praise than is my dog when he sits at my command. Unbelief is a human being, a creature, saying that the Creator is tarnished and ugly and undeserving of my acknowledgement.
Unbelief is not some harmless state of mind. Unbelief is treasuring everything else in the universe more than the Creator of everything in the universe. Unbelief is the human being saying to the divine being, “You’re a liar. I don’t believe anything you say about yourself. I don’t think you are worthy of my devotion or worship. I don’t regard your immeasurable and limitless glory to be worth a moment of my time or energy. I regard my golf game on Sunday morning to be more enjoyable than spending time in church declaring your greatness. I prefer sex to you. I prefer coffee to you. I prefer money to you. I prefer vacations to you. I prefer my friends to you. I prefer the praise I receive from my peers to the praise that I might otherwise give you. You are nothing to me.”
And the reason why this sort of evaluation on the part of an unbeliever doesn’t strike us as deserving of eternal damnation is because we have a pathetically low view of who God is. We don’t see and savor and rejoice in his unending beauty and knowledge and power. God is very, very tiny in our estimation, and the autonomy and self-imposed authority of our minds and decisions is very, very high in our estimation.
That is unbelief. And that is why if you remain in unbelief, you will die in your sins. Unbelief is the refusal to see your sins for what they are, namely, an affront and insult to the grandest and most glorious being in all the universe.
Now, let me be clear. Not all unbelief is equally wicked. If you watch ABC Nightly News with David Muir, as I do, you may find him saying some things that you simply don’t believe. Perhaps he comments one night on the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. As you listen to his explanation, you find yourself saying, “I don’t believe him. I can’t trust what he says.”
That may or may not be a wise thing to do. But it isn’t overly consequential. Why? Because David Muir isn’t God!
Or let’s suppose that I was to speak to you of my own opinion on whether or not man-made global warming is a real threat to us, or merely a myth. Of course, I won’t speak to you on this because I’m not a climatologist. I have no way of accurately evaluating the scientific data on this subject. So, whether or not you believe me may be a wise decision or a foolish one. You may say, “I don’t believe you, Sam.” Again, why is this somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme of things? It’s because I’m not God!
But Sally’s unbelief, your unbelief, if you are not yet trusting and treasuring Jesus Christ, is the single most serious sin you could ever possibly commit. It is more egregious, more offensive, more unrighteous, more wicked than all the adultery or theft or murder or abuse that one could ever commit. Why? Because the one you have chosen not to believe is God!
That is why unbelief is deserving of eternal punishment. Unbelief is not simply a decision of your will on the same scale as which movie you will see this weekend or what sports team you will support or where you will spend your summer vacation. Unbelief is a human spitting in the face of the divine. It is a denial of who Christ is and what he came to do. It is a denunciation of the truth of what he says.
But none of what I’ve just said will ever register in your heart or make a difference in your mind until you come to see God for who he is. You must see him as infinitely and immeasurably and unfathomably majestic and beautiful in every way, and thus as the only being in the universe who can command your affections and be a fit focus of your faith and your energy and deserving of your trust and hope and time and life.
Some will push back on me and say, “But Sam. Sally doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward God. Her unbelief is mild and rather benign.” No, it’s not! For you to respond that way to her unbelief, for you to in some measure try to justify her unbelief or dismiss it as inconsequential, is a reflection of how low a view of God you have.
Don’t make light of unbelief. It is a soul-shrinking, self-exalting, hell-deserving rejection of the only one who is deserving of your unqualified acceptance. And that is why it makes perfect sense for Jesus to declare that if you do not believe in him you will die in your sin. And the single most damning of all the sins in which you will die is your unbelief, your repudiation of Jesus, your denial of God, and your prizing and treasuring the creature more than the Creator.
This is precisely what the apostle Paul had in view when he said this about humanity:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:18-23).
When Sally refuses to belief in, trust, treasure, and find satisfaction in Jesus she has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for something created, something that has no glory. She is saying, “I regard the comfort of my home of more value than God; I regard the money in my bank account of more value than God; I regard the success of my children to be of more value than God; I regard my own emotional well-being and self-esteem to be of more value than God. Even if you exist God, you are so small and so insignificant and so trite and banal and bland and of such little consequence, that I hardly consider you worthy of my affection or confidence.”
When Sally, or anyone else, refuses to belief in, trust, and treasure Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior they have chosen not to “honor” God as God. They have chosen not to “thank” him as he is deserving. They have become “futile in their thinking.” They think they are wise for not believing. They think it makes sense. But Paul says they have become “fools” and have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things, or they have exchanged the glory of God for worldly comforts and vocational ambition and everything money can buy.
And that is why if Sally, or any of you, persist in your unbelief, you will die in your sins.
So, will you believe in him today?