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The Spiritual Reality of Unbelief

The Spiritual Reality of Unbelief

A conversation about John's Gospel with Tom Habib

Dear friends

A special guest for this week’s edition—freshly minted Moore College lecturer, Tom Habib.

Tom’s post-graduate study was in John’s Gospel, and in particular the themes of belief and unbelief that are so central to John’s message.

Read on (or listen by clicking the player above) for a stimulating conversation about why and how people believe—or don’t believe—in Jesus.

Your brother


The Spiritual Reality of Unbelief

Tony Payne: These days, it's usually either Mark or Luke that we study or use in evangelism, and John seems to have slightly fallen out of favour. People see it as very deep, and perhaps a bit complicated. Is that right?

Tom Habib: I think so. I remember chatting to a friend in ministry and asked whether he uses John for evangelism. And he said no, because the moment you open it up, you're into a discussion about the Trinity. And I do understand that there is a lot of depth in John. I mean, there's a lot of depth in all the Gospels really. But I actually find John to be an incredibly useful gospel for evangelism because it really gets to the heart of a lot of questions that we're asking today—questions about what is truth, questions about how can we know God or if there is a God. And it also just really challenges us to think about our response to Jesus and why are we accepting or rejecting him. So I think it's a great Gospel to use for evangelism. But all the Gospels are too. 

TP: Indeed they are. And I hope our episode today might drive some of our listeners to get into John's Gospel again. What was your particular focus? What sort of things did you want to explore in John's Gospel in your PhD studies?

TH: Early on, my interest was really around the themes of belief and unbelief. What does it mean to believe? What does John teach us about this? And what does it mean not to believe? Why don't we believe? What are the underlying causes of unbelief? And reading through John, I think, I found a real richness in the answers to these questions, and I wanted to explore them more. 

But like any PhD, that's far too broad. And so I ended up being particularly interested in the characters—and when I say characters, I don't mean that they're not real people, but rather looking at them from a literary perspective. How were these people portrayed to me? What does that teach us about belief and unbelief in their responses to Jesus? How are we meant to understand them? And what are we meant to take away from the way they're portrayed? 

And that's really what I was exploring in my PhD. And again, because you have to narrow down, I came to look at one particular group, which in Greek is the “Ioudaioi”. This group is translated in different ways in different Bibles. Traditionally it is translated “the Jews”, but now it’s more often translated “Jewish leaders”. And some would suggest that actually “Judeans” is a better translation. And that's a tricky topic because of real concerns about anti-semitism and things like that, which is why these questions of translation come up. But that was my area, looking at how this group is portrayed in John's gospel, and what we can learn about faith and unbelief from that.

TP: Let's start by talking about belief and unbelief more generally, and then zoom in on the Jewish leaders. Because you’re right—this area is tricky in John's Gospel. There are people who ‘believe’ but who are then not treated as believers; and there are complex characters like Nicodemus. How do we understand what belief and‘unbelief are in John? 

TH: It is very complex, as you say, because John likes to use a word, and then explore a whole range of different facets of how we understand that word. “Belief” is one of those words. So he doesn't change the word depending on who he's talking about. He'll talk about all different groups and say they believed in Jesus. And yet, when you look at where they end up, or the nature of their belief, you say, well, there's belief and there’s “belief”. 

So for example, you have at the end of John 2 those who believed in Jesus’ name, but Jesus doesn't entrust himself to them. And in John 8, you have this group of Judeans or Jewish people who John says believed in Jesus, and yet, very soon afterwards, Jesus is saying, “Your father is the devil”, and then they try to kill him. And so you have this tension of what does it really mean to believe.

And the same question comes up with unbelief as well. What are the reasons for unbelief? And I was particularly interested in that, because when you look at, say, a chapter like John 7, where you have a lot of people rejecting Jesus, and Jesus says, “Do not judge by mere appearances, but judge rightly”, that makes us question. If they’re not judging Jesus fairly and not rejecting him for a good reason, then what is actually behind their rejection? Which Jesus then answers—it is because the world hates him, because the world is evil. So there are these underlying deeper spiritual reasons for unbelief, causing people to reject Jesus. And that's really teased out throughout the whole Gospel, that people will not come into the light because they love the darkness (John 3). 

In John 9, when Jesus heals the man born blind, there’s overwhelming evidence that Jesus has performed a miracle, yet the Pharisees still refuse to believe and they persecute those who do believe. What does that tell us? That they’re blind, not because of a lack of light, but a willful blindness of not wanting to believe. Meanwhile you have the man born blind and the disciples thinking that his blindness reflects some sort of sin, but Jesus immediately rejects that.

So there is a blindness that reveals sin, but it's not physical blindness; it's spiritual blindness. And when we reject Jesus, it's not just for lack of information. It's not just because we haven't been given the best argument. It's because in our heart, we want to live our own way. And I think that's one of the things John is trying to show, as he unpacks belief and unbelief. 

TP: So if unbelief is a kind of wilful, deliberate turning away from the light because we really prefer the darkness. What, then, is belief? What brings belief and what is the character of belief?

TH: I think this is one of the most interesting things in John, because it's not symmetrical. It's not as though those who don't believe do it because of their sin, and those who do believe do it because they're really great people and are sinless. You see this in John 3 where Jesus says that those who will not come into the light do so because they love the darkness, and they fear that their deeds will be exposed—but those who do come into the light, they don't reveal their own virtue or goodness but reveal the work of God in their life. John 3:21, “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” 

And you see this actually playing out in John 9. So if the blindness of the Pharisees reveals their sin, Jesus says that the man born blind at the start of chapter 9 was not born blind because of any sin, but so that the work of God might be revealed in his life. So, belief is not because of our own goodness, but it is the work of God and the work of the Spirit. This is why you have to be born again of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God. 

And so belief, on one level, is about being open and being willing to hear the truth—it is about putting aside your prejudices and your sinful desires to want to actually be open to what God has to say—but in our sinfulness that can only happen by a work of the Spirit through which our hearts are softened and our eyes are opened. And so it is entirely a work of God if we believe. 

Now what does it mean to believe? In John, it means to come into a relationship with Jesus and to accept him as your Lord and your Saviour. In the rest of the New Testament it means to put your trust in Jesus, but the process of belief or how we come to believe, that's entirely a work of God. And I think we see that again and again in John's Gospel.

TP: We see it from the beginning of the Gospel really. How does someone come to be a child of God in John 1? It's by the work of God, not by descent or the will of man. It's not necessarily those who descend in the line of the Jews who are going to be the ones to inherit the kingdom or to believe, but those whom God regenerates by his Spirit, those whom he brings glory to himself by revealing to them himself. 

TH: Absolutely. And this is, I think, why the characterization of the Judeans or the Jews in John is such an important part of John's Gospel, because here is a group (or at least some within that group) who believe that they are in a relationship with God because of their physical ancestry as Abraham's children. That's what they say to Jesus. And Jesus is clear that actually, no, there is a work of the Spirit that has to happen for all people, for the entire cosmos. John universalizes the problem so that we're all in the same boat. We're all in sin. We're all slaves to sin—to use his language from John 8—and we all need liberation by the Son so that we can be part of the Son’s household. You're not part of the Son's household by virtue of your ethnicity, but rather by belief in the Son. 

And so that's really what's going on in John 8 when Jesus uses this incredibly harsh description of this group of people—the Ioudaioi—that their father is the devil. He's not saying anything in particular about them as a group as if they, in particular, are evil, unlike the rest of the world. But rather, the shocking thing that he's saying is that this group that sees themselves as Abraham's children, actually are children of the devil. And the way that we see that is by their actions. What are they doing in their rejection of Jesus? They're not accepting the truth. And they're plotting to murder Jesus. And who is the devil? Well, he is the father of lies, and he was murderous from the beginning. And so by their actions, they're revealing their true ancestry. 

Now, it's really important we understand here—this is not a particular attack on the Jews or a particular attack on Jewish people, but rather it is a condemnation of all of us. It's a condemnation of the cosmos, of the world; that is who we are, regardless of our ethnic background, regardless of whatever claims we can make to having some sort of special relationship with God by virtue of something of the flesh. We're all sinners, and we're all in need of a Savior. And I think that's a challenging thing for all of us to hear. But a really helpful way that John shows our need for Jesus. 

TP: So the Jews are John's “symbol” (in a sense) for the rebellion and sin and hard-heartedness of humanity in general, and this is a reflection of the Old Testament as well—as in, there's nothing in John 8 (or the other tough things Jesus says about the Jewish leaders) that the prophets don't also say about Israel and their appalling rebellion against God in the Old Testament. Israel is a kind of microcosm of humanity. In the Old Testament, they're chosen out from among the nations to be God's special chosen, treasured people, his kingdom of priests. And yet, even though that's going to be the line through which salvation and Christ comes, it's a nation that remains rebellious and sinful, and for whom salvation is always elusive; they are always turning their backs on it.

And so I’m wondering—if the Jews (in the OT) kind of stand for all of humanity, showing humanity’s rejection of God and yet also God’s saving purposes, is that how they function in John’s Gospel as well? Do they show the path to belief and to salvation, as well as the nature of unbelief?  

TH: Yes, that’s interesting. In Israel, there are always believers. And so when you look at the portrayal of the Jews or the Judeans in John's Gospel, it's easy for us to think it's an entirely negative portrayal. But when you look carefully, there are actually a lot of positive things that we see as well. So in John 11, we see the compassion that these people have for Mary and for Martha after the death of Lazarus. And then we see that a lot of them believed after Lazarus is raised. And as we get to John 11, we see that a schism has been created within this group. There are some who believe and there are some who don't believe. And that's really interesting, because I think that this division within the Judeans is showing that ethnic identity is not the primary concern here. It's not about whether I am Jewish or not, or what my background is about. It's about my response to Jesus. And so this term that would have been used as the marker for whether I'm part of the people of God is kind of broken down. It's no longer the identifier.

You see that more than anything else in the character of Nicodemus, this complex character, who is one of the Ioudaioi, who is a Judean, and who, in fact, is a leader of this group of people, and yet, who, slowly throughout the gospel, moves toward Jesus.

So it shows that their belief is open and available to anybody. And in Nicodemus, what you also see is that believing in Jesus is not a denial of your Jewish heritage—every time Nicodemus is mentioned, his Judean identity is highlighted. 

In John 7, Nicodemus rejects the Pharisees’ view of Jesus, but he does it by bringing up the law of the Old Testament in defense of Jesus. He says, “Doesn't our law say that we should hear someone out before we reject them?”—whereas the Pharisees were using the law to condemn Jesus by saying he was a Sabbath breaker. And then when you get to John 19, where Nicodemus comes to bury Jesus with an exorbitant amount of spices, and in doing so he is identifying himself with Jesus. So clearly there is a demonstration that he believes that Jesus is of great worth and value, very similar to the anointing of Jesus before his death as well. And we're told that he was buried according to the customs of the Judeans.

So Nicodemus hasn't rejected the Old Testament in coming to Jesus; rather, a true understanding of God's law and of what God has taught in the Old Testament leads to faith in Jesus. And I think that's what we see in Nicodemus—that this is not a rejection of the past, but actually a fulfillment, showing that the right response by somebody who is from the people of Israel is to accept Jesus, not reject him.

TP: Tom, as we think about what this means for us today, two things occurred to me. The first is the nature of belief. You said earlier, there are believers and there are ‘believers’. And the other gospels say that as well—you have the four soils, people who come to accept the Word but then don't last, who ‘believe’ but whose belief doesn’t last. How does all this help us think about belief—in our own lives and in the lives of other people in our churches?

TH: I think the parable of the four soils is a really helpful comparison with John's Gospel, because I think the same point is being made in John's gospel. There are people who can display belief, and at least from our perspective, it seems to be genuine belief in Jesus. And yet they don't remain in Jesus. That language of “remain” is very common in John.

There are people who come to Jesus for the wrong reasons. They're only interested in the signs or they're only interested in a free meal. They think that he's a political Messiah, and they want to make him king. They're coming to Jesus, but they're not coming to him as the one who will die for them, and who will take away their sins; they're not interested in eating his flesh and drinking his blood, to use that language from John 6. And so that belief is a “coming to Jesus”, but it's not coming to him for the right reasons. And John is trying to show the problem with that. 

At the same time, there are people who do seem to come to Jesus for the right reasons, and yet they don't stick with Jesus. You really get that I think in John 8, where Jesus says that whoever “remains in my Word is my true disciple”. And yet, the very next thing that he teaches them is that they're slaves to sin. And surprise, surprise! That tends to be the thing that most people don't want to hear today as well. I think that's one of the hardest things for us to hear: that we're sinners, and that we need to repent. We actually need to come to Jesus to be saved from our sin. 

So it's not enough to just begin in belief; you have to go on in belief. And then you get to John 15 and you see that if you remain in Jesus, then your belief is going to bear fruit as well. And so, again and again, John does not deny the word ‘belief’, but he gets us to think deeply about what this looks like.

Believing in Jesus means to come to him for salvation, to come to him for rescue from our sins. It means to believe he is the Son of Godl that he is God himself. And it means to keep on believing, to not give up and to not pick and choose—to not say that I believe this about him, but I won't believe that about him. We need to receive his word and remain in his word. And if we do that, we will produce fruit.

That's a real challenge for us. But I think it's one that we especially need to hear when sometimes in our good intentions to evangelize and to bring people to faith, we perhaps make it out to be simply like signing on the dotted line or walking through a door, and then that's it. And then you can kind of leave Jesus behind and get on with your life. But John challenges that idea and gives us a much richer, fuller picture of what it means to believe in Jesus.

TP: What about the other side of it? What implications does John’s view of ‘unbelief’ have for us today? How should that shape the way we minister, especially the way we evangelize and the way we interact with non-Christians and seek to bring the gospel of Jesus to them? 

TH: The big reminder for me is that unbelief as a spiritual problem. It's not primarily intellectual and it's not emotional; it's spiritual. We all have it—a deep commitment to sin, to a rejection of God that's in our hearts. And because of that, we don't want to believe. It's only by the grace of God that we've had our eyes opened. 

I find one of the most striking parts is John 8 where the devil is described as their father, and that when he lies, he speaks his native tongue. And so truth is a foreign language to the devil, and therefore to us his children. For sinners like us, truth is a foreign language that we just do not understand. We cannot hear it and understand it without the work of God.

Now in some ways, that can sound discouraging, but it's actually encouraging! First of all, it reminds me that it's not all on me. I can do everything right, and yet, without the grace of God, people will not believe. And I'm reminded of how I need to pray. I need to ask God for his Spirit to be at work in these people's lives, because there is a deeper problem than I can deal with.

I think it also changes the nature of how I approach evangelism, because the way that people come to life in John is through hearing the word. This is something that Jesus says again and again. It was actually the reason for the title of my podcast long ago, “The Word Grows”, because it is through the word—Jesus’ word—that life comes through. 

And we often can think that if we just get the right strategy for our church, or if we just have the right approach in evangelism, if we just get the right argument for people, then they will believe. And that would be true if the problem wasn't so deeply spiritual. But knowing that it is, it stops me relying on those sorts of external factors. And it leads me to trust that if God alone is the one who can actually bring someone from darkness into light, it has to be by Spirit, it has to be through His Word. And so my evangelism is going to be focused on the Word of God. Really, it's about trying to get people to be confronted by the word and letting God's Spirit do the work.

That doesn't mean that I don't need to think about how I explain things. Or that doesn't mean that I don't need to think about what the best way to approach people is. But at the very heart, I think we need to never lose sight of the fact that evangelism is about people meeting God in his Word and being convicted by his Spirit of their sinfulness and having their eyes opened to the truth. And that's a real encouragement that we get, once again, not just in John, but in the whole Bible.

TP:  What you’re saying is that it gives our evangelism a centre of gravity. There are various things to think about, as we seek the best way of organizing ourselves to share the gospel—but in the end, centrally and most importantly, the task is simply to share as clearly and compellingly as we can the word of Jesus, and praying that God's Spirit would work through that word.

TH: Absolutely. And being open to how sometimes that won't happen. Sometimes, God may choose not to open blind eyes. And we see that throughout John's Gospel as well. I like to think of John 6 as the worst evangelistic event ever. You have thousands of people coming to Jesus, and by the end, even the disciples, even the support team, the counselors at the back, have left Jesus. And, sadly, that's the reality. But then we also sometimes see the blind man whose eyes are opened, and that's a real joy.

TP: It is a joy, Tom, and it's been a joy to talk to you today and to be stimulated again to think about John's Gospel—to be motivated to get into it and to read it again. Let's see if we can bring about a revival of using John's Gospel in evangelism!


As always, we love to have you as part of the conversation. Send in your questions about John's Gospel (and belief and unbelief), and Philip and I will try to answer them—although we reserve the right to get Tom back in if we’re stumped. Just hit reply to this email, or you can email me at  

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.