The Myth of the Unhappy Pagan
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10)
You have probably heard the joke about the man who tried to get his sofa down the stairs of his apartment block. One of his neighbours saw him sweating and took pity on him but, if anything, it felt harder with his neighbour’s help. Eventually, he gave up in exhaustion and told his neighbour that he didn’t think they would ever manage to get the sofa down the stairs. “Down the stairs?!” asked his surprised neighbour. “I thought we were trying to get the sofa up the stairs!”
If you feel unfruitful in your attempts to share the Gospel and win people to Christ, then it is possible that this is your problem. If we fail to understand what the Holy Spirit is doing in people’s hearts, then we can find ourselves working against him. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul expects his teaching about the end of world history to make us want to share the Gospel urgently with others. He therefore finishes his teaching about the man of lawlessness with two important insights which help us work together with the Holy Spirit.
First, Paul warns us not to treat the Gospel as God’s message to the unhappy pagan. Think about it. Most contemporary Gospel preaching assumes that unbelievers are dissatisfied with their lives and that they will respond to Jesus if we show them he is the answer to their unmet needs. If they are lonely, Jesus will be their friend. If they are afraid, he will be their shelter. If they feel guilty, he will be their forgiveness. If they feel empty, he will give their life meaning. The problem with this message is not that it is untrue – the Bible tells us that Jesus really is the answer to all these needs. The problem is that this is only part of the truth. Most unbelievers are not unhappy at all. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:12 that they delight in wickedness.
If we share the Gospel as nothing more than God’s promise to help unhappy unbelievers, then we will find ourselves working against the Holy Spirit. Non-Christians will pick up on our assumption that faith in Jesus is only for weak people and they will therefore resist whatever else he is doing in their hearts. Christians will stop sharing the Gospel when their friends tell them that they are content with things other than Jesus filling each of these needs. Even if they persist in sharing, their friends will simply point out that many professing Christians seem lonelier and emptier and unhappier than they are. The truth is that people refuse to delight in the Gospel because they are already finding their delight in a life of sin and rebellion against God.
On 15th April 1912, the Titanic sank during its maiden voyage. Three quarters of its passengers died in the icy water, even though its lifeboats were half-empty. Most of the passengers refused to believe there was a problem, so the earliest lifeboats left the ship less than a third full. Now imagine that you are on the Titanic and have a chance to warn the passengers. Would you try to tell them that lifeboats are more comfortable than cruise liners? Would you tell them that you have a fantastic lifeboat testimony and that they will enjoy their voyage so much more if they have a lifeboat testimony too? Of course not. They would simply point out that the lifeboats look colder and much less inviting than the comforts of their cabin. Instead, you would tell them the complete truth: that the ship is sinking and that the lifeboats, uncomfortable as they are, offer the only hope of salvation. The Holy Spirit will not work with us if we peddle a false Gospel to those around us. He is waiting for us to tell them that they are like the happiest passenger on the Titanic. However delightful their life is without Jesus, they need to repent and receive him as Lord before it is too late.
Second, Paul warns us not to treat the Gospel as God’s answer to the confused pagan. Unbelievers do not reject the truth because they cannot understand it. They reject it because they choose to misunderstand it. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 that, because they delight in wickedness, they refuse to love the truth. They perish because they do not want the Gospel message to be true. We need to reason with people to show them that the Christian faith is reasonable and true, but we must not pander to their egos by pretending that they are honest seekers who simply lack information. Paul reasons with people throughout the book of Acts by showing them that they have wilfully chosen to believe a lie and can only be saved if they repent and embrace the truth of the Gospel.
Professor Thomas Nagel of New York University shares very honestly about his own atheistic worldview:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.1
If we want to work with the Holy Spirit and not find ourselves pushing and pulling against him, we need to recognise that the primary reasons why people disbelieve the Gospel are not to be found in the head, but in the heart and in the will.
Consequently, Paul tells us that the main person we are to preach the Gospel for is God himself. He tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 that when people choose to delight in wickedness and to hate the truth, God responds by sending them a powerful delusion so that they believe the lie. They become the biggest victims of their own rebellion, since God removes the light of his Holy Spirit from their hearts so that they cannot see that they have fallen for a lie. Since they can only be saved if God speaks “Let there be light!” into their heart, we need to share the Gospel in the way he has commanded. We need to push where the Holy Spirit is pushing and to pull where the Holy Spirit is pulling because only he can cure people of their spiritual blindness and enable them to see.
Paul knew how to bring unbelievers to the point of conversion. He and his teammates had managed to plant a thriving church at Thessalonica through only three weeks of preaching. So we need to take him seriously when he tells us that we work against the Holy Spirit if we share the Gospel as if the major problem is that unbelievers are unhappy or confused.
But if we share the Gospel in a way that pushes and pulls with the Holy Spirit and not against him – explaining that Jesus is Lord and that he is coming back to judge the world, whether our hearers like it or not – then we will be very fruitful. Whenever we push and pull with the Holy Spirit by sharing the real Gospel, we will find that people who delight in wickedness are set free from their delusion. We will find that God enables them to love the truth and to be saved.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, Straight to the Heart of Galatians to Colossians, published this month by Monarch Books.
To read more free chapters from the Straight to the Heart series of commentaries, please go to www.philmoorebooks.com
1) Thomas Nagel, The Last Word 1997.