What is the argument from disbelief?

Question
What is the argument from disbelief? If it is false, can you give me a couple of arguments against it?
Answer
The argument from disbelief asserts that the presence of sincere disbelievers proves that God doesn't and can't exist. Expressed a different way, if God is real, he would make himself so clearly and fully known that anyone who was sincerely willing would already believe.

This argument is false and misleading from numerous perspectives, as follows:

First, it presents with the idea that people are willing to believe. This is altogether false. Consider how the apostle Paul wrote that people "suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Rom. 1:18). This literally screams of unwillingness. He goes even a step further and adds this: "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" (Rom. 1:20). So, it appears from God's perspective, given to us in Scripture, that people aren't willing to believe.

Second, this argument assumes that a disbeliever will sincerely seek God. Again, this is false. Paul tells us in Romans 3:11 that "no one seeks for God". It is only a righteous person who will sincerely seek God, but Paul states concerning the nonbeliever, "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10, 12).

Third, God has revealed himself through general revelation (Rom. 1:19-20), and this revelation is enough to prove God exists (see below). Take, for example, the human eye. When you have a good opportunity, look in the mirror and observe your eye. It's a very small part of the human body, but it does so much and is so complex. As Dr. Doug Borchman recounts:

The eye has more than 2 million working parts.

The human eye is capable of seeing at a resolution of 576 megapixels.

Corneas are the only tissues that don't require blood.

The eye can process 36,000 bits of information an hour.

The eye blinks 10,000 times a day.

Under the right conditions, the human eye can see the light of a candle at a distance of 14 miles. The eye can see 2.7 million different colors.

The eye has about 12 million photo receptors (light-sensitive cells).

The retina contains 130 million rods for night vision and 7 million color-sensitive cones for day vision. [1]

So even the human eye reveals the complexity and intelligent design of God's creation. From his smallest of his creative acts to his greatest, God has proven in numerous ways that he exists.

Fourth, the argument from disbelief undermines the free gifts of faith (Eph. 2:8-10) and repentance (2 Tim. 2:24-26) necessary for biblical salvation. It assumes that man has it within himself to believe and repent; however, the Bible teaches that man must be born again from outside of himself (John 3:1-8) and that faith and repentance must be given to them by God alone.

Fifth and in addition, this argument misunderstands the total inability of the heart. Prior to being regenerated, a man is "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph 2:1-3). We are not able by our own depraved nature to choose God (Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19). God must first effectually call us (John 6:44, 65) and then regenerate us (John 3:3, 5, 7), and then give us the free gifts of grace (Eph 2:8) and enabling repentance (2 Tim 2:24-26). Therefore God's people are made willing by him on the day of their salvation. They that attempt to enter into the Kingom of God another way are nothing but thieves and a robbers (John 10:1 ff.).

People do not have absolute free will to do anything they desire to do (Jer 13:23; Matt 7:18-19; Luke 6:43). Most people can cross a street by merely walking across it. However, not everyone has this ability. I used to be a homicide detective, and in all my years of service I never saw a corpse get up and cross a street. Likewise, spiritually dead people have some serious limitations. Paul teaches that we are dead in our trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1-3).

Even God has some divine, self-ordained limitations, as there are many things he can't do. God can't deny his nature. God can't sin, he can't lie, he can't make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it, etc. (See "Things God Can't Do?" below.) God, too, is bound by his nature, which is completely holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12).

When it comes to salvation, all of us have limitations. This is called "total depravity" or "total inability." All of humanity has a sin nature and are depraved. It's not a pretty word, but it properly describes our condition. Our depravity is due to the Fall and our own personal sin. We inherited Adam's corruption (Rom 5:12-21) and have our own as well (Rom 3:23). You may not think this is fair, yet it remains that we are naturally sinful evil beings (Eccl 9:3; Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19). We are slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:6, 16-17, 19-20; 7:14; Gal 4:8-9; 2 Tim 2:25-26; Tit 3:3; 2 Pet 2:19) and we are "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph 2:1-3). This is all very limiting (Jer 13:23).

Just like the dead person above who couldn't cross the street, being spiritually dead (Eph 2:1-3) is a huge limitation. But wait, there's more. Besides being dead, we are spiritually blind (Matt 15:14) and cannot truly see God's will. We are deaf (Matt 13:15; 2 Tim 4:4) and cannot hear his word or Spirit. Like idols we are mute (Psa 115:4-6; 1 Cor 12:2) and can't confess Christ. And even if we could, we wouldn't and couldn't do it from a truly pure heart (Rom 8:7-8). We have withered hands (Mark 3:1) and cannot accept the gifts of God which include faith and repentance (Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 2:24-25). We are lame (Acts 3:2) and cannot walk in the ways of the Lord. Like lepers (Luke 17:12) we are total outcasts.

In this horrible condition, we cannot choose to make ourselves righteous (Jer 13:23; 17:9; cf. Prov 27:22; Isa 1:5; Jer 2:22; 4:22). We don't even desire to (Rom 8:7-8). We might try to do some good things from time to time, but that is not the same as true righteousness; without Christ all our works are tainted with sin (Isa 64:6). We may attempt to cover our sins like Adam and Eve did in the garden, but our own mere fig leaves (Gen 3:7) will not undo what each of us has done (Rom 3:23). God will only accept a blood sacrifice — and it’s his, not yours (Gen 3:21; John 1:29; 1 Pet 1:18-20; Isa 53:1-12).

Our depraved limitation, however, does not mitigate our total accountability. We are still responsible for all our sins, whether they be sins of omission or sins of commission. We are still commanded to choose life that we may live (Deut 30:19). As sinners we are commanded repeatedly to repent and believe (Matt 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). And every call to repent and believe is a call to choose, and yet our depraved nature remains resistant to the things of God (John 1:11; 3:19; 5:40; Acts 7:51). Dead men don't and can't obey (Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:1-3).

Does all of this make things look really bleak? Who can heal the blind, the deaf, the mute, those with withered hands, the lame, the lepers? And who can raise the dead? Jesus!

Matthew 11:5: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Matthew 15:30: And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.

It is also only Jesus who can heal the heart. Isaiah, speaking of Jesus, said, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners" (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). Yes, Jesus! He alone is the author of salvation (Heb 12:2). He chooses on whom he bestows faith, mercy, and grace. But he doesn't choose everyone. Tyre, Sidon, (Matt 11:21) and Sodom (Matt 11:23-24) would have repented if God had worked certain miracles there, but he didn't. Jesus said, "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes... And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Matt 11:20-24). "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31).

Christ did not die for all, but for many (Isa 53:12; Matt 20:28; Heb 9:28). He gave himself for a particular people (Eph 1:4-5, 11; Tit 2:14). Who are these particular people? They are all whom the Father has "given" Jesus (John 6:37). Who are those that are given to Jesus? All those that are effectually "called" by God (John 6:44, 65). Who then hears this call of God? All of those born of the Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Those born of the Spirit of God are no longer blind and can "see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). They are no longer lame and can "enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). As Jesus says, "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates those effectually called of God so they may be justified. Salvation is mongeristic; that is, it’s God's work alone (John 1:12-13; Rom 9:14-16). God first changes us, so that we can willingly know him as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9-10).

In summary, people are born with a sin nature and naturally resist God and therefore do not seek him to be saved. So, the argument from disbelief naturally comes from a heart devoid of truth seeking to find yet another excuse to rebel against their Creator. As God asked Job, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:8).

Footnote

Ruth Schenk, "Complexity of the human eye points scientist to Master Creator," (http://www.southeastoutlook.org/news/features/article_9f63fbf8-bd7a-11e2-9f4b-0019bb30f31a.html). Last Accessed 29 November 2017.

Related Topics

What are special and general revelation?
Things God Can’t Do?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).