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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Unbelief (2)

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UNBELIEF.—The withholding of belief, incredulity. In respect to Divine things the term implies absence or faith, credence refused to religious tenets. Infidelity, in its sense of want of faith or belief, is a synonym; not, however, scepticism, for the latter word is more properly used of the indecision of the reflective mind. Nor is disbelief an exact equivalent: unbelief suggests rather the failure to admit; disbelief implies deliberate and positive rejection. The unbeliever is open to conviction; the one who disbelieves is convinced (at all events for the time being) of the inadequacy of proofs submitted, of the improbability or impossibility of that which is proposed for acceptance. In the one case the explanation may point to want of knowledge; in the other the exercise of the reasoning faculty presupposes acquaintance, if imperfect, with the questions at issue.

Illustrations in the Gospels.—The term rendered ‘unbelief’ is the noun ἀπιστία (occurring 5 times: Matthew 13:58; Matthew 17:20, Mark 6:6; Mark 9:24; Mark 16:14), with a range of meaning between distrust and disbelief. There is the use of the verb πιστεύω with the objective (οὐ) or subjective (μή) negative; occasionally the intensitive (οὐ μή) is met with: here again varying shades of significance are observable. Four times (Mark 16:11; Mark 16:16; Luke 24:11; Luke 24:41) the verb ἀπιστέω occurs; and in each case the ‘disbelieve’ of Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 suggests that it is used absolutely. It may be remarked generally that the questions at issue differ, and that there are differences in regard to mental attitude.

(a) In the Synoptics.—Jesus is on a visit to ‘his own country.’ If Luke 4:16 refers to a previous visit (which is unlikely), He will seek once more to win His fellow-townsmen when (Matthew 13:53-54, Mark 6:1-2) He takes His stand in the synagogue at Nazareth. They are, indeed, astonished at His wisdom: the reports of mighty works done by Him have filled them with amazement; but they are little disposed to give a patient and sympathetic hearing to one of whom they themselves have known so much, and withal nothing that has augured greatness. His claims scandalize them. They reject His teaching and Himself. ‘And he marvelled,’ διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν (Mark 6:6); it became evident that ‘a Divine “cannot” answers to a Divine “must” ’ (Westcott). If the unbelief manifested on that occasion amounted to a positive disbelief, it was certainly not consequent on prolonged and serious reflexion. Adverse opinions were precipitated by bias; those who were swayed by prejudice were quick to disallow. And this unbelief of prejudice is again met with in the case of elders and chief priests and scribes as they question Jesus in their council (Luke 22:66; Luke 22:68). The reply which conies from Him is significant: ‘If I tell you, ye will not believe’ (οὐ μὴ πιστεύσπτε); in the face of hostile and preconceived opinion further speaking would be to no purpose.

A group of passages may be taken next where the unbelief illustrated is, generally speaking, that of incredulity. But the incredulity is diverse: its explanations point to reasonable distrust, want of receptiveness, power of discernment overcome for the time being by various emotions, knowledge limited, inability to apprehend that which is outside the sphere of previous experience. Thus Luke 24:11 (καὶ ἠπίστουν αὐταῖς): where reports brought by the women are discredited as idle tales by disciples unable to grasp the idea of a life lived under new conditions. Their doubt becomes assurance; but the sudden gladness told of in Luke 24:41 (ἀπιστούντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς) renders it impossible to rise to a full apprehension of what is still the inexplicable. Despondency lies in the background of the unbelief referred to in the appendix to the Second Gospel (Mark 16:11; Mark 16:13); a despondency which, because yielded to, has sunk into a settled disinclination to be convinced. The thought here is of that stolid unbelief in which the heart is hardened and the mind unreceptive of spiritual truth (Mark 16:14). And this incredulity of apathetic minds is perhaps noticeable in the attitude which ‘the priests and the scribes and the elders’ had adopted in the case of John the Baptist (cf. Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33).

If, on the one hand, there is an incredulity which Jesus reproves (Mark 16:14), so, on the other hand, there is an incredulity which He not merely sanctions but enjoins. He makes’ large demands for faith, trust, belief; what He will not have is that mere credulity which bespeaks the inert mind, that superficiality which is ready to assent to anything. There is surely a depth and width of meaning in the μὴ πιστεύσητε addressed to the disciples in His recorded predictions (Matthew 24:23, Mark 13:21); and the warning against false Messiahs may be equally a warning against perverted notions of Deity, false conceptions of religion. By implication, a demand is made that tests be applied, discrimination exercised. The reality of faith will then manifest itself in the deliberate rejection (disbelief) of whatever does not bear the hall-mark of eternal truth. ‘Religion is belief—surely it requires little thought to see that religion is, or should be,’ belief in what is’ true’ (A. T. Lyttelton).

There is an unbelief which is indicative of a want of knowledge. But along with it there is the desire to know, to rise to a fuller apprehension of that whereof already there is the dim perception. Faith shines out in it; faith which, up to a certain point, is strong, and which can even declare itself openly; at the same time there is a profound consciousness of infirmity and limitations. And this is strikingly exemplified in the father of the demoniac boy (Mark 9:14-29); the unbelief which, realized by himself, he will not conceal from Jesus, has not deprived him of the capacity to trust. That he can, and does, trust is evident from his pathetic utterance (Mark 9:24 πιστεύω, βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ). Pleading the compassion of Jesus instead of his own faith, he unconsciously shows a genuine faith (Gould, St. Mark).

(b) In the Fourth Gospel.—A characteristic feature should be duly noted, the enhanced demand for belief in the Son of God (‘statt der Sache überall nur die Person’ is the distinction drawn by Wernle [Quellen des Lebens Jesu, 18]). Passages bearing on the subject will, however, be discussed as they stand, and without raising questions dealt with elsewhere (see John [Gospel of]).

There is the conversation with Nicodemus. The unbelief referred to by Jesus (John 3:12 καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε) is the failure to apprehend, which involves spiritual unreceptiveness. No credence has been given to things which lie within the range of human experience; how then shall there be perception of truths which have their sphere in a higher order? A few verses further on there come the reflexions of the Evangelist, and here thought is directed to that from which such unbelief springs. Sharp is the contrast between the ὁ μὴ πιστεύων of John 3:18 and the ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτόν of its opening words; in the former case full adherence to the Son of God has been deliberately refused; that refusal has meant a rejection of the highest manifestation of God, which is ultimately traceable to an evil disposition, evil works. Of similar import are the comments of the Evangelist in John 12:37-40; the miracles wrought by Jesus had not indeed been denied, at the same time they had made but a transient impression, and had sometimes been attributed to the powers of darkness; of unreserved confidence in and full acceptance of Himself there had been none whatever. That it should be otherwise was, after all, impossible where perceptive faculties had been dulled and moral sense blunted. The unbelief manifested was but the effect produced by the abuse of religious privileges and failure to profit by a progressive revelation. To look back to John 5:44 is to find precisely the same thought expressed by Jesus Himself. The long-continued education in Divine things had been all in vain for those Jews who had studied ‘Moses’ and yet remained blind to the progressive teaching of the OT. How then should they have ready acceptance for the One in whom another, and a higher, revelation had been given?

The attitude of the rulers referred to in John 12:42-43 demands consideration. It would seem that conviction had come to them; closer examination shows that it was a conviction of the intellect only; that, because of unworthy fears, it went no further, it found no outward expression in the life. ‘This complete intellectual faith (so to speak) is really the climax of unbelief’ (Westcott); and yet it may be capable of transformation, of passing into that larger faith which dominates the whole man. Possibly the case of Nicodemus may serve as illustration. It was an intellectual conviction that brought him to Jesus in the first instance (John 3:1-2); if he shrank then from publicity, he appears later on as one who has felt his way to an avowal of discipleship; the τὸ πρῶτον of John 19:39 is at least suggestive of repeated interviews and faith in process of development. Where there was the secrecy of the earliest visit there is at length the act of reverence done openly at the Cross.

It has become customary to speak of the ‘doubt’ of Thomas. ‘Unbelief’ would be the better word; for the attitude ascribed to him is rather suggestive of emphatic if tentative denial than of perplexity and hesitation. And yet it is not incompatible with an allegiance deep and strong to which all the stories told of him (in Fourth Gospel only) bear ample testimony. He is pictured as ready to go with Jesus to death (John 11:16); the thought of separation from his Master (John 14:5) has sorely distressed him; the crucifixion has dashed his hopes, but he will not sever himself from the company of the disciples (John 20:26) although for him the assurance is wanting which has come to others (John 20:25). For want of conclusive proof their glad tidings leave him unconvinced, and so there comes that round disclaimer (ἐὰν μὴ ἴδωοὐ μὴ πιστεύσω) which reveals his unbelief. And this attitude of his, how is it to be explained? Is it really the case that he is to be regarded as the ‘rationalist among the Apostles’; that with him the reflective powers are stronger than the susceptive (see Robertson’s sermon on The Doubt of Thomas, ii. 268); that he is one who will not be satisfied until all his grounds are established; that, ready to believe when he can, he is healthily averse from the belief of mere credulity; that his soul desires ‘not a refuge but a resting-place’ (Toynbee), and that he knows no security as long as there is one possibility of delusion left? The explanation is an attractive one, but it is doubtful whether it can be sustained in the face of the narratives above alluded to. They are scarcely suggestive of the highly speculative turn of mind. What they do betray is a gloomy temperament, a tendency to pessimism. Thomas is so constituted that he will always take the darker view of things. He simply cannot shake off the ‘desponds and slavish fears’ (Pilgrim’s Progress) which weigh down his soul. Of himself he is incapable of gladsome belief; and yet, when assurance comes, he can rise to the great confession (John 20:28). As the light breaks in upon him he can say his ‘Farewell night, welcome day’ with a full heart.

It is difficult, then, to see in Thomas one who will painfully think out truth in order that when once found it may be the more firmly grasped. Not, therefore, is he to be classed with those referred to in John 4:48 (ἐὰν μὴ σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα ἴδητε, οὐ μὴ πιστεύσητε). They stand on a far lower level. For with all his defects of character, Thomas has nothing shallow about him; nothing to suggest the undeveloped intellect. The Galilaeans, on the other hand, would seem to be characterized by childishness. Like the emissaries of Vladimir, who reported in favour of Greek Christianity because the grand services at Constantinople had appealed to their imagination, they are to be reached only by that which strikes the eye. The faith to which they can rise is, at best, a feeble faith. And yet, with one of them, it is strong enough to secure a blessing (John 4:49-50). There is a ‘complete spiritual parallel’ (Westcott) between the nobleman of Capernaum and the father of the demoniac boy (Mark 9:24).

See also artt. Belief, Doubt, Faith.

Literature.—Flint, Agnosticism, 381; Christlieb, Modern Doubt and Christian Belief, 325 and passim; Newman, Oxford Univ. Serm. 230; Ker, Sermons, ii. 1, 83; Martineau, Endeavours after the Christian Life, 343.

H. L. Jackson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unbelief (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/u/unbelief-2.html. 1906-1918.

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