The Real Reason People Reject God

Shortly after he cleared the temple square with a whip, Jesus told a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard and left it in the care of tenant farmers. When harvest came, the landowner sent a group of servants to the vineyard to collect the fruit. Instead of handing over the crop, the tenants decided to beat and kill the servants, and when the landowner sent a second group, they did the same thing to them. Finally the landowner sent his own son, whom the tenants killed for his inheritance.

We may be too used to parables to see just how absurd this story is. It’s crazy that the landowner would send his own son after the fate of the first two groups. It’s even crazier that the tenants would be stupid enough to kill the son of a wealthy man with plenty of resources. After all, if the landowner was rich enough to have that many servants, you better believe he’s rich enough to hire a security force to deal with a small band of violent rebels.

But here’s the point: The tenants in this parable didn’t murder the son because they were confused about who he was. They hated him because he challenged their ownership of the field (Matthew 21:38).

By this point in Jesus’ life, the religious leaders had convinced themselves that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be killed. But in telling this story, Jesus pulls back the veil on their hearts and shows that, like the tenants, theirs was rejection not of ignorance but of willfulness.

In the book of Romans, Paul says that a great deal of our behavior can only be explained in terms emotional and spiritual repression—that underneath everything else, what we repress most is a fundamental hatred of God himself. The closer God gets to “our field,” the more we respond with a visceral spirit of territorial anger.

Romans 8:7 says that our sinful heart has an inward hostility toward God: “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (NIV). Our natural mind can’t submit to God. It possesses a deep hostility to his authority and glory. But there is a way out of this repression. When we repent, we recognize and confess our hostility, pleading with God to change it.

This, by the way, is how you know that the Holy Spirit is opening your eyes. It takes the Holy Spirit to see that sin is not just a violation of rules but a whole attitude of resentment toward Christ’s claim over your life. The sign that the Holy Spirit is working in you is that sin feels personal between you and God. It’s not just frustration at having messed up; it’s not just a feeling of shame because you haven’t kept the rules. Sin breaks the heart of God, and when the Spirit of God is in you, sin breaks your heart, too.

When the famous atheist Richard Dawkins was asked, “Is there anything God could do to get you to believe in him?” he said, “No. If God showed up in the room, I would want to know what sort of psychological or naturalistic explanation is going on here.” With that statement, he went from atheism to anti-theism—a refusal to even consider the evidence. Paul would say that refusal springs from a hatred of God.

Aldous Huxley, the philosopher and author of Brave New World (and also the guy who coined the term “agnostic”) said, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning …. For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation … from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality of Christianity because it interfered with our sexual freedom. There was one admirably simple method of justifying ourselves: [agnosticism].”

What separates Huxley from most agnostics is his candor. For many people today, their cause of unbelief is not from lack of evidence. It’s a heart problem.

Jesus taught, not just in this parable but all throughout his ministry, that if you have the right posture of heart, then the truth about him will be evident to see. Those who choose not to believe have to ask if their unbelief is really as intellectual as they maintain.