Scripture’s Sober Assessment of the Hardness of Many Human Hearts and What It Means for Evangelization
It is rather a typical assumption of the modern Western mind that differences and hostilities are due mainly to misunderstandings or a lack of proper information; that if we would discuss (“dialogue”), share information, respect pluralism (diversity), and overcome misunderstandings, all would be well and there would be peace.
Missing in this approach is the more sober notion of the hardness of human hearts. Information alone does not usually bring peace and an end to trouble. Rather, transformation effected by repentance and conversion is the truer and more biblical answer. But repentance and conversion usually require a lot more than dialogue or the sharing of information.
Biblically, repentance is usually effected by a combination of instruction and admonition. Teaching and the setting forth of doctrine are essential, but warning about the consequences of disregarding the truth must also take place. As He taught, Jesus consistently warned that in the end there will be sheep and goats, those to the right and those to the left, the wise and foolish virgins, those who will hear “Come blessed of my Father ..” and those who will hear, “Depart from me you evil doers.” Yes, His parables are filled with warnings as are his more discursive teachings, in which He warns that no one will come to the Father except through Him and that Unless you come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (Jn 8:24).
The Catholic columnist Joseph Sobran spoke to the sober reality that in our national conversation today we are quite often dealing with hardened sinners. He writes,
We are not dealing with conscientious differences, but with hardened consciences. [For example] such people are willing to pretend that killing isn’t killing; they shrink from using the word “kill” to describe what abortion does, though they would presumably acknowledge the bug sprays kill bugs and weed killers kill weeds.
Christ himself expected everyone to recognize and acknowledge the truth. He didn’t speak of pluralism and religious differences; he was quite in emphatic that if men rejected the truth—his truth—when it was offered to them, they condemned themselves … Forgiveness, yes, even for those who crucified him; but tolerance in the modern sense, no. His truth was so authoritative, so compelling, that he seemed to assume that nobody who encountered it, simple peasant or learned epistemologist could deny it in good faith. He [also] warned that rejection and persecution would be the normal a lot of Christians, because the world would hate the light and willfully refuse to convert, not because it might be innocently misinformed (Subtracting Christianity, page 84).
Sobran gives a rather succinct statement of the problem as well as the biblical response to it. In the face of hardened hearts we cannot merely presume a lack of information. Rather, we must vigorously insist on the truth, warn others of their obligation to obey it, and be ready to accept persecution on account of our stance. Serious pathologies require strong medicine. And while tactful and pleasant approaches have their place, so does a vigorous and unambiguous statement of the problem and a clear call to repentance. Simply “inviting” people to the truth is not enough; we need to insist on it. This is especially the case within the Church. It is something that clergy (in parish settings) and parents (in the home) need to do in a better and more balanced way. Teaching must include not only information, but also a proper dose of warning, reproof, and admonition. This is often lacking today.
Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book Authenticity (pp. 186-195), also explored the problem of hardened hearts and the rather stark, sober, biblical assessment of it. In what follows, I summarize Fr. Dubay’s material by weaving together his thoughts with some of my own. Though I do not quote him exactly, I want to be clear that the insights and the gathering of the material are his work more so than mine.
Fr. Dubay introduces the problem by stating that the typical theologian or moralist today often assumes that most (if not all) disagreements are due to insufficient data and or inadequate analysis.
Fr. Dubay states bluntly that this was emphatically not the biblical worldview. Indeed, when we look at biblical discussions of religious and moral disagreements we find a worldview almost totally at odds with this modern notion of mere misunderstanding or lack of information. The sacred text of Scripture is far more sober about the hardness of the human heart and about the sad reality that many reject the truth not out of ignorance or poor information but out of willful resistance and refusal to come to the light, which they have grown to hate.
Fr. Dubay presents a number of explanations for this hardness that are advanced by the Scriptures.
I. There is an inner darkness caused by unrepentant sin. Sin darkens the mind and brings obscurity (Wisdom 2:21). Not only does the man of the flesh, the stubbornly worldly person, fail to understand the things of the spirit; he simply cannot understand them (1 Corinthians 2:14). The fleshly and worldly do not know God at all (1 Corinthians 15:33–34). The “god of this world” blinds the eyes of obstinate unbelievers and prevents them from seeing (2 Corinthians 4:4). Such sinners avoid the light, for it exposes their evil lifestyle (John 3:20). They stumble about in the darkness not even knowing over what they stumble (Proverbs 4:19). And all the while they refuse to listen; they stubbornly turn their backs and stop up their ears, hardening their hearts against the truth (Zechariah 7:11–12). They have closed their minds. Jesus says of many, For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them (Matthew 13:15).
Note that this inner darkness is not just something that happens by accident or through a mere lack of information that simple dialogue will clear up. Rather, it is the result of obstinate sin and the refusal to repent. As the darkness grows deeper, the ability to see is lessened and the light of truth comes to seem harsh and obnoxious. Such souls are largely closed to mere exhortation or instruction and require stronger medicine: firm teaching, warning, and the grace of repentance to remove the darkness. This will usually be no friendly dialogue! It must be a convicted and urgent proclamation that will often bring persecution—even martyrdom—to those who undertake it (John 15:18; Acts 7).
Today we prefer to think that most people who are in error are sincere. While not excluding some degree of this in a few, Scripture is far less sanguine. Scripture gives as a more routine diagnosis: many simply prefer the darkness because their deeds are wicked (John 3:20). This will bring judgement on them. Jesus says, He who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil (John 3:18-19). This inner darkness is without excuse and is rooted in obdurate hearts that prefer sin to holiness, darkness to light.
II. Though sin darkens the intellect, the problem is rooted in a stubborn will, not simply in misinformation or lack of intelligence. Many are simply rebels, refusing to listen to the Lord or His representatives (Ezekiel 2:1–7). They do not listen because their hearts are evil (Jeremiah 6:10; 7:24). They have hardened their hearts (Zechariah 7:11–12). Not even resurrection from the dead will convince the one who does not want to believe (Luke 16:31; John 15:24).
Scripture speaks harshly of them and warns that they will undergo a harsh judgment for this refusal to believe, worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:14–15). Prostitutes can get into the kingdom before them (Matthew 21:31–32). They refused to listen to Jesus because their father is the devil and they live as he wants them to live (John 8:43–44). They do not listen because they are not Jesus’ sheep (John 10:26–27). The rejection of Jesus and His representatives is not due to misinformation or poor judgment; it is a sin for which there is no excuse (John 15:20–22, 24; John 16:9; 1 John 3:1).
A perverse spirit has come upon them leading them to give credence to falsehood (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 11, 12). In their perversion they have condemn themselves (Titus 3:10–11). They are without excuse because the truth is evident to them, even apart from Scripture, in the things that have been made. At some point they are handed over to their perversions permitting them to experience the full and due penalty (Romans 1:18ff).
III. Repentance and conversion are necessary to come to the light of truth. As noted, instruction alone is not enough; one must repent in order to believe the good news (Matthew 4:17). St. Peter insists that repentance is a necessary prerequisite for receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Further, the person without love simply does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:7–8). And yet many, even whole nations, have a mysterious obduracy. Even entire cultures can become dull and shut their eyes lest they be converted and healed (Isaiah 6:9–10; Matthew 13:14–15).
To modern ears, much of this seems shocking and insensitive. We have come to prefer explanations that emphasize good will and openness, explanations that posit that those in doctrinal error and who approve of moral confusion and sin do so largely due to a lack of information, invincible ignorance, or to the sins of the Church.
While not wholly setting aside such notions, Scripture puts emphasis on the hardness of human hearts that prefer the darkness because their deeds are wicked.
And if this be the case (and Scripture says it is), then our notions of preaching and evangelizing need adjustment. Invitation, gentle dialogue, providing information, and the like all have their place. But so do a vigorous call to repentance (so often lacking today) and stern warnings of the consequences of unrepentant sin.
Warnings of punishment make many modern people wince. But these warnings are part of the biblical witness and preachers like Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, and Jesus Himself never got the memo that such warnings should be soft-pedaled. They were more sober about the fallen human condition than most of us are today.
The error of universalism (the unbiblical notion that just about everyone is going to Heaven) has infected modern thinking as well. This is simply not what Scripture teaches. It is often rooted in a false and soft notion of love. No one loves you more than Jesus does and yet no one warned more of judgement and Hell than He did. Most of the teaching on Hell and judgment comes right from the mouth of Jesus.
Given the rather sober portrait that Scripture paints of the stubborn preference of many for darkness (because their deeds are wicked), such a teaching makes sense and calls us to combine clear teaching with an unambiguous call to repentance, and a warning about what sin brings and about the awful destiny of the stubbornly unrepentant.
But, Father, but Father, what about the Year of Mercy? Well, this why we need mercy! We are hard to save. Only boatloads of grace and mercy are going to break through the stubbornness of some. But mercy is accessed through repentance. The Lord is knocking but we have to answer through repentance. Oh, sinner, why don’t you answer? Someone is knocking at your door!