The Gospel: Veiled and Unveiled (2 Cor. 4:3-4)
If you want to maintain a reputation in secular society for being culturally sophisticated, educated and enlightened, don’t ever mention the fact that you believe in a literal devil. Few things will more quickly and thoroughly sabotage your reputation and standing than letting it be known that you believe demonic spirits are real and active and to an extent are responsible for why those who are mocking you are, in fact, mocking you.
On the other hand, if you are more concerned about being true to the Word of God than you are about retaining the respect of the enemies of Christ, there are a few biblical texts that demand our attention.
What makes these passages so remarkable is that they portray unbelievers as in the grip of an alien power, in bondage to and blinded by none other than Satan himself. I say this is remarkable because the one thing on which most non-Christians pride themselves is their alleged freedom or autonomy and their enlightened perspective on life.
The apostle Paul would beg to differ. In Ephesians 2:2, he declares that all the unregenerate and unbelieving (and that included you before your conversion) follow “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Satan is “at work” (energeo) in the unbeliever, a word used earlier in Ephesians of God’s activity in the world (1:11) in general and in the resurrection of Jesus in particular (1:20). This does not mean that all unbelievers are demon possessed, but refers to Satan’s supernatural activity by which he exerts a negative influence over the lives of those who reject Jesus.
If that isn’t explicit enough for you, consider John’s startling declaration that whereas Christians are “from God” and “in” Christ (1 John 5:19,20), “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
The point is that everyone is in someone! "John wastes no words and blurs no issues. The uncompromising alternative is stated baldly. Everyone belongs either to 'us' or to the 'world'. Everyone is therefore either 'of God' or 'in the evil one'. There is no third category" (John Stott, 194).
This forever shatters the illusion of neutrality, the idea that so-called "good" people who are not Christians are neither for God nor for Satan, are neither in God's kingdom nor in Satan's. The fact is, all people, young and old, male and female, belong to one of two kingdoms: the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness. If one is not "in Christ" one is "in the power of the evil one," even if there is no visible, sensible awareness of being in the devil's grip. Thus, not to serve God is to serve Satan whether one is conscious of it or not.
Finally, consider our text in 2 Corinthians 3:3-4 where Paul accounts for human unbelief by declaring that “if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Some may have suggested that widespread unbelief and callous rejection of the gospel invalidates its claim to truth. Perhaps some argued that the spurning of the light of the gospel casts a shadow on its luster. But the glory of the good news does not guarantee its acceptance. “The blindness of unbelievers,” said Calvin, “in no way detracts from the clearness of the gospel, for the sun is no less resplendent because the blind do not perceive its light” (53).
Paul’s adversaries would have pointed to opposition to his message as a way of casting aspersions on his apostolic calling and to undermine his authority in the Corinthian church. Of course Paul was well aware that notwithstanding his determination to be free of deception, and the clarity, boldness and sincerity with which he preached, many rejected the message of the cross. But the reason for this veiling wasn’t some failure in Paul’s character or an inherent defect in the gospel itself but rather a conjunction of two forces: the unbelief of those who are perishing and Satan’s activity in blinding them.
Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:14-16 the “veiling” lay over the hearts of Jews when the writings of Moses were read, whereas here the veil remains on the minds of unbelievers when the gospel is preached. The problem isn’t that they don’t understand what the gospel means, as if it were illogical or incoherent. Nor does Paul mean that they lacked the necessary faculties of mind and will to embrace Christ in faith. Their refusal to believe is due to a hatred of both God and the gospel. They find nothing in him or it attractive or appealing or worthwhile. Their treasure is the world and they see nothing in Christ crucified that would lead them to believe he is worthy of their affection and devotion.
Be it also noted that the “unbelievers” (v. 4) whom Paul describes are not simply lacking faith in Christ. They are actively antagonistic toward him. Their hearts seethe with hostility (cf. Romans 3:10-18). It isn’t the case that they are indifferent or disinterested, far less that they want to believe in Christ but Satan intervenes and prevents it. They are already refusing to believe, choosing to put their hope and trust in anything other than Jesus. Satan doesn’t blind the minds of otherwise “good” people, compelling them against their will to become unbelievers. Rather he blinds or aggravates the hardness of heart in which they revel and delight.
Scott Hafemann, on the other hand, insists that “people are not blinded because they choose to renounce the gospel, rather, they choose to renounce the gospel because they are blind. And they are not blind because they choose to be so, but because Satan has made them so” (177). But the text indicates that those in whom Satan is operative and on whom blindness is inflicted are already in unbelief. Satan’s role is to compound the hopelessness of the unbeliever by aggravating and intensifying a resistance to the truth that is already festering in their souls.
What they do not see is the light that comes or flows from the gospel that embodies or contains the glory of Christ Jesus. Consider the nature of defective eyesight and how this can be used to understand why people cannot see the glory of God in the gospel.
Some suffer physically from myopia or nearsightedness. Likewise, some suffer in the same way spiritually because they cannot see beyond themselves and their own selfish interests.
Some suffer physically from hyperopia or farsightedness. Likewise, some suffer in the same way spiritually because they can only see the world and its glitter and not the need of their own heart.
Still others suffer physically from presbyopia or inelasticity of the lens that comes from old age. Likewise, some suffer in the same way spiritually because they have grown old looking at the gospel and with the passing of time decay and spiritual petrifaction have set in.
Is there, then, no hope for a lost and dying world? Indeed, there is! But it requires an act of sovereign, saving mercy in which the God who spoke light into the primeval darkness (Genesis 1) yet again shines in the hearts of men and women to give them “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Satan is indeed active and operative and powerful in his efforts to blind and bind those who know not Christ. But God’s gracious work through his Spirit is more powerful still. Our prayer for unsaved friends and family must be that God would sovereignly dispel the darkness of unbelief and shine the light of truth into their hardened and spiritually lifeless souls, giving them a taste for the sweetness of the saving mercies of Christ and an eye for his incomparable beauty.