Can Unbelievers Ever Please God? Part 2

Posted By on October 5, 2012

While I won’t repeat what I said in Part 1, the comments to that post have left me thinking that some readers still don’t understand what I’m saying and not saying – and so are missing the point of the question. So, by way of review …

What I’m Not Saying and Not Asking

I’m not saying that an unbeliever can do things to please God so that the result is salvation. I’m not suggesting an unbeliever can merit saving grace (which is oxymoronic). I’m therefore not asking the question of whether an unbeliever can do something that results in their no longer being “under wrath” or under less wrath.

Consequently, verses that are clearly in the context of “coming to God” in a faith sense (like Hebrews 11:6) have nothing to do with either my question or the question. That verse (and others like them) cannot therefore be a rebuttal to my contention that unbelievers can please God.

What I’m Saying

What I’m saying is not complicated, though I can (again) tell from comments that readers are over-thinking it. I’m asking whether an unbeliever can do *anything* in life that makes God glad, or happy, or pleased. Does God ever look at something an unbeliever does and take pleasure in it? Or is it the case, as the theologians I quoted in Part 1 insist, that no matter what an unbeliever does, God takes no pleasure in it at all. I simply don’t believe that, and I think there are scriptural examples that support my view—and therefore deny the other (more common in evangelical circles) view.

Sketching My Argument

So how would I argue that unbelievers can do things in which God takes pleasure? I’ll start with what I think is  clear case of my position.

When God came to the unbelieving Abimelech, the king of Gerar (we have no reason to view him as a believer), and told him not to touch Sarah, the wife of Abraham, consider what God says in Genesis 20:

3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Notice that God gives Abimelech credit for integrity. He doesn’t say, “Sure, buddy,” or (more to my point), “I know Abimelech, but don’t expect me to be pleased by true integrity when it comes from a pagan.” The comment by God makes it clear that, had Abimelech known Sarah was the wife of another man, he would never have procured her–since that would be wrong. His decision was based on personal, true integrity, and God acknowledges that. So are we to conclude God wasn’t pleased by it? I don’t believe that.

Other things I wonder about in this regard in include the following (some random selections):

1. In 1 Cor 7:12 Paul mentions the issue of a believer married to an unbeliever, then notes that if the unbeliever consents to remain married to the believer (as opposed to desertion or divorce) then the believer should not divorce the unbeliever. Are we to conclude that God was displeased when the unbeliever decided to preserve the marriage?

2. Eccl 7:26 says: “And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.” Do only believers resist sexual temptation? Hardly. I have to assume that this verse is broad; that it’s axiomatic – anyone who resists violating their marriage pleases God when they do so.

3. Cyrus the Persian – In Isa 45:1-13 it is clear that Cyrus not a believer (God says more than once that Cyrus doesn’t know Him) and yet he is God’s anointed servant. When Cyrus carried out God’s will, was God displeased? I don’t think so. If we reject the idea that all Cyrus did was predestined—that he could not resist doing God’s will—then how is it that believers can resist the Spirit (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess 5:19)? I’d think that unbelievers could do that if believers can, and so I have to conclude Cyrus could have done some things that would have irritated God while conquering Babylon and letting the Jews return. Had Cyrus changed his mind or not issued the decree to let the Jews return, God would have been angry. So how is it that God wasn’t pleased when Cyrus let them go?  Just wondering.

4. How does it make any sense that, if the unbeliever has the law of God written on the heart, and has a God-given conscience to go with that law, that when the unbeliever obeys the conscience and the law of God written on the heart, God isn’t happy? I need an explanation of how that’s at all coherent–excluding the issue of earning saving grace.

5. How about utterly innocuous acts, done with no thought of attention, personal glory, or personal interest—in fact, good things done with literally no thought at all in many cases. By way of some examples (I’m using atheists in the examples, since they wouldn’t be doing things to earn brownie points with God—they don’t believe God is real):

  • An atheist is in a store and accidentally knocks an item off the shelf. It’s a stuffed animal, so it isn’t broken. She picks it up and puts it back. Is God angry with her? If she did the right thing, is God glad? Did she not do the right thing?
  • An atheist is taking a walk in the park. He spies a homeless woman. It’s just the two of them. Moved with pity, he reaches into his pocket and gives her the spare change. It’s all he has since he uses plastic 99% of the time. No one notices, he just does something nice. Is God angry with him? Did he do the wrong thing?
  • An atheist/unbeliever gets angry when he overhears that a Christian he knows tell someone else that he knowingly cheated on his taxes. The atheist believes in being honest. Is God angry with the atheist’s feelings and his standard? Does it make sense that God would be angry with the unbeliever who honors His law when the believer did not?
  • An atheist provides for her pet because she believes we ought to be kind to animals and not abuse them. Is God angry with her for doing that and thinking that? Is God glad she takes care of her pet? (You can’t say God doesn’t care here, since that would mean God would not be angry with her even if she abused her pet).

I could go on and on with examples. More theologically, I have a problem with the general idea offered by the theologians I quoted who try to assert God is still angry no matter what an unbeliever does because the unbeliever will always do a right thing with an imperfect motive. That is, there will be something about how they do it or why they do it that isn’t perfectly righteous in God’s eyes. Honestly, how many of us believers would be comfortable standing before God and telling him eye-to-eye that we obeyed him perfectly? Seriously–how can any human do anything perfectly in God’s judgment? It’s a dumb argument.

I think this whole issue and the position I’m shooting at is either an over-reading of the biblical idea of the “lost-ness” of humanity, or a careless reading of it. For me, it’s a good example of theologizing that doesn’t conform to careful thinking.


Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About The Author


29 Responses to “Can Unbelievers Ever Please God? Part 2”

  1. blop2008 says:


    I agree with you except that your concoted examples are a bit misplaced since it does not represent what, for instance, Grudem believes. As you highlighted yourself from Grudem:

    “In these passages Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God.”

    So your examples are not representative of what they believe and dont believe in their systematic theology. Or, take Strong:

    “But on the other hand the sinner cannot (a) by a single volition bring his character and life into complete conformity to God’s law; (b) change his fundamental preference for self and sin to supreme love for God; nor (c) do any act, however insignificant, which shall meet with God’s approval or answer fully to the demands of law.”

    Strong would probably look at your made-up examples and agree with you, because that may not be what he is denying. When you say “I could go on and on with examples”, I think you are not being too careful with your examples.

    Strong and Grudem are focusing more on spiritual conformity because the believer has the Spirit, whereas the unbeliever doesnt. But, on the other hand, I do agree with you Mike that these authors and others may go over-board with Depravity (Full/Partial).

    Your scriptural examples are good, and I foresaw you would come up with Cyrus–a popular example you have always given.

    • MSH says:

      While Grudem and Strong do make the statements you cite, you really can’t deny the other side of their thinking. How else could you conclude that “I do agree with you Mike that *these authors* and others may go over-board with Depravity (Full/Partial).”

      • blop2008 says:

        Because your examples–and many more you could add (“I could go on and on with examples”)– are not really representative of what they deny in part. Basically, you are pointing to a line of disagreement when in fact that line of disagreement lies a bit more to the right or to the left. Your non-biblical examples do not nail it.

  2. HaMetumtam says:

    I’d like to respond to point number 4, as i would be futile to go over it again based on the first and last paragraph of this post, which explains a lot about the presuppositions your bringing to this topic so it’s pointless to continue to conversation as we are poles apart theologically as you have no doubt worked out. But i still enjoy this blog and will continue to follow it closely, but hope you dont mind if i disagree with you here and there.

    “4. How does it make any sense that, if the unbeliever has the law of God written on the heart, and has a God-given conscience to go with that law, that when the unbeliever obeys the conscience and the law of God written on the heart, God isn’t happy? I need an explanation of how that’s at all coherent–excluding the issue of earning saving grace.”

    Arguing ad hominim for a moment and putting myself in a semi palegian position why would God be happy with the trivial things like the good deeds you mention by atheists and not be grieved that this person is lost and refuses to come to Him ? Why would that make God happy ? why would God be overjoyed at a good deed when the person is bound for darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth ? Does God have a memory laps and forget that this persons future is that of the rich man ? Would this not grieve Gods heart MORE rather than being pleased ? or does He only look at the little picture and forget the final outcome of this mans rebellion against Him ?

    Wouldn’t God rather have them turn from their unbelief and live, Wicked men and fools are capable of good deeds but do they please God. Good deeds granted they will still perish… you can see His heart for rebels in Ezekiel 33:1. But It seems He is pleased with someone when he doesn’t cheat on his taxes or gives a beggar some change…Really ! lets forget eternity and focus on the temporal, this is just short sighted and is beneath you Dr Heiser.

    What does it profit a man to do all the good deeds in the world and go to hell at the end. God is not short sighted. If you are asking us only to look at temporal things i can agree with you but how can we ignore the eternal, what is more important to God and to us, temporal things or eternal. If eternal is more important then your examples of good deeds amount to nothing, they are wood, hey and stubble that will be burned up on that day, and the atheist will be condemned and separated from God.

    So i agree with you if you want me to ignore the eternal, an unbeliever can please God temporally in doing good deeds. My question is this…In the eschaton, the climax of history ….. Who cares ?

    • MSH says:

      I’m not “ignoring” anything. I’m framing a specific question. It was my topic, so I get to frame the question. And it was clear how I was framing it. Since I brought up what you’re supposing I ignored (and I really couldn’t have ignored it if I brought it up), the way the question was framed was the way readers needed to approach it (and the way I needed to pursue it).

  3. Kevin says:

    Concerning the Unbeliever; I read over Jeremiah 17
    This is truly a spiritual question dealing with what can truly balance the heart of a man/woman. What power does a man without intervention of the holy spirit possess over his own sin? Especially if the unbeliever is not chosen by God for a special task to fulfill (Cyrus etc.) how can he present just righteousness for God, from what moral lessons has he/she obtained this? It is clear from a Biblical Perspective that such people are left to whims of the world, undeniably powerless to the sway of the Principalities. Those who chose to obey God’s moral laws without giving heed to the Power, is presenting a form of God and denying it’s power. Worship of themselves by appearing Righteous, or perhaps to in glory to darker things.
    From where would the non-believer get his law of ethics?

    The impression I get to make this short.

    If you believe that the word is given to correct, who can correct without the word, mortal or divine under God? If they do, is it not for their own Glory? I would say that without such knowledge a person would inevitably glorify themselves and that the elements of self perception involved would undoubtedly (observing human nature) create Pride which is God’s eyes results in Sin; and when the scales are balanced, it would be a failure; its stated by Paul “We all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” Romans 3:23. This is a metaphysical question, so one would have to take a stance from a chosen theological concept to establish a concrete point. And both parties would of course agree on that theological premise (lest the debate go on forever) Who an prove the invisible to be correct, or measure the law themselves as complete truth to another without the declaration of faith in such and such.

    Interesting Article Dr. Heiser, very thought Provoking

    • MSH says:

      If Paul is correct about the law of God being written on every heart, Jew or not, as a vestige of common grace, and the conscience being a God-given facet of humanity from creation (where else would it come from?), then the ultimate answer is God.

  4. Patrick says:

    God caused Caiaphas to prophesy. That’s another example of God animating an unbeliever and in this instance, among the most evil of us all. I assume God was pleased with the prophesy since He motivated it.

  5. David says:

    Growing up in a Calvinist household and reading a lot of Calvinist/Reformed literature, I remember coming across this analogy (paraphrased as I remember it) in a book on Calvinism, though I can’t remember now where I saw it. Seems like maybe it was Loraine Boettner’s writings, but don’t quote me on that.

    Say you have a ship full of sailors that is in service to the king. One day, mutiny breaks out on the ship, the captain is killed, and the crew is now in ultimate rebellion against the king.

    The king, hearing of the rebellion, sends out another vessel to put down the insurrection. The second ship attacks the mutinous crew, and the ensuing battle rages back and forth. In the course of the fight, the mutinous crew takes many casualties. Men are wounded, and their shipmates rush to their aid, risking their lives as they drag them to safety, tend to their wounds, and comfort them in their dying moments.

    Yet, while all of these acts would in and of themselves be noble and good, they are still done while in rebellion against the king.

    That’s the analogy. The point, of course, is that while men can do many good things on a horizontal, man-to-man level, in an ubelieving state these actions are still done within the context of rebellion against the King, and are therefore not pleasing to God.

    So I’ve listed this analogy here, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely satisfying to me. I think you still have many good points and good biblical examples that can’t be ignored. It seems that the “king” would still be pleased to hear of good and noble deeds as opposed to wicked ones, regardless of the context in which they were occuring. Note that (in keeping with the above analogy) such heroic and self-sacrificial behavior on the part of the mutinous crew member would not excuse him of his ultimate crime of rebellion or earn him mercy in any way, but at the same time, the good behavior in and of itself is certainly not displeasing or wrong. In the same way, while on unbeliever’s good deeds might not earn any grace or mercy from God, it must also be acknowledged that God is more pleased with behavior that is in conformity to His standards than he would be with wicked behavior.

    • MSH says:

      The analogy is a bit weak in that I can’t see any specific place for the law of God (the king) on the heart. I’m guessing in the course of the mutiny if the mutineers had saved the king’s wife or daughter he’d be glad.

  6. WannaKnow says:

    I think this is a very good question. I agree with what you said. I also look at it from a different perspective where God can even be pleased with evil from unbelievers. Like other nations taking Israel into captivity for discipline, Satan and everything he did to Job, and the greatest one, Satan bringing about the death of Jesus. I think God had a desire for each of these and was pleased with them all even though it was through the hands of unbelievers.

    • blop2008 says:

      I think that that would be collocating the block unto the wrong structure. I don’t think God is pleased with evil from unbelievers; you are mix-and-matching the wrong pieces to the puzzle. When God punishes believers or unbelievers, he doesnt take pleasure at that, although it brings to fulfilment his punitative and judgmental corrections. The examples you give from the Bible do not conform to God being pleased specifically with the evil behaviors themselves, but rather than punitative *outcome* from the allowed evil behaviors as a form of punishment. For instance, do you really think that God was please with the adversary of Job when the adversary attacked Job by permission from his own authority; that is, with the adversarial attacks themselves? No, the text indirectly gives us a clue in Job 2:3. Same kind of thing with Satan or the devil of the NT. God is not pleased with his specific evil behaviors, although God may be pleased with the effects it may have against a target as a punitative outcome. Even when God punishes the believer or unbeliever with destruction, I don’t think God is pleased with the destruction he inflicts itself unto a target, but may be pleased with the Justice effects it has on the deserved wrongdoer, as God’s Justice (a God of Love and Fire) must be rendered justly; and although his grace may come into play.

    • HaMetumtam says:

      It seems to me the word “pleased” is being used equivocally and needs to be defined to stop us from saying God is pleased with evil which logically follows from this reasoning. He can be pleased with the outcome and not with the means, all examples of His sovereign will being carried out are examples of this, if not we can conclude He was pleased with Judas and the betrayal of innocent blood…. Was He pleased with the outcome of the eternal plan or pleased with immoral behavior ? I think it’s worth distinguishing.

  7. Richard Brown says:

    Wow, Mike, this is a good one, even as muddled as it seems to have become at this stage.
    Please bear with me just a moment as I sense your “these guys are ALL overthinkians” filter is ON!

    The Parts 1 and 2 both suffer from assumed/presumed definitions of really important terms, which condition leaves us talking past one another.

    Foremost, these terms desperately need a working definition:
    1. “Unbeliever” – You use the term as key to the entire discussion without defining it other than accidentally. To me, “unbelief” in OT terms is different than NT. But I include “ignorance of the particular Deity in question” in my understanding of “unbeliever” in Pre-Christian terms. Since you seem to include Gruden’s “total depravity” in your definition of unbeliever, I have to think you mean, by “unbeliever” an infidel. One who rejects the light one has; one who deliberately rejects for his life the “Law unto themselves” or the “law written on the heart”.

    2. Otherwise, I should think its a mistake to paste in Gruden’s “total depravity” excerpt

    3. If you mean one who is merely ignorant of THE God, then I submit: “Unbeliever as one in a state of “un-belief toward/in YHWH the particular God of Adam, Noah, Enoch, Abraham and Jesus” ? So “unbeliever” for the sake of this discussion would be “one who has not submitted to the rule of YHWH or His Messiah”. It would not mean “rebel” vs. that particular GOD.

    3. I prefer that the concept of “Saved” or “regenerate” not be juxtaposed as the antonym of “unbeliever”. “Believer” vs. “Unbeliever” seems clear. Were Pre-Resurrection saints of any age “Regenerated” as Christian theology understands the concept? I would say no [or “we cannot know”]. But both OT and NT testify emphatically that there were “saints” prior to the Resurrection. Not all of them Jewish…

    4. As part of St. Peter’s ongoing process of personal transformation, he came to realize that what the Angel said to Cornelius is the “gospel truth”, if you will: Cornelius was neither a Jew nor a Christian, yet his ACTS were of such value that GOD Himself sent a personal Angelic Emissary to Cornelius [for his sake and many others] who [the angel] solemnly testified that “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God”.
    The writer of Acts records that in retelling the event to Peter, Cornelius recalls the “man in shining garments said Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.”

    Clearly God is attendant-to or pleased with non-Christian non-Jews even granting glory and honor to the one “who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.”.

    Thus, Peter spoke to Cornelius this pivotal truth [freshly imprinted upon him] “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean”… and then to the gathered group the same Peter testified solemnly “God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation [goy etc] the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him”

  8. Malkiyahu says:

    I like restating people’s arguments to be sure I’m understanding them correctly. Your argument seems to be:

    (stated premise) Unbelievers are capable of righteous acts.
    (implied premise) Righteous acts always please God.
    (conclusion) Unbelievers are capable of pleasing God.

    But if this is your argument, as it seems to be, I question your implied premise. I think that premise is clearest in your first atheist example, where you ask, “If she did the right thing, is God glad?” My answer is, “Not necessarily.” Just look at Isaiah 57:12 or Isaiah 64:6. Because it’s not just about the action, it’s about the cause of the action. If the cause of an act of kindness is selfishness, is God pleased? I would say no. If an atheist gives change to a homeless person to stroke their own ego and make themselves feel better, is God pleased? I would say no.

    “Honestly, how many of us believers would be comfortable standing before God and telling him eye-to-eye that we obeyed him perfectly?” As many of us as have faith that He has made us perfect. Your theology here seems to contradict Scripture. “Seriously–how can any human do anything perfectly in God’s judgment? It’s a dumb argument.” This statement shocks me coming from someone who rejects the traditions of men in favor of the naked Bible. I would think that someone who has read the New Testament as many times as you no doubt have would know the answer to that question, seeing as the fact of the believer’s perfection is taught unambiguously and repeatedly.

    Your Scriptural examples of Cyrus and Abimelech clearly portray God as taking credit for what the unbelievers accomplished. (“Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me.”) All you seem to be saying with these examples is that God is pleased by what God does, whether through believers or unbelievers. And I would agree with that.

    My conclusion: Can unbelievers ever please God? Yes, when God does something through them. Can they ever please God at any other times? No.

    So I agree with you that theologians have gone overboard with their doctrines of total depravity.

  9. drmaryann says:

    Hmm. May be simplistic but what about the verse “Without faith it is impossible to please God”? Fire away as my specialty is brain science not ancient languages. :)

  10. John says:

    Dr. Heiser,
    I think there is something to the way CS Lewis has the Tash worshipper meet Aslan in The Last Battle. Aslan says to him, “…if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”

  11. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I get that some believers are bothered by the idea that God could be pleased with the righteousness of unrighteous people, if you will, especially in light of their eternal destiny. But I do think God holds the last word when it comes to this, no? I think Paul’s statement in Romans 14:4 holds a key to understanding something about God (though the context addresses how one believer is to regard other believers weak in faith.) It states: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Again, the context is quite specific but the verse (and Dr. Heiser can correct me if I’m wrong, esp. as I’m about to borrow his phrasing) seems axiomatic to me with potential for broader application. It’s quite obvious that Cyrus, for example, is a servant of God whether he knew it or not. I’ve no idea how this fits within a context of salvation or grace, but as far as demonstrating that the Lord can and has been pleased with the acts of unbelievers (to the chagrin of many Calvinists) it’s rather clear.

    • MSH says:

      I think it’s clear, too. I’m really not taking it very far (as far as a lot of the comments on the page). But that’s okay. I just don’t think God is angry with every act of an unbeliever and tried to give some trajectories as to why I think that. I need someone to prove he is still angry at the end of all those roads.

  12. Jess Lester says:

    Dr. Heiser, Your theological approach to this subject shows you are very (maybe extremely) knowledgeable about your subject of an unbeliever pleasing God. My take is with so many (in my “humble” opinion) more serious theological issues such as eternal secuity(both schools) and Arminiasim(both schools) this subject might fall into Shakespear’s category of “much ado about nothing”. Please keep up your excelent informative blog. Thank you, Jess

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.