Most serious Christians have, at one time or another, tried to convince a non-believer of the truth of the Gospel. Maybe some have had success, but certainly not me.
Resistance to the Christian faith is strong and unyielding. This is not an intellectual exercise like debating the pros and cons of say, global warming – a pretty hot and emotional topic in itself. The resistance to the truth of the Gospel is deep and personal.
Moreover, one soon starts to realize that the non-believer not only thinks you are wrong, but slightly crackers too. In their mind, no rational person would believe the Christian faith to be true. There must be some underlying psychological flaw in the believer – an inability to stand on his or her own two feet, a need for some mythical authority figure, etc.
You can bet St. Paul ran into this resistance. Big time. Yet he persisted and, over a couple of decades, managed to establish churches in some major centres in the midst of the hostile Roman Empire.
Paul was patient with people, but he had no illusions about the fate of unbelievers – they are lost without God and live depraved lives. Moreover, their unbelief is not the result of social conditioning. It is their own fault.
Non-believers simply cannot understand the Gospel. "The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4.4).
Their resistance is not a matter of kow-towing to social conventions; it is the result of being under the influence of malevolent spiritual forces. Unbelievers are blind and they are responsible for their own blindness. But rather than knowing that they are blind, they think that they see.
In commenting on 1 Corinthians 2, St. Thomas Aquinas compares the non-believer with someone who is asleep. "A conscious person rightly perceives both that he is awake and that the other person is asleep; but the person who is asleep cannot form a correct judgment concerning either himself or the one who is awake."
Aquinas goes on to say that this is not a mere lack of intellectual understanding: "He who is unspiritual has a darkened understanding and disordered affections as far as spiritual things are concerned." In other words, the unspiritual person is lost in sin.
This is totally consistent with St. Paul, who saw a strong connection between how we view reality and how we live our lives. He reminded the Ephesians of how they lived before accepting the Gospel – "when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked" (2.1-2).
Conversely, the person who lives in sin cannot accept God. "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8.7).
This theme of the hopeless situation of the unbeliever is pervasive in Paul's writings. It is not something limited to isolated statements found here and there.
Paul's realization that each person is utterly lost without God was no doubt the driving force that led him to endure enormous hardships in order to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. He was not sitting in judgment on non-believers so much as he was thoroughly motivated to do everything possible to bring them to fullness of life.
His gloomy assessment of the human condition without God drove him relentlessly, out of love for sinful humanity, to spread the Gospel. It is the only real hope for salvation.
A person living without the Gospel is in a pathetic situation, even though he or she does not know it. The non-believer loathes the very thing that will bring fullness of life.
Non-believers loath the Gospel because it contradicts the very basis of their lives.
Diligent prayer must have supplemented the unrelenting activity of Paul's life. Paul says repeatedly that it was not his own eloquence but the power of the Holy Spirit that led people to follow Jesus.
To overcome "the god of this world" in leading people to Christ, we must rely more on prayer than on persuasion – although both are necessary. It is spiritual forces, in cooperation with a pride-filled human obstinacy, that hold people back from accepting the Gospel; it is the Holy Spirit that will empower them to receive Christ into their lives.