In one word, “Yes!”
If you consider yourself an unbeliever, realize God still cares about you, even though you may not have cared about Him. Realize that many people who rejected God when they younger, seek him when they are older. Sometimes their life experiences teach them that there is purpose to life. They may have a personal experience they are convinced was orchestrated by God. Others, when they are approaching death, begin to diligently search for the meaning to human life. The sooner one comes to God, the better, but whenever you are ready for God, God is ready for you.
If you consider yourself a believer, there are two reasons to understand why God cares for unbelievers:
The story of Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 was difficult for me to accept when I first read the Bible. Why would God miraculously heal a Syrian military commander who was killing the people of Israel? I knew God was not wrong, but I had a lack of understanding of how and why the Creator of all life works. If you are not familiar with this story, please read it in the accompanying box.
Naaman did not understand and follow the God of the Bible:
Yet, Naaman had many good qualities in spite of his ungodliness and carrying the disease of leprosy:
Even with these good qualities, why did God heal this man who continued to fight against His people Israel, and who would continue to go into the temple of Rimmon to please his unbelieving King? Fortunately, we have some words from Jesus Christ on a lesson we are to learn about this historical account:
Then He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.… And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff (Luke 4:24, 27-29).
Just as Jesus was not honored by the civil and religious leaders of his day, so God and his prophet, Elisha, were not honored by the civil and religious leaders of those ancient days. Indeed, there were multiple efforts to kill both Elisha and Jesus. By contrast, many of the common people and foreigners heard them gladly. Indeed, there are times when God goes out of his way to care for unbelievers to provoke His people to jealousy:
They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; They have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation (Deuteronomy 32:21).
Naaman, above, acknowledged that the God of Israel was the true God and He alone was able to heal him from Leprosy. However, he did not have the faith to forsake his position in the military so he could stop worshiping in the temple of Rimmon. One can have an intellectual belief in the God of the Bible without having complete faith in God. Here is how the apostle James explained it:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? (James 2:19-22).
A believer is someone who lives by the knowledge of the true God available to him at the time. A believer will seek more knowledge of God (Jeremiah 29:13). Before Moses, there was little if any written Scripture, but people had access to those who had direct knowledge of God. Adam and Eve lived almost a thousand years—everyone knew they were the people without any human parents. Abel, Enoch and others were righteous and communicated with God. Noah and Shem were righteous men before and after the flood. Shem lived until the time of Abraham. There was access to God to those who sought Him.
From Moses’ writing the first five books, to the writing of Malachi in about 400 B.C., the teachings of the Old Testament were available to many. The basic promise of the “Old Covenant” was prosperity and national greatness in exchange for obedience to a loving God of the scriptures. Some believed those writings and received those promises. The Old Testament also taught people to “love their neighbor as themselves” (Leviticus 19:18), and made promises of the Holy Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). A few sought these spiritual promises and received them. For example, a man named Simeon, learned in the ways of the Old Testament, had the Holy Spirit upon him and a promise from God that he would see the Christ as a baby (Luke 2:25-32).
Finally, the New Testament promises forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit to whoever will repent and be baptized (John 3:16; Acts 2:38-39). A Christian who believes and does these things is certainly a believer. Other Scriptures go on to explain that some believers’ works will withstand the tests of God while others’ works will not—but they will all be saved (John 15:8; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). All are called believers, but each one is distinctly rewarded according to their own works (Matthew 16:27; 1 Peter 1:17; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 2:23; 22:12.)
So we understand believers to be those who believe in and have faith to live by the Creator God, according to the information available to them at the time. Unbelievers are those who do not choose to learn or live by the information available to them about the Creator God—even though they may have genuine interaction with Him.
Naaman received a marvelous healing from God, but many others did not appreciate what God was doing for them. Even though the Creator of the universe reached out to individuals, they did not always listen or take action on their genuine encounters with God. In the past, I doubted claims of God’s intervention in the lives of irreligious, swearing thieves, con-artists, adulterers and convicted criminals. But now I realize that these people really need intervention from God (Mark 2:17). Sometimes they listen to Him, and sometimes they do not. Here are some examples when people did not listen:
When Jesus was on trial, the Roman governor Pilate’s wife had a vision and sent a message to Pilate telling him “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). She clearly received the truth in her dream. Pilate tried to talk the Jewish leaders out of the execution, and even washed his hands of it. But he did not have the faith to free Jesus and risk a Jewish revolt or lose his.
(This writer does not believe the Bible teaches fatalism—that everything is predetermined. Pilate really had the chance to not kill Jesus, even if it was God’s plan for Jesus to die that Passover. If Pilate heeded God’s warning, somebody else would have seized the opportunity for fame and power and done the job in Pilate’s stead. Pilate, in his weakness, chose to unjustly order Jesus to be scourged and crucified.)
When the religious leaders got together, they were afraid that the people would go after Jesus as a leader because of his many miraculous signs—and they would lose their leadership position. Caiaphas, the high priest answered, “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people” (John 11:50). He thought he was saying that Jesus needed to die so they could maintain power. But he was really prophesying for God, showing that Jesus was dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 11:51). Caiaphas utterly failed by seeking his own power rather than understanding his own prophecy and the will of God. The last time we hear about Caiaphas in the Bible, he is confronting a whole group of disciples whom Jesus was using to perform great, undeniable miracles (Acts 4:1-22). There was nothing he could do to stop them.
1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18 tell of a joint venture by Ahab, the evil king of Israel, and Jehoshaphat, the somewhat righteous King of Judah. They were deciding whether to go to war against Ramoth Gilead. Ahab’s false prophets all said they should go. Ahab did not even want to hear from Micaiah, a true prophet of God, because he never said anything good to him. But Jehoshaphat wanted to hear him, so they sent for Micaiah. He prophesied they would not be successful in the war and that king Ahab would die there. Even though Ahab disguised himself as an ordinary soldier, he was hit by a random arrow between his armor and he died in the war. He ignored God’s one last act of kindness to him.
King Nebuchadnezzar was given a vision by God of a giant statue in Daniel 2. Even though Daniel the prophet said God was teaching him about his kingdom and those which would arise after it, Nebuchadnezzar vainly decided to build a giant statute of himself. Then he threatened people with death for not bowing down to it (Daniel 3). God miraculously protected three men who worshiped Him from death in a furnace, and caused Nebuchadnezzar to go crazy for seven years (Daniel 4). It was only after his madness left that Nebuchadnezzar was humble before God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, foolishly took the captured vessels from God’s temple to use in a big party. God wrote the famous “handwriting on the wall”, declaring the end of Belshazzar’s kingdom. Daniel told him he would be slain that night and he was the only one slain as the Medes took the kingdom from him (Daniel 5).
Acts 27 contains the story of Paul’s sailing voyage to Rome to appeal to Caesar. Paul warned the ship owner and the Centurion in charge of the prisoners that there would be loss of life and of the ship if they continued sailing after the “fast” (Day of Atonement). The men did not listen and the ship was caught in a terrible storm. Later, the sailors tried to escape in a life boat, but Paul told the Centurion that lives would be lost if the sailors did not stay in the ship. He listened this time and had the soldiers cut away the life boat. All of the crew and passengers survived a crash landing on the coast of Malta. God could have easily delivered only Paul, but he cared for the unbeliever’s ship and the many unbelievers on the boat, even though they did not listen to the first warning.
When Abraham was among powerful unbelievers, he feared he would be killed so people could take his beautiful wife, Sarah. What was his plan? He told them she was his sister so they would think she is available. God personally intervened in the lives of these unbelievers so they would not be deceived into committing adultery with Sarah. One time, God gave the Egyptian Pharaoh a plague (Genesis 12:11-20) and later he sent Abimelech a dream (Genesis 20:1-18). These divine warnings prevented them from committing adultery.
Pharaoh’s butler received a dream from God, which was interpreted by Joseph. It showed that the butler would be restored to his position (Genesis 40). Two years later, when the Pharaoh of Egypt had two dreams that he did not understand, the butler recommended Joseph to Pharaoh. Joseph told Pharaoh how God was showing the Egyptians to store grain for the first seven years of plenty to save many people from starvation during the second seven years of famine.
When Elisha had a message to deliver from God, he asked for one of the King’s musicians and the spirit of God came upon the musician and he prophesied (2 Kings 3:12-27). There is no indication this musician had ever prophesied before or even believed in God. The prophecy was heard and the righteous king of Judah and the unrighteous king of Israel were both delivered from the hand of Moab.
Jeremiah 35 is an interesting story of Jonadab the son of Rechab. He commanded his descendants to live in tents rather than build houses, and to drink no wine. God was very impressed at their willingness to follow the commands of their father. He even tempted them by having the prophet Jeremiah set some good jugs of wine in front of them, but they refused. For their obedience, God promised that they would always have descendants. Many researchers conclude that the Bedouins of the Middle East are the descendants of Jonadab. To this day, they live in tents and do not drink alcohol. They have received God’s promise and avoided most wars by learning to live in deserts considered uninhabitable by virtually every other people.
Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, has a particularly unusual story (2 Kings 9 & 10). He was told by one of the “sons of the prophets”, who were taught by Elisha, that he would become king. He was also told to kill some bad kings and other evil people as a judgment from God. He carried out these killings with great cunning and diligence—so well that God himself spoke to him and promised that his sons would sit on the throne of Israel until the fourth generation (2 Kings 10:30). Even so, Jehu still did not follow God in other areas of his life and began to lose some of the territory of his kingdom (2 Kings 10:31-32). God kept his promise, and Jehu’ s great-great-grandson reigned as King of Israel. But after six months he was murdered, leaving no further heir (2 Kings 15:8-12).
Cyrus, King of Persia, was used in a grand way by God to re-establish the Jewish nation back in their land after they had spent seventy years in Babylonian exile. Isaiah 44:24-45:13 prophecies his mission, giving his name before he was born. The first six chapters of Ezra detail all his work. He knew his kingdom was given to him by YHVH, the God of Heaven (Ezra 1:1-2). Was he a believer? Secular history shows that he still worshiped the Babylonian god Marduk or Merodach (Jeremiah 50:2).
The New Testament has numerous stories of people who had little faith in God or Christ, but who received blessing from Him. The Pool of Siloam had an angel that occasionally stirred the water, healing the first person who stepped into it (John 5:2-4)—faith was not a part of the equation—the first one in was healed. Jesus frequently healed everyone he ministered to, but they did not all have the faith of believers. When Christ cleaned 10 lepers, only one—a foreigner—had the faith to return and thank him (Luke 17:12-19). Even the Roman centurion and his assistants at the cross were inspired to understand that Jesus was “the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
While many of the above examples are about individuals, there are even more examples in the Bible where God deals with big groups or entire nations who have little knowledge of Him. He set up boundaries for all nations so each would have a place to live (Genesis 10; 1 Chronicles 1-5; Deuteronomy 32:8). Gods sends rain and crops to all peoples to make us glad (Matthew 5:45 Acts 14:17). He gave the Amorites and other nations over 400 years to repent before giving their land to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:13-15; Exodus 12:40).
The book of Jonah explains how Jonah was sent to prophesy to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria and an enemy to Israel. Jonah did not want to go, because he hoped God would destroy this enemy for their sin. God did not accept “no” for an answer and made a fish swallow Jonah and expel him back out at Nineveh. Jonah preached and the Ninevites repented of their wicked ways. The book does not say they accepted Israel’s God or the Old Testament, but they departed from obvious violence and wickedness. God had to show Jonah how valuable these people were to him, even though Assyria later killed many Israelites and took the rest captive (2 Kings 17).
The book of Nahum is almost the opposite. It tells of the sins of Nineveh and explains that God will someday punish them for their sins and again set up Israel as a leading nation.
Most of the prophetic books of the Bible can be considered messages to unbelievers—because the people of Israel mostly were unbelievers—they followed the practices of the nations around them, rather than God and the Scripture. We can see all that God does to bring unbelievers to repentance—first sending them prophets and writings with warnings, and then if they do not listen, sending wars, famines and plagues. God has given mankind much free will, so He needs strong actions to get our attention at times.
And finally, there are many chapters of the prophets specifically directed at non-Israelites, nearly all of which are unbelievers. Prophecies are found for the nations of Ammon, Arabia, Assyria, Babylon, Damascus, Edom, Egypt, Elam, Ethiopia, Gaza, Kedar and Hazor, Lebanon, Moab, Philistia, Tyre and Sidon. They are contained in these chapters: Isaiah 10, 13-18, 21, 23, 46-47; Jeremiah 46-50; Ezekiel 25-26, 28-29; Joel 3; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; and Zephaniah 2. Some of these prophecies are conditional, telling the nations what they need to do either receive the blessing or escape the punishment of God. Other prophecies are more certain: “This is the way it is going to be”. Multiple prophetic books explain a time when the whole earth will become “full of the knowledge of the Lord” and people of many nations will become believers then.
We hope readers will not dismiss this article by saying, “Of course we know these things; God does what He wants.” And He still does to this day! He often helps, warns, curses or blesses unbelievers. He uses them to deliver His messages. What, then, will we think if a person today in secular government or a non-bible-believing church group speaks a warning or takes an action in the name of God? Are we automatically sure it was not of God?
This writer recalls a two minute segment of comedian Drew Carey’s entertainment at the 2002 White House Correspondent’s Dinner where he lectured our leaders on the book of Revelation and the non-biblical holidays kept in our nation (available on YouTube). Mr. Carey is not known for religious teaching, but that day our nation’s leaders heard some little-taught biblical truth!
In 1994, a poor Bible teacher with only a tiny following explained to me that God had told him to make a collect call to Hafez al-Assad, dictator of Syria, warning him that he would continue to have ill health until he let about 2000 Jews in a Syrian ghetto migrate to Israel. I doubted this was genuine, but I told him that if God was with him, the call would get through and be heard. I lost track of the man, but within the next year I saw one press article about a group of Syrian Jews that were finally allowed to leave for Israel after many years of trying. Within a few weeks, I saw another article about Assad returning to public life after a suspected long illness.
There are certainly not the most important examples, and we cannot possibly know all that God is doing. They are simply a sample of thousands of things that God does through and for people we might consider unbelievers.
Are all messages and actions in the name of God truly His work? Absolutely not! When his disciples asked Jesus about the time of the end, the first thing out of His mouth was a warning about false and deceiving messages in His name (Matthew 24:3-13). We can pray for understanding and have peace, even in the most troubling times. But we must have the balance of understanding how God works: We can neither accept every claimed “message from God”, nor can we limit God to working only from our religious group and the leaders we have come to accept. The Bible evidence is clear: God does sometimes work both for and through unbelievers.
If we are convinced that God is working in some way through a political group or a different church group, does that mean that we should join it? Probably not—unless God is specifically showing us that we need to work there. Many of the unbelieving biblical figures mentioned in this article were not good examples of character or scriptural knowledge, even though God worked with them.
As the collapse of economic systems, terrorism, wars and disease epidemics become more likely, we need to understand that faith in God and his unlimited ways of working are the only way to find peace—for the believer, the unbeliever and even the person struggling in between.
Even though God works with unbelievers, this article is not intended to discourage anyone from seeking God with their whole heart, hoping to attain the better resurrection and to be ready to reign with Christ (John 5:28-29; Hebrews 11:33-40; 2 Timothy 2:12). We simply need to open our mind to how God has worked in the past so we can be ready for how He will work in the future. May God bless our study of His Word, and give us the wisdom to use it every day!
— Norman Edwards, February 2016
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord, "Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel."
And the king of Syria said, "Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel." So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy." And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha's house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, "Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, "My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. And he said, "Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant." But he said, "As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none." And he urged him to take it, but he refused. Then Naaman said, "If not, please let there be given to your servant two mule loads of earth, for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD. In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter." He said to him, "Go in peace."
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul! (Psalms 103:1-22 ESV)