Which comes first according to 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: the refusal to believe or the blinding by Satan?
The question is a difficult one as there are a number of factors in view. As A. McShane writes, “Is Paul speaking of men in general as being blinded by Satan or is he referring to those who have heard the gospel and rejected it?” Does the veil on the mind follow unbelief or does it cause it?” In essence, the verses focus on the sinister ploy of the enemy as well as the critical response of the sinner to the light of the gospel.
Satan, or the “god of this world,” is constantly at work, opposing all that is of God and seeking to keep men in the darkness of their condition. His attacks began in the Garden of Eden when he questioned God’s Word and then flatly denied its truth, suggesting that the partaking of the fruit would actually be a moment of discovery and revelation. His deception and opposition continues relentlessly, snatching away the seed (Matt 13:19), lulling unbelievers into a false sense of peace (Luke 11:21), laying snares for the unwary (2Tim 2:25-26) and deceiving and blinding the minds of those who are not subject to the Word of God (2Cor 4:3-4).
But alongside the actions of Satan, Paul also describes individuals who “believe not” despite the fact that the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” has shone upon them. Their response has been one of rejection and so, despite the ploys of the enemy, the sinner is fully responsible for his own spiritual condition of darkness. There are many factors in play but none of them can lessen the sinner’s personal responsibility before God. Even in the parable of the Sower, looking at the different responses to the Word, the various conditions of the soil are not viewed as the problem. The Lord summarizes the parable with, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” The responsibility lies with the hearers. Sadly, many people hear the Word and sense the reality of the gospel light but in essence, fail to truly hear and thus remain in spiritual blindness. So when the birds of the air steal away the seed, the soil’s lack of receiving the seed opened the door to the birds’ activity.
This seems to be the context of 2 Corinthians 4:3-4. Rejected truth leads to increased darkness. Unbelief in God or in His Word opens the door to further blindness. As in Eden, all sin begins with failure to recognize the sufficiency of the Word. Satan used his slippery, serpent-like capabilities to deceive Eve, but if Eve – and primarily, Adam – had previously settled in their mind the authority, goodness, and reliability of God’s Word, Satan’s deception would have been rejected. Interestingly, God holds man responsible for the entrance of sin into the world, not Satan. And ultimately, God holds every individual responsible for their response to the Word. The light is shining, sinners are responsible to turn to it, and thus there is no excuse for people to remain in the dark.