August 20, 2017

God and Atheists

Tim Miller

God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists.[1]

So goes the purposefully ironic title of Ray Comfort’s book. Of course, if we believe Romans 1, Comfort is right. The subtitle of his book, Proof That Atheists Don’t Exist, could be the title of this essay. Comfort’s point of departure for his humorous title was the logical contradiction in claiming that one could actually know (without a shadow of a doubt) that God does not exist. My departure, however, will be exegetical and ethical. In the following paragraphs we will look at Romans 1:18–20, noting (1) that all people know God and (2) why people claim that they do not know God.

Let’s begin with the most controversial statement of this essay—all men know God. Can this be proven? Certainly, someone would respond, there are people who do not believe in God! A close look at Romans 1:18, however, indicates that all men[2] “hold the truth in unrighteousness.”

Paul indicates in verses 19 and 20 the two sources of this revelation. The primary source of the revelation of God’s existence is within man. Verse 19 says, “that which may be known of God is manifest in them” (emphasis mine).[3] The knowledge of God is not something external to man, a knowledge that he must seek out; rather, it is an intimate knowledge communicated through the creation of man in the image of God.[4] Mankind is created with this knowledge, and—just as the image itself—it cannot be eradicated.

The second source of knowledge is external to man. Paul says, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (v. 20). Notice that this knowledge is mediated through creation.[5] When we see the intricacy of the eye, the beauty of a blossomed orchid, or the power of a raging thunderstorm, these communicate the intricacy, beauty, and power of the Creator. What is expressed within creation is only a microcosm of the nature of the Creator! Indeed, so rich is the revelation of God through creation that Paul could say that in it we see the “eternal power and Godhead.”[6]

Is it possible for someone to miss this dual revelation of God? In other words, is it possible to still remain ignorant of God in spite of these two sources of revelation? Paul closes the door to that possibility in three ways. First, he says that God gives the knowledge: “God hath shewed it unto them” (v. 19). Now, my wife can testify that she sometimes attempts to communicate with me unsuccessfully. Generally, I am to blame. However, sometimes due to a lack of clarity, she has not been successful. But God is not limited as a husband and wife are. When He communicates, He is successful.

God’s successful communication is confirmed by Paul’s second point: men inescapably receive this revelation and understand it. In verse 20 Paul says that the revelation is “clearly seen.” Further, he argues that this clearly seen revelation has been “understood.” These points follow logically from the sources of revelation. Is it possible for one to escape the world, which in all of its capacities reveals God? Remember Psalm 139, which rhetorically asks, “Whither shall I flee from thy presence?” Further, if one is made in the image of God, that image, which includes the knowledge of God within it, cannot be erased. While the image has been marred in the fall, it has not lost its capacity for communicating the truth of who we are. It is no surprise, then, that the knowledge of God has been clearly seen and understood.

The previous two points lead to a third: all men are without excuse. If sinful men inescapably retain the knowledge of God, Paul’s conclusion clearly follows — “they are without excuse” (v. 20). If there was a way to escape the knowledge provided through the image and through creation, Paul could not say that all men are without excuse. Certainly one would have found the way to escape. But Paul, through the inspiration of the Spirit, closes this door, showing the just condemnation of all mankind in the process.

So why are there people who claim to be atheists and agnostics? The answer is complex. Certainly, we do not want to say, “Stop lying! You are not an atheist!” That would be both unhelpful and counterproductive. It is unhelpful because the atheist is not exactly lying when he says that he does not believe in God. There is a complicated mixture of truth, error, and self-deception happening within the heart of the atheist. He has both (1) an ineradicable knowledge of God and (2) a belief that he does not know God. It would take us too far off-field to discuss the intricacies of self-deception. However, I think an example may prove helpful. Some philosophers have argued that they do not believe in truth. However, they must believe in truth in order to argue that they do not believe in truth. (For instance, they believe their statement about not believing in truth is true!) They have two conflicting beliefs: (1) there are no truths and (2) there are some truths.[7]

Going beyond (or perhaps deeper into) the self-deception of the heart, the reason some claim to be atheists is because they want the world to be that way. In the scientific age, we often assume that our beliefs are driven by the data. However, this belief is not entirely correct. Often our beliefs drive our interpretation of the data![8] People claim atheism not because the evidence leads them there but because their sinful inclinations lead them. Listen to two prominent philosophers express, in their own words, their sinful desire not to believe in God. Thomas Nagel stated, “I want atheism to be true. … It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[9] Mortimer Adler adds, “[The reality of God] would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for. … The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person.”[10]

These philosophers give us a refreshing and rare glimpse into the heart of unbelief. The source of unbelief is not lack of evidence; instead, it is the sinful heart. For this reason, Paul is not ashamed of the gospel (v. 16). For in the gospel Paul finds the remedy to man’s sinful heart. Paul does not seek to give the unbeliever more evidence of God’s existence; rather, he gives the gospel! This insight is not designed to denigrate apologetics or the use of evidence. Instead, it is designed to put evidence and apologetics in the proper place.

Tim Miller serves as an assistant professor at Maranatha Baptist University.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2014. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Ray Comfort, God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (Bridge-Logos, 1993). []
  2. That all men are in view is confirmed by the following: first, the preceding context of the passage concerns why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, which Paul confirms is for the “Jew” and the “Greek” (16). Second, the argument begun in verse 16 continues all the way through chapter 3, which pinnacles in the statement, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). Third, the sources of revelation indicated in the passage (creation, direct revelation from God) are available to all men. []
  3. I take the dative εν to be a dative of location. This means that the knowledge is placed and located inextricably within mankind. []
  4. Space does not allow for a development of the argument that this knowledge comes through the image. However, it is hard to escape the all-encompassing nature of both the image of God in man and the way Romans 1 speaks of the all-pervasiveness of this internal knowledge. []
  5. While the knowledge of God comes mediated through creation, it would be a mistake to believe that one can come to know God salvifically through creation. Clearly, Paul argues that natural revelation is not enough to save (though it is enough to condemn [Rom. 10:14, 15]). Further, the sin nature twists the revelation of creation, leading mankind to fashion idols rather than worship God (1:22, 23). []
  6. While the content of knowledge expressed as “eternal power” is clear, what is meant by the “Divine Godhead” is not as clear. In my estimation, this knowledge includes more than most commentators often allow. However, this knowledge alone is not capable of bring one to saving faith. []
  7. I am not claiming that this analogy is perfect or exact. But I do believe it allows us to clearly see one way in which self-deception can take place. []
  8. For a clear example of this see the attempt by those who claim to be Christian to defend homosexuality on the basis of Scripture. Clearly, their desire for this sinful activity leads them to skew the data. See []
  9. As quoted in Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (Macmillan, 1999), 437. []
  10. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 2001), 130. []

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