Does everyone know deep down that there is a God?

(Ben Thompson) #1

Romans 1: 18-23 (ESV)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

As I see it, my best interpretation of this passage would claim following truths:

  • Unrighteous people suppress the truth about God — people deep down must know there is a God in order to suppress this truth
  • God has provided the unbeliever with enough evidence, through his “eternal power and divine nature” through the the things that have been made so that they are without excuse for their condemnation (even without hearing the Gospel? - which raises the question of the Salvation of the remote tribes)

If these interpretations are slightly off in any way, please help me understand what this really means (I see there are passages in the Word that say that unbelievers don’t know God (e.g Galatians 4:8 … perhaps this is a translation issue, different types of ‘know’?)). If however, these are accurate interpretations, then for me, this raises quite a few practical questions as to how we approach and practise apolegetics.

A few questions:

  1. When sharing the Gospel with a professed unbeliever, since His Word says they already know God exists, would it be right (and helpful) to challenge them on this truth (that they do know God) or would it be more helpful to seek to provide evidence in a more evidential apologetic style? I realise there are no cookie-cutter solutions when talking about sharing our faith because it depends on the context. I’m interested to know whether you would advise using such a stance in apologetics.
  2. If unbelievers know the truth (and by implication God) deep down and are merely “truth suppressors”, surely this challenges and changes the way we can often go about apologetics? For the unbeliever to really know the truth, God must first grant repentance (a gift)…

2 Timothy 2:24-26 - And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

How would this change our stance on apologetics? Well, often I find myself wanting to persuade unbelievers of the truth (sometimes by evidential means) but without first addressing this concept of repentance and expressing that they really do know that God exists. What are your thoughts on this strand of apologetics? Is it valid? Useful? Biblical?

It seems to me that if we were to take this Romans 1 approach, it makes the call of 1 Peter 3:15 to do it “with gentleness and respect” all the more pertinent!

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this, both at a theological and practical level — I don’t want to miss the mark here. :grinning:

(SeanO) #2

@ben Great question. Piper has a good article where he makes the point that a number of Bible verses very clearly say that before Christ we did not ‘know God’. Does this contradict Romans 1? No, because Romans 1:21 is clearly that when we suppress our knowledge of God our thinking becomes ‘futile’ and our hearts ‘darkened’. Additionally, there is a difference between knowing God is God - all powerful and good - and actually knowing Him as Father - becoming His child.

So - what we have are people who have suppressed the truth they once knew that God was God and now have darkened minds. From their perspective, they genuinely do not believe God exists. Their thinking has become confused.

Galatians 4:8 - “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”

Romans 1:21 - For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

John PIper’s Article

C. S. Lewis has a quote from the Magician’s Nephew that bears remembering - “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” When people try hard to forget God and live lives of sin - the problem is that they can actually succeed in forgetting God and God can give them over to their passions. Sin and doubt play off each other to suppress the knowledge of God.

Should we challenge them directly about their knowledge of God?

I think that depends. Are they agnostic? Are they atheist? Have they ever had any experiences of God? How well do you know them? Did they grow up in Church and for some reason reject the Christian view of God?

Tim Keller says that there are three reasons people generally embrace Christianity and the most powerful witness is when all three come together:

1 - Social (Belonging)
2 - Rational (Reasons to Believe)
3 - Emotional (Experience of God and meaning)

So I think that even though we as apologists know that people have a suppressed awareness of God, we first need to understand where they are at in their life and meet them there… Do they need rational answers (are they already seeking God)? Do they need community? Do they just need to know that all Christians are not judgmental?

I certainly think there is a place and time to directly challenge people concerning their knowledge of God. It takes wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent. But I do not think that should intimidate us - we simply share Jesus as best we can in love and grow in wisdom as we do our best to serve God and love others.

The Power of Indirect Truth

C. S. Lewis as an interesting quote about how stories can sneak past the part of our mind that is actively suppressing certain truths. Sometimes people are so set against the idea of God that if you address it directly they will not hear it, so you have to come at it from another angle to open the door of their mind a little wider. Stories can do that…

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

Contextualizing the Gospel

I keep posting this video by Keller, but I think it is just a great example. Each of us lives at a certain time in history where certain walls are built up in peoples’ minds that keep them from accepting the truths of Christianity. We need to learn what those walls are and how to help people remove those barriers to seeing Christ clearly. I think Keller does a marvelous job of tackling these barriers and trying to help people who are culturally set against the Gospel to consider it.

I hope those thoughts are helpful. Let’s continue the discussion. This is a very expansive topic. The Lord grant you wisdom as you grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.

(Brittany Bowman) #3

It’s so neat to see your passion for meeting people where they truly are. I agree with what Sean has said, especially the thought on the emotional, rational, and spiritual perspective. That video is really good, too. Your conversation reminded me of another thread, “Lewis’ Argument from Desire Against Materialism.”

@SeanO brought up in the thread a really stirring C.S. Lewis quote about how our longings could suggest the existence of something. In this sense, we can approach the conversation that even as Christians we know God as we desire greater meaning to life, and yet we forfeit the greater peace He can provide as we give in to our sinful nature. We have to bring the humility, then, that we have experienced how Christ can satisfy our desires and yet we still reject Him with our sin. How much harder it would be for the atheist to reject sin when they have not experienced the goodness Christ can provide!

I do admire atheists have at least made a decision in some manner about their beliefs. They are not typically the luke-warm, “go to church on Christmas and hope for the best” type of crowd. They have experienced a moment where they at least did ask if a God existed and made a decision. If we can ask questions to draw out the nature of that decision (lack of evidence, subconsciously not wanting to give up a sinful lifestyle, abuse, painful church experience, etc.) we can guide the conversation to helping them clear that particular hurdle. Ultimately, though, it’s their decision, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about it. We help them identify the hurdle and then get out of the way, since only God can fulfill the desire He placed in their heart. I stumbled across a quote by Nabeel Quereshi tonight I really liked,

“It was then that I realized the value of apologetics and what the arguments had done for me. All my life, barriers had been erected that kept me from humbly approaching God and asking Him to reveal Himself to me. The arguments and apologetics tore down those barriers, positioning me to make a decision to pursue God or not. The work of my intellect was done. It had opened the way to His altar, but I had to decide whether I would approach it. If I did, and if I really wanted to know God, I had to cast myself upon His mercy and love, relying completely upon Him and His willingness to reveal Himself to me.”