A couple was on their honeymoon in the Colorado rockies, and decided to take in one of the tours provided by the local first nation people. As it was moving through a valley, the tour passed by a fascinating rock formation. While their guide was busy pointing out other features of the surroundings, the couple paused to look at the phenomenon more closely. In a moment, the director of the tour noticed their interest in the geological curiosity.
“Ah, I see you have discovered the sculpture of the ancient Indian sage. What do you think he was like?” The couple had not realized at first they were looking at a sculpture, but given this new information they began to reflect on what the sculpture told them about its creator. As they gazed on its details, they could perceive his pain, and his joy, all subtly ingrained in the lines of his work. The more they gazed, the plainer certain traits about him became, being understood from what he had made.
Before their elderly tour guide had told them the rock formation was sculpted, they had been tempted to say it might be, but they were not sure. The winds and rain could have formed it. And lacking knowledge of its true origin, they had not derived many of the things they now could see from it, once they understood it to be a creation, rather than just a chance of nature.
The guide continued, “From the ancient time when the sculpture was created, these qualities of the artist were plain to everyone who beheld it. All the people of his tribe came often to learn of him and his way. But then the white man came, and changed the ways of the Indian. The knowledge of his work was lost for most people. Now when people walk past it, all they see is a rock formation, the result of the elements.”
The tour participants listened with interest, as their host continued. “But this ignorance of the people does not change the fact the even still, what may be known of the great Indian sage is plain to all who behold it, for he made it all plain when he created his sculpture. They just need someone to help them see again that they are not looking upon a simple rock formation, but the work of a great mind. With this key it becomes plain, that there is so much more contained here than just geology.”
The tour moved on, and the couple reflected many times on this intriguing experience.
Several years later, the couple had raised a family and decided to take their children to the places they had visited at the dawn of their marriage. They were delighted to discover that the tour they had gone on those many years before was still offered by the native peoples. Although they attempted to find out if their previous guide was still leading tours, they were told he was no longer leading tours. This time their guide was a much younger man. But they were determined not to let this take the shine off their enjoyment.
As they came to the part on the tour where they passed by the sculpture they had learned about on their previous visit, they stopped and pointed it out to their children, “See kids. This is the sculpture of the ancient Indian sage. Isn’t it intricate? Can you see what the artist was feeling and thinking?”
To the couple’s surprise, upon hearing their comments their current guide turned and said, “Oh, is that what you’ve been told? That’s just an old Indian fairy tale. Sure it looks like somebody could have made it. But I don’t buy it. It is just a formation caused by the elements. That legend has been passed down for years in the ancient cultures, but there is no real substantiation for it.”
The couple was now confused. Who were they to believe? On the assumption the formation was created, they felt it was clear what the sculptor must have been like. But now, they found themselves in a bit of a quandary. They certainly could not straightforwardly side with one guide over the other without further investigation. They would have to examine the evidence a lot more thoroughly before they could be confident.
Is There Such A Thing as Non-Culpable Unbelief?
Today we face a situation very similar to what this couple faced, when we consider the claim God exists. In ancient times the existence of God or gods seems to have been taken for granted. Only in the past few hundred years has this claim been questioned on anything like the grand scale we see today. While a few hundred years ago it was rare to find anyone who did not profess some kind of belief in God, today the numbers of professing atheists and agnostics is significant. Are all such unbelievers dishonest in their unbelief, or is it possible something has changed between the past and today, that has produced an epidemic of non-culpable unbelief?
Traditionally it has been claimed that the Bible teaches all men know God exists. Passages brought forward in support of this claim appear in both Testaments. In Psalm 14:1 David says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The Old Testament begins with the statement, “In the beginning, God created” There is no argument anywhere in scripture attempting to prove God exists. Everywhere this belief appears to be assumed, as if no argument were necessary.
As we move to the New Testament, the story continues along the same line. Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who would come to God must believe that he is, and is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him. Here the writer appears to suggest that belief in God’s existence is a virtue, and one that is required if a person is to be in right standing with God.
The passage which stands out among all biblical passages in its apparent direct support of this claim is found in Romans 1. Here the Apostle Paul appears to indict the world for its rejection of its creator, pointing to sinful refusal to acknowledge the clear truth of God’s existence, as the root of God’s just condemnation of his creation:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20 NIV).
What could be more obvious than that Paul is condemning all who would question the existence of God? He seems to urge that any such doubts can only be sustained through a conscious, continual resistance of evidence that is plain and clear. In view of this apparently definitive passage, how could we possibly question that modern claims to atheism and agnosticism must be seen as deliberate refusals of clear intellectual light on the part of their claimants, from a scriptural perspective?
In what remains I wish to address this traditional understanding, and suggest an alternative reading of both Paul’s statements here, and other passages usually believed to provide definitive refutation of the possibility of non-culpable unbelief.
Evidence To The Contrary
I must emphasize that I am not suggesting that everyone who says she disbelieves God exists must be honest in this claim. Belief in the existence of God does carry with it significant moral implications. When a person does not wish to live by the moral truth she perceives, it is quite natural she might attempt to suppress or avoid the implications of light that would imply God’s claims on her life.
But we do have a significant amount of evidence that not everyone who makes such claims does so through moral motivation. Many such people previously believed the evidence for God’s existence was sufficient. Through further study of the available data, without any desire to get rid of the idea of God so they could justify their sin, they have come to believe the arguments are not as good as was previously supposed. Such “doubters” do not seem to have ever chosen in light of a belief there is a God, to discard this in favor of another option. Additionally, there are many people today who appear never to have believed God exists at all. They have been raised in atheistic environments, and never experienced a time when they passed from belief to unbelief. In light of these empirical facts, it deserves examination whether Romans 1 must be read as a claim that God’s existence is evident to all men from their view of creation.
We noted above that scripture never offers any argument for God’s existence. Everywhere this appears simply to be assumed. This is often considered evidence that God’s existence is considered by scripture to be plain to all people, and could never be questioned. But there is another possibility that would harmonize with the apparent reality of present day non-culpable unbelief. This is to see scripture’s assumption as a historical phenomenon that held true during the time scripture was written, but does not hold true today.
We mentioned that our present day phenomenon of widespread unbelief is a recent one. We can trace it back a few hundred years, stemming from the period of the Age of Enlightenment and the skepticism that followed. Prior to this, belief in God was virtually universal historically. This means that almost no one questioned the existence of gods or God during the time scripture was written.
Since this was the case, it is quite appropriate the writers of scripture would not spend their time attempting to answer the question of whether God exists. They would simply write from within the context of the theistic conviction they shared in common with their readers. But if this is so, this means it is inherently unlikely the scriptural passages assumed in our day to be addressing the question of atheism and agnosticism are actually doing so. Why would David or Paul or the writer to the Hebrews attack a position that was virtually non-existent in their day?
It also means that the fact scripture assumes God’s existence does not constitute any kind of evidence that scripture is claiming God’s existence is and always will be obvious to all men. That the writers wrote from within this assumption only indicates that the question was not a live one in their day. It does not exclude the possibility it could ever become a relevant subject of investigation at a later point in history, like it has in our time.
We must be cautious not to read into a 1st Century document, a mindset that is 20th Century in origin. We must not assume without justification that Paul or the other writers of scripture would be speaking to our modern question, when no one with whom they interacted was asking it. Although the writers of scripture found it unnecessary to provide arguments for God’s existence, this does not mean such arguments might not be needed in our time. The fact everyone in Paul’s day thought God exists does not substantiate the claim no one could legitimately question this thought today.
What Question Was Paul Answering?
If Paul was not claiming in Romans 1 that God’s existence is obvious, then what was he claiming was plain? What question was it Paul was writing to clarify? The answer appears in the passage itself. In verse 19 Paul tells us that what may be known about God is plain, from what God has made. Notice, it is not the existence of God Paul says is plain, but the attributes of God. Paul is saying we can know what God is like, by looking at what he has made.
So it seems the question Paul was answering, in the context of Romans 1-2, was not the traditional one, “Does God exist?” Instead, it was the moral one, “What is God like and how does he want us to live?” Paul was writing to address the immoral behaviors of the pagan world. He was arguing against different views of God. He was facing a culture in Rome and the pagan world that claimed there were gods who advocated various kinds of immorality and were like created things. He sought to show that God’s wrath is against mankind, because they resist the clear moral light they have from the general revelation to be found in nature. Paul says God’s invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, can be clearly seen from what has been made. This is why men are without excuse. They refuse the clear moral light they possess, both without and within.
This is the central thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-2, and it has application in our day. Even though many people today do not share Paul’s theistic convictions, the central point Paul was making about the applicability of the moral law to all men still stands. He was arguing from what we see in nature concerning how men ought to live. This all still applies, even if its theological moorings now stand in question. Men are still aware of moral law. They still condemn in others what they do not live consistently with in their own lives. So they are still without excuse, and God’s wrath is still against their sin, even though they are unaware of God’s existence. He can still justly judge them for what they know, and they do know.
Can We Know About God Without Also Knowing God Exists?
A natural question arises at this point. How can creation tell us about what God is like, in a context where God’s existence is in question? My answer would be, in the same way that the sculpture of the Indian sage could tell our newlywed couple about his mind, even after they came to question they were looking on a sculpture. In Paul’s day, the creation told people what God was like, because they shared with Paul the conviction God exists. This is similar to the belief our newlyweds shared when they accepted what their first guide told them. As long as this conviction was in place, the sculpture told them what the sage was like.
But when the second guide threw things in question for them, they ceased to be confident they were looking at an artifact. Did this change the content of what they knew before? It threw the actual application of that content into question, since they no longer felt certain they were looking at a creation. But even in this context, the only thing that changed was their ability to be sure what had before been plain to them truly had application to reality. Its content was still available to them, even in their newfound doubt.
In Paul’s day, given the broad, unquestioned, shared theistic conviction between himself and his readers, what may be known of God was plain to them. In our day, this plainness is subject to the proviso God exists and made what we see before us. But even today we can know much about what God is like, if he exists, by looking at what he made. He is obviously very powerful, if he created the universe we see before us. He is obviously very intelligent, to create the kind of order and complexity this world displays. He is obviously a person who cares about morality, to have made us moral beings. If he exists, and is a righteous judge, he will clearly hold us accountable for our responses to the moral light we find within.
The only thing that has changed between Paul’s day and our own, is we no longer have the benefit of an unquestioned, culturally shared conviction of the theistic foundations of these phenomena. They still speak of what God must be like, but their message is conditioned on the validity of evidence present for the claim we are looking at an artifact, and not simply a brute fact reality. This latter position is more strongly argued for in our day, than it ever has been historically. The challenge of such reasoning is what appears to explain the presence in our time of many whose unbelief seems non-culpable. But theistic unbelief has not removed the central moral evidence to which we all find ourselves accountable. Though we may now need to say that God will hold us accountable to our perceived obligations “if he exists”, we still know that we have these obligations for which we are accountable. Even if there is no God, we know we are obligated to comply with the moral light we perceive.
The Fool Says In His Heart
I have focused on Romans 1 because it forms the keystone of the traditional claim that scripture disallows the possibility of non-culpable unbelief. I must take a moment now to address the other passages I mentioned above.
Given what I have said about the shared theistic conviction of the ancient world, it must also be the case that David was not addressing atheism, when he declared that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” People in those times simply did not run around denying God exists. They were completely religious. If David is not claiming that anyone who disbelieves God exists is a fool, then what is he saying?
The fool in the ancient writings was not simply a person whose reasoning was intellectually defective. The term fool always had moral connotations. So David could be read to say, “The immoral person says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” Traditionalists naturally read this in the same way they read Romans 1, that immoral people claim there is no God, because they don’t want to honor him as God. But David should, it seems, be read instead to be saying that when someone chooses to live immorally, he is acting as though there is no God who will bring him to account. In his heart, in the root of his moral being, he is “saying”, “There is no one who will finally bring me to account, and I can live as I wish.” Such a person is not intellectually denying God exists, but simply living practically as if the implications of this belief will not come about. In David’s day, this was done, in spite of the fact there was a present belief in God. David was not speaking of non-theistic individuals.
Believe That He Is
The writer to the Hebrews seems to be saying that we cannot please God at all if we do not believe that he exists. He says we must “believe that he is”. Does this not require the conclusion that non-culpable unbelief is disqualified as a valid position for anyone?
The answer is that intellectual belief is not voluntary. One cannot choose one’s intellectual convictions. Intellectual conviction happens as the involuntary result of the way various evidences strike us. This means one could not choose to believe God exists, even if one wanted to. If this is so, then how could God require us to perform an act described as “believe that he is”? He could require us to investigate the evidence for such belief, putting ourselves in the position where such an intellectual conviction could become ours if the evidence strikes us with this conclusion. He could require us not to deny what we already actually believe, or he could require us to live by the belief we already have. But he could not require of us a voluntary acceptance of intellectual conviction we do not have.
If we cannot voluntarily choose to “believe that he is”, then what is the writer to the Hebrews seeking to convey? Again the context provides the answer. Throughout the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, we are given example after example of people who took their professed intellectual conviction God exists, and is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him, and put it into action. They exercised their belief voluntarily. The writer to the Hebrews is saying the same thing James says in chapter 2 of his letter. Faith without works is dead.
It is not enough just to “believe that he is”. We must act in such a way that we commit ourselves to the beliefs we profess. So the writer is not seeking to solicit intellectual conviction, or claims to that effect, but is insisting on the necessity of acting upon beliefs that are already held. Nothing short of this is true biblical faith. So the writer is saying in effect, to come to God a person must not only believe that he is, (which even the demons do, as James tells us), but must show by his actions that he believes God is a rewarder of those who are diligent seek him. Again, this is all said in a context of theistic belief. In the absence of such belief, the form such action takes will be to persistently seek to live by perceived moral truth.
Faith is voluntary commitment to perceived truth. Intellectual conviction is only a precondition for the exercise of faith. And faith can be exercised on the basis of any degree of intellectual conviction. (See The Nature Of Faith for a more full exposition of this position.) For some, whose convictions include belief God exists, faith includes acting on this belief in a theistic manner. For those who do not have such clear theistic light, it involves acting on their natural moral perceptions. Failure to act on our actual intellectual convictions, whether theistic or non-theistic in content, constitutes the unbelief scripture condemns. That such condemnations occur in the context of the theistic belief statements in scripture is not proof that anyone lacking theistic convictions cannot be morally honest. The writer to the Hebrews, like all the writers of scripture, wrote in the context of shared theistic conviction that is often lacking in our day.
Despite the popularity of the traditional reading of Romans 1, it does not stand up to scrutiny. To suggest Paul and other biblical writers were addressing the question of atheism and agnosticism is inconsistent with the theological contexts of their day. The biblical assumption God exists need not be read as a claim all men must forever be aware that God exists, but as a position that held true in the day the scriptures were written.
Additionally, in the context of Romans 1 itself we can see that Paul was addressing a different question than, “Does God exist?” Instead, he was seeking to explain to the culture of his day that the God whose existence was a shared conviction between himself and his readers was justly angry with the culture of that day. This was because men voluntarily refused the clear moral light of God they saw in nature around them and within them. It was because they refused the clear moral light they possessed, that they stood condemned before the bar of God.
The same is so in our day. We do not live in the same kind of context of shared theistic conviction, and so our unbelief often does not take the form of specific voluntary refusal of a God we perceive to exist. But we still stand condemned when we refuse to live in the light of the moral convictions we do possess. And God’s wrath is still justly revealed from heaven against all who suppress the truth they do perceive by their wickedness.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)