Does Romans 1:18-21 deny the existence of "true" atheists?


It seems that whenever I watch Christians debating against evolution, there is the requisite tangent equating evolution with atheism and then the claim that “no true atheist” exists because Romans 1:18-21 denies their existence:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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 people are without excuse.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.

Yet, is the context of Roman 1:21 referring to atheists under any modern definition of the word atheist?

After all, Romans 1 continues:

22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.Amen.

I don’t personally know any atheists who worship "images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles"—which sound like idols of the graven image sort, although a Young Earth Creationist associate once told me that natural history museums filled with exhibits showing ancient “cave men” and ancient beasts are exactly those kinds of images. He told me that museums are pagan shrines where evolutionists can go to worship “evolution and millions of years.” Some YEC bloggers go so far as to say that Darwin is the object of worship at such fossil-filled museums, and that the artists’ recreations of extinct creatures are exactly what the Apostle Paul had in mind in Romans 1.

What say ye? Does Romans 1:18-21 refer to modern day atheists (regardless of whether one tosses in the evolution jabs?)

Also, when taking all scripture into account, does every atheist know that God the Creator exists? Even after we make the extra effort to distinguish the agnostic atheist from the gnostic atheist, is every atheist a liar? Does a careful look at everything around us in the universe make “honest atheism” impossible? Should anybody be telling atheists that they only pretend to lack evidence of God’s existence?

[POSTSCRIPT: I asked an assistant to keyboard this question on my behalf. I may not be available for elaborating further but I will be reading your posts with active interest.]

(Stephen Matheson) #2

This must be how extraterrestrials feel when they watch “alien autopsy” videos. :smiling_imp:

(Jay Nelsestuen) #3

You’re either worshipping God, or worshipping something else. I think that’s the point. There is no neutrality.

Those who refuse to worship the Christian God suppress their knowledge of Him specifically (not just some generic philosophical deity). This means Deists, Unitarians, Atheists, Polytheists, etc. all qualify under this blanket statement as suppressing the knowledge of the truth, for this reason: what can be known about God is plainly revealed in the creation. But rather than submit to Him, they go after other gods, whether they be idols, themselves, the creation, etc. I think Paul is driving a wedge between those who worship the Christian God and those who don’t.

Mind you, even those who now worship God were once suppressors of the truth, so there is no reason to think that Christians are any better than those outside the fold; however, this does give us perspective in reaching out to others, because we realize they know the truth, but they don’t want to admit it because God has given them over to follow after gods of their own imaginings.

(Stephen Matheson) #4

Please consider my lightly edited version of your statement.

Those who worship the Christian God feign knowledge of him specifically (not just some generic philosophical deity). This means Deists, Unitarians, Atheists, Polytheists, etc. all qualify under this blanket statement as people who avoid such self-delusion, for this reason: what can be known about god should be plainly revealed in the creation. But rather than deal with their delusion, they celebrate it, then go after people who don’t share their beliefs, accusing them of “worshipping” idols, themselves, the creation, etc. I think Paul is driving a wedge between those who worship the Christian God and those who don’t, because he was a misanthropic jerk who used “us vs. them” rhetoric with deft cruelty.

Does that sound disrespectful, maybe even crudely misanthropic? Or does that even matter?

(Jay Nelsestuen) #5

Ooh! We’ve got a clever one over here! :wink:


But does the Bible teach that, because of God being evident in creation, every atheist is–deep down–fully aware of God’s existence?

It is a common claim on many discussion forums and AIG, ICR, and CMI regularly post articles emphasizing that claim. (They even say that atheists have to work hard to maintain the pretense. They say that the Theory of Evolution helps in that self-delusion.)

(Steve Schaffner) #7

Yeah, I think that’s what Paul is arguing. I just think he’s wrong.

(Jon) #8

I don’t believe Paul is saying this, because elsewhere he speaks of people who are not responsible to divine judgment because they are ignorant of God’s laws, and will consequently die without judgment (Romans 2:12).

(GJDS) #9

We may understand Paul in that he wrote about pagan philosophers who acknowledged god or gods, but turned to idols and debauchery (Genesis also indicates this regarding prior civilisations).

Today the entire globe has heard the Gospel in one way or another. Modern day atheists can be delineated more along the lines of those who are drawn to what is good and seek to do what is right (people of conscience) and those who subscribe to “anything goes” and try to justify all sort of evil acts.

The central tenant is that God is the source of all goodness, and good people may or may not have a direct belief in God, but that is probably because God is pleased they seek goodness.

It is a different matter regarding those who suppress the truth - but we all know that many so called Christians are as guilty of this as militant anti-theists.

(Stephen Matheson) #10

Modern day Christians can be delineated more along the lines of those who are drawn to what is good and seek to do what is right (people of conscience) and those who subscribe to “anything goes” and try to justify all sort of evil acts.

(GJDS) #11

I am unsure as to what you mean - I have placed a greater burden on so called Christians who not only seek evil instead of good, but by distorting the message of the Gospel, they suppress the truth they claim to preach.

(Stephen Matheson) #12

I was illustrating how a simplistic binary categorization of a few hundred million people might appear to be inadequate or even inappropriate.

(GJDS) #13

I was responding to comments on statements by Paul in Romans, to show how we may understand these passages today, and not seeking to categorise any person or as you say a few hundred million - I think you have misunderstood my remarks.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #15

I’m not certain where you are going with this. If the wrath of God is being revealed against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, then I don’t see how anyone can escape justice, because Paul later condemns all men of being unrighteous (“There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks after God.” Romans 3:10-11). He later makes the case that the only reason anyone is righteous is because of Christ’s sacrifice.

There are only two types of people in this world according to Paul: righteous, and unrighteous. The righteous are only so by God’s grace, and the unrighteous are so because they have willfully rebelled against the Creator and refuse to acknowledge Him as God (Rom. 1:21). I think Paul’s argument is rather clear.

Your thoughts?

(Jon) #16

Paul says the wrath of God is being revealed against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of those who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”. So “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” is the qualifier. This is not referring to all unrighteous people, it’s referring to those who know the truth and suppress it. This means they cannot be ignorant.

Leaving aside the very obvious hyperbole of Romans 3:10-11 (which would completely condemn Christ as unrighteous and deny the existence of all the Godly people who very obviously did seek after God), to be “unrighteous” simply means not to be righteous. You can be unrighteous because you’re ignorant of God and His laws, and therefore fail to enter into the covenant relationship by which righteousness is imputed, or you can be unrighteous because you’re aware of God and His laws but refuse to obey them.

Paul is very clear on the fact that there are those who are ignorant of God and His law, and who are therefore not responsible for judgment and will perish “outside the law”.

(Jay Johnson) #17

In my view, Paul in Romans 1:18-23 is describing the flow of human history to that point. Let’s not forget that his overall purpose in this early chapter was to declare that everyone, including “both Jews and Greeks,” are all under sin. “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.” So, Paul does not have in mind the modern atheist or even the ancient idolator, but everyone in the history of the human race. All of the wickedness that Paul catalogs in vv. 24-32 are not the sins of idolators or “atheists” only, but the sins of all of us. (Note the “Therefore” that begins 2:1 – "Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things."

In short, mankind abandoned God in the beginning, and God therefore abandoned mankind to its own devices. All of this brings us to the climax of Paul’s argument in 3:21-26:

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."


But do all atheists actually know that God exists? Is every atheist a liar in that regard? Do they know full well that God exists?

(Phil) #19

If I may intrude, my thought is that they have to opportunity to recognize God in creation, but “none are so blind as they who do not see.” So, they would not be liars, but would be in denial, which is a bit different.


It seems to me that certain axioms of faith lead limit the conclusions one can reach about why others believe differently.

If we assume that

  1. Everyone has the chance to ‘see God’ (some axiom of fairness).
  2. The evidence is clear to all.

Then one would conclude that those who don’t agree must be in some state of unjustified denial or revolt.

Note that this is not unique for Christianity as those propositions can be held by other religions as well. I think the explanation of why others don’t “believe in God as we do” is something any religion naturally seeks to address by means of dogma. The dogmas associated with the religion set constraints as to the acceptability of particular answers. I’d call it “second-degree dogma” but I’m sure there is a formal name for it. I see this as a bit of a self-imposed straitjacket for thought because those with different axioms or who dispute the validity of some axioms will reach very different conclusions about motivations and culpability. I think it’s fascinating to consider how some religions and belief systems are necessarily hermetically sealed on the basis of a few core dogmas/axioms.

It’s less about what an individual can or cannot see (or believe) but what a particular set of religious beliefs can accommodate as an explanation. I think the two ‘Steves’ on this thread may also have some sense of this.

(Jay Johnson) #21

Again, I interpret Paul as describing the flow of history. Thus, I do not believe his argument is meant to address why this or that specific person does not believe. Notice that v. 20 goes back to the creation to justify the statement in v. 19, and then vv. 21-23 describe, in past tense, man’s descent into idolatry, followed by God’s righteous response in vv. 24-32 – he “gave them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28, also past tense) to their own desires. On mankind’s side, we have rebellion and idolatry, and on God’s side, a judgment of hardening (gave them over to…). All of those things happened in the past, with the result that the world was in almost total darkness when the light of the gospel appeared (cf. Luke 4:5-6, John 12:31, 1 John 5:19). Paul is describing the state of the entire world when Christ appeared.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Has the atheist suppressed the truth in unrighteousness? Then what do we do when we, who claim to know God, do the same things as they do, indeed, as all men do? We suppress the truth and choose not to think about what we’re doing while we’re doing it, and then afterwards pray for forgiveness. Should we therefore boast that we are superior to others because of our knowledge of God? Not according to Paul.

"Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. "