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I've encountered discussions, such as the one linked here, where certain Christians assert that atheists inherently acknowledge God's existence, often relying on certain interpretations of Romans 1:18-25. I'm keen to explore this interpretation further, examining its prevalence among Christians and investigating alternative exegeses that might support divergent perspectives. Are there theological or philosophical arguments within Christianity that present nuanced readings of Romans chapter 1, challenging the blanket assertion that all atheists, deep down, possess an inherent awareness of God's existence?


The following are quotes from different sources presenting the viewpoint I'm calling into question:

Believe No One Who Calls Himself an Atheist

If what Paul says in Romans 1 is true, there is ultimately no such thing as an atheist. Anyone who calls himself one is wrong on at least three fronts.

First, someone who claims to be an atheist is suppressing the truth he knows. According to Romans 1, “What can be known about God is plain to them” (v. 19), and their denial is an expression of the fact that they are among those “men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v. 18). Therefore, whatever they believe about themselves, the God who made them says otherwise, and we must believe God rather than man. [...]

(Source: Why There’s No Such Thing as an Atheist)

Many people who say they are atheists will say those who believe in God are stupid, or foolish. Ironically, Scripture says they are the fools. Professing to be wise they became fools. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Their foolish hearts were darkened. Indeed, Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.””

So, when you speak to someone who says he’s an atheist, he is 1) lying, and 2) a fool. He is like a person who says he doesn’t believe in gravity. He sees how it works, he experiences its effects, but denies it exists. Truly, such a person is a fool.

How do we as Christians answer the atheist? I have come to the conclusion that we simply tell them that they really do believe that God exists, because the Bible says they do. Even though they may deny it, they know in their heart that they do believe it. In other words, there really are no atheists. We tell them that they are suppressing this truth in unrighteousness, just as Scripture says. They may call you names, mock you, and hate you, all because you are telling them the truth. Most importantly, we give them the gospel. We should never think we are better, because God tells us “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11) May the Lord grant the atheists we meet the same grace He has given us.

(Source: There Are No Atheists)

There really are no atheists defense

This is the argument that all true atheists are at heart lying so that they may live in a way that is contrary to God's commands (as seen in particular interpretations of Romans 1:18-25). Critics note that there are atheists who are not lying and are not using their atheism as an escape to sin. Proponents note, however, that they could just as easily still be lying, perhaps not to others anymore but themselves (i.e. loving the wrong woman argument). Some have claimed this argument, however, fails to account for Stephen Maitzen's point on the demographics of theism. If all atheists are liars, why are people in some societies so much more likely to lie than in others? Finally, some have also claimed this argument fails to account for Jason Marsh's point on natural nonbelief in early humans. Since there was quite plausibly such a thing as natural nonbelief in early humans, then it does not make much sense to say that said nonbelief is self-deceptive. That is because natural nonbelief entails nonresistant nonbelief.

(Source: Argument from nonbelief#There_really_are_no_atheists_defense - Wikipedia)

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    Finding anything that 'all Christians' agree upon is going to be tough :) Jan 25 at 13:31
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    @MikeBorden Does it follow, then, that it should be easy to find counterexamples?
    – Mark
    Jan 25 at 13:33
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    It takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe in God.” — Ruth Bell Graham
    – Kris
    Jan 25 at 14:08
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    I used to be an atheist, and I have to warn you that telling an atheist that atheists don't exist has no perusuasive power. It scores debating points in front of a Christian audience,, but does nothing to chage any atheist mind. So what's the point? Jan 25 at 17:01
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    @User14 It's unfortunate that you'd rather just assert that other people believe (or lack belief) based on faith, rather than actually having a conversation with them and listening to the reasons they give for why they believe. And unlike the inverse, atheists say that theists believe based on faith because theist themselves say that they believe based on faith, and theists present this as a virtue (... but then theists also imply that faith is a bad thing when asserting that atheists have more of it).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 26 at 6:45

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Defining God as the creator of absolutely everything (There exists only God and that which God has created) and as completely transcendent over everything that has been created (existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the creation) such that, apart from some self-revelation, the creation cannot know the creator exists ...

  1. If God does not exist - the theist is wrong and the atheist is correct but neither can be sure because non-existence cannot reveal itself.

  2. If God does exist but has not self-revealed - the theist is correct and the atheist is wrong but neither can be sure because no revelation has been given.

  3. If God does exist and has self-revealed - the atheist is wrong but cannot be sure because the needed revelation is available but not incorporated (effectively the same as option 2). The theist, however, may have a logical claim to certainty because revelation is both available and is possibly correctly incorporated.

The theist may be wrong about a great many things regarding the nature of God but, unlike the honest atheist, he may be both correct and certain...he has a logical claim.

By honest atheist I mean, by way of example, Richard Dawkins quote from The God Delusion, "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

As Christians are theists (with the possible exception of Christian Atheism) and are operating under option 3, the atheist is considered as one who has not incorporated the available revelation. Some Christians might claim ignorance, misunderstanding, or the happenstance of nurture as the reason the available revelation is not incorporated.

Other Christians, holding the Bible to be a furtherance of God's self-revelation coupled with a revelation of the nature of man, would say there is no valid excuse because according to Romans, particularly 1:18-25 there is an act of the will involved with not incorporating the available revelation and a commensurate response on God's part:

And, according as they did not approve of having God in knowledge, God gave them up to a disapproved mind - Romans 1:28 YLT

There are multiple Greek words involved in the formation of this thought but the sense is that the assessed preference is to not retain the initial knowledge of God that all start out with". The whole weight of the world, the flesh, and the devil are bent towards fostering this assessed preference and even professing Christians are not immune: It is learned behavior.

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    In talking about 'honest atheists', are you implicitly rejecting the interpretation of Romans 1:18-25 offered by the sources I referenced in the question, according to which all atheists are engaging in some form of self-deception? I'm not really sure if you are answering the title of the question affirmatively or negatively. Could you please be more explicit as to what your answer to the title is?
    – Mark
    Jan 25 at 14:46
  • Hopefully my edit has clarified? Let me know if otherwise, please. Jan 25 at 15:41
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    It's better now (+1), but I edited the question in response to some criticism in the comments.
    – Mark
    Jan 25 at 18:22
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[Do] atheists inherently know that God exists?

They know it and it is inherent in the sense that the knowledge is present in their being, but they do not necessarily choose to recognize or remember it. This is inherent from the fact that all people, as children of God, were born with a Conscience. While the philosophical world debates whether it is possible really to know anything with certainty at all, conscience means we can know things for certain, including notably the existence of God.

Are there theological or philosophical arguments within Christianity that present nuanced readings of Romans chapter 1, challenging the blanket assertion that all atheists, deep down, possess an inherent awareness of God's existence?

Some amount of nuance is temporarily available to assuage significantly the inherent conflict where Christians are seeming to speak a foreign language about God to people who lack proximal awareness of Him, but no authoritative Christian teaching I am aware of contradicts that all people do indeed know that there is a God and will ultimately be held accountable by Him for that knowledge. On the contrary, Scripture is unanimous in declaring that all people know or can recognize there is a God by taking honest account of what they do know, and especially when aided by witnesses of Christ.

We all know, but we also all forgot

In addition to the possibility you outlined in your sources above, saying essentially that

  1. Atheists deny there is a God or say they don't think there is a God because of individual dishonesty,

there is a second possibility:

  1. Atheists may not think they know there is a God because they do not remember Him.

This is likely one reason why all Scripture is insistent not only that avowed atheists and all people repent of dishonesty, but that it is spiritually vital even for believers always to remember God and His Son Jesus Christ.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that we all lived as spirits in the presence of God before our mortal lives began, and that a veil of forgetfulness was placed over our minds as we entered this life, which is a period of testing prior to final judgment. Each of us here in the flesh already passed certain tests while in the presence of God, but our testing would be incomplete if He were always visible, right before our eyes. I hypothesize that the Conscience we each have contains knowledge of pre-earth teachings of Christ we each received as instructions, the mental recollection of which has been withheld as a condition of our test. Regardless of when this knowledge was deposited in the innermost reaches of our souls by the hand and word of Christ, conscience is a gift from God. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refers to conscience as The Light of Christ.

We recognize that remembering God poses an inherent challenge that everyone faces. Although there is even widespread recognition that everyone is born having a conscience, the use of this priceless instrument varies and we find that ignorance and darkness are the default condition of man ever since the Fall.

Due not only to dishonesty but also outright forgetfulness, even though all were born having a conscience which proves the reality of God, we cannot take for granted that everyone even thinks he knows there is a God. It is like having a book but not having read it. But we will all be judged by what is written in the books of Christ as well as what is written in the fleshy tables of our hearts. (Life is an open book test!) For this reason, we are commanded to search diligently in the Light of Christ as well as the Scriptures (again, the fact that we have a conscience, or the Scriptures either, does not imply that we use them properly or at all, no matter what they prove when duly examined. This is the substance of much of the confusion and conflict on this matter.).

Atheism is a sinful condition

The reading of Romans 1 does indeed attest that

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:

The argument that "I believe in molecules to man evolution" or "I believe in the Big Bang" or every such sophistry and theory taken together doesn't cut it, and yet one of the huge lies that is very common today is that these theories somehow dispense with the necessity and reality of God. However, the epistemologically correct case is stated by the prophet Lehi:

And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:13)

Therefore no matter one's opinions about some myth of a big bang or genetic twiddling and primordial soup, the moment one so much as thinks there is no God he commits a grave sin of ingratitude towards God for everything that is only possible through Him, which is everything.

And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:21)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that this life is the time to prepare to meet God, and that procrastination is spiritually deadly. It gives an example of a prominent atheist who was overtly dishonest in claiming there was no God:

And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.

But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses? And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign.

The sign that God gives to Korihor through Alma's prayer is that Korihor is smitten dumb. After this debilitating sign is inflicted on him, Korihor confesses in writing:

I always knew that there was a God.

But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

Korihor is shortly thereafter trampled to death (apparently he may have been cursed with deafness as well as dumbness).

This illustrates a particularly insidious form of insanity that infects pathological liars: He had inculcated the lie that "there is no God" so thoroughly that he actually believed what he always knew was false. We infer that the same thing can happen with all people who insistently profess atheism (or agnosticism, for that matter).

A Case of Remembering

Lamoni, an ancient American king, belonged to a tribe of people whose ancestors had departed from the faith in Christ centuries earlier. Lamoni inherited dark creeds and superstitions, believing all sorts of false things. As king and in typical Medieval fashion, he and his fathers "supposed that whatsoever they did was right". He believed in some paganized version of a "Great Spirit", but that Great Spirit was so far removed from the concerns of his life that this king felt little moral accountability, slaying his servants for having their flocks robbed by bandits. He lived effectively as an atheist; his religion was "out of sight, out of mind".

Suddenly a devout Christian missionary appeared in his life from their sister tribe and astonished Lamoni with his faithfulness and great acts of courage and service to the king. This missionary, Ammon, demonstrated what the other servants clearly identified as Divine power. By the dawning acknowledgement in his own mind that the Great Spirit might actually be real--not just some flimsy tradition used to control the people--Lamoni "began to fear exceedingly, lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants".

This gives us a clear case study of how a person can be deluded by centuries of incorrect tradition, and how the introduction of a servant of Christ exercising Divine power on his behalf can cause the scales of darkness to fall from his eyes, reawakening him to an awareness of conscience, of God, and of eternal judgment. It still took proactive effort, inquiry and correct teaching for Lamoni to understand more thoroughly and appreciate the nature of God in areas where his understanding had been deficient because of such prolonged immersion in darkness and delusion.

And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth. (Alma 18:24-25)

Ammon then connected Lamoni's disused traditional concept of a Great Spirit to rekindle his awareness of the true God, similarly to how Paul did for the Athenians on Mars' Hill.

And king Lamoni said: I believe all these things which thou hast spoken.

By all accounts, Lamoni was a murderer because of the traditions of his fathers, and one of the very most depraved of sinners. Yet he repented of his sins and he and his people became the most righteous people in the land, refusing to murder, and even giving up their own lives for the sake of the word.

All must repent

As outlined earlier, dishonesty and failure to remember God are both sins that separate us from His presence. This is true both of believers and of atheists.

Whether it be lying in the case of Korihor, or amnesia coupled with a dissociative disorder entrenched by his cultural traditions as in the case of Lamoni, God commands all people to repent.

Some even in the church know, but do not realize or "know that they know".

If a person says he does not think he knows there is a God, or does not recollect there being a God, or says as Lamoni that he does not even understand the question, he may be honestly portraying his level of awareness and understanding. As with the Ethiopian eunuch and the Scriptures, there are some testimonies embedded within our Conscience that we may not be able (or perhaps more accurately, likely) to connect to and make clear sense of without some outside assistance from a servant of God to get us unconfused. Since our inherent problem is spiritual amnesia, it will require repeated engagement with experiences that help us to reconnect our former memories. Usually a one-time sprinkling or even drenching with credal catchphrases will be insufficient to bring about this remembrance. The individual needs time for God to work with him and teach him according to his own understanding, and he needs to apply himself to the task of (re)discovery.

This is analogous to what happens when a file is "deleted" from a computer's filesystem:

When you delete a file, your operating system removes the reference to it from the file system table, marking the space where the file was stored as available for reuse. The data remains on your hard drive until it's overwritten by new data. This means that someone with access to your device could potentially recover deleted data using data recovery software. Source: What happens to your data after you delete it?

Forgetfulness is not erasure. It is unlinking. We all have memories of the teachings of Christ embedded in our conscience and in our very being. No one can falsify that they are there, but anyone who is sincere and repentant can verify that they are there by allowing God's data recovery specialists help us through the process of rediscovery and recovery. If we try to delete our awareness of God because of the temptations of Satan, we are duped because we can never permanently get rid of the evidence. The scan of our souls in final judgment with Christ will reveal what we always knew. If we are like Korihor and have deleted the file and even attempted to shred our own awareness by forcibly changing our beliefs, God always keeps more than sufficient backups. If we have lost our references to it, we are in trouble and need help finding it again before it is too late, because what is in there is on the test! (There are also plenty of files visible in a modern filesystem that no one has bothered to notice are there or learn how to use).

All will be judged by their testimony of God

In summary, a man is not damned for eternity because he at some point in his life did not believe there was a God--but if he rejects the testimony of God's servants, choosing forever to remain ungrateful and unaware, he has wasted the days of his probation cannot be saved.

If a person says he knows there is no God, then it is certain that he is a liar. If a person says he does not think he knows but is open to learning, that is the department of missionary work to inform him and help him link back to what he knows and connect the dots.

As Korihor's example shows, if a person chooses to double down on and reinforce ignorance, he may end up sincerely believing contrary to his own knowledge, professing that what is good is bad, bad is good, right is wrong and so on. This is a devastating condition, an unquenchable lake of fire and brimstone so to speak within one's own soul.

On the other hand, a person (atheist or not) may lack adequate remembrance of God and choose to repent when servants of God come with the witnesses of Him, jogging the individual's recollection and connection to Conscience.

The many witnesses that have gone forth into the world in addition to our own conscience and the Holy Ghost will ultimately leave everyone without excuse as Paul says.

It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance -Joseph Smith

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)


(If an angel appears to you saying there is no God, you might want to ask, "Then who are you?". Apparently Korihor wanted the out, and admitted that he preached atheism because it was pleasing to the carnal mind.)

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I think breaking up the Bible into chapter and verse was a terrible idea. If there weren't these artificial breaks added after the fact, more people would probably read through to the next page and learn that 1:18-25 can't possibly mean that all gentiles always suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because:

(New Revised Standard Version)

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Nor can it possibly mean that suppressing the truth in unrighteousness is a characteristic of gentiles specifically, because:

all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.’

The whole point of this letter is soon revealed. It is to remind the Roman Christians, Jew and Gentile alike that:

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

If you summarize this you get a message that should sound awfully familiar.

Humanity is sinful. Sin is the fault of the sinner. God has given each person enough grace to know the moral law, even if the sinner's culture didn't have a written copy of the moral law. No-one is righteous on his or her own merits. Justification (that is: being made righteous) is available, through faith, because of the redemption that is in Jesus.

The "alternative interpretation" of Romans 1-3 isn't "within" Christianity. It is Christianity.

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    I agree with the importance of reading through chapter breaks and headings but what is being suppressed in chapter 1 is retention of the knowledge of God and this by humanity in general, not just gentiles. +1 Jan 29 at 12:49
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Yes, there are. One rests on the Greek grammar involved; I give the entire verse 18 for convenience:

Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ Θεοῦ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων

The ESV translates this as:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

I've put the important phrase in bold in both Greek and English. That phrase is more literally rendered as:

Those the truth in unrighteousness suppressing.

"Those" at the beginning of the phrase is a definite article in Greek and it goes with "suppressing" at the end. If the rest of the phrase was left out, it would say "The suppressing ones". That leads to the question, "suppressing what?" and the answer is "the truth", and so we get "the truth-suppressing ones". "In unrighteousness" expands on this by indicating how they do this suppressing.

The important part is that this phrase can be taken not as an identity with the previous part of the verse so that the people in the two parts are the same, but rather as a specification that is a subset of the foregoing -- in other words, "the truth-suppressing ones" can be read as a subset of the "men" in the first portion. This would mean that what Paul goes on to say isn't about all men who are ungodly and unrighteous but is about a particular portion of those, namely those who are truth-suppressing.

Thus the passage wouldn't be talking about all atheists (or pagans, or anyone else) but about the portion who have known the truth but suppressed it. This is supported by verse 21, where Paul indicates he's talking about people who "knew God" but who suppressed that knowledge, not for others but in their own minds, pushing the knowledge down where they don't have to acknowledge it.

And that makes sense of the following results that Paul gives: "they became futile in their thinking", which is a natural result of ignoring any piece of truth; "their foolish hearts were darkened", which is the result of futile thinking. He summarizes this by saying, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools".

So any given atheist may or may not be part of the group Paul expounds in here. Paul does not say that seeing the power and excellence of nature is sufficient to demonstrate that God is, he only says that these show His attributes. Thus some will see those attributes and conclude there must be a Creator-Designer behind it all, while others will see them and not reach that conclusion.

I witnessed this in my university days among a group of students who had been atheist or agnostic but who due to their studies of physics or evolution or other science concluded there must be a Designer. When other students who were still atheists or agnostics stopped by one of our ad hoc discussion sessions some would often listen to the reasons that had convinced the first group that there must be a Designer, and it was not uncommon to hear the response, "I just don't see it" -- they were in the number who see the attributes but fail to recognize the One whose attributes they were seeing. There were also some who we thought of as "angry atheists", students who plainly didn't want to believe in God due to some tragedy in their lives -- students who had believed, or were at least raised as Christians, but who rejected what they knew. These were the true opposites of those in this informal 'intelligent design' group: they saw the same attributes in nature, they had recognized those attributes as being those of God, yet they had rejected that connection because they had rejected God.

Thus when encountering atheists we who are Christians should show grace by giving them the benefit of the doubt: if they say they "just don't see it", i.e. they fail to recognize the One Who is behind the attributes, assume they are being honest and accept that as true. Those who fall into the "truth-suppressing" category generally will show it by being what we called "angry atheists".

But don't call them on that! It is pointless to tell them what Paul wrote about them because they are still truth-suppressing; they will push down any mention of God into the same dark place in their minds where they've pushed all other mention of God. What Paul write isn't for them, it's for believers, in this case specifically so we can recognize the pain that led them to suppress the truth, so that we can watch for it, so that we can pray that the Holy Spirit will provide insight and maybe, just maybe, He will anoint you as the one to hear their story, to provide support and compassion, and tug them just a bit farther back to the path they never should have left.

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