This is a guest post by Arnaldo Santos. Note, Greek text in original quotes has been transliterated into English.
It has become fashionable in certain evangelical circles to use Paul’s letter to the Romans to support the assertion that every single human being on earth (including atheists) knows God exists.
Even though some scholars argue that Romans 1:18-2:29 may entirely be a non-Pauline interpolation meant to address specific local issues by local overseers (thereby making it irrelevant), I’ll assume it is not. Therefore, in this essay I’ll examine Paul’s epistle to determine whether that evangelical interpretation is plausible or not. Here is a summary of the essay: (1) a discussion of whether Paul means knowledge is attained through observation and reasoning or is innate; (2) the target of Paul’s argument in these verses; (3) which divine attribute can be discovered; (4) Paul’s view on the powerlessness of pagan deities and idols; (5) explaining or accurately interpreting Paul’s statement; (6) whether people know God or not.
Paul’s Statements on the Knowledge of God
Let us take a look at the relevant verses (i.e., Romans 1:18-23, 25, 28):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, 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 people are without excuse. 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. …[T]hey became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. … They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator… [J]ust as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind…
Observation and Reasoning or Innate Knowledge?
When Paul says God’s “invisible attributes” can be seen, is he referring to some sort of mystical innate knowledge of the divine or simple observation and reasoning? According to Dr. John DePoe, in the book Without Excuse, it is almost undoubtedly the latter:
As for the passage from Romans, take note of its wording that the knowledge of God is gained from perceptual knowledge of the world (not some innate knowledge). The relevant passage tells us that the knowledge of God is “clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). In the Greek, the verbs commonly translated “having been clearly perceived” are more literally rendered, “[nooumena] being understood [kathoratai] are perceived.” The first verb [nooumena] refers to a purely intellectual activity and the second verb [kathoratai] refers to physical sight. The implication is that Paul is describing the inferential reasoning from experience. See F. F. Bruce, 1985; p.80.
However, people influenced by this idea of innate knowledge argue that when Paul says the truth “is plain to them”, it actually means “in them”, which might suggest it is not an inference, but rather pure innate recognition. In response to this, Leon Morris wrote the following in his book The Epistle to the Romans:
There is a slight problem with the first to them, for the Greek might well be understood as “in them” or “among them”. “In them” would signify that the revelation takes place basically in people’s minds. It is God who brings conviction, not some objective feature of the created universe. But we must bear in mind that Paul uses the preposition “in” very frequently (988 times; this is more than a third of the New Testament total of 2,713). He seems to use it almost from habit, and we cannot always insist on a precise meaning. Since the grammarians usually regard it here as equivalent to the dative case, we should accept to them as the meaning.
Similarly, Richard Longenecker observes in his book The Epistle to the Romans:
The preposition en with the dative plural personal pronoun autois in the first sentence of the verse could be translated “in them”… But Paul, together with many other NT writers, uses en in a great variety of ways — even, at times, to signify the indirect object of a sentence’s verb and so to identify the recipient of a stated action. Likewise, the LXX frequently uses en in this functional and directional manner, as in Hab 2:1 (“I will keep watch to see what he will say to me”) and Zech 1:9 (“The angel who talked with me said to me”). Thus here with the autois (“to them”) in the second sentence of this verse, which functions as a simple dative of indirect object, the phrase en autois in the verse’s first sentence probably should be understood as only a variant construction of the same point: that God has made the basic matters of what may be known about him evident to all people.
Therefore, the observation/inference interpretation of this passage is to be strongly preferred over the idea of innate knowledge.
There is a caveat, however. Paul’s statement is often used to support academic philosophical arguments for the existence of God, e.g., St. Aquinas’s Five Ways, Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument or even St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument. But it is clear that Paul isn’t referring only to intellectuals here. He is talking generally. As Thomas Schreiner notes in his book Romans, it is “critical” to “understand that Paul does not refer to a long process of reasoning by which people come to a knowledge” of God’s attributes. Rather, what God allowed to be known about Him in nature is available to all individuals, “not simply for those who possess unusually logical minds.”
The Target of Paul’s Argument
Paul asserts that people “suppress” their knowledge of God’s invisible attributes in their “godlessness.” Could Paul be referring to atheists here? It is highly unlikely that Paul was thinking of atheistic folks since atheism was not at all common at that time, as theologian Randal Rauser observed:
Let’s start by returning to the question of cultural context. Given that the concept of atheism as we understand it was not a live option in the first century it is most doubtful that Paul was thinking of atheists when he wrote derisively of godless and wicked people. Instead, it would appear much more likely that his immediate target in this passage is the pagan Gentile who ignores or suppresses their natural knowledge of God’s nature in favor of idols and pagan religious practices, a target that would comport well with the usage of atheos in Ephesians 2:12. (Rauser, 2015)
Notice that Paul says they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” and “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”
He is referring here to the pagan idols and deities, as Marvin Vincent pointed out in his book Studies in the New Testament:
Deities of human form prevailed in Greece; those of the bestial form in Egypt; and both methods of worship were practiced in Rome. See on Acts 7:41. Serpent-worship was common in Chaldaea, and also in Egypt. The asp was sacred throughout the latter country. The worship of Isis was domesticated at Rome, and Juvenal relates how the priests of Isis contrived that the silver images of serpents kept in her temple should move their heads to a suppliant (“Satire” vi., 537).
Similarly, Scott Hahn observes in Romans:
Idolatry in the abstract means elevating the creature to the place of the creator… [T]he glory of the immortal God is traded away and exchanged for lifeless images, which peoples in the biblical world shaped into a menagerie of mortal man and birds and four-legged animals and snakes. Paul appears to have in mind Greeks and Romans, who represented their deities in human form, as well as Egyptians, who also gave their gods and goddesses animal forms.
Sometimes people confusingly reply that Paul was also referring to Jews in Romans 1:18-32; not only to Gentiles. But that’s a misunderstanding. Paul first deals with Gentiles, and only later discusses the Jews. As Frank Matera pointed out in Romans: Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament:
Paul’s description of the human predicament consists of four movements: the failure of Gentiles to acknowledge God (1:18–32), God’s impartial judgment of Gentiles and Jews (2:1–16), Jewish failure to observe the law (2:17–29), and the enslavement of Gentiles and Jews to the power of sin (3:1–20).
[T]he rhetorical goal of Paul’s argument is served best if 1:18–32 has the Gentile world in view. Paul’s purpose in part one (1:18–3:20) is to demonstrate that Jews as well as Gentiles are in need of God’s saving grace. Therefore, he begins with a traditional description of Gentile sinfulness with which a Jewish audience would agree: the Gentile world is filled with idolatry and sexual immorality (1:18–32). Having found common ground with those who might otherwise criticize his gospel as pandering to Gentiles, Paul takes up another Jewish theme that his audience would approve: God will judge everyone on the basis of deeds (2:1–16).
Which Invisible Attribute is Evident in Nature?
In this translation it says “eternal power” and “divine nature”, but that’s arguably inaccurate as it separates the two as if only power is eternal. A more accurate translation would imply both (power and divinity) are eternal. As Robert Jewett pointed out in his book Romans Commentary-Hermeneia (pp. 155-156):
When a single article is followed by two or more nouns connected by “and,” this “produces the effect of a single notion.” In this case dunamis (“power”) and theoteis (“deity”) are linked with kai (“and”), producing the odd expression “God-power.” This unique formulation combines the crucial terms “God” and “power” from the thesis statement in v. 16 with the classical Greek concept of aionios (“eternity”).
In addition to that, some propose that Paul’s entire sentence is expressing a single notion. From this perspective, it is not saying eternal power and divinity, but rather eternal divine power. For example, one proponent of this idea wrote:
The word theoteis [divinity] is used only once (in Rom 1:20) throughout the NT. [T]he English “divine nature” more than a translation is a metaphysical interpretation. Only with a Thomistic approach can one believe that we can move from Creation to the “divine nature” of the Creator. We [i.e., people in general] can, at best, say that what we can perceive in Creation as theoteis [divinity] is God’s power, so I propose this equivalence: theoteis [divinity] (Rom 1:20) = theia [divine] dunamis [power] (as in 2 Pet 1:3 – NOT theia [divine] phusis [nature] – 2 Pet 1:4). [Therefore], dunamis [power] kai [and] theoteis [divinity] at Rom 1:20 is a hendiadys for theia dunamis [divine power]. [This] is philologically sound.
What characterizes God’s power is its immensity and greatness (Psalm 147:4-5, Jeremiah 32:17). Therefore, it is plausible that by divine, in this context, Paul is referring to the great/immense aspect of God’s power. Some contemporary authors even use these terms interchangeably. For example, one writes: “For a succinct summary of the conceptual problems involved in defining divine power (i.e., omnipotence), consult Gijsbert van den Brink.” Another wrote: “[Jesus] displayed this divine power over both the animate and inanimate physical creation. … His omnipotence was further displayed by His healing all who were brought to Him with divers sicknesses, and when He raised dead ones back to life.” As an analogy, if I say “divine knowledge,” people will immediately understand I’m referring to omniscience.
God’s Power and the Powerlessness of Pagan Deities
It is interesting that Paul chose to talk about God’s power, for power was also brought up when he criticized pagan deities. In another context, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote:
Paul tried to convince the pagans that [their] idols… had got no power. He insisted that his God, the God of Israel, was alive and powerful. (Ehrman, 2022)
For example, Paul exhorts the Galatians not to be taken in by the pagan deities who are “weak and beggarly”:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature (physis) are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! (Galatians 4:8–10)
Paul’s words suggest that there is a qualitative difference between God the Creator and everything else (both material and spiritual). This is a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible’s rejection of idolatry: Israel must not fall into the idolatrous religion of Canaan. However, the pantheon of Canaanite deities and the religious practices of the surrounding cultures permeated the life of Israel, no matter how much the biblical writers denounced it.
God’s power and the weakness of pagan deities are also affirmed in Psalm 96:5:
For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the Lord made the heavens.
This suggests that pagan deities are powerless and weak, while the creator of the heavens powerful.
Interpreting Paul’s Statement
We already know that (1) at least one of God’s invisible attributes can be logically inferred from observations of nature, (2) that the attribute in question is His eternal divine power, (3) that Paul was thinking of pagans when he wrote this, and (4) finally that he thinks God is powerful while the pagan deities are weak. With all this clarification in place, we can now attempt to reconstruct Paul’s argument.
In Paul’s time, the overwhelming majority of individuals took the existence of some sort of deity for granted, i.e., it was axiomatic. But it is clear that the attributes of these deities (viz., their powerlessness) are incompatible with what we observe in nature, namely, the fact that it is enormous. Surely an unimaginable amount of power was needed to bring this immense universe into existence. But there is one who is powerful enough and thus could be responsible for this, that is, God. Therefore, the Gentile knew that pagan deities were false — the reason is that they cannot be the source of nature. Given that the existence of some sort of deity was axiomatic to them, but they knew pagan deities were false, that logically entails they recognized the real God, i.e., Paul’s deity. Let me make the reasoning even clearer:
- Some deity exists (this is the axiom of the pagan Gentile).
- Pagan deities are false (their attributes conflict with our knowledge derived from observations of nature).
- The only feasible deity is God (for only God is sufficiently powerful to account for nature).
- Ergo, God exists.
- Pagans knew this.
- Therefore, pagans recognized that God exists.
F. Bruce writes in his book Romans: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries:
Have been clearly perceived (nooumena kathoratai), where the former verb refers strictly to the intelligence and the latter to physical sight. ‘Both the verbs… describe how, on contemplating God’s works, man can grasp enough of His nature to prevent him from the error of identifying any of the created things with the Creator, enabling him to keep his conception of the Deity free from idolatry.’
In the book Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Cornelius Stam writes:
When one contemplates [God’s power], any idolatry must be considered a hideous insult, a vile indignity. It is not strange, then, that Paul said to the philosophers at Mars’ Hill: “Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29).
Following the same line of reasoning, Charles Talbert explains in the book Romans Smyth Helwys Bible Commentary:
[This] is found in still other circles of ancient Judaism. … [H]uman reason is used to dispense with the plausibility of idols. … In Testament of Job [1:9-10] Job reasons that idols cannot be the creator of the heavens and the earth. … In Apocalypse of Abraham 1–7 Abraham reasons that idols are not God for fire and water are greater. But beyond fire and water there is One.
With regards to the word “eternal” (or everlasting), Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible observes:
Equally clear is the proof that this power must have been eternal. If it had not always existed, it could in no way have been produced.
Knowledge Was Not Retained
Now, does that mean every pagan Gentile knows that God exists? Paul seems to suggest that this is not the case. Let us read again verses 23, 25 and 28:
….they knew God… [but] their foolish hearts were darkened. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie… they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God…
This suggests they do not know anymore that God exists. At some point they knew it, but they later chose to exchange this truth for a lie (“by ‘a lie’ is meant here ‘false gods,’ who are the supreme embodiment of falsehood”, Ellicott, 1905) and did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. In other words, the direct result of this continual suppression is the darkening of their hearts and that implies the knowledge wasn’t retained in their consciousness. As Charles Hodge observed in his book Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans:
And their foolish hearts were darkened [passive voice: received darkness, Yandian]; they lost the light of divine knowledge; asunetos, destitute of auneois understanding, insight into the nature of divine things. The word kardia, heart stands for the whole soul. Hence men are said to understand with the heart, Matthew 13:15; to believe with the heart, Romans 10:10; the heart is said to be enlightened with knowledge 2 Corinthians 4:6; and the eyes of the heart are said to be opened, Ephesians 1:8.
It is plausible that Paul’s epistle does not support the idea that everybody knows God exists. Rather, it supports the weaker claim that people who take for granted that some sort of deity exists must have known at some point that their gods were false (and therefore that Paul’s God is true) and, more importantly, that the knowledge in question was not retained due to continual suppression and darkening of the heart.