The agnostic not only refuses to acknowledge that there is a God, but in effect blames God for His failure to do so, saying by inference that God has not made Himself manifest, and by so doing, He's adding insult to injury. One of the most common excuses that I've heard from people after I've explained the Gospel is they say when they die, they'll claim ignorance. If only you had revealed yourself to me, God, I would have followed you. Growing up outside of the church, I had even said that myself.
Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind. But God has revealed Himself, as we learned yesterday, and ignorance or claiming to be an agnostic is not an excuse. So to help you with your conversations with unbelieving neighbors or even family, over three days you're hearing R.C. Sproul teach on the psychology of atheism, and he's paying particular attention to the Apostle Paul's words in Romans 1. So how do you respond to someone who says that they have no knowledge of God's existence?
Here's Dr. Sproul. We continue now with our study of the psychology of atheism. In our last session, we turned our attention to Paul's letter to the Romans, to the first chapter, in which the Apostle sets forth a somewhat astonishing assertion by which he maintains that there is a kind of psychology of atheism.
We have been looking all along at the charges made by atheistic philosophers that Christianity, as well as other religions, get their impetus originally out of some psychological need to avoid the fearful things of nature, out of wish projection, or for a bromide of some sort. And what we're looking at now is the counter response of the New Testament to this. And in the first chapter of Romans, as we've seen, Paul declares that God has manifested Himself clearly through the created order in such a way that all people know of His existence. And this general revelation of which the Apostle speaks in Romans 1 leaves everyone without excuse. Now, as our time ran out the last time we were talking about this point, that according to the Apostle, no one has an excuse for refusing to honor God as God or expressing their gratitude to God for the manifold blessings they've received from His hand.
Now, Paul does not specify a particular excuse that he has in mind, but I think it's simple to draw the implication from this text what excuse he is referring to. The excuse that most people make in refusing to acknowledge God is the excuse of ignorance. We know, for example, that there is a distinction within the category of atheism between atheism and agnosticism.
Now, frequently in our normal discussions, we have a tendency to think of three distinct groups. There are those who are theists, and a theist is one who affirms the existence of God or many gods and some kind of God. Then there is the a-theist, one who is not a theist. And then we tend to think of a third category called agnosticism. But strictly speaking, agnosticism is a subspecies of atheism because the agnostic will not make a positive affirmation of the existence of God.
He suspends judgment. He's less militant. The atheist will generally avow clearly that there is no God, while the agnostic says, I don't know. The term agnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which is the word for knowledge, with the preface a, which negates it. So to say that one is agnostic is to say they are without knowledge.
You might say in passing that the Latin equivalent to that term is the term ignoramus, but that's another story. But the idea is the agnostic is saying, I don't know whether there is a God or not. And the reason that is generally given is that there is not sufficient data or evidence available to make a responsible judgment or to come to a decisive conclusion about the question of the existence of God.
Namely, there's just simply not enough knowledge available to reach that conclusion. Now, as I said, agnosticism tends to be a kind of hedging of one's bets where you stand between the two extremes of theism and atheism. But what frightens me in the reading of Romans 1 is that I'm afraid that the person who takes the agnostic position may be in deeper trouble before the tribunal of God than the person who just simply declares that he or she is an atheist for this reason, that the agnostic not only refuses to acknowledge that there is a God, but in effect blames God for His failure to do so, saying by inference that God has not made Himself manifest.
And by so doing, He's adding insult to injury. That is, if what the Apostle Paul is saying here in Romans is indeed true. If it's true that God clearly manifests Himself to every human being to such a degree that every person knows that God exists, then to say that you don't know that He exists is to refuse to acknowledge God as God and then again to blame the Creator for that refusal. In any case, what Paul is saying is there is no excuse by which a person can absolve themselves from the guilt of suppressing this knowledge of God that is made manifest. Paul continues his treatment of this in Romans 1 by saying, because, verse 21, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Then, professing to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. The first thing again we see in verse 21 is that there's a participle form of the verb used here, which is translated, although they knew God.
What the participle declares is that there is a clear knowledge of God in the mind of every human being. Now, at this point a question might arise, because in 1 Corinthians the apostle says that men do not know God. Now, here in Romans 1 he says they do know God. Now is the apostle guilty of contradicting himself between his writings to the Romans and his writing to the Corinthian congregation?
I don't think so. I think that it's clear what the apostle is getting at here in using the verb to know in the Greek language. We know that the verb to know in Greek is capable of having more than one nuance. For example, in the Bible it's frequently said that so and so knew his wife and she conceived. Adam knew Eve and she conceived. Abraham knew his wife and she conceived.
Now, this does not mean that the two simply were introduced to one another on the street and had a cognitive awareness of the other person's presence, and by virtue of that intellectual awareness the woman became pregnant. Obviously, here the verb to know is a euphemism of sorts found in the biblical text to describe a knowledge of profound intimacy. Now, at the same time the verb to know is used in Greek to refer to that which is an object of intellectual awareness, what we would call simple cognition or cognitive awareness. Now, when Paul is talking about the knowledge that everyone has of God, he is talking about the cognitive awareness, that this is a matter of objective awareness in our minds that there is a God, and that the content of that knowledge includes an awareness of His eternal power and deity. But what we do not have by nature in our fallen state is a saving knowledge of God, the knowledge that comes from a filial relationship, a deep personal intimate relationship that comes only after we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. And so Paul makes that distinction, and we need to keep that distinction in front of us as we discuss this. But again, the reason for the failure to have any excuse is that it's not simply that God makes knowledge of Himself available for those who see it if they want to, but that that knowledge actually gets through, and that men, in fact, know God, and it's while they know God that they refuse to honor Him as God or to be grateful, which is what it is that provokes the wrath of God.
Now, in this process, the result is, in the second part of verse 21, they became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. We began this study by asking the question, why is it that otherwise highly educated and brilliant people come to different conclusions about the existence of God? We've looked in the past history, and we've seen some philosophical geniuses, men of prodigious learning, who deny the existence of God, and yet on the other side, men of equally prodigious intellect, such as Augustine and Aquinas and Descartes, who affirm the existence of God. And so, we can't determine the question of the existence of God simply by taking a studio poll of highly credentialed thinkers or academicians. But we asked the question, why do brilliant people disagree?
And we looked at some of the reasons for that. Now, suppose a person knows very early in their thinking that God exists and then applies their subjective rejection of that awareness and deny what they know to be true. That is, again, the moral problem that we have as creatures is not that we fail to know that God exists, but rather that we refuse to acknowledge what we know to be true.
That is fundamentally dishonest, to refuse to acknowledge what you know to be true. But let's suppose that early on in our thinking, we gain an awareness of God. We know that God exists, but we suppress or repress that knowledge and refuse to acknowledge it and then apply all of our learning and all of the intellectual powers at our disposal to construct a philosophical system. The more brilliant we are, the more logically consistent we are, the further away from God our thinking will take us. That is, if we begin with a premise that is false and develop and construct a whole system of thought from that faulty premise, as I say, the more brilliant and more consistent we are, the further away from the truth we will get. That's why He says they become futile in their thinking. And I like the choice of words that the Apostle makes here because the further away one gets from theism, the more one moves in the direction of nihilism, as Nietzsche reached, where he said in the final analysis, there is no meaning, there is no truth, it is all das nichte, the nothingness of nihilism.
And nihilism is that philosophy that says there is no meaning to human existence, to human existence, and that is the nadir of futility, to come to the conclusion that all that we do and all that we are is futile. So, he says here, the Apostle does, that once we move in that direction, our thinking becomes futile and our foolish minds are darkened. He uses two words to describe our condition there. First of all, he uses the word foolish. And we don't want to gloss over this too quickly because the Apostle is not saying that people who deny the existence of God or who repress the knowledge of God are stupid.
That's not what he's saying. He's not challenging the credentials of their learning or the acuteness of their intellects. What he is charging them with is not stupidity, but foolishness. Now, again, in our common, ordinary speech, we will often use these terms, stupid and foolish, interchangeably as if they were synonyms.
But in the biblical categories, they are anything but synonyms. And this is the point we miss, that to be called foolish or to be called a fool, biblically, is not a judgment about our intellectual capabilities. It's a moral judgment because wisdom in biblical categories is a virtue and foolishness is a sin. God's judgment is poured out against foolishness. And His blessing is promised to those who embrace the wisdom that begins, according to the Scriptures, with the fear or reverence for God. Since the fear of the Lord, according to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, since the fear of the Lord, according to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, is the beginning of wisdom, conversely, a lack of reverence, a lack of awe, a refusal to submit in adoration to the majesty of God is the beginning of foolishness.
So, the Scriptures will say, the fool says in his heart, there is no God. Do you remember Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount when He warned people about slandering others? And one of the things that He cautioned us about was saying about another person, thou fool.
Well, Jesus doesn't preclude that absolutely. He Himself uses the term when He tells the story of the rich fool who had great barns filled with materials, and He said to Himself, I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns. And He paid close attention to the progress of His business, but utterly neglected the state of His soul. And what was the judgment of God upon Him? God says to him, thou fool, this night thy soul is required of thee. And so, I hope you will see and catch the flavor here, again, that what the apostle is doing is making a moral and ethical judgment upon those whose thinking leads to futility and foolishness and darkness.
Now, again, what happens here? Well, to speak about this in psychological categories, we have to look at how the apostle describes this. They profess to be wise while they become fools, and they change the glory of the incorruptible God into the glory of corruptible creatures. And then, if you look later on in the text, verse 24, Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness and the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.
Here, the word that Paul uses is a form of the verb, metalloso, which is translated to exchange. Now, recall that at the beginning of our study of Romans 1, we saw that the general universal response of the human race to the manifest self-disclosure of God is to repress it, to suppress it, to push it down, to stifle it, to hinder it, to incarcerate it, to bury it as deeply as we possibly can in the hidden portions of our mind. But the point we have to understand that knowledge that is suppressed is not destroyed. Knowledge that is buried has a way of working itself back up to the surface. And how that happens is what the Apostle describes here, and we will explore in greater detail in our next session. That is, we will seek to answer the question, what happens to that knowledge once received by divine revelation? What happens to our awareness of God after, in our foolishness and in our darkness, we seek to bury it? Let me give a word today for those of you who call yourselves agnostic or who have friends or relatives who define themselves as agnostic. I'm sure that when you hear somebody say that that is dishonest, that has got to rile you up a little bit and irritate you, no end.
Please hear what I'm saying. I'm laying before you a charge that I didn't invent. This is a charge that comes to you from the New Testament, from the Apostle Paul. Now, you may give no credence to the thinking of this ancient Greek man, but certainly you're aware that there's probably, apart from Jesus of Nazareth, no human being who's had a greater influence on the thinking of the Western world than this man. You owe it to yourself to take him seriously. And even if you reject what he says, at least take the trouble to reflect upon what he says before you reject it out of hand, because he's giving this as a sober, serious word of caution. Because if God has manifested Himself plainly and clearly to you, and you have not been honest with that revelation, then you are facing the most serious of all possible problems.
That was R.C. Sproul from his series, The Psychology of Atheism. And I don't want you to miss the very helpful example Dr. Sproul set at the close of today's message, to remind those you're speaking with that these are not your claims.
This is the claim of the Apostle Paul, of the Bible, and that they would do well to investigate it and to not take offense at you personally. This is the Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind as we consider the thinking of atheism and ask the question, if there's a God, why are there atheists? That's actually the title of a book that R.C.
Sproul wrote, and it's a wonderful companion to this series. You can request that book, If There's a God, Why Are There Atheists? with your donation of any amount at renewingyourmind.org. And when you do, not only will we send you the book, we'll also give you streaming access to the complete 15-part series, The Psychology of Atheism.
Donate today at renewingyourmind.org, because this offer ends tomorrow. Knowing how to respond to questions about the Christian faith is important if we're to be always ready to give a defense for the hope that's within us. And sometimes those questions come from other believers or questions that you think of as you're studying the Bible. So I'd like to recommend another podcast that I host titled Ask Ligonier. Every week a guest teacher answers a biblical or theological question, and you can browse hundreds of answers at ask.ligonier.org or by searching for Ask Ligonier wherever you listen to podcasts.
And if you have a question that you'd like me to ask a future guest, call and leave a voice message at 800-607-9386 or email an audio recording from your smartphone to askligoniervmatligonier.org. We really do hope that this additional weekly resource helps you know what you believe and why you believe it. We've heard this week that unbelievers suppress the truth. So what do they do with this truth that they suppress? The Apostle Paul says they exchange it for a lie. That's what R.C. Sproul will consider tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
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