Self-confessed atheists are likely to be infuriated by the suggestion that there is really no such thing as atheism. But the idea that everyone, at heart, believes in God is a soundly biblical one.
To be sure, we should offer unbelievers sound reasons for the existence of God. But we should resist the idea that their professed unbelief is as deep-seated as they might have us suppose.
As has often been pointed out, the Bible never tries the prove the existence of God. Rather, it everywhere assumes that he exists. So, when Paul addresses the philosophers of Athens he takes it for granted that they believe in God. Building on this assumption, Paul proclaims creation, human equality, judgment, and the resurrection of Christ. And in Rom 1:18-32 Paul asserts that God has revealed himself to everyone. We are surrounded by revelation since the created world discloses the Creator. As Psalms 19 had put it centuries earlier, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ And we moderns, with our microscopes and telescopes, have even more reason than Paul and the Psalmist to wonder at God’s creation.
But God reveals himself not only in our static environment, but in the movements of history. We look back at the Exodus, or observe more broadly God’s wonderful providence, and see that God has not left himself without witness, Acts 14:17; Mt 5:44ff. And Rom 1:18-32 declares that even a degenerate civilisation such as the Roman empire evidenced God’s judicial alertness. In fact, according to this passage, God’s self-revelation is remarkably full: his eternity, power, wrath, judgment and godhead are all revealed. And according to Acts 14:17 and Mt 5:45ff providence witnesses to God’s love and goodness, extending even towards his enemies. Psa 104:24 and Prov 3:19 remind us of the revelation of God’s wisdom.
So humankind has not been given a vague hint of some kind of deity. We have, in fact, been granted a well-rounded impression of God. The telling phrase ‘what may be known’ of God in Rom 1 does indeed indicate that some aspects of the knowledge of God have been withheld. This is in accord with Deut 29:29, which distinguishes between the ‘hidden things’ and ‘the things revealed’. When Paul refers to the ‘godhead’ of God he is probably referring to his holiness, his otherness, his godness. This properly registers in our hearts as awe, or even dread.
It might be countered that Scripture represents human beings as spiritually blind. But at this level humankind is not blind at all. The invisible perfections of God are seen and understood, Rom 1:20. We are so constituted that we cannot but infer from from our environment the eternal power and godness of God. This is not to say that we make proper use of this knowledge. On the contrary, unregenerate man holds the truth in unrighteousness. Indeed, we might assume from human secularism and idolatry that our race knows very little of the truth of God. But this is because ‘they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God’, Rom 1:28. And so we constantly fall down before created things and worship them rather than the Creator. Thus is the truth suppressed.
God’s revelation, then, is not deficient. We are not ignorant. We deliberately keep a lid on the truth that has been clearly revealed to us.
There is, then, no such such thing as an atheist. As Calvin says, ‘god has endued all men with some sense of his godhead.’ Even when men sink to the depths of depravity, they still retain a sense of divine judgment, Rom 1:32.
So we cannot accept people’s claim that they are atheists or agnostics. We must assume what the Bible teaches, that God has planted an awareness of himself in every human soul. Furthermore, we can assume that concepts such as God, eternity, holiness, sin and judgment have some meaning for all people. To base our evangelism on philosophical ‘proofs’ of God’s existence is to deny this and to walk into a maze. And finally, Christian witness can and must start from the assumption that a ‘seed of religion’ exists in every human heart. Paul did not try to make the Athenians religious – they were already that. He pointed them from the god they did not know to the God whom they could know and serve. All have a sense of the holy. All have a sense of dependence. All have God’s law within their hearts. All know that they are answerable to God. Our task is to build on the foundation that already exists in each human heart.
Based on Macleod, Behold your God (Christian Focus Publications), 22-27.