Suppression: Like Holding a Beach Ball Under Water

Beach_BallRomans 1:18 contains the key to understanding how unbelievers know God, and yet so many deny that He exists. Paul says that they “suppress” the truth unrighteously. That is, they actively resist in a dishonest fashion the knowledge of God of which they are quite aware. The word suppress means to push down or hold back that which is trying to rise to the surface.

Think about the fun that a beach ball can bring. This large, light, inflatable ball can be batted around, used as a kickball, or launched into the wind to see how far it will go. One think that you cannot do with a beach ball, however, is to play with it under water. The buoyancy of a beach ball means that while you can, with great effort, momentarily hold it under water, it will quickly rise to the surface.

In the same way, unbelievers daily push down on the knowledge of God that rises in them through both the implanted knowledge of God and the testimony of the created order that they see and experience every day. This knowledge of God is inescapable, as is the guilt for sin. The only way a person can live with such an in-your-face awareness and not be overwhelmed with God’s presence is to resist this knowledge.

Suppression happens in a thousand ways. Some people suppress the truth by turning to other religions and redirecting the worship that is due to God alone to other deities. This is one of the explanations for why there are so many religions in the world. Every one of them is an attempt to worship something other than the one true God so that the individual does not have to confess his guilt and accept God’s terms for salvation. The truth of this is confirmed in the common attempts by all religions to practice a way for the adherents to offer a sacrifice to atone for their sins. By redirecting their worship to other religions, unbelievers mute the voice of God in their hearts and satisfy themselves that they are fine the way they are.

Another way of suppressing the knowledge of God is through filling their lives with distractions. Some people get busy with their job, their hobbies, their possessions, and a thousand other time-consuming activities so they won’t have time to think about their souls and eternal destiny. By flooding their schedules with constant busyness, they never have to face up to the darkness within that haunts them.

A third way that people suppress the truth is by drugging themselves with substances that dull the pain of guilt. Drugs, alcohol, food, sex, television, internet, sleep, music, and other substances, many of which are good things within the bounds of God’s commandments, are misused to satisfy physically what is wrong spiritually. By exchanging relationship with God for substances that reduce the longing of the soul, some people don’t have to face up to their estrangement from God.

A fourth way to suppress the knowledge of God is to simply deny that there is any evidence for God and to refuse to look at anything that claims to be evidence. In this case the individual refuses to listen to arguments for God, and discounts anything that is put forth as evidence. This shows the lack of objectivity in an unbeliever, because he doesn’t want God to exist.

For example, Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University expresses this candidly when he writes,

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. The Last Word (Oxford, 1997), p. 130-31

Why would someone knowingly reject something solely on the basis that he didn’t want it to be true? The answer is that people reject God because they do not want to be accountable to Him. They do not want to believe that they have sinned against a God who will call the to account and judge them someday. The truth or falsity of the situation is beside the point. If a person doesn’t want something to be true, he can talk himself into believing that it is, in fact, not true.

Suppression, then, is the common experience of unbelievers everywhere. When you talk to someone who doesn’t know Christ, you can be sure that in some way, or in many ways, they are holding back the knowledge of God. One of the strategies of apologetics that will be discussed in later posts, is to ask questions that reveal how a person is suppressing the truth so you can get to the heart of their resistance of God. The reason this is important is because suppression has consequences. When a person fights the knowledge of God, there is a price to pay. In the next post we’ll look at the consequences of suppression.

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8 thoughts on “Suppression: Like Holding a Beach Ball Under Water

  1. As a non-believer, I find this position curious. Of what knowledge do you propose that I am aware? In what manner am I actively suppressing it? Why would Thomas Nagel’s position have anything, at all, to do with me?

    1. Boxing,

      Thanks for your honest question. I have found among skeptics and agnostics an irrepressible belief in values that have no place in their worldview. In other words, if the materialistic, evolutionary explanation for reality is true, there can be no arguing for one choice over another, since we are nothing more than the sum total of our physical urges and tastes, and whatever I choose to do is justified. The most consistent philosophy to take would be a utilitarian pragmatism–whatever works for each individual to flourish is right. But when two people’s choices conflict, skeptics almost always want to introduce altruism as a way to arbitrate any conflicts. For example, one skeptical friend believes that empathy ought to be the deciding value in a conflict. But why empathy? Why not aggression and selfishness? Those can help me survive and thrive, even though they come at someone else’s expense. Very few skeptics will admit there is no value difference between them, yet they should if they are consistent.

      I believe the answer lies in the fact that even though a person may want to deny the existence of God, a part of him wants to champion justice and compassion, and condemn injustice and exploitation. These values only make sense from a Christian worldview, where God’s nature sets the standard for right and wrong. The desire for any virtue in a skeptic is either nothing more than a personal preference (as a consistent materialistic view would teach), or it is a universal reflection of the image of God in man (as the Christian worldview would teach). I think we all want justice and compassion to be a universal moral obligation, and I think that reflects the knowledge of God.

      That is just one of the evidences for the knowledge of God in every person. There are more, but you can let me know if this rings true or not with you.

      1. In other words, if the materialistic, evolutionary explanation for reality is true, there can be no arguing for one choice over another, since we are nothing more than the sum total of our physical urges and tastes, and whatever I choose to do is justified.

        I don’t see how this follows, at all. Even if I were to grant your implication that Naturalism necessarily rejects the idea of objective morality, that does not mean we cannot argue for one choice over another. We argue over things which have no objective answer, all the time.

        However, this doesn’t really answer my question. Of what knowledge do you propose that I am aware, but choose to suppress?

  2. Hey Mark, I appreciate your articles for they give me a better understanding of the position of presuppositional apologetics.

    Do you find the presuppositional position as an effective evangelistic tool? It seems as though the presuppositional apologist is asserting that the unbeliever who admits he has no mechanism to verify Yahweh’s existence is essentially lying to their face. I understand that by choosing your presupposition you are bound to this perspective, but it would seem like quite the conversation stopper.

    From my perspective, there are many who genuinely do not posses an inner knowledge of God. Can you offer a method to verify the validity of Paul’s statements in Romans without a rhetorical argument from ignorance? Can you demonstrate that a Buddhist, a Hindu or simply an agnostic actually possesses internal knowledge of Yahweh? Or is it simply an assertion?

    I’ll be looking forward to your follow up article. Thanks!

    1. Jared,

      Yes, in fact I believe the presuppositionalist approach is far more effective evangelistic tool than the evidentialist approach because it puts apologetics within reach of the average Christian, and not just the philosophically minded. It doesn’t shy away from evidences, but it puts them in their proper order in the apologetics methodology–second–instead of first. Before trying to answer the unbeliever’s objections (which can require extensive knowledge of many fields of study if I don’t know how he might object), it starts with the heart issue of his opposition to the truth of God. It tests the unbeliever’s objections to see if they are legitimate objections, and whether his own worldview can past the test he is asking the Christian worldview to pass. The unbelieving worldview ALWAYS fails its own test, and can therefore be dismissed on its own grounds. This has a powerful effect on unbelievers when they discover for themselves their own contradiction and irrationality.

      Then, and only then, do I bring in the Christian worldview with all its rationality and beauty, and the effect I have seen is powerful. Rather than being a conversation stopper, I have seen this extend conversations way more than the evidentialist approach. But the way I was an evidentialist for most of my life, until I read Cornelius Van Til and studied at Westminster Seminary. The biblical consistency of presuppositionalism sold me on this approach.

      To answer your last paragraph, if Romans 1 says that unbelievers clearly know God because God has shown himself to them, our perception that an unbeliever does not truly know God is a mistaken perception. The basis for God saying that the unbeliever is without excuse before God (1:20) is exactly because he DOES know God. I don’t think the Bible can make unwarranted assertions if you hold to inspiration. The very fact that man cannot help to worship, and worships other things in place of God as the result of directly suppressing the truth and exchanging truth for a lie, is an easy enough explanation for alternate belief systems (1:21-28). All other belief systems are forms of counterfeit worship to replace the knowledge of the one true God. Look up Dan Strange’s work in the field of theology of religions for a thorough accounting of the question of world religions.

      That is the presuppositionalist explanation for your questions. I hope I haven’t missed the point of your questions. I certainly do appreciate the dialogue!

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