In the last post we looked at the Bible’s description of the unbeliever’s epistemic situation. He knows God clearly, but tries to hold back the rising knowledge of God in his life (Rom. 1:18-20). In this post we look at the intellectual and moral consequences for the unbeliever of his constant denial of what he knows to be true.
First, suppression leads to self-deception. Romans 1 tells us that the unbeliever suppresses what is clear and obvious to him. When a person denies reality long enough, he will be unable to tell when he is wrong. The brain’s elasticity combined with the heart’s depravity can make it such that an unbeliever can thoroughly convince himself that he does not know God. This is the most blatant form of self-deception possible. The implanted knowledge of God that is reinforced by the testimony of the created order is so clear, that to deny it is to jeopardize one’s ability to think clearly. This is exactly what we see described in Ephesians 4:17-19.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19 ESV)
The second consequence of suppression is irrationality. That is, a person who deceives himself will begin to think and act against reason. What is ironic is that many unbelievers accuse Christians of being irrational. They are guilty of the very charge they bring against Christianity.
For example, philosophers who deny the existence of God will, in the same breath, speak of nature and the universe as infinite, powerful, creative, intentional, and benevolent. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the well-known evolutionary astronomer, speaks of the universe “choosing” him to be a scientist. These characteristics are all true of God, yet these scholars refuse to acknowledge God. They would rather attribute these properties to an impersonal universe.
Likewise, Richard Dawkins, when pressed about the origins of the universe, is forced to admit that he simply doesn’t know where the first elements that began the universe came from. His only solution to the problem is that perhaps aliens seeded the universe with the chemical building blocks that begin the Big Bang (The God Delusion). That answer, however, simply pushed the question back to the next—from where did the aliens come? In both these examples, when the truth of God is denied, the alternate explanations are completely irrational and should not be believed by thinking people.
The third consequence of suppression is that it leads to idolatry. When a person deceives himself long enough, he begins to think irrationally. And when irrationality takes root in the heart, he will do what no clear-headed person would do—he worships false gods. The irrationality is so strong at this point that the ludicrous nature of his actions escapes the unbeliever. Isaiah 44:9-20 describes the irrationality in vivid terms. A man goes into a forest, chops down a tree ad hauls it home. With half a log of wood he makes a fire and cooks his dinner over it. He takes the other half a log to a craftsman who carves it into an idol and overlays it with gold. He then falls down and worships the idol, even though it is nothing more than firewood.
This is the height of self-deception and irrationality. Yet, it is no different than many people in the modern world who worship what they know cannot restore them to God or satisfy the brokenness of their souls. People worship all kinds of objects, values, and abstract ideas. To worship means “to give oneself over to and to find one’s significance in.” And the truth is, everybody worships something. Tim Keller explains this so eloquently in his book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters.
A counterfeit god is anything so central and essen-tial to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” there are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship (page xviii).
David Foster Wallace was a rising star in American Literature when he suddenly took his own life at the age of 46. A few years before his untimely death, Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon University that spoke powerfully to the inescapable urge to worship in humans. An atheist himself, Wallace delivered this statement in the speech:
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Wallace confirms the teaching of Romans 1, that everybody worships something. And whatever an individual worships that is not God is an idol. So even atheists who often argue that they don’t worship anything cannot escape the fact that they inescapably attach their hopes to something in a manner that meets Keller’s criteria for worship.
We have looked at how a person becomes an idolater, but another important question is how people continue in idolatry, even when it is so obvious that they are being irrational in their worship. The rest of Romans 1 explains how it is possible, and that will be the subject of the next post.