As a Christian, Romans 1:18-21 always bothered me. I understood the premise that people inherently knew there was a God. By virtue of the existence of the world about us, if nothing else. As Paul is developing his theology in this culminating work, he goes on to state, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)
That seemed, at least to me, to be patently unfair. Nature was enough to condemn a human, but not enough to save them. Oh, I was aware of the exegesis of Romans 2, and the idea of the law of God imprinted on human hearts, and God being aware of the depth of knowledge of individuals—but in the end it all sounded like excuses to me.
A straightforward reading would seem to me to damn a Mesoamerican in 40 C.E. to hell. They knew there was a God, but had no way to know Jesus was raised from the dead. It was one of those items that gnawed at me, but I figured God knew what He was doing, and perhaps some day, in heaven, He could explain, or I would understand.
Of course, on this side, my perspective has changed. A bit. By far and away, this is the primary passage thrown at an atheist, followed with “you really know there is a God. You are just suppressing the truth.”
And, to a large extent, I cannot blame the Christian for saying this. They are firmly convinced this came from God. Who am I, a mere human, to say otherwise?
Imagine within a battle, a Colonel orders the troops to take Hill 445. But a moment later a lowly Private comes up, handing him a piece of paper, and the Colonel immediately retracts his previous order. They are to no longer take Hill 445.
Does the Private outrank the Colonel? Obviously not. But if the Private was carrying a message from a General, the message itself, because of the person behind it, is enough to force the Colonel to change his orders.
It is the same situation here. I can write, and draw and proclaim as long and as loud as I want that I cannot find a belief of God anywhere within my mind. I can point to others that have talked with me, and are equally confirmed that no such belief exists.
It doesn’t matter. The Christian believes they hold a message from God—a personage that outranks me. And because God says otherwise, I must be wrong.
It doesn’t matter that Paul was poisoning the well. That he was setting up a non-believer in a certain stance by which they were doomed to fail. Like saying, “Any person that disagrees with me does not understand the situation.” Pity the poor sap that dares to then disagree with me. I have already declared them ignorant.
It doesn’t matter that Paul was preaching to the choir. He was writing to Christians. People that, by being Christians, already believed in God. No one was going to argue with Paul, “Gee, I’m not so sure I believe in God, can you explain further?” Rather, they would nod their heads in agreement, “Yep. Yep. They sure know there is a God.”
It doesn’t matter that Paul did not mention a miracle of Jesus. Curious, considering he was writing to Jews (who would either be familiar with the happenings in Palestine, or be in communication with those who were) and Christians (who already believed in Jesus.) If you could travel in a time machine, back to mid-First Century Palestine, wouldn’t you be looking for those who had actually seen the miracles performed by Jesus?
Would you care about nature, or rather what people had encountered Jesus? The souvenir to come back with is, “I talked to so-and-so who was FED by Jesus at the feeding of the 5000.” Or “Saw Lazarus.” Or “Was blind, but was healed.” Why would Paul, of ALL things to convince Jewish Christians that everybody knew there was a God, use nature and not Jesus?
It doesn’t matter that Paul was using a God-of-the-Gaps argument, due to lack of knowledge as to how the world came into being. Nor does it matter that the argument is non-sensical. (“His invisible qualities are clearly seen”? I thought the definition of invisible…was…oh, never mind.)
It doesn’t matter that Paul lumps all the bad things as examples of what these rejecters of the knowledge of God do, whereas we see no difference in committing these acts between believers and non-believers.
All that matters is that, to a Christian, Romans 1:20 says I secretly know there is a God. And that message is from God. For me, less than a Private, to declare “There is no God” means I have attempted to usurp a higher-ranking officer. Either I am a liar, or I have self-deluded myself.
I am never quite sure how to respond to Romans 1:20. Having been there myself, I understand that the person is completely convinced as to the truthfulness of the statement. My saying, “It is not true” is like shooting a pebble at a mountain. It won’t move. I can point out all the questions as to Paul’s writing it, but they are still convinced it came from a God. It is inspired. I won’t budge them a millimeter in this regard.
I can point out that the list of sins is not me, and they will find some other sin, or claim I am secretly concealing a sin.
I guess all I can say is that I cannot find this God. If I am self-deluded or lying to myself, fine. Help me out. Saying, “You really believe in a God” clearly is not convincing me. If the person chooses to toss out Romans 1:20 and walk away, feeling they have accomplished something—so be it. But if they want to be persuasive and compelling, they are going to have to show me (and millions like me) this God in such a way that it breaks through the self-delusion or lying.
And, on a personal note, the reason this verse is not potent, is that I started off believing a God. One that created a universe. One who’s “invisible attributes are clearly seen.” I did not deconvert to engage in the variety of sins listed in Romans 1. In fact, I engaged in a vehement pursuit of God. If that pursuit caused my thoughts to be futile, my heart to be darkened, and myself to become a fool—is the person suggesting I should not have pursued God?