An African proverb has been recounted to say, “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.”
The contention of this article is that God is hidden in plain sight both to our senses and to our souls. We can know him if we want to.
Romans 1:20 says that when we look at creation, we see him clearly.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Creation reveals God’s “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature . . .” Dare we say, “WE KNOW ALL ABOUT WHAT GOD IS LIKE?” Is this not what this verse is saying? If so, then how can I possibly know what I’m looking at when I see creation? The answer lies in the previous verse, Romans 1:19:
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
This answers the question directly. We see God in creation because we have an inborn “God file” filled with “what may be known about God.” Here’s one way to look at it: our minds contain an innate “pattern” about what God is like; when we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell things that are parts of that pattern, we “recognize” it. Pattern recognition is the key to understanding every objective thing.
Is this what verse 19 is saying? Take a closer look:
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them (emphasis added).
We need to pay special attention to two Greek words in this verse. The first word is gnostos, translated here as “what may be known.” It is a Greek adjective with a definite article which marks it as a substantive (a word that functions as a noun) and as the subject of a clause. Here it means “the known” or “what can be known.”1 If the quantity of information about God is “what may be known,” then it is the entire amount of information about God.
The second word in verse 19 is the preposition “en.” Unfortunately, the NIV translation obscures the existence of this word by translating it as “to.” This is a possibility, but the preposition “en” is not necessary if “to” is all one wanted to say. The New American Standard Bible translates this phrase as “is evident within them,” (emphasis added) which takes into account the preposition “en.”
For two reasons we should translate en as “in.” First, its core semantic meaning is “in,” and any other meanings are derived from this. The second reason is even more substantial. In Romans 2:15, the apostle Paul writes (emphasis added):
They show that the requirements of the law are written on [en] their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
The law of God is written on [in] the hearts of individuals. In the Greek text, the preposition “on” in this verse is the word “en.” Since this is the case, it is most probable that what “is known about God” is also written in the hearts of individuals.
How can the knowledge of God be in us? Contrary to Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, it’s impossible to say that a human mind at birth is a “blank slate.” Every other sentient being seems to know how to do many things apart from any learning process. Bees communicate with one another by doing dances, and yet there’s nothing like a school for dance and dance interpretation for bees. Many kinds of birds, fish, and butterflies migrate with no other possible way of knowing their destination apart from an inborn knowledge. Consider the monarch butterfly; its migration both north and south annually is a multigenerational quest. No single monarch makes a round trip. How do they know where to migrate? Their tiny brains aren’t blank slates. They emerge from their pupal stage with information on what to do, how to do it, and where to go when it’s time. If butterflies and bees have inborn information, certainly we do too.
As I’ve said, God can only be understood through creation if people already have an intuitive understanding of him. The notable theologian Bruce Demarest agrees and says,
Thus, against the classical empirical tradition, we assert that the mind is not a tabula rasa. Apart from observation and sense experience, the human mind, abetted by a general illumination, effably intuits timeless truths, including the first truth, God. Indeed, the mind’s intuitive consciousness of God logically precedes and grounds all reasoning about God from the observable world. For unless the term God is invested with meaning through the religious a priori, all God-talk is not only meaningless, but impossible. Unless man acknowledges God in and of Himself in his mind, all predication about God on the basis of causation or order lacks signification.2
So, Demarest links the observable general revelation mentioned in Romans 1:20 with the intuitive preprogrammed information of Romans 1:19.
All of this is to say that we are without excuse before God, because we know he is there, and we know we are guilty before him of many crimes. Whatever one may think about the noetic effects of the fall of Adam, Romans 1:19–20 and the Bible as a whole speak most often as though we have the genuine ability to make free decisions for which we will be justly held accountable.
If we would be honest with ourselves, rather than suppress the truth, we would seek God’s forgiveness. The gospel would be a simple deduction from what we know about God, what we know about ourselves, and what we could expect as a result. We are guilty and alienated from God. Since God is love, he wants to rescue us from the terrible consequences of our sin. Since he is perfect love, he would be willing to love to the ultimate degree—“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
God isn’t hidden! He has allowed us to suppress the truth and to put some cognitive distance between ourselves and him so that we can be free to choose him or choose to get away from him. He has made it obvious that he is present and powerful and good through what has been made. Moreover, he has infused in us the knowledge of himself, and we betray our attempts to deny him by opening our mouths to speak of good and evil, when no such things can exist if he does not. Then on we go toward some goal when there can’t be any genuinely significant telos (purpose) if we’re but “dust in the wind.” It’s always a good time to be honest with ourselves about what is intuitively and objectively clear.
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains,2nd ed., vol. 1(New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 342.
- Bruce Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 22.