Romans 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.