WHY WE DO NOT KNOW GOD
In order to speak to the question, “Why don’t we know God?” we must first grant that we do, in a sense, know God. So we can hardly speak to the question, “Why don’t we?” without making the kind of distinction that Dr. Packer makes. Dr. Packer distinguishes between the different ways in which we may know God. He speaks of the distinction between notitia and cognitio, that is, the difference between an intellectual awareness or mental apprehension of something and a more profound or deep relational knowledge of someone or something.
Obviously, the Bible uses the verb “to know” in at least these two ways and perhaps even more widely. There are different levels, degrees, or ways in which we can know things and persons. That is why the Scriptures say on some occasions that men do not know God, that men are in darkness concerning God, yet on other occasions that men do know God. Unless the Bible is speaking with a forked tongue, or unless we violate radically the Reformed principle of the coherency of Scripture, we have to conclude that the Bible is speaking from different perspectives about different kinds of knowledge. Perhaps we can circumvent the dilemma by making these distinctions. But one thing is certain: no one knows God at the depth to which it is possible to know God. And that is the question with which we must wrestle: Why do we not know God as intimately, deeply, personally and comprehensively as it is possible for us to know him?
The answer to that question does not require an extended dissertation. The reason that we do not know God as intimately, deeply, personally, and comprehensively as we possibly could is because we do not want to know God intimately, deeply and comprehensively. Moreover, even though we may be redeemed, even though we may be “the elite of the elect,” there still remains within us the residual elements of our fallenness. Our natures have been regenerated, but the sin that dwells within us has not been eradicated and will not be, this side of glory. So as long as there remains any disposition within us to sin there is a propensity toward ignorance of the things of God. I would like to focus our attention on a detailed analysis of why men do not know God to the degree that it is possible to know him. The basis for this analysis is the first chapter of Romans, beginning at verse 18.
In the part of the prologue that is found in verses 16, 17 and 18, Paul maintains that he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. Then we find the thematic statement of the Epistle: “For therein [that is, ‘in the gospel’] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” This is the topic sentence for the whole Epistle: the righteousness of God is revealed through faith. So, in a word, Paul is concerned with revelation. But notice, he begins in verse 18, not with the revelation of God’s mercy, grace, or justification, but with the revelation of God’s wrath: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
What we find here, as always in Scripture, is that God’s wrath is never arbitrary, capricious, irrational or demonic, but that it is always a response to something evil. God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness and ungodliness. It is not a wrath revealed against righteousness, godliness or piety, but against unrighteousness and ungodliness. Unrighteousness and ungodliness are general terms—wide-sweeping, wide-encompassing descriptive terms. But we must not stop here, for Paul moves from the general to the particular. He does not leave us to wonder about what particular form of unrighteousness, what specific kind of ungodliness is provoking the wrath of God. Rather, Paul names the child. He mentions it in the second clause of the sentence: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [that is, ‘suppress’] the truth in unrighteousness.” The specific provocation of God’s wrath is human suppression of truth.
If you go to different translations of the Bible, you will find a wide variety of English phrases used to translate the last part of verse 18. The old King James Version says, “who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Some translations say, “hindering the truth.” One translator has preferred to say “repress the truth.”
Let us go back to the old King James Version: “holding the truth in unrighteousness.” That whole phrase seems a bit archaic, does it not? How does one hold truth? Truth is an abstract thing; truth is not quantitative. How can we use tactile, empirical terms to describe truth? We do not hold truth; we hold a wristwatch, or we hold onto something. But there are different ways to hold things. If I hold a wristwatch, that is one kind of holding. If I hold onto a lectern, that is another kind of holding. If I hold my wife, hopefully that is an altogether different kind of holding. What kind of holding does the apostle have in mind here? Well, notice that we can hold something up, or we can hold something down. The verb used here literally means “to hold down, to incarcerate, to hold back,” and it suggests the notion that one must use force to repress a counterforce. The way I like to think of “holding down” is of a giant spring compressed to its point of highest tension. In order to hold that spring in place, one must exert all kinds of counterpressure to keep it compressed; otherwise it will spring up by its own tension and perhaps even injure the one who is seeking to hold it back.
So why is Paul using this verb with respect to truth? He is talking about the human effort that brings the wrath of God upon man. It is man’s active, positive resistance to God’s truth.
The reason that God is angry is further elucidated in verse 19, where Paul says, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has shown it unto them.” If Paul had merely said, “What could have been known about God was available to man,” that would have been reason enough for God to reveal his wrath against those who did not avail themselves of a divinely given opportunity to know him. That in itself would have been a serious sin against our Creator. But Paul is not simply saying: God has made knowledge of himself available to men and men have never made use of this opportunity. No, he is saying that the knowledge of God which he has revealed to all men has been made plain, not obscure, and that mankind has rejected it.
Let me comment on that with an illustration from the academic world. There are different ways in which you can bring students to a state of knowledge. You can say to them, “Look, we have a course in the Doctrine of God. I am the professor in this course, but I am not going to teach you anything; I am simply going to moderate the course. Each student is responsible to lecture. If you want to know about the Doctrine of God, just go to the library and find those books that have something to say about the Doctrine of God and then come in and give your paper.” That is one way I could do it. Or I could say, “Look, I want you to do heavy research about the Doctrine of God. So I am going to take all the books in the library that deal with the Doctrine of God and put them together in one place on the reserve shelf. I am going to make it easy for you to discover this information.” In other words, I would be facilitating the student’s efforts to learn something about the Doctrine of God. Or, finally, I could go even further. I could put those books on the reserve shelf, and then I could take the student by the hand, march him over to the library, show him where the reserve shelf is, take each book off the shelf, open it up to the first page, and say to him, “Listen to this,” and start to read it.
I think that Paul is getting at something like this last illustration. God does not just make the knowledge available. He shows himself to us, as the apostle says. How thoroughly that knowledge has been received remains a question. But one thing is certain: God has revealed himself to all men with sufficient clarity and with sufficient content as to render men inexcusable. He has presented himself with enough clarity, with enough revelation, to remove the cry of ignorance as a justifying reason for a person’s rejection of him.
Paul goes onto say that when men refuse to honor God and refuse to acknowledge him even though they know he is there, their thinking becomes “foolish” and their minds “darkened.” Have you ever read the works of David Hume? Have you ever read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre? These men are great thinkers. David Hume, I think, is one of the most formidable opponents that the Christian faith has ever had to wrestle with. How can men who have clearly and blatantly denied the existence of God be so scholarly, so knowledgeable, and manifest such high gifts of intelligence? The answer is in this text. Once a man refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true he can go on to construct magnificent systems of philosophy. He can manifest gifts of intellectual acumen and brilliance. But if he is consistent, if his starting point in the procedure involves an obstinate rejection of what he knows to be true, his system can end only in futility. Imagine the scientist who starts his scientific endeavor by denying what he knows to be the basic facts. The only way such a scientist can arrive at any kind of truth is by a happy inconsistency, by compounding his errors to such a degree that possibly he will be fortunate enough to stumble onto some truth.
The pagan adds insult to injury, Paul continues, for not only does he begin his systematic approach by refusing to acknowledge what he knows to be true and thereby working continuously with a darkened mind but, having done this, he tells the world that he is wise. Paul says, “ … professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” Sinful man, after he repudiates what he knows to be true, then has the audacity to say to God and to the world, “I am a wise man.” But God says that the wisdom of sinful man is foolishness!
In the Scriptures the designation “fool” is not primarily an intellectual evaluation. When God says that a man is a fool, he is not saying that he is dull-witted. He is not saying that he has a low I.Q. or that he is a poor student. The term “fool” is a judgment of man’s character. It is more of a moral evaluation than an intellectual one. It is the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Foolishness is in many of the catalogues of serious sins in the New Testament, along with adultery and murder and things like that. Foolishness is a moral refusal to deal honestly with truth.
We notice next that men’s foolishness of compounded. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged “the glory of the incorruptible God” for images resembling mortal man, birds, animals or reptiles. Therefore, “God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”
What happens after the truth is held down, after the truth is repressed? Is there a vacuum? No! Immediately an exchange takes place. Substitution occurs.
It is valuable to talk about this in contemporary psychological terms. Johannes Spavink, the Dutch scholar, finds in this text a statement about man’s psychological prejudice. Spavink asks: Why do men repress or suppress things? He says that knowledge which is most likely to be suppressed is knowledge which comes to us in the framework of the traumatic. We try to push down knowledge that frightens us or is unpleasant. We have a kind of psychocybernetic system with which we screen from our conscious mind those things which are unpleasant. But the question I ask you in modern psychological terms is this: Is the memory of a threatening or traumatic experience destroyed by our repression? I do not know of any psychologist or biochemist who would say that those memory notions or images are destroyed. Rather, we bury them or push them down.
So, our present state of consciousness is dark, but the knowledge has not been destroyed. For example, let us say that I have repressed negative feelings about my mother. I am not even conscious of these feelings. But I begin to have undefined anxiety. I begin to worry, and I do not know why I am worried. When I begin to experience restlessness I go to a psychologist to help me work through my anxiety state.
The doctor says, “What’s the matter?”
I say, “I have anxiety.”
“Why do you have anxiety?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I came to see you. I’m worried, and I don’t know why I’m worried. Help me to find out.”
The doctor begins to probe my inner man to see where the injury is and how I can be brought again to health and wholeness. As he goes through my medical history he does not pay attention simply to the words I say. He is also carefully observant of my mannerisms, my gestures, and every kind of symbolic activity with which I am communicating my deepest feelings. Eventually in our discussions he notices that every time he asks me about my mother, or every time I say something about my mother, I twitch my shoulder. So he thinks, “Every time Sproul says something about his mother he has this awful twitch.” He asks, “Do you have any kind of bad feelings about your mother?”
“My mother?” (Twitch) I ask in astonishment. “I don’t feel anything bad about my mother!” (Twitch)
But he knows that somewhere in the past I have had a bad experience with my mother, and he knows that this knowledge has not been destroyed but that it is only exchanged for the gesture. In this way it is (perhaps) still a problem but not quite as threatening as the original experience. In the same way, most people do not say simply, “There is no God”; rather they create a new God, one who is less threatening, less terrifying, less of a problem.
Let me illustrate this. A few years ago I was watching the David Frost show, and he was interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair. They began discussing whether or not there is a God, and David Frost suddenly became a great champion of the Christian faith, defending it against O’Hair. The discussion got so out of hand that Frost became angry and decided to determine the controversy by a show of hands. He turned to the studio audience and asked, “How many of you believe in some kind of supreme being, some kind of higher power, something greater than yourselves?” Almost everybody in the audience raised his hand.
I waited breathlessly to see what Madalyn Murray O’Hair would say to that kind of response. She said, “Well, what do you expect from the masses who come to this studio? What do they know? Give them time to catch up with modern knowledge, and this myth will disappear.” That is the tack she took. I thought that if she had been clever she would have said, “Just a minute, Mr. Frost. Let me pose the question.” Then, turning to the audience, she would say something like this. “I know that some of you believe in something higher than yourself, some higher power, some faceless, nameless, contextless, unknown god who makes no claims on your existence, who never stands in judgment over your morality, who does not demand the sacrifice of your life. Anybody can believe in that kind of god. But do you believe in Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, who thunders from Sinai, ‘You will have no other gods before me’? Do you believe in a god who demands obedience to his perfect law and who calls men to repentance? How many of you believe in a god who makes absolute demands upon your life?” What do you suppose the vote would have been like?
The “Supreme Being,” the “Ground of Being,” “Ultimate Concern”—all these titles are nonthreatening. They have no substance. They represent our most sophisticated efforts at idolatry, in which we exchange the truth of God for a lie, a nonthreatening lie. They speak of a God who never judges us, who never calls us to repentance, a cosmic grandfather who says, “Boys will be boys.” That is the kind of God we have, not only in the secular world but in our churches.
The Immutable God
When I was writing the book Psychology of Atheism, I worked through three great attributes of God: holiness, sovereignty, and omniscience. But then I remembered a sermon I had read years before by Jonathan Edwards entitled, “Man Naturally God’s Enemy.” I wondered what Edwards had to say about why men hate God. So I went back to read that sermon. At the beginning Edwards said, “There are four things about God that make men hate him.” I thought, “Four things? What did I miss?” And I wondered if Edwards had found the same things I had found.
He said, “The first thing that terrifies man is God’s holiness.”
I said, “Aha! I got one right!”
Then he said, “The second thing man hates about God is his omniscience.” By this time my opinion of Edwards as a scholar was rising.
He went on, “The third thing that men hate about God is his sovereignty.” I could hardly believe that I had put my finger on the same things. But what was the fourth one? What had I missed?
I turned the page and read, “Perhaps you are wondering what the fourth one is?” Edwards had stolen the words right out of my mouth. Then I read: “The fourth thing about God that men hate is his immutability.” Immutability? Why would that be so threatening? Why should that bother us? Edwards explained. “Man faces this dilemma: Not only does he know and know clearly that God is holy and omniscient and sovereign, but he knows that God will always be holy, he will always be omniscient, he will always be sovereign. And there is nothing we can possibly do to make him less holy, less omniscient, or less sovereign. These attributes are not open to negotiation. We cannot find God involved in a process of change whereby he can enter into certain mutations to compromise with us.”
From age to age, the hound of heaven brings his light into a world of darkness; but men love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.
About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Essential Truths Of The Christian Faith; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from the chapter entitled “Why We Do Not Know God” from the book: Our Sovereign God: Addresses Presented to the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, 1974-1976. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.