On Romans 1:20-21
By saying that “God” says this, Jackson is mischaracterizing the record that we have in Romans 1. The Epistle to the Romans was written by one or more human beings. (It is commonly assumed that it was written by the apostle Paul, but how can we really know this today?) Thus it is not true that “God says that all know Him,” rather it is the case that the guy who wrote Romans 1:21 is the one making the claim that we all know this god.
What has happened is that some human being wrote this and people today say “God said this!” Now clearly they’re not saying that the guy who wrote this was “God”; Christians typically grant that the apostle Paul (the assumed author of the passage in question) was a normal human being, but abnormally chosen by the invisible magic being they call “God” to represent it and spread its message to the world (this message is said to have been received by Paul via “revelations” from said “God”).
Notice the vast number of assumptions piling up here. Jackson does nothing to validate any of this – he just asserts it as if it were some incontestable truth. But on what rational basis are we to accept any of this as true? So quickly do apologists lose sight of their own favorite line of interrogation – “How do you know that?” – when they assert their worldview’s claims.
It is also quite dubious to say, on the one hand, that “we all know God,” and on the other point to a single verse in some ancient text to learn this. If it were true that “we all know God,” why would we need to read some guy’s writings to discover this? We’d already know it.
Now when I investigate the claim that I personally know the Christian god, my first question is: By what means do I know this? Christians are always asking me “How do you know?” Curiously, they ask this sort of question on matters that are plainly self-evident – such as: “How do you know you exist?” If how I know that I exist is so mysterious to me, how can one claim at the same time that I know this god is real? The Christian needs to identify the means by which we all supposedly know his god.
But notice that the burden for the Christian is even steeper, for he is not only claiming that everyone has done whatever it is they need to do in order to know this god, but also that the process by which everyone allegedly knows this is infallible. Everyone knows that the Christian god exists, goes the claim, and no one has made any mistake in coming to this knowledge. And yet, they’re mistaken on virtually everything else! Consider for example the opening words of Douglas Jones’ attempt to sell Christianity in his paper Why & What: A Brief Introduction to Christianity. He begins with the following instruction to the reader:
Imagine that you are mistaken about everything you hold dear. Suppose you wake up one morning and clearly realize that your long-held, day-to-day views of nature, social values, and self are obviously mistaken. Common things that you have seen for years take on a whole new light. The world hasn't changed, but different things stand out in odd ways. Things you once adored are now utterly disgusting. Things you once hated now command your deepest loyalty. You can now see through your motives and rationalizations in a way hidden before. How could you have been so naive?
So Jones wants us to entertain the fantasy that we’re mistaken about all these things that we deal with firsthand in our lives, indicating that we are so hopelessly fallible as to be unable to do anything right. And yet, Romans 1 would have us believe that we are all universally infallible when it comes to knowing this god which we can only imagine. Okay, got it.
As is typical in the bible, the author of Romans 1:21 himself does not explain how we know this god. At best, he gives us a contradictory explanation. We find the following assertion in the previous verse (Rom. 1:20):
the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
Also, how does the author know what other people have seen? Presumably the author is saying that all human beings past, present and future have seen/are seeing/will see what he claims they see. But again, how would he know this? If I came along and said “All people know that I’m right,” one would be right to ask, “How do you know this?” – a question which Christian apologists themselves love to ask non-Christians. But what’s the answer when we turn this question on their own worldview’s claims? It seems that the best we’re given on this is John Frame’s Empty-Handed Epistemology.
What about blind people? How do they “clearly see” something that’s “invisible”? No explanation on this is given.
The author also errs in failing to distinguish between perception and identification. We do in fact perceive things (such as by seeing – though we only see things that are visible, not invisible), but this does not automatically mean that we also identify what we perceive. Identification is a conceptual process, and it can only be performed by choice once we have perceived something. We perceive many things that we do not identify; we don’t need to identify everything that we perceive. Eventually we do identify most things we perceive in our experience, but this takes a lot of time – years, in fact. It’s called learning. It’s not automatic, and the gods do not install this knowledge into our minds. We have to labor for it. We have to earn it. Genuine knowledge of the world is something we must earn.
The claim in Romans 1:20-21 essentially means, then, not only that all human beings past, present and future “clearly see” things that are “invisible,” but also that they have all infallibly identified them to be what the author of the passage says they are – i.e., attributes of a being which we can only imagine (for we do not find it in the world when we look outward - we have to look inward to find it).
At the risk of understating the matter, this is quite a tall claim – it is a universal claim about every human being’s experience and choices. As such it is prima facie outlandish. And the answer to the question as to how the author of Romans 1 could possibly know this, is not given in the text itself; the author does not tell us how he knows what he claims to know here.
Surely believers today can speculate (indeed, what alternative do they have?), but their explanations will always lack precision (they typically want us to be contented with uninformative claims like “God revealed it” which is essentially an appeal to magic knowledge and invites a whole category of insurmountable problems for the believer - see my blog The Futility of the Apologetic Appeal to “Revelation”), and they will vary from believer to believer (who has ultimately nothing but his own imagination to go on). Believers who try to give more than merely “God revealed it” take the chance of making statements which conflict with other things they have said and with statements made by other believers, thus exposing epistemological inconsistency. So it’s best to stick with the approximate. Unfortunately, the approximate does not answer key epistemological questions. We may have to accept the possibility that believers simply don’t have any answers on these matters, which is the course taken by John Frame (see the link above).
When I continue my investigation of this claim (absent any answers from Christians that enlighten my first question – even from the author of the passage, who does not explain how he knows what he claims to know) and explore the content of my own mind to see if I really do know this god, what do I find? I find two general categories of ideational content:
1. The first is objectively informed knowledge, i.e., knowledge which I acquire of the world by looking outward at the objects of reality and identify by means of reason. I do not find any god in any of this, for I do not find any god when I look outward at reality; and since I apply reason as my standard method of identification, I will not identify something that is not “God” as “God.” When I look outward, the only particulars that I perceive are things that are physical, finite, mutable, corruptible, natural or man-made. But the Christian god is supposed to be non-physical, infinite, immutable, incorruptible, supernatural and not man-made. So in the category of objectively informed knowledge, I do not find this god.
2. The second category of ideational content that I discover when I explore the content of my own mind, is subjectively informed content. For example, what I imagine. I can, for example, imagine the Christian god wishing the universe into existence; I can imagine Jesus walking on water; I can imagine Saul the persecutor being knocked to the ground and overcome with bewilderment at the sight of a heavenly Jesus appearing above the road before him. I can imagine all these things and more, just as the Christian does when he reads descriptions of such things in the sacred storybook. Like the believer, I can imagine a supernatural being sitting on a heavenly thrown looking down at the world and issuing commandments for everyone to follow. I can imagine that it knows everything, that it sees everything, that it is infallible, that it is omnipresent, that it is all-powerful. I can even imagine this invisible magic being distributing “revelations” to its faithful followers. But what’s important to note here is that imagination is not a means of discovering and validating knowledge about reality. Luckily I have learned the lesson that there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what I imagine as well as between objectively informed knowledge and subjective content.
The challenge which the Christian cannot overcome is to demonstrate that the “knowledge” claimed in Romans 1 is of the first category rather than the second. We do not discover this god when we look outward at the world. We have to look inward, into the content of our imagination, our wishing, our hoping, our emotions, etc., even to consider such a being. Why don’t our pet cats and dogs worship the Christian god? Quite simply, because they don’t have the ability to imagine it.
So what do we have here? We have the following: Romans 1 makes a self-contradictory claim; it claims that all people have knowledge of the Christian god, yet it provides no indication of how they might know this; it ignores the distinction between perception and identification; it confers infallibility to every human being which is denied in virtually every other area of knowledge (unless of course one is “in the fold”); and it ignores the distinctions between reality and imagination and between objectively informed knowledge and subjective fantasizing. Thus I conclude that Romans 1 is not a reliable prooftext for what Christians want it to say. And they are wrong to say that the Christian god itself has stated these things, for Romans 1 was written by a human being – the guy wrote it is saying what it says.
by Dawson Bethrick