Truth Suppressors, Idol Makers, & World Breakers: Why there’s really no such thing as an atheist, and the explanation of all bad behaviors

1) Where did we come from?

2) Where are we going? 

3) What is the meaning of life? 

4) What constitutes good/evil within this life?

No matter if you consider yourself religious or not, all people have some answers to life’s four basic philosophical questions. Whatever your answers (or lack thereof) to those questions are, those responses are the beliefs that govern your life choices. Those conclusions point to what is your operative telos. Furthermore, none of us can empirically, in this moment, quantify our responses to those questions. This means we’re all operating out of faith.

So, for instance, I absolutely have assumptions about the origins of the universe. These assumptions are based on what I read in the Bible and what I perceive in the world. Another person might hold macro-evolutionary assumptions about the origins of the universe based on other factors – classes they took in college, a documentary they saw on TV, etc.

Neither of us can prove our assumptions.

Even if we can do an experiment that might prove something today, this proves nothing about what happened in the past. Our beliefs are expressions of faith.

The same is true with what’s on the other side of death. I hold faith assumptions. But so does everyone. Many I’ve talked to say that we die and are placed in the ground and that’s the end of us. Okay…I can prove that happens to my body, but what about my spirit? I assume one thing happens, but the materialist assumes another thing.

Neither one of us can prove anything in the moment.

Consequently, this is clearly not science vs. faith or reason vs. faith. It’s all faith assertions based on what we believe is the most compelling evidence.

(And by the way, not only are we all ultimately living by faith, but we operate accordingly on a daily basis because that’s actually the only way to do life.) For instance, let’s say you find a girl you think you might want to marry. But you’re not positive she’s the right one for you. You consider yourself a reasonable, scientific fellow and are therefore going to wait until all the necessary empirical data comes in before you pop the question. You know what’s going to happen, right? Two possible things: 1) You’ll die/She’ll die, or, and more likely, 2) She’ll find a better guy – one who is courageous enough to commit to her via a leap of faith.

In other words, you simply cannot prove that ten years from now, this individual will have been the “right” person for you to have married. You gather a reasonable amount of data, and then you make a leap of faith. It’s the only possible way to live.

And here’s my point: Irrespective of what you call yourself, functionally, none of us conducts our personal lives as scientists (or atheists). Practically speaking, all of us live by faith. 

Furthermore, inherently, all of us assumes our lives have meaning. And naturally, we all flinch in the face of death. Instinctively, we all know there is such a thing as right and wrong. Why does this all come intuitively? Because deep down we KNOW God exists! And the Apostle Paul says we all understand this intrinsically because God does such a sensational job of proclaiming his existence to us. 

Then why the disbelief?

Truth suppression should not be a foreign concept to anyone alive in the past century. It’s been one of the world’s recurring refrains. Everyone agrees that Communism, Fascism, Nazism worked largely because of propaganda and truth suppression – the government only shared certain select pieces of information with its population.

The tagline of one of my favorite shows as a kid, the X-Files, was “The Truth Is Out There.” The show was tapping into a general awareness that people in power sometimes withhold truth in order to control others. In recent years, “fake news” has become the most popular topic surrounding media. And regardless of which news you believe is the fake news, we all agree that it’s possible and prevalent. In other words, when people report information, depending on their motivation, they share select information in order to alter beliefs.

Now, if we realize it happens out there, all the time, why wouldn’t we realize that we’re constantly tempted to do it to ourselves as well?

I. Truth Suppressors

There’s something about the human condition that makes us lean towards denial in the face of difficult truth.

From my perspective, the biblical text that serves as the granddaddy of all human behavioral explanations is found in Romans 1:18-32. Here the Apostle Paul lays out a basic explanation for what all natural flesh attempts to do with the inconvenient truth of God.

God’s Wrath Against Sinful Humanity

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

(Romans 1:18-21)

Paul’s general assessment then is that humans don’t disbelieve in the true God because they’re basically ignorant of God. Rather, they disbelieve in God because they “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (vs. 18). They’ve talked themselves out of the truth that’s in front of them, despite the clear evidence, because the truth is inconvenient. 

Paul’s logic in these verses is NOT that God is angry with people for simply having too little knowledge and that this leads them to do bad things.

So far as I can tell, Romans 1:18-21 is the only spot in Scripture where all three of the historical philosophical arguments for God’s existence come up. The Cosmological Argument, Teleological Argument, Moral Argument are all embedded.

Ignorance is not the primary issue.

Paul doesn’t describe pagans as people who were unfortunately withheld information and didn’t stand a chance, but as people who are sinning by choice against their better knowledge. They suppress the truth for themselves. For that matter, believers too possess a sinful flesh that is constantly trying to push the inconvenient, humbling truth down. 

II. Idol Makers

22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Romans 1:22-25

Here’s the interesting twist. Because the truth of God is inconvenient and humbling, the fallen flesh refuses to worship God.

However, we were created for the purpose of worshiping God.

We’re wired to worship God.

So if we reject worshiping the true God, this doesn’t lead us to STOP worshiping. Instead, we just redirect all of our praise, all of our energy, all of our resources, all of our sacrifices to something/someone else. That’s why Paul says they “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (vs. 25). This is the biblical concept of idolatry.

Humans don’t just live; we all live FOR something.

All of us has something that ultimately captures our imagination, something that becomes the highest allegiance of our hearts. I’m inclined to believe that if you were born and raised in modern America, there are 3 common P-Idols: Professional Advancement, Physical Attractiveness, and Personal Comfort & Freedom.

You don’t have to consciously choose to idolize these things. You just have to inhale the polluted cultural ethos to absorb the lifestyle. If you happen to be raised in a good, Midwestern church-going family, I can safely add Moral Performance as an inevitable fourth to the list. These are the things, by default, we tend to live for. We’ve been trained to believe they give us meaning and value.

Paul says about the pagans: “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (vs. 24). The word for “sinful desires” is, in the Greek, epithymia, which literally means “hyper-desire.” In other words, the things (beauty, comfort, successful career, or morality) certainly aren’t wrong in and of themselves. The hyper-desire of these things – lusting for them as though they were God – that’s the thing that leads to all of our bad behaviors. 

III. World Breakers

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans 1:26-32

If you’re tracking Paul’s logic, he’s now said that God’s truth is obvious and unmistakable. But it has implications that humans, by nature, don’t like. Instead of worshiping God, humans selfishly and foolishly choose to value the blessings of God ahead of the Blesser. The hyper-desire for these good things, the efforts made to appease these idols, are the catalysts for all of the bad behaviors that exist on planet earth. Humans worship their false gods by breaking the true God’s commands.

ALL bad behavior is merely the outworking of idolatry. And this is what is ruining the planet.

Paul’s next verses give proof. He offers statements about the breakdown of human society due to idolatry. He talks about sexual disorder (vss. 26-27), economic disorder caused by greed (vs. 29) social disorder caused by deceit, malice, and murder (vs. 29), the breakdown of the family unit caused by disrespect (vs. 30), relational disorder caused by faithlessness and ruthlessness (vs. 31). And he even says anyone who complicity approves of all this is also liable (vs. 32).

It’s always just one short step from idolatry to immorality.

All immorality is simply idol worship. 

Any bad behavior you’ve ever struggled with points to a false god that contends for your heart.

This is why working merely on behavioral modification is like giving a lozenge to someone with lung cancer. You might even find success in periodically relieving symptoms, but the root cause will simply manifest itself in other destructive ways.

Further amazing…do you know how God punishes idolatry? Paul says, “Therefore God gave them over…” (vs. 24) God doesn’t fight for the hearts of mankind forever. And he doesn’t typically cast down lighting bolts. After repeated resistance and rejection, he eventually just gives people what their sinful hearts’ desire.

And this is the scariest possible outcome.

If you want to kill a drug addict, just give him enough drugs. If you want to kill an alcoholic, just give her enough alcohol. If you want to kill a sex addict, fulfill all their fantasies. If you want to kill a career-oriented workaholic, keep promoting them. Etc.

It’s worth thinking through our own possible hyper-desires at this point as well. If you’re addicted, idolatrous when it comes to the wellness of your family, or your moral performance, or your romantic pursuits, or your physical beauty, what should God give you if he truly loves you? What would kill you?

IV. World Saver

Humans don’t like God’s truth. Humans suppress God’s truth. Humans then start worshiping created things. This turns the world upside down and hurts people. It’s all here.

So what should God do about all this? I know what I would do if I were God. Thank God my finger’s not on the trigger.

Paul reveals the shocking good news of God’s grace repeatedly in Romans, but in this particular text, I think it’s even implicit in verse 18.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people” (vs. 18)

Notice that Paul doesn’t say “the wrath of God” will come down, though, in a sense, it will on Judgment Day. Also, in another sense, the wrath of God is revealed as God gives people over to their sins, and simply allows them the amount of rope their hearts desire to hang themselves. Without question, though, the wrath of God was revealed from heaven most obviously at the same approximate time that the Son of God was revealed from heaven.

The Son of God had no wickedness of his own. And the Father repeatedly mentions how pleased he was with Jesus (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). But mankind, including us, attempted to suppress his truth in our lives.

Fortunately, Jesus can’t be suppressed. His stone gets rolled away and his truth and God’s grace gets revealed. The One who had no wickedness at all, in his great love for us, allowed himself to become suppressed for a time, so that those of us who have suppressed the knowledge of him in our lives would be forgiven, and have our stones rolled away too.

Through faith in him we not only find complete forgiveness, but are gifted a righteousness that defines us as eternal members of God’s perfect family. And our testimony to God’s grace, moving forward, our life mission, is time spent helping humanity let go of its idols and exchange the lies of this world for God’s truth. The other side of the gospel is the first step of all recovery.

We thank Pastor James Hein and for this week's blog.