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In the Letter to the Romans we read something interesting:

Romans 1:20-21: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened" (emphasis added).

The wording "For even though they knew God" sounds somewhat analogous to our inherent sense of right and wrong — something most of us consciously recognize even without being taught. Is there some point in our lives when all of us "know God" — even those who reject the concept? What of those who never encountered Scripture: did they too know God, or is this written on our consciences?

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  • I'm having a hard time understanding your question when it is so clearly answered by the verse being cited. Do you want a paraphrase of the passage as an answer? I suspect no, so perhaps you can update the question to point out what in the verse seems unclear - does a specific passage use confusing language?
    – Robert
    Aug 27 at 6:08
  • the context has nothing to do with scripture. What we see all around us is God in action, the cosmos, the animals, the seasons, the harmony and balance even in a corrupted world it still works pretty good. The adage that 'you can't have brilliant design without a designer' should be common sense.
    – steveowen
    Aug 27 at 6:09
  • @Robert Sorry for that. I was asking in reference to verse 21 (italicized). I've long wondered if, since children, we have had some inherent knowledge of God without being exposed to Scripture. For example, does everyone really recognize that a god exists because of what they see around them? Don't we all naturally need to understand that God has communicated to us in some way to justify "knowing God"?
    – Xeno
    Aug 27 at 16:47
  • @Xeno OK, so it sounds to me like you don't believe in the verse or somehow want to be convinced that's it's true despite your inner reservations. That's a good thing to do, to be honest and voice your inner reservations. On the other hand, it would be easier to answer this question if you thought a bit about what those reservations were and made them more explicit in your question, as otherwise people are left to guess what is the combination of arguments to overcome those reservations.
    – Robert
    Aug 27 at 17:32
  • @Robert Well, no. My view is that all of Scripture is inspired by God and infallible. As I commented to a contributor below, it seems to me that God may have planted not only an inherent sense of right and wrong, but also the idea that He exists. Further, I'm wondering if this occurred when we were very young children, well before anyone's "foolish heart was darkened." I hope this clarifies things a bit for you.
    – Xeno
    Aug 27 at 17:40
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Romans 1:

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood [or demonstrated] through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God,

i.e., God as demonstrated by the creation itself. Paul's logic went something like this: One could clearly see the creation. Then it followed that there was a creator. They saw the creation, therefore, they knew God in this sense from the creation itself.

they did not honor Him as God or give thanks,

i.e., YHWH-God

but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

They saw god's creation but they refused to believe YHWH-God the creator.

The two instances of the word "God" in this passage carry different meanings.

Is Romans 1:21 suggesting that everyone, at some time or another, knows God?

Yes, in some sense of the word "God".

What if someone never encountered Scripture, how could they know God?

They could reject God or God could show Himself in the believer's conscience without the Scripture. Paul continued this line of reasoning in Romans 2:

15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

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"they knew God". Here I suggest three sorts of knowing:

  1. Knowing about. If someone looks at creation and thinks there must be a Creator, this is an intellectual activity. With the mind we know about God.

  2. Feeling the result but not knowing who. Job 19:25 "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth". Here Job knows he has a living redeemer and has experienced redemption at some level. Job believes that this redeemer has a human aspect as He will stand on the earth. But the identity of who this person is and how He achieves redemption remains a mystery.

  3. Spiritual knowing. Romans 8:15-16. "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God". When our spirts have first hand knowledge, the witness, of God's Holy Spirit, our minds may be blank but we know deep down and cry out "Abba! Father!".

The context of what is made is seen, suggests to me that the sort of knowing mentioned in Romans 1:21 is of the first of my three. Enough knowledge to condemn but not enough to save.

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  • I'm glad you cited 3 plausible options. 1) "An intellectual pursuit" could certainly be an answer, but I think Romans is driving at something deeper. 2) Job clearly knows about God because he is a prophet, declaring that his "Redeemer lives", something that cannot be reasoned. (It's one thing to believe there's a god; quite another to know about the Redeemer.) 3) Internal, "spiritual knowledge". I think you are on to something here. How do we inherently know right from wrong? This appears to be a part of our inner being; virtually no one is oblivious to injustices when they see them.
    – Xeno
    Aug 27 at 18:35
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(All citations LEB)

The word "know", ginosko, implies an experiental knowledge. It is a reference to having some kind of revelation of God. This revelation of God is provided through creation. The specific attributes called out here are

  • God's eternal nature - in contrast with man's fleeting life.

  • God's diety - in contrast with man's status as created being who is living in God's order

  • God's divine nature - in contrast with man's carnal life.

Absolutely none of this has to do with "being a good person". Neither is this really an apologetics argument trying to prove that God exists, as that would be obvious to people in Paul's day. It is all about recognizing man's position vis-a-vis God. It is about man needing to be humble and honor God in his heart rather than be vain in his heart. How would man be vain and refuse to honor God even if he had never read a scripture? By insisting in his own mind that man could do better than the order that God created. That is, judging for himself good and evil in his own mind, and thus deciding that the created order is (morally) wrong somehow or can be (morally) improved to conform to man's own imagination.

verse 20:

For from the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, both his eternal power and deity, are discerned clearly, being understood in the things created, so that they are without excuse.

So man views himself as a little god, existing in the mind, sitting on a little throne in the mind, making pronouncements as to what is right and what is wrong, pointing an accusing finger at this or that and decrying it as being evil or praising it as being good. There is a little snake, or accuser, in our heads doing that. And man listens to that accuser, living out his life according to what is right in his own eyes.

So the emphasis here is that God expects that being confronted with the created order, which reveals God's divinity, his eternal nature, and his diety - that man abandon the vain imaginations of his own mind and recognize that he is in error and in need of repentance.

This repentence should take the form of recognizing that only God can judge good and evil, being thankful to God for the created order as it exists rather than critiquing it according to man's imaginations.

verse 20

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasoning, and their senseless hearts were darkened.

But most men do not do this, they continue to turn inward and follow their own inner voice which is the voice of the Dragon.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

and also Prov 14.12:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.

And so God abandons them to their own lusts, he darkens their mind, and allows them to worship each other, first and foremost themselves, but also their neighbors, and then, in mockery of man's foolishness, various animals, and finally inanimate objects as a type of final insult to man's humiliation, which is God's just response to man trying to pretend to be god in his own vain mind. God's response to man trying to climb above his station is to humble him by bringing him to the bottom.

Isaiah 50.10-11

Who among you is in fear of Yahweh, obeys the voice of his servant? Who walks in darkness and has no light, trusts in the name of Yahweh and depends on his God? Look! All of you are kindlers of fire, who gird yourselves with flaming arrows. Walk in the light of your fire, and among the flaming arrows you have kindled! You shall have this from my hand: you shall lie down in a place of torment.

Just as God curses those who try to do good by raising up evil within them to thwart them (Rom 7.21), so God thwarts man's efforts to elevate himself to be God by making him a slave of things lower in creation than man is.

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God with the likeness of an image of mortal human beings and birds and quadrupeds and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to immorality, that their bodies would be dishonored among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God with a lie, and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed for eternity. Amen.

Note that here we are talking about fallen man. The spiritual man has the mind of Christ and is able to judge all things (1 cor 2.15), but that's because the spiritual man is not relying on his own understanding but has taken every thought into captivity that exalts itself above God (2 cor. 10.5), and then the mind of Christ reveals to him all things.

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Simply put, we see a similarity in the statement Jesus made.

If you had known Me, you would know My Father as well. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” John 14:7

We understand what kind of God is through seeing and knowing who Jesus is - what he is like, what he stands for, how he lives. He is the image of the invisible God.

So, also we see what God is like - knowing that He is, simply because anyone can understand if they see something brilliant, some amazing design, they see and wonder about the designer who made it.

Through man's increasingly stupid, "speculations, their foolish heart was darkened".

It is the fool spoken of in the Psalms and elsewhere that ignores the evidence of God and His goodness and seeks their own kind of god.

The more we try to find a replacement for God, i.e. Evolution, riches, power, whatever, the less we will be able to see the true God and designer of life.

Adam and Eve also tried to find a replacement for God - look how that turned out. The death they died has been increasing ever since and man now has a zillion other gods.

The good thing is, that isn't the end of the story. No, most don't know God, never have, but they will in God's gracious plan of redemption and salvation. Death will cease and life will begin!

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  • You make some very good points. However, young children are taught evolution (among many other things) in early grade school. How would they ever form a knowledge of God. They have yet to have their "hearts darkened", so at what point did they ever "know Him"? Maybe I'm taking the passage too literally?
    – Xeno
    Aug 27 at 16:58
  • The darkening is a broad expression applied to humanity. This is not the age of salvation except for the ‘elected’, the age for the rest is coming. This verse is not speaking of an actual, ‘coming to know God’, but of the evidence that has been there all along.
    – steveowen
    Aug 27 at 22:03

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