As I mentioned before, we need to (figuratively) tattoo this truth on our forehead: Before anyone truly understands the Good News (about Jesus), they have to grasp the Bad News. The book of Romans is the most comprehensive presentation of the Good News in the Bible, the most theologically complete book in the Scriptures. In one of his commentaries, John MacArthur recounts the testimony of someone who came into his office who received Jesus as their Savior simply by reading the Gospel of John then the book of Romans, with no one explaining it to him. And Paul spends at least two chapters (1:18-3:20) giving us the bad news.
After his introductions in the 1st part of chapter one, Paul indicts all of humanity for turning away from God. Here’s how it begins: God created everything. All of the universe came about simply by the Lord Almighty speaking it into existence.
In my discussions with skeptics about the need for a Savior, I can usually count the minutes until they bring it up: “What about the poor pagan in the middle of Africa who’s never heard? What about him? Is he going to Hell for not believing in a Jesus whom he’s never heard of?” What’s amazing to me is how people pretend like this is an original argument, something the Church has never confronted before, something its thinkers have never answered.
Part of the answer is found in these verses. God has created the universe, and we can see some things about him in creation. Let’s assume for a moment that the African has never heard of the God of the Bible at all. All he has to go on is what we call “general revelation.” Verse 20 says that the Creator has revealed his “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.”
What does that mean? We can see his incredible wisdom, his infinite creativity, and his infinite power. We might even get a hint of his caring for us, i.e. the fact that our planet provides for us so abundantly. For example, one of our most immediate needs is water: We can only survive a couple of days without it. Well, lo and behold, we have plenty of it for everyone! We're perfectly positioned in regards to the sun to make sure we don’t fry or freeze. And I could go on.
That’s why Paul says that if we don’t worship the Lord, we have no excuse. But please notice here that he’s not addressing atheists. He doesn’t even feel the need to talk to them. The possibility that someone could actually not believe in some sort of God is literally unthinkable to him. It’d never even occur to him. I’ve mentioned this before, and I'm fully ready to concede that it's not original with me: God doesn’t believe in atheists. As far as he’s concerned--the One before whom all hearts are naked and exposed--they don’t exist.
No, atheism isn't the problem here. Paul isn't addressing the problem of atheism, because as far as the Lord’s concerned, there is no such problem. When he’s saying that people have no excuse, he’s saying there's no excuse for idolatry. Men could know--in fact at one time they did know—that the God who created animals and plants and the sun and the moon is different and separate from those things. In order to really create nature, he has to be outside nature.
Men knew that God is separate and different from nature. We all descended from Adam, and then from Noah, who certainly knew it. But here’s where the real problem lies: “[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.”
Again, we need to pay close attention here. The root of the problem is not convincing people that God exists. The root of the problem is not ignorance, contra the question about the poor African referenced earlier. The root of the problem is not even egregious sins like murder or adultery. The root of the problem is not even idolatry. Those are symptoms.
The root of the problem—the disease behind these symptoms--is rebellion. Specifically, it’s the issue of not giving God his due. He’s due worship. He’s due all the glory. He’s due thanksgiving. We knew this, and we turned away from him. We refused to give him what he deserves. It’s not that we didn’t know the truth. We suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (vs. 18).
I’m not just using the term “we” in the general sense, like “we have a problem with the national debt.” I mean “we” as in “I.” I’m not a murderer or an adulterer (at least not physically), and I don’t have a stone or metal statue to which I bow down and pray. But the roots of the problem—that lead to idolatry, ignorance, turning away from God, etc.—lie within me. How often a day do I fail to give God the glory, worship, and thanksgiving he deserves?
G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a London newspaper to join other authors and thinkers to address the weighty and important question of "what's wrong with the world." His response:
Lord Jesus, my greatest enemy is not Satan or the world. My greatest enemy, the greatest hindrance to my wholeheartedly following you—is me. Like everyone else, I have no excuse. Please forgive, and please change.