Theology Thursday – Theism (The Evidence of Conscience)

In building the case for Theism, the first claim we find is that the general knowledge we have about God is evident “within” even the wicked, and this is the direct result of God making it evident.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. {Rom 1:18-19 NASB}

Verse 18 gives us our context. Here we find immoral people doing immoral things. When these things are done God’s wrath is “revealed” (uncovered).  This is not an unjust act “out of the blue” because v. 18 tells us these people are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”.

How can this be?  Verse 19 is our answer: “that which is made known of God is evident within them”; or to turn it around, ‘the evidence of God is made known by what is in them’.  In a sense, the Bible is referring to conscience here (v. 18), and by extension, reason (v. 21-22).  Note it is not the things that they DO, nor is it the things they DESIRE, nor is it the RESULT of their life or thinking, but something endemic to men, even wicked men.  We see that this must be common to all men because all men are condemned on this basis.  It is not something that some possess and others do not.  The language of the verse only allows for a blanket universal statement about everyone.  All are held accountable in this way.

The word “within” is interesting here.  It is “ἐν“, sometimes translated “among” and has been used to argue that this knowledge was actually outside of humans, something to be observed and understood, not inherent within each man and woman.  A careful exegesis shows this isn’t so.  Thayers details a number of understandings of this versatile preposition.  Among them are the use of something being wholly within something else, and when used with people it indicates being inside of a person.  Vine’s expands on this concept:

“Sometimes the instrumental is associated with the locative significance (which indeed attaches to most of its uses), e.g., Luk 22:49, “shall we smite with the sword?” the smiting being viewed as located in the sword; so in Mat 26:52, “shall perish with the sword”; cf.Rev 2:16; 6:8; 13:10. In Mat 12:24, “by (marg., ‘in’) Beelzebub,” indicates that the casting out is located in Beelzebub. Cf. Luk 1:51, “with His arm.” In Hbr 11:37, the statement “they were slain with the sword” is, lit., “they died by (en) slaughter of the sword.””

Conscience is defined here as the knowledge between right and wrong.  This, of course, comes from the curse of the fall.  The tree of knowledge of good and evil was the tree from which Adam and Eve were not to eat.  It can be argued that prior to eating from this tree they didn’t know the difference and after eating it, realized the difference – their awakening to their own nakedness being a demonstration.  It could also be argued that Adam and Eve knew exactly the difference between good and evil.  Whatever the case may be, they certainly knew that God had told them not to eat from the tree!  In v18 the clear implication is that the wicked know what they’re doing is wrong, and are suppressing that knowledge as a part of their sin.

C.S. Lewis Rides the Bus

We see such things demonstrated in the world around us.   C.S. Lewis pointed out that people are often taught general concepts about right and wrong, but are rarely taught nuances… and yet often draw the same conclusions about the same nuances.   In Mere Christianity, he illustrated the endemic conscience, reason, and suppression by asking his listeners to envision a bus with one seat empty (I say “listeners” because Mere Christianity was extrapolated from Lewis’ World War 2 BBC radio series of the basics of Christianity; a response to Nazism’s propaganda at the time of what they believed to be real Christian faith).  An old lady with a cane gets on the bus and makes her way to the seat. On her way, a young man -for a laugh- trips the old lady and she tumbles over.  Lewis asks if we can envision anyone from any background on the bus being amused or approving of the young man’s actions.  He points out that while it’s possible that someone may confront the young man, most would likely just help the lady or give him a dirty look.  Here we see all three aspects of the concepts spoken of in Romans 1; conscience, reason, and suppression.

Conscience: Almost everyone on the bus at least disapproves.  Lewis points out that it stretches reason to conclude that even the most hardened rebel against God would not be upset the lady was tripped.

Reason: Has anyone ever taught an extensive lesson on how to treat an old lady walking to a seat on a crowded bus? Perhaps someone has, but we could substitute any number of scenarios as his example and eventually we would exhaust what has been taught. Quite simply, there isn’t a specific principle to cover every last little detail of life!  Humans have a natural ability to morally reason (Although this ability is limited).

Suppression: The young man is the obvious illustration of suppression, but Lewis points out that even the young man knew what was right and what was wrong.  To claim he didn’t would be to claim that he was different from every other human.  In his radio addresses, he raised the question of Hitler.  Lewis pointed out that UNLIKE the young man, Hitler had systematized his evil; but LIKE the young man, in his systematization he was merely pushing away the moral standard of right and wrong.  Hitler’s system may have helped him sleep at night but it did not logically defeat his conscience.  The young man, though, likely hides behind raw emotion and undisciplined desires in doing what felt like fun at the time.

Lewis predicted in his radio addresses that this was a growing trend in some of his students and saw a day soon when such thinking would rule society (in other words, Lewis saw the moral anarchy of the 60’s coming).  Like Hitler, the young man may be able to feel good about his decision to trip the old lady, but he doesn’t defeat the immorality of it with a superior idea.  However, another more interesting observation Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity was the reaction of those observing the young man.  He speculated that had the situation been real, there is a likelihood that others on the bus would not have gone beyond an unkind word to the young man or a dirty look.  This, too, is suppression of righteousness because such a situation cries out at least for assistance and arguably for a confrontation of the young man.

Honor Among Thieves

Another illustration of  is the idea of “honor among thieves”. While some may make their living doinghonor immoral things, even within those immoral cultures there is found an honor code.  While we ought not emulate these codes, the basic instinct of a moral right and wrong eventually infects even the most immoral of people.  These codes are twisted (i.e. a thief shouldn’t copy another thief’s plan, a gang member shouldn’t kill a “civilian” – someone not involved in the gang world, and an illicit casino should honor the value of the chip), but they are codes nonetheless.

Finally, the question must be asked if this is only found in socialized people, or if those who live as savages also have moral reasoning.  Verses 18-19 leave us with no choice but to conclude that this is the state of things in human beings, not merely in those in particular societies or areas.  There is no exclusivity, no one who has the market cornered on moral understanding.  All stand accountable and all stand guilty. Paul operates on this premise throughout the entire book of Romans.  Romans 3 makes no sense if we argue that Romans 1 does not apply to everyone.

All of this demonstrates that the claim made by Scripture in Romans 1:18-19 is true.  As John MacArthur put it, God “planted evidence” of Himself in man in the form of “reason and moral law”.  Thieves and criminals may live in rebellion to God but can never escape the idea of a right and wrong in some sense which is inherent in them, and everyone on C.S. Lewis’ bus knew what the young man did was terrible.

How do we know that this is not just a funny evolutionary coincidence?  That this universal understanding of morality isn’t just part of being human?  These are types of questions that humanists who infest our culture ask and answer all of the time.  Our culture is becoming better versed in their answers than in the arguments of the Bible.  But the Bible DOES have an argument…

We’ll look at that argument next time!


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