Everyone Knows God? Even Atheists?

There is one statement in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant that is probably the toughest one to swallow.

“No longer will they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
         says the LORD,
“because I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sin no more.”

I applied this prophecy to daily life and ministry by writing, “When you are concerned about people, you need to know this: They already know God.”

Pastor Weekly asked a very pertinent question, “Do you believe that atheists know God–people like Richard Dawkins?” My answer is “yes.”

Saying “No” to God with Our Mouths, but “Yes” by Our Actions

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Parable of the Two Sons. Jesus begins by inviting us to think about the parable.

“Now what do you think?

A man had two sons. He approached the first and said, ‘Son, go work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered and said, ‘I do not want to!’ But later he changed his mind and went. 

And he approached the second son and said the same thing. And he answered and said, ‘I will, sir,’ and he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.”

For me this parable’s central meaning can be summarized like this: Talk is cheap; it’s obedience that matters.  But other insights that can be drawn from the parable.

It is possible to say “No” to God with your mouth and your mind, even with your heart, and nevertheless wind up doing the Father’s will.  Based on Jesus’ question to his audience, this question is one valid way to understand Christ’s bottom-line: “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Valid Reasons for Rejecting “God” and the Christian Message

I grew up with a keen awareness of the Holocaust. I knew that many Jews became atheists as a result. I had read about the anti-Jewish pogroms in Christian Europe, and Christian anti-semitism in general. I knew about America’s refusal in 1939 to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from the S.S. St. Louis and how the refugees eventually had to return to their German homeland. I knew there were many reasons for Jews to not believe in God, and many reasons for them to reject the Christian message.

I also knew that it was possible to say “No” to God and end up doing God’s will just the same, which was one way of describing Jesus’ bottom line criteria for us.

What do people say when they reject God, religion, or the church?

  • If your God could order the slaughter of innocent women, children, and animals, then I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
  • They kicked me out when I really needed them.
  • What kind of God could allow the annihilation of millions of people? of every living relative I ever had? There is no God. And if there is, I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
  • He molested me, and they didn’t anything about it, even though I told them.

Some of these people are atheists; some will never set foot in a church. Do you think God is going to consign these people to a Christless eternity in hell?

Often when we “doubt the existence of God,” what we are doubting is not God, but some picture of God, some inadequate version of God, what we learned in Sunday school. When we reject Christianity, often we are rejecting is some narrow sliver of church life, often based on one or two pastors in a single congregation. Even narrower is a blanket rejection of God or religion based on our parents’ idiosyncratic version of the Christian life.

God is not so petty or weird as to punish people he knows and loves, for whom he sacrificed himself, whom he created in his own image–because of a response to the failures of others.

What is happening when we reject inferior mental pictures of God, when we turn our backs on inadequate understandings of God? There are many explanations. I believe the rejection comes from the fact that we are created in the Image of God, and that the Image of God within them will not tolerate “childish things,” no matter how erudite and Bible-based those things are. It is not only understandable and reasonable for some people to reject childish images of God, it is laudable.

Mystics understand the inferiority of our mental images of God.  We pride ourselves in rejecting the cliché image of the old bearded man in heaven seated on his rocker, but that is not the limit of inadequate images. ALL of our images of infinite God are ultimately inferior, even the Biblical metaphors. What some mystics call “The Dark Night of the Soul” includes losing every picture of God, every last shred of any human understanding of God, so that only the reality will suffice. To reject an image of God that is inadequate and inferior is wise,  spiritual, and godly.

“New Covenant” — Built-In Ethical Guide is Standard on all Models

Let me return to Jesus’ parable of the two sons. One person left this comment to the previoius post:

The kingdom of God is within you. Not within you because you believe certain doctrines, but because it is inherently present within you. IMO this is completely compatible with atheism, though not at all requiring atheism to make sense. The atheist need not believe a God exists and wrote X on her heart in order to have the experience of truth emerging from her ethical core, rather than being handed handed down from an external deity.

Since some people don’t read the comments, I wanted to include this clear explanation. I believe the commenter would agree with my conviction that talk is cheap, and that what matters is our actions. There are several directions I could take this, but I’d like to finish this with something James said.

He who knows to do right and does it not, to him it is sin.

James doesn’t discuss how we know what is right. There are many ways to know that, but the subject here is not epistemology. If I know what to do, and I don’t do it–my bad.


About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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10 Responses to Everyone Knows God? Even Atheists?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the persons post that God writes His will on everyones heart including the atheists. ie: conscience. That is different than the Holy Spirit residing in ones heart. Why does man seek? God writes seeking into the heart as well. Not all men like the view once they have found. Free will. Free will to accept the truth or to reject the truth. In life there are penalties for believing lies. I’m sure there will be in what follows as well.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      I would be hard-pressed to describe to someone what the difference between conscience, the Holy Spirit, the Image of God, actually feels like. If someone asked me how I can tell the difference between these three internal phenomenon, I don’t think I could.

      Frankly I’m concerned that arguing for some absolute difference between these three internal impulses–conscience, the Holy Spirit, and the Imago Dei–is simply arguing for some fundamental difference between people who belong to our tribe and people outside the tribe. Those within our tribe have the Holy Spirit, and those outside the tribe merely have a human conscience, but not the Holy Spirit. All human beings are created in the Image of God, the Imago Dei. I’m not convinced that there is a fundamental difference between these three things.


  2. Scott F says:

    I seem to be among those people who don’t “get” mysticism. Once we have discarded all those simplistic images of God – mainly because they are impossible given the world we live in – we are left with a nothing. The question seems to be whether you move from the nothing to an ineffable, unknowable and, frankly, not very useful nothing/something or just recognize the absence of sensible solutions as evidence that the truth likely lies elsewhere (tentatively, of course, pending better information).

    Perhaps God has placed His mark on all our hearts and each acts on such a spirit of righteousness or rejects it. If so, He has chosen to make himself scarce while waiting to see how we choose. Whether we chose to belief in Him or not, it appears like we are on our own to make that ultimate choice of acting morally or destructively to self and those around us.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      There are many approaches to faith: mysticism, activism, institutional, faith-confession, doctrinal, existential, liturgical, snake-handling, community/relationships, etc. Some resonate for me more than others. Just stating the obvious nere, nothing new.

      There have always been people whose personalities require them to be deists, like yourself, believing that God set the universe in motion and walked away. And there have also–always–been people whose personalities require them to believe in a personal God who listens to their prayers and knows them by name. And others, again because of their personalities, worship a God who guides the broad sweep of history (sets up kings and tears them down) but leaves the details of individual decisions up to the individuals.

      These are all approaches to the Christian life. These, and many others, have Biblical support. Our approaches are not exactly set in stone, mine have changed, but I do have a strong sense of determinism in my worldview, biological/genetic determinism. That’s very un-PC in many circles, but I’m pretty sure I’ll die with it.


  3. Ron Goetz says:

    I think it’s safe to say that all of us are trying to make sense of our lives, or clinging to what we think makes sense of our lives, or have given up the quest to make sense–which is one way to make sense, or come to terms.

    Sometimes our ways of making sense of our lives conflict. In those cases, people who have made more sense of their lives will not be as rattled or threatened as those whose quest is not as secure.

    For what it’s worth.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Ron asks. “It is possible to say “No” to God with your mouth and your mind, even with your heart, and nevertheless wind up doing the Father’s will?”

    No because God’s will is always that He be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth and without at minimum your heart and your mind you fail at the Fathers will. I’m not saying that the Father cannot use the pain of personal failure in our lives to prompt us into the truth. But by saying no with the mouth, mind and heart this man at his core is Anti-Christ.

    Ron asks. “What do people say when they reject God, religion, or the church?… Some of these people are atheists; some will never set foot in a church. Do you think God is going to consign these people to a Christless eternity in hell? ”

    I would like to question an earlier interpretation of yours under the heading “There is one statement in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant that is probably the toughest one to swallow.” I believe we should let the same Jeremiah answer the question for us.

    Jer. 18:11…
    ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ 12 But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ”

    Even with the threat of judgement, (not to mention the desire by God for mans repentance), one doesn’t necessarily need tragedy in ones life to reject God, religion, or the church. Even with the conscience or what I would term the knowledge of good, countless individuals reject the truth without an excuse other than they just choose not to believe. Though we are forbidden to judge a mans eternal destiny as this is Christ’s purview alone, Scripture itself declares that some are good and some are evil. There of course are times when we all fail, but in general, the good heart is a seeking heart and a storehouse of good. And the evil heart is a God rejecting heart. But we are not without hope. God draws God rejecting hearts every day, but this is not through mans device, it is through the written Word of God, the miraculous insight of an all knowing creator accomplished in perfection through the drawing of His Holy Spirit. However in the end the decision is mans and mans alone. But to deny that some are good and some are evil and that there will not be a penalty forthcoming for the evil and a blessing for the good is to intentionally misinterpret the intent of scripture. As difficult it is to believe that a loving God would judge some for destruction the scripture clearly states that God will indeed judge it and judge it to the absolute.

    2 Peter 3:7 NIV
    By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

    So what then is our responsibility? IMO we should in simplicity trust and live out the scripture
    1 Peter 3:12 “with emphasis on vs. 15.”

    12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

    Ron, I believe that you speak with gentleness and respect which is a quickly becoming a rare commodity in a world of loud voices and excessive finger pointing. But I also believe that your habit of looking for interpretations that may widen the ever expanding broad path that many have already “chosen” to travel, might only confuse them when the consequences of sin prompts them to seek a new way which is the narrow way of repentance. The way Christ himself chose to walk.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      In an earlier post I compared the Bible to a medicine cabinet filled with medications, some, for example, are blood thickeners and others are blood thinners. Opposite medicines for opposite conditions. The medicine that saves one person will be fatal to another. The Biblical medicine I’m administering here I uncovered mainly from my personal study of the Bible for my own healing. Apparently it is not appropriate for you in your current condition. In another post, I wrote that the nature of the journey depends on where you start. Our life experiences have been different, and our spiritual trajectories are correspondingly different. It seems unreasonable to me to expect everyone to walk identical spiritual paths.

      I like your emphasis on I Peter 3:15: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” I have set Christ apart in my heart as Lord. I aspire to nothing greater than rejection and ignominious character assassination from the mouth of religious folks. I am prepared to give a reasoned and Biblical answer to anyone who asks me about my hope in following the example of my martyred older brother. And I respond to critics with as much gentleness and respect as I can.

      I suggest you continue on the path you’re already on. There is a reason your path has taken the shape it has, just as there is a reason behind the shape of mine.

      BTW — You have no idea how narrow my path is, no idea at all.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Your a reasoner and a stretcher. Without knowing it you wield a great deal of influence over people. This is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you’re being heard. The curse is that you are responsible for what you say and to some extent over what others do with it. To wield the neutrality card is irresponsible. To play the martyr is self serving. There is only one Christ and He jealously guards the truth. No none of us will come to exactly the same conclusions, but for truth to stand for something, anything, it must be absolute. Grace comes at the expense of our weakness, but grace thrown at a canvas hoping that something sticks is not grace and it is not recognizable.


  6. I like this post and wish I could just agree with it. But if “he who knows what is right and does not do it, to him it is sin” covers all people, then all people sin. I’d like it if all people were saved, regardless of being sinners. That would make me happy.

    If it isn’t true that all people are saved, then the selection process for who has grace is really beyond my understanding. Is it for saying the magic prayer, and being sprinkled with magic water? Or is it through being better than other people, even though all people sin and are really in the same boat, and it seems impossible to judge that one person is better than another (especially when circumstances and upbringing enter the equation)?

    Nothing about religion makes sense to me. I believe in God anyway, but am completely unable to defend it to anyone who doesn’t. And I’m getting tired of putting my faith in something that makes no logical or emotional sense.


  7. Talen says:

    Faith, is not only that you believe, but the people around you believe that you believe, regardless of what they believe, that is true faith!


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