What the apostle Paul teaches in Romans 1:18-32 is central to an apologetic argument for the existence of God; and central to understanding why people reject God’s existence, and the consequences that flow from that rejection.
We can see Paul working out Genesis 1-3 in Romans 1 in three specific areas — creation, spirituality and sexuality — as he explains what unbelievers do in their response to God’s revelation in creation. These relate to three fundamental areas of human existence. In each of them sinful man exchanges the truth for ‘the lie’.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:18-21: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened’.
‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence’. This was the reply of the famous atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell, when asked what he would say if he died and found himself standing before God. Russell’s charge against God, however, goes against Paul’s argument that all people already know God exists.
Sadly, today it is common for Christians to think that if we just give people enough evidence for God’s existence, then they would be convinced. But the problem is that unbelievers interpret the evidence with unbelief!
It is not the evidence that is the problem, but what people do with it. In Romans 1:18, Paul argues that those who are guilty of ungodliness ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness’. The truth suppressed is what can be known about God through creation. This can only mean that they both know the truth they are suppressing, and they already have possession of that truth since they are creatures made in God’s image.
The result is that people become ‘futile in their thinking’. Fallen man does not make unbiased decisions about the existence of God; he is not neutral (Romans 8:7-8).
In Romans 1:19 Paul states that ‘what may be known of God is manifest in them’. This knowledge is propositional, concerning God’s invisible attributes, eternal power and Godhead (v.20); it is not just a vague knowledge that ‘maybe there is a God out there somewhere’.
It is also personal knowledge. So, in verse 21, the words ‘although they knew God’ don’t just mean they know about God, but that they know God. The knowledge has not slipped out of their minds, but it has been suppressed and exchanged for ‘the lie’ (Romans 1:25). Moreover, it is ‘manifest’ in them because God has ‘shown it to them’ by revelation afforded by creation (v.19).
People have been able to understand God’s self- revelation since the beginning of his creation (see Acts 17:18-31). The words ‘the creation of the world’ (v.20), as in other New Testament texts (Mark 10:6; 1 John 2:13-14), refer to the ‘beginning’, that is the creation week in Genesis 1.
Paul, in saying that God’s self-revelation has been clear since the creation week, refutes evolutionary theory, or a long age view of creation, for man is clearly the same age as the rest of creation.
There are two consequences of the suppression of God’s self-revelation. The first is idolatry, the worship of the creature rather than the Creator. Paul puts it like this: ‘Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
‘Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever’. (Romans. 1:22-25).
In the Bible there can be no more serious charge than that of idolatry, because idolatry is the ultimate expression of unfaithfulness to God. This is because the Bible declares there is only one God, and beside him there is no other god, so it is foolish to trust in other deities (Isaiah 43:10-11).
The origin of idolatry always begins in the human mind (v.21). In verse 25 Paul tells us that ‘they exchanged the truth about God for a lie’. There is a suggestion that ‘they’ here is an allusion to Adam and Eve. Of course, in the context of Romans 1, ‘they’ is extended to an unbelieving humanity. It is also important to notice that Paul speaks about ‘the lie’ and not ‘a lie’, since the Greek text contains the definite article (to pseudei). Paul is probably referring to the original lie in Genesis 3:4-5 and not just any old falsehood.
The apostle John also describes Satan as the ‘father of lies’, who was a murderer ‘from the beginning’ (John 8:44). The words ‘from the beginning’ takes us back to Genesis 3 and the original lie. Paul’s reference to the worship and service of the creature is an exchange that has come from mankind’s once having dominion over the creature (cf. Genesis 1:28) to now worshipping and serving them. Idolatry then is a subjective response to objective divine revelation which only has negative consequences: sin, suppression of the truth; idolatry; darkness; guilt, and God’s wrath (Romans 1:18-32). It is only God’s special revelation of Jesus Christ, through the gospel, that turns people from their idolatry to trust in the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 9).
The second consequence of the suppression of God’s truth is homosexuality. Paul wrote: ‘For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
‘And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; when the natural is exchanged for what is unnatural’ (Romans 1:26-28).
In recent times, some professed evangelicals have argued that when Paul speaks here of men and women acting ‘contrary to nature’, he is referring to heterosexuals committing homosexual acts since that is contrary to their nature, whereas for a homosexual to have same-sex relations is to act according to his or her nature.
Without question this is not what Paul had in mind. When Paul spoke of acts contrary to nature, he was speaking of God’s created order at the beginning as the biblical contexts of Genesis 1 and Romans 1 make clear. This can be seen by comparing Genesis 1:26-27 and Romans 1:23, 26-27.
Paul, when referring to homosexual acts as being contrary to God’s created order, means contrary to the male-female order as established at creation, rather than contrary to someone’s perceived sexual orientation.
In Romans 1:18-32 Paul is outlining the general, downward progression of the human race due to suppressing the truth about God. Idolatry, heterosexual immorality, homosexuality and other sins are all aspects of fallen human nature, the result of worshipping created things rather than the Creator. Paul views these sins as signs of God’s wrath and his abandonment of man in righteous judgment.
The good news of the gospel, that Paul will eventually get to in Romans 3-8, is that God has provided a way for mankind to escape his wrath. This escape comes by trusting in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, who on the cross experienced the wrath of God for sinful humanity and then rose bodily from the dead, proving that he had satisfied God’s righteous demands and providing believers with the gift of eternal life.
Simon Turpin is Executive Director and primary speaker for Answers in Genesis’ UK ministry. He is married to Jessica and has seven children, and holds a BA and MA in theology.