Unbelief is Irrational

tsslogo.jpgUnbelief is Irrational

It’s not uncommon today for atheists to rise to their pulpits and boldly preach that belief in some god (let alone a specific god) is simply irrational. Dr. K. Scott Oliphant, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, disagrees. In a recently published essay he points to Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans to make his case that unbelief is irrational.

Oliphant’s proposition is this: Unbelief is irrational because, at its core, all sin is irrational. He argues, “Sin is essentially, and will remain, deeply unreasonable, utterly irrational … Given that unbelief is at root the quintessential sin, it is therefore, necessarily, quintessentially irrational” (pp. 59-60). He backs up this proposition exegetically from Romans 1:18-32.

Oliphant begins by pointing to Paul’s emphasis in Romans that all people are covenantally bound to Adam or to Christ, walking under condemnation or justification (Rom. 5:12-21). The first two chapters of Romans are devoted to revealing God’s wrath upon those in Adam. Specifically, God’s wrath is kindled against sinners who “suppress the truth” (1:18).

The act of suppressing divine truth is sinful or “unrighteousness” (1:18). So sin is by nature the suppressing of truth. “In other words, God’s wrath is revealed from heaven because, in our wickedness and unrighteousness (in Adam), we hold down (in our souls) that which we know to be the case” (p. 64)

So what knowledge is suppressed? Paul tells us we suppress the universal truths about God — that He exists, He is infinite, eternal, wise, unchanging, glorious and wise. Far from being a mere intellectual knowledge of God, there is included in this a very personal knowledge of God communicated from His Person to our person. So personal that Paul can write, “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things [sins] deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). Every sinner that suppresses God’s truth and lives on in sin knows that sin is rightfully punished with death. But this and all truth about God is suppressed. The point is clear: God has spoken so openly and so clearly that every sinner knows these universal truths.

How do sinners suppress divine truth? By exchange. We take the glory of our great God and Creator and exchange His glory for superficial images of reality. The next step is to worship and serve the phantoms of reality we create. The truth of the created order becomes twisted into what we think is right. There is an exchange of the natural for the unnatural, like in the case of homosexual relationships (Rom. 1:26-27). Oliphant writes, “All of us, in Adam, are experts in inventing idols” and later he writes “we only retain that [knowledge] which will serve our own idolatrous purposes” (p. 69, 70). Paul tells us this idolatry – worshiping a false reality — is at the center of unbelief.

Paul then goes on to list all sorts of sins, not just homosexuality, but also unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:29-31). Oliphant writes, “All sin, as sin, is rooted in an irrationality that seeks in earnest to deny what is obvious and to create a world that is nothing more than a figment of a sinful imagination” (p. 72).

The sad reality is that for those outside God’s sovereign election, this personal knowledge of God will be drowned out by the noise and passions of the sinful heart. The witness of God’s existence in the heart becomes futile knowledge to an irrational mind. God reveals Himself all around, and blind sinners in Adam respond by suppressing this truth and living in a phantom irrationality.


Paul paints a humbling portrait of all unredeemed sinners. We did not learn Christ because we were more perceptive or less sinfully irrational. God alone opened our eyes. Oliphant says, “The truth that we know – that we retain, possess, and suppress – therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the one who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is his action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth” (p. 66).

This first chapter of Romans is useful to remind believers of our personal sin and irrationality. We are still tempted to live at the feet of a phantom shrine forged in our minds rather than live within reality. And rather than scoffing at the unbeliever, we can look at our own hearts and see where we — as seasoned idolaters! – continue to suppress truth and twist reality in favor of escapism, fantasy and worldly comforts.

But also armed with Paul’s teaching in Romans and brought under the humility of dead sinners raised to life by the power of God, we are prepared to think through apologetics, preaching and personal evangelism. All of our hearers have heard a personal message from a personal God and we are all without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Apparently evidence does not demand a verdict from irrational minds.

Understanding this awful irrationality of the sinful mind will cause us to once again pray like Spurgeon:

“‘Rise up, Lord!’ O God the Father, rise up! Pluck Thy right hand out of Thy bosom, and let Three eternal purposes be accomplished! O God the Son, rise up; show Thy wounds, and plead before Thy Father’s face, and let Thy blood-bought ones be saved! Rise up, O God the Holy Ghost; with solemn reverence, we do invoke Thine aid! Let those who have hitherto resisted Thee, now give way! Come Thou, and melt the ice; dissolve the granite: break the adamantine heart; cut Thou the iron sinew, and bow Thou the stiff neck!”


[This exegesis of Romans 1 can be found between pages 59-73 of P&R’s latest release edited by Oliphant and Lane G. Tipton titled, Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R) 2007.]

12 thoughts on “Unbelief is Irrational

  1. Well, I guess to gain a position as a professor of apologetics, it is good to master circular reasoning. Sin is irrational? Which sin? Why is it irrational, aside from the exegesis of Paul and Romans? Where has that tautology short-bus parked? Let’s pick a sin…say, building a “false idol”. My Buddhist friend likes her little Buddha…it brings her peace. She doesn’t buy into the idea that it is a sin. Therefore her action is rational.

  2. Tony,

    How’s it going brother? I haven’t visited in a while. It is still amazing to me how often I am encountering issues relative to Romans 1 in daily living. I appreciate this post and I now have a new book to add to my wish list. I will never get caught up with the books I’d like to read. It would be nice to be able to have a mind like Dr. Mohler who reads about 5 to 7 books a week. Take care and God bless. Missing you guys at OBC.


  3. PalMD, you said “aside from the exegesis of Paul and Romans”

    Your position seems to be built off the assumption that Romans is not an accurate authority. … Could it be that you disagree with Scripture, therefore you conclude Scripture must be unsound, therefore those who believe in the Bible are wrong?

  4. I have no problem with the Bible as resource. It just isn’t everyone’s resource. That being said, I do however think it is hard to argue, even with the Bible as a source, that sin is irrational. I am willing to be wrong here, but it depends on how you define irrationality (what is is, lol). People perhaps sin because Evil seduces them to, but they also succumb to sinful desires because it feels good, physically or psychologically. Faith helps curbs the urge to sin, hence, perhaps, introduces control of natural, rational, and sometimes evil urges. IMHO.

  5. PalMD, From a biblical basis, Romans 1 is very clear that sin is irrational — that is acting contrary to reason. … I think you will benefit from a clear biblical definition of sin. See an earlier post on this blog called “What is Sin?” by David Powlison.

  6. Hello Barry! Good to hear from you again. Boy we miss Omaha. A great city. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of our friends and family back home. Blessings! T

  7. Very interesting. “Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants, and interprets things.” I suppose if we were to put it into secular psychological terms, most sin is unconscious and id-driven, therefore irrational. “Rational”/conscious sin is simply a different level.

  8. Yes, but this sin nature is itself the heart of evil. What we do that is evil is merely a manifestation that our actions spring from an evil source. Therefore, when the evidence of God’s intelligence and glory surround us, instead of humbling ourselves to our Maker we willfully run away to preserve our own autonomy, and we act contrary to nature and sense. God has made it plain to all people that sin is wrong and carries with it guilt and punishment. So to turn to religions where the just judgment of God can be avoided, where sin is not talked about, where actions are not considered morally sinful or pure and the unnatural is considered natural. This is the irrationality of a sinful heart that knows better.

    The height of this irrationality is to say there is no God, knowing full well there not only is a God but a level of knowledge about Him and His actions. This knowledge is suppressed. This is also why endless debates and research on the existence of God will be futile without the working of God Himself. Look at what we have already done to the knowledge God has given us (a la Rom. 1). Even in philosophical or theological research we will only hold what we think accords to what we want. We are all spiritually blind and none of us seeks after God (Rom. 3:11).

    After His followers returned to report their successful mission of seeing others converted, Jesus prayed to His Father: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10:21). Finding God is not a matter of merely seeking or of gaining wisdom or being wise, but wholly depends upon God’s sovereign initiative of opening sinful, truth-suppressing hearts. This is a profound truth echoed throughout Scripture.

    Paul says it this way: “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ’” (1 Cor. 2:13-16). Until the Spirit works, there is no hope for the truth-suppressing sinner. This is what is so amazing about Amazing Grace.

    Until God opens the eyes of the irrational sinner (like I was for 22 years) I will not see my sin for what it is — deep seated rebellion at the core of my every motivation for which I am justly condemned by a perfect and holy God. This is the beauty of God’s grace. He does not leave us there. He opens the eyes of sinners so that God, the creation and all of life makes sense.

    But more importantly the Cross makes sense. God does not only act in power He acts justly. The sinner that sins must surely die. There is consequences to our sinful core and all of us know it. That sin is taken away in the substitution of Jesus Christ, God Himself, who takes the eternal punishment I have earned, not merely for my acts of sin but the very core of evil that motivated everything in my life. The proof of this is not at the end of a debate. Our sin suppresses the truth about God. So how does the Apostle Paul argue for the truth of all this amidst the philosophers of his day? By reminding his hearers that God raised His Son from the dead. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). But he was not accused of circular reasoning.

    God will judge all sinners because He is just/fair. He must punish sin. He has let the world know that His justice is coming by raising His Son. The great news is that the call to repentance is open. There is now time to turn and to believe in Christ, to be in Him and covered in His perfect righteousness, to have peace with God, to know God, to transcend theological theories and human wisdom, and to see the reality of the spiritual realm in which we live.

    But the fact remains that God must work so powerfully to override the churning sin that directs our every decision. And this is a task fit only for God. What’s amazing is that anyone has ever believed this radical message.

  9. Is faith in God innate? Or does it need to be taught? I understand that most Christians believe in Original Sin, but what about “Original Belief”?

  10. Concerning innate belief, Cornelius Van Til probably says it best: Psychologically there are no atheistic men, epistemologically every sinner is atheistic. We are all inborn with an awareness of God because we are all created in His image. Each of us is aware that He exists and He speaks. But as sinners who want to claim independence from Him we suppress this knowledge. We innately do not want theonomy but autonomy. It is only a supernatural work of God that overrides this pursuit of ignorance in our hearts.

    So when it comes to innate belief, we are all aware of God’s existence that is chiseled into the warp and woof of who we are and the only way to try and live otherwise is to suppress that knowledge which is what we do (Rom. 1). Innately none of us want anything to do with God. We are spiritually dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). But the good news is that God breaks into the epistemological atheism and brings new life.

    “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). It is phenomenal that sinners who are not seeking to be saved, are overpowered by God and brought under the life-transforming, eye-opening power of the Cross.

    “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

    The power of the Cross alone overcame the epistemological atheism of my rebellious, God-suppressing, sinful heart. In short, God must save us from our innate epistemology and He does this through the Gospel.

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