There has been considerable response to my earlier post entitled, “Bell’s Hell and the Destiny of those who’ve never heard of Jesus.” One issue that came up repeatedly was my denial that there is any such thing as an “honest atheist.” Perhaps a bit more explanation of what I meant is called for.

Do honest atheists exist? By “honest” I don’t mean atheists who pay their taxes and keep their promises and choose not to steal or lie. What I mean in asking the question is whether or not there exists an atheist who honestly believes there is no God.

There are, undoubtedly, many who claim to be atheists. They insist, often loudly and angrily, that there is no God and that religion is the cause of virtually all human pain and suffering. The only ultimate reality, so they say, is matter. Physical substance, whether helium or hormones, whether water or fire, is all there is. Everything can be explained or accounted for in terms of the existence and interaction of material substance of one sort or another. In other words, there is no spiritual realm. There are no angels. There is no immaterial soul in man, and above all, there is no “god” or deity or divinity or supernatural being of any sort.

So I’ll ask again: do honest atheists exist? You may think that to be a silly question given the notoriety of late among such prominent professing atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, just to name a few. But the operative word here is professing. Yes, many profess to be atheists and make a pretty good living writing books about it or appearing on talk shows or teaching in our universities and colleges. But my question is again whether or not these people, in the depth and quiet of their own hearts, honestly believe there is no God.

I contend they do not. I contend that they are living and speaking in denial of what they know to be true. I contend that they are laboring to persuade themselves of what is indelibly and inescapably inscribed on their hearts: that there is a God and that they are morally accountable to him.

No one has made the case for the non-existence of honest atheists, with greater clarity and force, than John Calvin. “There is within the human mind,” said Calvin, “and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. . . . To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” (Institutes, I.3.1).

All mankind, says Calvin, “perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker” (I.3.1). Not even the “more backward folk and those more remote from civilization” (I.3.1) can deny the existence of God. There is, says Calvin, “no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (I.3.1). Oh, yes, they can verbally “deny” his existence and develop elaborate philosophical arguments to buttress their case, but none is persuaded by his own reasoning. A “sense of deity”, he insists, is “inscribed in the hearts of all” (I.3.1).

Before we turn to Calvin’s biblical defense of this truth, let’s hear him make the point again. This sense or awareness of divinity which can never be effaced “is engraved upon men’s minds” and “is naturally born in all” and “is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow” (I.3.3). No matter how vocal their denials or sarcastic their laughter or loud their derision, “the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (I.3.3). Although many “strive with every nerve” to suppress this truth, “it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school” but one of which “each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget” (I.3.3).

This inescapable “knowledge” of God, however, is not redemptive. That is to say, we must differentiate between an awareness of God’s existence and an enjoyment of it. It is one thing to acknowledge that Deity exists. It is another to repent and seek him and cast oneself in humble dependence upon his grace and receive by faith his gift of life in Christ Jesus. Apart from the saving knowledge of God mediated to us in Christ and Holy Scripture, all men “deliberately befuddle themselves” (I.4.2) and turn to every sort of superstition and idolatry. Or, to use the words of Paul, to which Calvin returns again and again, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” but “became futile in their thinking” and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-22). They cannot escape “the truth about God”, so they exchange it “for a lie” and worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

But how do we know that all men know there is a God? On what grounds do we refuse to honor their claim to being atheists? Calvin points us in two directions. Not only has God “sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion,” what we often refer to as conscience (I.5.1; see Romans 2:12-16), but he has also “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (I.5.1). Upon all his works in the natural order of creation “he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance” (I.5.1).

Again, “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness” (I.5.1). Whether in astronomy or anatomy or botany or the power of lightning, wind, and storm, God has made himself known. Whether in his providence over nations or his lordship over creation or his sovereign sway over the lives of men, the glory and majesty of God shine forth. Yet we one and all “forsake the one true God for prodigious trifles” (I.5.11).

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that although such knowledge is inescapable, it is inadequate to impart eternal life or the forgiveness of sins. Although countless burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe, “although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path” (I.5.14). God’s existence and eternal power and divine nature are made “plain” to all men, rendering them “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). But we do not have “eyes” to behold his saving splendor “unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith” (I.5.14).

The fault is not with what God has revealed. There is no shortcoming or defect in his handiwork. The failure is in us. The dullness and stupidity and delusion are wholly ours. The problem isn’t that mankind lacks sufficient evidence for the existence of God. The problem isn’t that the evidence suffers from lack of clarity or beauty or falls short in its persuasive power.

The problem is that mankind, apart from Christ and his regenerating grace, despises what he sees. The problem is that we hate what we know. The problem isn’t that men look upon creation or contemplate the conviction of their own conscience and turn away saying, “It’s not enough; proof is lacking; it doesn’t add up; God doesn’t exist.” The problem is that they willfully and selfishly and knowingly loathe the God whom they see and know to exist and would rather indulge their own fleshly lusts and worship their own souls than to honor and give thanks to the God of glory (cf. Romans 1:21-25).

Calvin has read Paul rightly. His conclusions are therefore on the mark. There is no such thing as an honest atheist. There are those aplenty who with their mouths scoff at the notion of God and formulate their arguments to “prove” he does not exist. Perhaps there are even some who from years of willful rebellion and self-induced hardening of heart have anesthetized their souls to God’s powerful presence. Perhaps there are some (many?) whom God has simply “given over” (Romans 1:24,26,28) to the deeper cultivation of their self-delusion, some (many?) who have degenerated to such a degree that they’ve rendered themselves impervious to the clearest and most persuasive of evidence. But in any and every case, they are still “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The plea of ignorance will not suffice at the final bar of judgment.

Do not go in search of an honest atheist. You won’t find one. Turn, instead, to the heavens above which “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a). Turn, instead, to the sky that “proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1b). “Lift up your eyes on high and see” the trillions and trillions of stars and worship the One who “brings out their host by number” and calls “them all by name,” whose power alone sustains them so that “not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).

And then worship!

And then share these glorious truths with a “professing” atheist and direct him to the revelation of Christ in Scripture and pray that the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” might shine in his heart “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    30 replies to "“Honest Atheists”(?) and the Destiny of those who’ve never heard of Jesus"

    • Mark

      I know plenty of people who have honest reasons for not accepting Christian doctrine. Maybe they have some innate concept of divinity but don’t recognize it in Christianity as they see it portrayed or hear it explained.

      I think Rob Bell is objecting precisely to our perceived arrogance when we claim to know what is in another person’s heart.

    • Brian Westley

      Well, it’s a cinch you aren’t interested in an honest conversation.

    • Jeff Q

      While I agree with your post wholeheartedly, I still need some guidance regarding a situation like this: someone grows up in a foreign country, past or present and never hears the Gospel. They grow up with that sense of “something” in their hearts and seemingly find it in whatever religion is dominant around them.

      I guess what I’m asking is, would you say that God speaking to them would be “different” than whatever they feel from their other religious connection?

    • Don Sartain

      You’ve done an excellent job citing the Scriptural references for why atheists can’t “honestly” believe there is no God.

      As atheists don’t believe the Bible though, as they don’t believe in the God who inspired it, I’d like to openly steal from Matt Chandler and ask “If God isn’t real, why do you get so angry when saying he’s not real?” I don’t believe that unicorns, fairies, or Peter Pan really exist, but I don’t get angry or frustrated when I tell someone that. Why get frustrated over something that I KNOW to be FACT? Even when I child believes in such things, you don’t get frustrated and yell at them for believing Tinkerbell is real, you just let them grow out of it.

    • TDC

      This is one of the main reasons I’m losing my faith.

      I agree with you that the Bible teaches this. If you take the Bible seriously you cannot see those who choose unbelief as intellectually honest.

      But even though I find some of the evidence for Christianity persuasive, I don’t find it unambiguous. There is wiggle room, there is room for doubt. Lots of it. Every side has its difficulties, and it is easy for me to see why one would be unconvinced.

      But if I believe that one can be honest in their assessment of the evidence and not choose Christianity (or theism), then I guess I can’t agree with the Bible.

      It is certainly disheartening when one side of an honest debate labels the whole of the other side as “avoiding the obvious”, as this seems to do.

    • Scott

      Wow. Spiritual and intellectual hubris much? You *know* what’s going on in people’s minds and hearts? They don’t, but you do?

      There is a place for you to deal with your awesome supreme knowledge: a psychiatrist’s office.

    • Vance

      This reasoning comes down to: how do I know that these people really must know there is a divine power? The Bible says so.

      There is nothing objectively persuasive about this at all (although I believe it is true). Absent the Bible’s statements that “this is so” there is really no persuasive argument to make. Even the “God is in Nature” argument is bootstrapped into truth by Scripture, not extra-biblical support.

      But, in the role of persuading those who accept Scripture as true, then it is effective.

    • Mike B.

      This actually was a point on which I was seeking some elucidation after your last post. So thanks for making things clear. Of course, I don’t believe a word of it, and judging from some of the comments so far, I think others will take up the task of explaining the problems with this view.

      But what I would really like to see if is Michael Patton has anything to say on in response to this topic, seeing as he has made more of an effort than most to actually understand Christians who doubt and those who leave the faith.

      So, Michael. If you’re reading this. I’d like to hear your perspective.

    • Boz

      This article is would commit the fallacy of proof by assertion, but luckily there is one paragraph (only one!) which argues for the truth of the claim, instead of just asserting that it is true.

      The two arguments supporting that claim are the argument from conscience and the argument from design. however, both of these are arguments from incredulity. Happy to be corrected, as always!

    • Richard R

      Heh, Boz is back yet again, this time armed with a Wiki link! Where’s the selective quoting and the cut ‘n paste? Come on Boz, don’t let me down!

    • Steve Cornell

      If you want an excellent example validating Sam’s main point about atheists, see:
      I hope there is no God:
      Here you will find a highly respected atheist being honest about his motivation for rejecting God.
      There is a psychology to atheism that is often overlooked.

    • Bill Trip

      Mark you said, “I think Rob Bell is objecting precisely to our perceived arrogance when we claim to know what is in another person’s heart.”

      I am sorry but Rob Bell is the arrogant one. Please watch this video by Douglas Wilson as he explains the difference between arrogance and humility in the modern mind and why it matters.

      God has plainly spoken. If you are outside of Christ, you are lost and under the wrath of God.

    • John I.

      I don’t really see the point of the posting. To any nonChrsitian reading it, it comes across as rude and as an illegitimate ad hominem argument. Who can know the mind and heart of any other? No one. It does not seem to me either that the passages cited above make the claim that individual atheists are denying what they “know” to be true. If we all have this deep down “knowledge”, then why do Christians ever suffer doubt at all? In any event, the passages cited are not make the argument that S. Storms supposes. Moreover, if people land in hell, then they are there because of culpable sin–whether or not they “know” god exists.


    • WarWeasle

      I propose a different theory: That there are no people who actually believe Christianity is true. I cite multiple authors from Diogenes of Snope (Which predates your bible by almost 400 years) to very modern Steven Hawkins and Albert Einstein.

      I mean you claim you believe in Jesus, but you are not to be trusted by the very words of these authors as you do not have the ability to think critically. Therefore Christians can not “honestly” believe in gods as they can not differentiate between reality and fiction.

    • John I.

      In my above post I meant, of course, “people”, because God knows the hearts of people. Such knowledge is relevant to God and for his judging, but not relevant to us because we don’t have it and can’t use it. Moreover the word “knowledge” seems to me to be used with some ambiguity and equivocation and that the passages used don’t support the view put forward.


    • CalvinIsCrazy

      What a pile of bunk. An 8 year old could make the same arguments in favor of the existence of Santa using some Charles Dickens and coke commercials as “proof”. Back when I wasn’t an atheist, I would still have recognized junk arguments when I saw them.

    • mike

      Wait. If we disagree with someone’s viewpoint we can just claim that there is no way they could honestly hold it? When did this come about? On that note:

      No one can truly not like the show Firefly. I mean some might claim that they don’t care for it. That they are not into sci-fi or that the mixture of space and western did not appeal to them but they know in their hearts this is untrue. Those that deny there love for Firefly only do it to rebel against the fans of the show, to prove that are not just another one of the crowd. They don’t like to be thought of as “geeky” or “trekkies”, even though they don’t fully understand what those words mean. They think if they say they enjoy Firefly that it also means they must like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or other shows by Joss Whedon. They rage against the night a bit too strongly is you ask me. I say to you now and forever that all people, everywhere, no matter the race, creed or television preference LOVE the show Firefly.

    • Dr Michael

      If there is a such a thing as an honest atheist (using Sam’s definition), then Romans 1:18-32 is not true.

      Again, none of the opponents to Sam’s view deal with the text. It leads me to believe that there are some believers who have presuppositions that the Bible is errant and fallible.

      Look at Romans 1:18-32 again. Notice the “all” and the “that which is known about God is evident within; for God made it evident to them.” So which part of this do you deny? And then in Rom. 1:25 “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie”. How can it be any more straightforward that everyone knows God in his heart, but many suppress this truth and trade it for a lie?

    • Ed Kratz

      It looks like there is quit an influx of atheist arguements against this. I think it is pretty well established that Sam is using the Bible as his ultimate authority here. Of course if you don’t believe that Bible, you are going to fight against his conclusion. If what Sam is saying is right, concession to the truth of God is the problem afterall.

      Atheism, intellectually speaking, is, in my opinion, the most bankrupt of all worldviews. But this does not mean that people are not persuaded by it for other reasons than rationality. I know that belief is much more complex than the “If it make the most sense, I will believe it.” There are so many subjective reasons why we “supress the truth” and all of them to come down to some manifestation of unrighteousness. Again, those manifestations are complex and part of all our sin nature. It is the very reason why I choose sin over God when I do. I supress the truth.

      The backdrop to Sam’s arguement is both cosmological and…

    • Fuzzy

      Atheists don’t have to be believe there is no god(some atheists go this far). Atheism is the denial of a claim. That’s it. It is merely the belief that no person has proved or provided evidence that god(s) exist. Religious people make the claim a god exists. An atheist says I, do not accept your evidence. I’m an atheist, if someone can provide actual demonstrable evidence, evidence that does not rely on faith or acceptance of historical events with no proof outside of one book with many inaccuracies for the existance of god, I will change my beliefs. I want my beliefs to reflect reality or as close to reality as possible.

      Everyone is an atheist to some extent, atheists have just taken it one god further. When you understand why you reject all the other gods, you will understand why I reject yours.

    • Ed Kratz


      “When you understand why you reject all the other gods, you will understand why I reject yours.”

      Pretty big fallacy here in my opinion. The two are not parallel. Tastes great, less filling.

    • Carrie

      To all the atheists here raising a ruckus I have to ask …

      Why do you even care what Sam Storms says?

      If your naturalistic worldview is actually correct, then Sam can’t help thinking what he thinks. He is merely dancing to his DNA. His thoughts are but manifestations of his genetics.

      And if you don’t believe there are things such as universals, you have no right to object to Sam suggesting you are dishonest. If there are no universals, there is no such thing as honesty. Honesty requires one tell the truth. There is no truth if there are no universals.

      So who cares if Sam is honest or dishonest? Who cares if Sam thinks you are honest or dishonest?

      Your objection over either is self-referentially absurd.

    • Mike B.

      Michael. Thank you for weighing in. I am a little surprised at your conclusion, given the effort you have given to understanding people who leave the faith, and the fact that you do not generally delegitimize their reasons for doing so.

      This is, of course, absolutely imperative if you actually want to dialogue with people. You have to be sensitive and listen with an open mind to people’s reasons for disbelieving. This is one of the reasons I have always liked your work. But if this is just a courtesy and deep down you don’t really believe, as Sam suggests, that there is such a thing as an honest atheist, then doesn’t this undo all the constructive dialogue you’ve tried to foster? If people come to you saying, “I believe X,” and you say “No you don’t. You believe Y,” where can you possibly go from there?

      I think this is ultimately what people here have been complaining about, and I expected better.

    • Dan

      The problem with referencing Romans here is that Paul’s argument is naive on its face, not only with reference to atheism (which he probably didn’t have in mind anyway) but particularly with reference to other religions.

      Perhaps we could argue that the polytheist, the panentheist, or the gnostic are wrong in the way they conceive of divine beings, and perhaps we could even present philosophically compelling reasons to persuade them. But to argue that someone immersed from birth in, let’s say, the pantheist/panentheist worldview of Hinduism, just plain old “knows better” apart from any arguments is so far divorced from reality that it can’t be taken seriously.

      Have you considered the possibility that Paul was just wrong here? As I see if, if you’re not allowed to even ask whether Paul was wrong, then I don’t see how affirming that he was right is at all worthwhile.

    • Adam Omelianchuk

      Michael and Sam,

      I think the problem with this kind of argument is that it is easy to point to counterexamples. William Lobdell is a paradigm example of an evangelical Christian who lost his faith after covering the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. So gratuitous was the evil of ordained clergy exploiting children sexually, he found himself unable to reconcile it with his belief in an all-good and all-powerful being. Giving up belief in God was simply more plausible than shouldering the burden of theodicy. That doesn’t seem intellectually dishonest at all. For such persons, appealing to consequentialist or egoistic theodicies (God ordained it for his glory) and claiming to believe them would be the height of dishonesty.

    • Tom

      I have a little problem here with Psalm 14:1 that indicates a fool saying in his heart that there is no God. While I think it’s foolish and denies all the logic & evidence that I see, it does seem to indicate that it’s possible and that it’s not just denial, or just words that he says with his mouth. I would find it especially interesting for a Calvinist to not consider that someone not predestined to be saved would not also be predestined to not believe in God, though that’s another problem.

      I also feel that this thread seems to run astray in confusing belief in God with belief in Jesus, or crossing back & forth between what happens to people who never hear the Gospel or hear about Jesus and people having an innate sense of God built into their marrow.

      But perhaps I’m just not getting it here…

    • Dr Michael

      Tom that is a lot of “nots” in your third sentence. The point of Ps. 14 is that the person who says “there is no God” is foolish for saying that. The reason he believes this is that he is corrupt and has done evil deeds. Better to claim there is not God than to face your sin. OF course it’s possible for someone to believe. But the point is that even someone who believes that there is no God, deep down they know the truth. Because God has revealed it to them, as the Scripture says.

    • phauna

      Even if there were a god or gods, who says it is your god? The choice isn’t belief in god or non belief in god. The choice is belief in the Judeo Christian god, or the Greek and Roman pantheon, or the Norse gods, or African Animist gods, or Hindu gods or no god as in Buddhism, etc. vs. non-belief.

      I find non-belief is the simplest response to the millions of gods that man has invented. Please don’t tell me what I really think. I have never believed in a god or ever felt a need to.

    • Dr Michael

      @ phauna, your reasoning sounds like something else I’ve read: “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs.”

    • Giraffe

      Once God gives an individual over to their desire to believe the lie, there is no need for any “conversation” or “dialogue” with them. It is better to instead deal with the honest persons still looking for answers, but unnecessary to deal with those given over to the lie, and in fact imperative that we dont.

      That person given over has incurred God’s wrath here and now, and the only wise thing to do is to get out of the way to keep from getting hit with any of God’s wrath upon the lie lover.

      Just like when God destroyed sodom & gomorrah, we lovers of truth need to flee the vicinity of the lie lover, because God’s wrath is so powerful we could be accidentally in the line of fire and come under His wrath unintentionally.

      It’s no hard thing to see the lie lover desperately seeking “conversation” and “dialogue” as they fade off into complete destruction and utter blackness. They will claw at and try to grab onto anything or any person on their way to death.

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