In reading again through Francis Schaeffer’s great book “The God Who Is There”, I’ve been struck afresh with this thought:
Atheists have no true and consistent basis upon which to distinguish between right and wrong. Though they might argue tooth-and-nail to the contrary, the reality is that they cannot make truly reasonable decisions concerning that which is ethical or non-ethical. At best, a basis is found by mutual agreement for the betterment of society. But as soon as one society disagrees with another about what is ethical, an unavoidable contradiction emerges. Moreover, history has shown that a ‘survival of the species’ approach does not give society a sufficient base for determining that which is ethical and that which is not.
This in contrast to the reality of a theistic worldview: Ethics flow from the basis of God’s revealed law. God’s law, in turn flows from His unchanging, constituent being–the very bedrock of reality, truth and holiness.
Can we feel our way toward the unknown God? Paul’s rhetoric to the Athenians at Areopagus (Acts 17:15-34) is intriguing.
The logic of his argument is clear. During his time among the Athenians, he observed the many objects of their worship. The reality of the religious nature of the people was undeniable. And yet, along with the many objects of worship in the city, there was also an altar to ‘the unknown God’ (Acts 17:23).
This is where it gets interesting. Paul explained that this limit to their knowledge was by God’s own design. God had sovereignly placed them within the “boundaries of their dwelling place” so that “they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). What is interesting, then, is that the language that Paul uses here. It seems to convey that there is indeed some ability for men to feel their way toward God. But, is that really what he is saying?
Though the Athenians might well “perhaps feel their way” (Acts 17:27, emphasis added), the point he is making is that that they would never actually be able to arrive at any degree of certainty (as attested by the ‘mystery’ alter), unless God came to them and further revealed himself. Paul’s words are not intended to theologise man’s ability to seek God. Quite the opposite. They are part of his rhetoric, powerfully highlighting the relevance of his message. God had indeed revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and had proven so by the reality of the resurrection. This was the very reason that his message had implications for all men (not Jews only). God now commanded “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
The realities that are evidenced in the religious activity of the Athenians, serve as a microcosm for humanity at large. Certainly Paul believed that humanity does have an innate sense spirituality. And indeed this spirituality does allow him, in some way, to seek for God. This seeking, however, is part of man’s dilemma, not his hope. He can seek only as a blind man seeks. He gropes in the darkness while looking for something that he cannot see, feel or touch. The reality of this kind of seeking does not show man’s ability to get to God, but rather his total dependence on God’s revelation in and through the Christ.