Near the end of WWII, the first town with a concentration camp that the Allied forces liberated was Ohrdruf, Germany. Allied soldiers got there before the Nazis could get rid of any evidence of the camp, and the American soldiers walked into that camp to find hundreds upon hundreds of dead bodies.
It is difficult to exaggerate the horrors of these camps. When General Patton arrived in Ohrdruf, he promptly vomited upon witnessing the scene. It was—and is—too horrific for words.
Patton knew that the German people needed to know what had happened. He brought the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife to see the camp. He then ordered every able body in the town to dig graves for the bodies, and they held a funeral for the deceased.
After the funeral, Patton found out that the mayor and his wife had hung themselves. Before their death, they left a note that read, “We didn’t know … but we knew.”
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.
– Romans 1:18–20 CSB (emphasis added)
Suppression, you see, is not the same as ignorance. Suppression means the truth is in there, but you keep yourself from acknowledging it. Like a beach ball you are attempting to hold under the water, it keeps trying to come to the surface, and you keep pushing it down.
Tim Keller summarizes this dynamic with the paradoxical phrase, “We know, but we don’t know, because we don’t want to know.”
Like the mayor of Ohrdruf, the truth is too uncomfortable and would demand too much change, so subconsciously we choose not to know.
That means we also have to ignore the two places Paul says God has revealed himself: to us and in us.
We Know God Is There Because It Is Revealed to Us
Creation, Scripture says, declares to us the reality, power, and glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Throughout history, philosophers have broken this down in a number of ways.
One is called the “cosmological argument.” This one goes back all the way to Aristotle. It’s the question of why there is something rather than nothing. If the world began 14 billion years ago with a big bang, then where did the materials that caused the big bang come from?
In his book God Delusion, Richard Dawkins admits this is a problem. While explanations exist for how life took shape on the earth, he admits there is still no explanation for life itself. Atheists need a theory, he says, as to why anything exists at all.
Then there is what philosophers call the “teleological argument” for God. Telos means “purpose.” Not only do we have the question of why there is something rather than nothing, but our creation also appears to be very finely tuned for a purpose.
The more we learn about this, the more amazing it becomes. Scientists say that life on earth depends on multiple factors that are so precise that if they were off by even a hair, life could not exist. They call it the Goldilocks principle: Things are “just right” for human life.
For example, the makeup of our atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.5 percent argon, and 0.03 percent carbon dioxide. That might seem random to you, but it’s exactly what we need to have a habitable planet. Bump the oxygen level up a couple percentage points—say, to 25 percent—and you don’t create a world where it’s easier to breathe. Instead, our planet would become a giant fireball.
The atheistic answer is to say that this part of the galaxy was just really, really lucky. Given enough time and space, a planet like earth was bound to exist. But is that really the best and easiest explanation for what we see? It takes an anti-God bias to arrive there, and usually, people have some other problem that follows from a God creating it all that makes them look at the evidence that way.
We know, but we don’t know, because we don’t want to know.
We Know God Is There Because It Is Revealed in Us
God has shown us himself, Paul says, and he not only does that in our world but in our souls, too. He has revealed himself in us.
There are things in our hearts that tell us we are more than just accidental biology, like our longings for love and meaning and eternity. The atheist philosopher Albert Camus said that we long for “love without parting” but that a universe without God gives us only “the conscious certainty of death without hope.”
God has shown us himself, and he not only does that in our world but in our souls, too. He has revealed himself in us.
Camus called this “the absurdity of life.” He said life was one long, tragic, absurd comedy, as we seek things from life that life simply can’t provide. Being brave, he said, was acknowledging this meaninglessness and plodding forward into the darkness anyway.
C.S. Lewis had a different answer:
A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
Which one do you prefer? That our longing for meaning and justice and eternity is a cruel, accidental joke? Or that it is a whisper that we were created for another world?
Another dimension of this is what philosophers call the “moral argument“: The very fact that we have moral feelings suggests the presence of a Divine Lawgiver.
I recently parked in a parking garage with a sign every few feet that said, “Keep your parking ticket with you.” The presence of the ticket, combined with the repeated signs, reminded me that someone somewhere was going to ask for the ticket.
In the same way, feelings of guilt and moral obligation are common to all people in all cultures, pointing to the fact that we are stamped with the image of some Divine Lawgiver, who has implanted in our hearts his sense of right, truth, and love.
Even if we stop believing in God, we can’t shake this idea that one day we’re going to be held accountable—somehow, somewhere.
We know, but we don’t know, because we don’t want to know.