Romans 1:18-32 starkly says:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
This passage of Scripture often sees action in the attempts of some Christians to say that unregenerate man cannot “truly” understand anything about God, about themselves, or about the world, because in their sin they have “suppressed” the truth, their thinking has become “futile,” and they have been “given over by God” to the results of their sin. Hand-in-hand with verses like “The natural man does not understand the things of God for they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14), and “What fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Cor. 6:14), and “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2), the Romans passage is used by some to prove that the unregenerate are, almost as it were, an entirely different race of beings from the regenerate. They do not even understand the truth that stares them in the face, let alone accept it.
By contrast, Acts 17:17-33 conveys very clearly the idea that unbelievers can and do know quite a lot about God, themselves, and the world even though their minds are darkened by sin:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: -to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
Notice some important things about the Acts passage relative to the Romans 1.
Despite the fact that unbelievers “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” they do in fact know the truth about God because God has made it plain to them. Note that their suppressive activity is ethical – it results in God judging them by giving them over to a catalogue of grossly evil actions. Romans 1 does not indicate that man’s sin has made him ontologically evil or epistemologically blind. The Acts 17 passage makes it as plain as can be that God has ordered human life in such a way that man can seek him and perhaps “reach out for him and find him.” As another translation puts it, men can “grope for God.” As a general rule, men may try to get far from God, but God is not far from men. If He has arranged things such that men can “grope” for Him, and if, as we know from Hebrews 11, He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, is it proper to read the Romans passage as an absolute rather than a rhetorical statement?