How Can the Bible Say that All People Know God When Some Deny It?

What happens practically, theologically, and philosophically when people are self-deceived.

Because the evidence is clear, and because the suppression of the truth is intentional, we can properly conclude that all men are “without excuse” and bear full responsibility for their sins of mind, speech, and conduct. Given the elaboration of self-deception offered here, we can better appreciate what Paul says in Romans 1, namely, that “knowing God,” all men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” And we can assert non-paradoxically that unbelievers culpably deceive themselves about their Maker.


The late Greg Bahnsen (1948–1995) wrote his dissertation under Dallas Willard at the University of Southern California offering “A Conditional Resolution of the Apparent Paradox of Self-Deception” (1978). (You can read it as a free ebook: “The Apologetical Implications of Self-Deception.”) In 1995, he published a summary article entitled, “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” It’s a very helpful introduction to what happens practically, theologically, and philosophically when people are self-deceived.

He starts with some analytical work, illustrates self-deception from an everyday example, and finally looks at how this analysis applies to Romans 1 (where unbelievers know God but unrighteously suppress that knowledge).

1. Self-Deception in Philosophical Analysis

Bahnsen first explains in analytical categories what is going on when a person is self-deceived about a belief, looking at their beliefs, disavowals, rationalizations, and intentions.

The analysis of self-deception fostered here maintains that when S deceives himself:

  1. S believes that p,
    2. S is motivated to ignore, hide, deny (etc.) his belief that p, and
    3. By misconstruing or rationalizing the evidence, S brings himself to believe falsely that “S does not believe that p.”

In order to preserve something about his own self-conception, S engages in motivated rationalization of the evidence so that he relies in his theoretical and practical inferences on the proposition that he is not relying in his theoretical and practical inferences on p.

He is morally culpable for this lie about himself because it is engaged intentionally, and yet he may not be aware of his intention since it has become habitual or, being self-covering, has become something he no longer thinks about (like falling asleep).

S obscures his dreaded belief that p, as well as his intention to obscure it by rationalizing the evidence.

Self-deception involves deception of the self, by the self, about the self, and for the sake of the self.

2. An Everyday Illustration of Self-Deception

Bahnsen then provides an example to illustration common forms of self-deception, using Mrs. Jones:

The principal calls her to say that her son Johnny (her pride and joy, her only child) has been caught stealing lunch money out of students’ desks.

The evidence is plain that Johnny is a thief, and this is the third time she has received such a call from the school.

She has also noticed money missing out of her own purse at home, and Johnny has been coming home with expensive items from the store.

Mrs. Jones shows the affective symptoms of believing the proposition that Johnny is a thief. She tries to avoid situations where she is likely to be reminded of his dishonesty. She moves to a new neighborhood, transferring Johnny into a new school, and refusing to put a phone in her new home. She keeps an unusually attentive eye on her boy, but will not admit that she does so, etc.

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