English has many Latin roots. Many Latin expressions can therefore be intuitively decoded without much effort, even apart from a working knowledge of the language. Sensus divinitatis shouldn’t be too hard to work out as “sense of divinity.” The idea is sometimes found with a synonymous expression: semen religionis or “seed of religion.” The concept behind both is the biblical teaching that all human beings have some sense that God exists.
The key biblical passage is found in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)
The Holy Spirit says here that God has shown certain things about himself to all people. His “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived.” This obviously includes the awareness of his very existence. God does not believe in the existence of atheists, and neither should we!
When you encounter someone who claims to be an atheist, you are meeting someone self-deceived. They have deceived themselves into a position they actually know not to be true. And according to the Holy Spirit in Romans 1, this is not a person with an intellectual problem, but a moral one. This suppressing of the truth is done in “unrighteousness.” It is wicked to have the sensus divinitatis and then not acknowledge the Deity. It leaves unbelievers “without excuse” — literally without an apologetic, without a reasonable defense for what they’re doing.
This suppression of the sensus divinitatis has been compared to a jack-in-the-box. For those who have no idea what such a thing is, I’ve included a picture at the top of this post. “Jack” has to be stuffed down into the box. “Jack” does not cease to exist. He is still there, but has been pushed down into the box, out of sight. Our calling as Christians is to turn the crank, so to speak. Our calling is to bring the truth out into the open, so that the unbeliever might acknowledge God for who he is, and submit to him with faith and repentance.
The concept of the sensus divinitatis is therefore important for defending and promoting our faith, for apologetics. At the heart of biblical apologetics is the notion that the unbeliever already knows God is there, but is suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. The unbeliever is sinfully living in self-deception. Biblical apologetics equips us with the tools to expose this fantasy world of the unbeliever for what it really is. Through apologetics, we learn how to demonstrate that, while denying God with their lips, unbelievers show with their lives that they are self-deceived. To use the words of Proverbs 26:4,5, through apologetics we learn both how to “answer not a fool according to his folly” (to lay out the truth), and to “answer a fool according to his folly” (to expose the foolish fantasy of unbelief).
In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis comments tellingly about his life before acknowledging God:
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.
You see, the sensus divinitatis is real, found not only in the words of Scripture, but also in human experience. So remember the next time you’re speaking with an unbeliever that not everything is as it seems. Your unbelieving friend actually knows God to some degree, but wickedly pushes that truth down. Pray that you can be God’s instrument to pull the truth up and out into the open.