I am often asked whether I believe that any true atheists exist. It has become a common refrain among believers to say, "I don't believe in atheists." This is, in my opinion only half valid. The pertinent scripture here is Romans 1:18-21 which does indeed speak of all men in context and explains,
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
So do atheists exist? Yes and no. The encyclopedia of philosophy defines an atheist as "one who maintains that there is no God." Now in a very strict sense, one may maintain that there is no God without actually believing that there is no God. In a very clinical sense, yes atheists exist since there are many people who maintain that there is no God. However, we all know that the question digs a little deeper than that. Whatever we might say about what one maintains, the questioner wants to know whether or not anyone actually believes that there is no God. After all, the passage above does indicate that those who disbelieve are "suppressing the truth" and are "without excuse" because the truth of God's existence is "clearly seen" through what has been made.
SUPPRESSION OF TRUTH
On the other hand, anyone who has ever spoken to an honest, seeking, openminded atheist (yes they exist, but you're not likely to find them in the comments streams on youtube) knows that such a person genuinely struggles with the very concept of God. Many of them say they wish they could believe. If you take any one of these people at their word a great problem emerges. Either they are lying to us, or scripture is wrong. Not necessarily.
The fact is that scripture teaches that they are actually lying to themselves. Now, this does not sound all that pleasant to our naturalist friends, nevertheless, one can deceive herself about something without realizing it. In fact, if she realized it the deception would not have been successful. I submit to you that honest atheists are not being disingenuous when they say that they "lack a belief in God." They have convinced themselves that it is true even though that God has revealed himself through nature, and perhaps special revelation in scripture. However, that they suppress the truth becomes clear in many instances.
BEHAVIOR OF BELIEF
It was recommended to Sarah and I that we watch the new Fox show, Utopia. I cannot recommend this program for the illicit activities that have become so prevalent among reality television stars. One contestant, however, held my attention and kept me from turning it off. Pastor Johnathan had the self-designated and open goal of reaching and baptizing everyone on the show in Jesus' name. By episode three he already had his first convert. As the group gathered to watch the event two of the outspoken atheists had tears streaming down their faces. How interesting. Why would this be? Why would the power of the image of baptism retain such potency for these unbelievers? In fact, the very convert himself had only days before declared, "there is no Christianity in my utopia!" Fascinating. Could it be that the teary eyed atheists were simply moved by the fact that this was a major event in the life of their fellow utopian? Doubtful. These characters had been open about the fact that they not only saw religion as false, but even a major problem in society. One does not cry at the expression of a major problem in society. They recognized something meaningful and real was happening.
DARKENING TO DELIVERANCE
Like winning lottery prizes hidden beneath a thin layer on a ticket, the veneer of atheism often is scratched away to reveal that atheists know of the God who pursues them. They have been fleeing him all their lives. Nevertheless, they have suppressed the truth to such a degree that they no longer recognize what is happening. But telling an atheist this is often interpreted as condescending. Reach out to them with rich apologetics, passionate evangelism and the truth of the gospel is the wise choice lest their foolish hearts remain darkened.
So do atheists exist? Yes and no. Yes, there are people who maintain that God does not exist and are not being disingenuous. No, there is no one who has not seen clear evidence for the truth of God's existence.