This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 03 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Ignoramus is not a term we use to compliment others. However, I find it apt to describe the minds behind many comments on social media. An ignoramus speaks or writes about (1) what he does not know and about (2) what he should know that he does not know. No one should be an ignoramus; however, everyone needs a good philosophy of ignorance. God’s revelation in Scripture gives us just that. First, though, we start with knowledge since it is the opposite of ignorance.
J. P. Moreland, echoing his mentor Dallas Willard, has rightly and repeatedly taught that Christianity is a “knowledge tradition.” I agree.1 Knowledge ought to be stressed, since so many dismiss Christianity as a matter of blind faith — something to be looked down on or put up with by thinking people, people who are “in the know.”2
Yet Christianity calls all people to be “in the know” about God, themselves, and the gospel. Jesus, God in the flesh, has made the Father known to the world (John 1:1–18) as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).3 The apostle John wrote his Gospel so readers could know the truth about Jesus. “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
John gave sufficient evidence to warrant a wise and saving belief in Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:12–13). Luke did the same:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)
Luke wrote so that his readers might “know the certainty of the things” pertaining to Jesus. His words were not speculations, and he was no mythmaker. Rather, he instilled knowledge. But what is knowledge?
For anyone to have knowledge of a statement or a subject means that he or she has reasons or justification for their beliefs. Knowledge is not a matter of guessing correctly or merely hoping in something that is improbable.4 Our lives are an ongoing mixture of knowledge and ignorance. The wise person pursues knowledge about what needs to be known, and thus strives to decrease ignorance (or not-knowing). The writer of Ecclesiastes, for example, tells us that he ardently applied himself to find wisdom but was, nevertheless, often thwarted, puzzled, and left in the dismal darkness of ignorance (Eccl. 5:18–20). Still, his pursuit was worth it; even in his frustration, he was able to discern the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance, thus giving meaning to both, even “under the sun.”5
Christianity is a thinking person’s faith, as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity: “Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself. That is why an uneducated believer like [John] Bunyan was able to write a book [Pilgrim’s Progress] that has astonished the whole world.”6
But we need to consider several texts that speak of our invincible ignorance — what we cannot possibly know and how we should orient ourselves to our not-knowing under God.7 Although Jesus revealed the living and personal God to us, He did not reveal the answers to some questions.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1–5)
Jesus did not explain why the victims died as they did. He was not going to work a calculation of the likelihood of violent death because of sin. The issue was life and death — repentance unto salvation. The first word of the gospel is always repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17 NKJV), cried Jesus at the commencement of His public ministry. After His resurrection, He told His disciples that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
The Lord was once asked about the timing of the apocalyptic events He had described. He responded, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 27:36). Jesus knew that we can live with some ignorance. Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, His disciples asked a question for which they received no answer:
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1:6–9)
“It is not for you to know.” We can know that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, and we should long for His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8). We do not know when He will appear, and that is fine. Our place is to watch, pray, evangelize, and do good works in faith (Matt. 25:31–46; 28:18–20). When people falsely predict the Second Coming, it is a bad witness and makes some doubt the truth of the Bible or the fact that Jesus will come again. Radio broadcaster and author Harold Camping (d. 2013) predicted the end of the world many times, including May 21, 2011 and October 21, 2011. After those failures, he apologized for his sinful actions.8 In 1988, Edgar Whisenant released a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. When this year came and went, he wrote that 1989 was the time.9 Several religious groups have falsely predicted the Second Coming, only to retrofit the prophecies after the fact of their failure. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are infamous for this.10
Cult groups always claim a revelation beyond the Bible, which they use to misinterpret the Bible. But the Bible is sufficient as God’s special revelation. Paul wrote that “the Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15–17).
We can know enough, and we ought not attempt to pry in where God has bid us not to go: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). But even among orthodox Christians, shoehorning contemporary events and trends into eschatological outcomes is more than a theological cottage industry. This has become big business by positing speculation as knowledge.
Even an apostle of Christ, a recipient of divine revelation, revels in his invincible ignorance of God’s ways. Paul’s doxology in Romans 11 is extraordinary given that he had just written in the previous chapters the most thorough presentation of Christian theology in the entire Bible. After having written of God’s natural revelation to us, our fallen state, and the way of salvation in Christ, Paul cries out:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and
knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom. 11:33–36)
Paul lauds and praises the Lord in the context of God’s revelation. He is not worshiping in a cognitive vacuum or taking a blind leap of faith.11 Given what Paul knows about God, he infers that there is far more to God than he can know — “the riches of His wisdom and knowledge,” His “unsearchable judgments,” and His “paths beyond tracing out.” God does not take us into His counsel and receives nothing from us for which He must pay us back. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers, “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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24–25).
The Responsibility for Knowledge — and Ignorance
Our knowledge is hemmed in by two ineluctable factors — our finiteness and our fallenness. The first condition is intrinsic to who we are as creatures. We are limited and mortal beings who were made to know God, the world, others, and ourselves. Nonetheless, we need God’s revelation to give the ultimate meaning for life. This was true even in the garden for Adam and Eve before the fall. God spoke to them (Gen. 1–2). Sin, however, darkens our understanding because of our self-centeredness. Paul writes of those who “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Eph. 4:18).
Thus, much of our ignorance is culpable; that is, we should and could know better. The unbeliever suppresses what they know about God in order to escape God’s authority (Rom. 1:18–21; Ps. 10:4).12 Christians may know less than they ought to know and should, therefore, repent of their intellectual lethargy (Heb. 5:11–14). This is our responsibility for knowledge.
There is no call and there is no room for the Christian to be an ignoramus about the gospel or the Bible. However, the wise follower of Jesus will know what she cannot know under the sun. For that, we need a solid philosophy of ignorance. Thus, to invert Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “Dare to know — what you cannot know!”
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he has served since 1993. His latest of fourteen books is I Love You to the Stars: When Grandma Forgets, Love Remembers (Kregel, 2020), co-authored with Crystal Bowman.
See Douglas Groothuis, “Christianity as a Knowledge Tradition,” Loving God with All Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland, ed. Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis (Chicago: Moody Press, 2013).
See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).
Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
According to Paul, we can have the knowledge of what we hope for in Christ (see Rom. 5:5).
See Douglas Groothuis, “Chasing Wisdom,” Touchstone, April/May 2020, https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=33-02-050-f.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 75.
Pertinent to the issue of ignorance is also (1) what we should not know, but could know (such as gossip and certain things about the occult) and (2) what a particular person cannot know because of situation, time, or abilities.
Robert D. McFadden, “Harold Camping, Dogged Forecaster of the End of the World, Dies at 92,” New York Times, December 17, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/us/harold-camping-radio-entrepreneur-who-predicted-worlds-end-dies-at-92.html.
Edgar Whisenant and Greg Brewer, The Final Shout: Rapture Report — 1989 (Camarillo, CA: World Bible Publishing Co., 1989). See also Dean C. Halverson, “88 Reasons: What Went Wrong?” Christian Research Journal, Fall 1988, CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/88-reasons-what-went-wrong/.
See Clete Hux, “The End That Wasn’t: The False Prophecies of the Watchtower,” Apologetics Research Center, October 24, 2018, https://arcapologetics.org/the-end-thatwasnt-the-false-prophecies-of-the-watchtower/.
On how the idea of faith has come to mean a lack of knowledge, and on irrationalism in general, see Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), sections I and II. See also Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968).
On our natural knowledge of God and how we resist it, see R. C. Sproul, “The Psychology of Atheism,” If There is a God, Why Are There Atheists? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1978) and Os Guinness, “Anatomy of Unbelief,” Fool’s Talk (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).