The Only “Atheists” in the Bible
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
In the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of the "new atheists." Led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and folks like them, atheism has received considerable attention in the media. The number of people in the U.S. identifying themselves as atheists has risen slightly, though about one-fifth of the American population claims no religious affiliation (the "Nones").
Our word "atheist" comes directly from the Greek atheos (not-god). In the whole Bible, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word shows up only once, in Ephesians 2:12. Here, the Gentiles are described as "without hope and without God [atheoi, plural of atheos] in the world."
Pagans in the Roman Empire would not have accepted this description of themselves, however. Though a few ancient philosophers denied the existence of the gods, the vast majority of people believed in many gods. In fact, pagans accused Jews and Christians of being atheoi because they denied the reality of the gods, except for the God of Israel. Christians, beginning with Paul in Ephesians 2, returned the favor.
In the second half of the second century, a Christian bishop named Polycarp was put on trial by the Roman authorities because he would not acknowledge the Lordship of Caesar. In a stadium full of pagan Romans, the proconsul urged Polycarp to swear an oath to Caesar and say, "Away with the atheists," meaning, "Away with the Christians." Polycarp responded by looking upon the pagan crowd, waving at them and saying, "Away with the atheists!" (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9:2). Because he would not revile Christ, Polycarp was burned and then stabbed to death.
Ironically, we who believe in one God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, struggle more often with an "atheism" like that of Rome rather than the atheism of Dawkins & Co. What our culture finds most offensive is not our belief in something divine, but rather our belief that God alone is the true God. Though we may not be martyred for our brand of "atheism," we may well be criticized, ostracized, or condemned.
Ephesians 2 reminds us, however, that we are not trying to prove our religious superiority or win philosophical arguments for the sake of our own glory. Rather, we want to introduce the "atheists" in our time of history—those who do not know God—to gracious God who seeks to embrace them with his grace and help them live with hope.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What kinds of "atheism" do you find most troubling? How is it possible to be a kind, respectful person and still claim that the God of Israel is the one true God?
PRAYER: Gracious Lord, today I want to pray for those who do not know you.
I pray for those who are open and seeking, that they might find you ... or, better, that you might find them and bring them home.
I pray for those who embrace "gods" other than you, that they might come to know you as the one true God. Make yourself known to them, Lord.
I pray for those who have adopted the "new atheism," who not only reject your existence but also who seek to destroy the faith of others. Confront them with your truth. Surround them with your love.
May all nations, all people acknowledge you as God and worship you as King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen.
Image courtesy of Laity Lodge, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.