It’s a curious thing that the first Christians were called atheists.
Obviously, that wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the existence of any god; it was because they didn’t believe in the existence of any of the Roman gods.
The earliest Christians confessed that Jesus, and only Jesus, was Lord. It was the “only” part that earned them the atheist label.
If they had simply added Jesus to the pantheon of gods that the Romans typically believed in, that would have been all right.
If they had acknowledged the existence of these other gods, while only worshipping Jesus, that too probably would have been all right.
Both Romans and Greeks typically worshipped at one particular shrine dedicated to one deity—be it Aphrodite, Zeus or whoever.
Worship of one god didn’t mean that one disavowed all the others—unless you were a Christian.
For example, in his “First Apology,” Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) addressed the charge that Christians were atheists, saying, “We confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity.”
The earliest confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” didn’t mean, “Jesus is Lord also, along with the others.” It meant, “Jesus, and only Jesus, is Lord.”
This form of confession didn’t originate with Christians. They co-opted it from the Roman imperial cult, which confessed, “Caesar is Lord.”
The Christians were thumbing their noses at the Romans by adopting and adapting their confession. “No,” they were saying, “Caesar isn’t Lord; Jesus is Lord.”
In fact, many of the terms and ideas found in the gospels, and now almost exclusively used with reference to Christianity, were taken from the imperial cult. “Gospel” is one example, and “son of God” is another.
To a Jew, the term “son of God” always referred to a human. It was the imperial cult that used it as a designation of a human deity (Caesar), so when the early followers of Jesus used it of him, it was with the Roman meaning in mind.
“Gospel” was the term used by Romans when describing the actions of Caesar, who was presented as a savior whose kingdom would bring peace to the world.
When Christians began applying “gospel” to the story of Jesus, it was a direct challenge to the imperial cult in Rome.
This is what led the Roman pagans to call Christians atheists—not that they didn’t believe in any god at all, but that they didn’t believe in the Roman gods.
Today, the word atheist means a person who doesn’t believe in the existence of any god.
However, when I read about the god that many modern atheists reject, I hear them reject a god who is:
− Anti-science and anti-intellectual
− Mean, vengeful and angry
− Separates people into “friends” and “enemies,” loving the former while hating the latter
− In control of all things, and is either responsible for good and evil or lacks the will or the ability to do anything about it
− Fosters ethnic bigotry and gender inequality
If that’s what it means to be an atheist, then I must be an atheist because I reject all those things. I do not, however, believe that the Bible properly interpreted reveals such a god.
While some Christians do believe in such a god, thankfully it is not the form of Christianity that most Christians in the world follow. Yet it is the form that is the most vocal and gets the most attention.
In many ways, I’m disappointed in many of today’s atheists. Many are educated people, which means they are smart enough to read the Bible and see that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is very different than the god they see and reject in the theology of some Christians.
They are also intelligent enough to understand that not all Christians believe in such a god, and that they are in fact rejecting a caricature of God, which most Christians reject as well.
But I’m also disappointed in Christians who let their fears, prejudices, politics and economic self-interest distort the view of God that they present.
To be clear, I don’t hold myself as immune from doing this. Because none is immune from this tendency, we would do well to consider that if a person rejects the form of God we are presenting, the problem might not lie with them.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.