So, Maybe I’m an Atheist?

canstockphoto19134924It’s a curious thing that the first Christians were called “atheists.” That’s right, 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 worshiping Jesus, that too probably would have been all right. Both Romans and Greeks typically worshiped at one particular shrine dedicated to one deity—be it Aphrodite or Zeus or whoever. Worship of one god didn’t mean that one disavowed all the others.

Unless you were a Christian. 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.”

The truth is that the form of that confession didn’t originate with Christians. They co-opted it from the Roman imperial cult which confessed that “Caesar is Lord.” The Christians were thumbing their noses at the Romans, stealing and changing 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.

A Savior whose kingdom would bring peace to the world was originally applied to Caesar. From the beginning Christianity was not only a challenge to the Temple cult in Jerusalem but to the imperial cult in Rome as well.

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 our gods.

Today the word atheist means a person who doesn’t believe in the existence of any god, but when I read or listen to many atheists today, I wonder if they don’t have more in common with the earliest Christians than they—or we—realize.

That’s a radical statement, but hear me out for a second. When I read about the god that modern atheists reject, I hear them reject:

  • A god that is anti-science and anti-intellectual
  • A mean, vengeful, angry god
  • A god who separates people into “friends” and “enemies”, loving the former while hating the latter
  • A god who is in control of all things, therefore is responsible for not only the good in the world but the evil as well—or, if not responsible for the evil, either lacks the will or the ability to do anything about it
  • A god who fosters ethnic bigotry and gender inequality
  • A god who can’t stand the character flaws of the poor while obviously rewarding the energy and ingenuity of the rich

Well, 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.

On the other hand I do believe that many Christians reveal such a god. All of the things I listed can be found in a form of Christianity that many people espouse today. Thankfully it is not the form of Christianity that most Christians in the world follow, but 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. They are obviously very smart people, which means that 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 many Christians.

They are also smart enough to understand that not all Christians believe in such a god, and that they are in fact rejecting a caricature of God which many if not most Christians reject as well.

But mainly I’m disappointed—let’s just stay with that word—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 that as well.)

Perhaps we would do well to consider that if a person rejects the form of God we are presenting, the problem may not lie with them.

Image from CanStockPhoto

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