By Stephen P. Willis
Ever been called an atheist? You may wonder why the question is asked. Most likely, the readers of this article have never been called an atheist-at least in the present usage of the word–one who does not believe in God. In the sense of believing that there is a supreme being, atheists are “without excuse” for “since the creation of the world His (God’s–sw) invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1), so that it is only the fool who has “said in his heart, ‘There is no God”‘ (Ps. 14:1). Yet at one time, Jews and Christians were termed “atheists.”
When it came time for the church to face the fourth empire of the Danielic prophecy, Rome, their choice was: sacrifice or die. This test had been applied to the Jews in earlier times, as is cited by W.H.C. Frend in his book, Martyrdom & Persecution in the Early Church (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1967):
Finally, It Is clear that the sacrifice test was employed to establish the fact of Judaism. Nearly fifty years later, Pliny’s advisers in Bithynia urged the same course and for the same reason, against the Christians. Supplication with Incense to the Emperor’s statute and the recitation of prayer to the gods were “things (which so It was said) those who are really Christians cannot be made to do.” Implicit In both situations was the charge of atheism. . .(p. 103).
Frend discusses the problem of “atheism” at a later point in the history of the Roman Empire:
The requirement was for all free inhabitants of the Empire, men, women and children, to sacrifice to the gods of the Empire, pour a libation, and taste sacrificial meat. The penalty for refusal was death (Acts Pionii 7.4). Though these deities were not specified to the sacrificers we know from contemporary sources of offerings made to Jupiter, the Roman triad Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, to Dea Roma, to Apollo, Diana, Venus, Nemesis and to the genius of the Emperor himself (p. 302).
Some of these houses of worship were set up in the cities of Asia Minor where John’s Revelation was sent (see 1:4; ch. 2-3). The church at Pergamum (where the Temple of Augustus and the Altar of Victory stood, Frend, p. 148) had some who were eating things sacrificed to the idols (Rev. 2:14). Thyatira, noted for its trade guilds, which required its members to sacrifice to the gods, too had some who ate of these sacrifices (Rev. 2:20). The other churches of Asia and the rest of the Empire met similar problems as these.
These were the “atheists.” They denied the Roman gods. They were also called asebeia-a Greek word meaning “want of reverence, impiety, ungodliness.” (For N.T. usage of this word see Rom. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:16; Tit. 2:12; usage of its cognate Rom. 11:26; Jude 15, 18.) In their attempts to serve the one and only God, the religious world about them thought that because they did not partake in the same practices that the Romans did, the Christians were atheists.
They even had a method devised to keep track of the theists (Romans) and the atheists (Christians and other protesters). This practice seems to be related in Rev. 13:15-17:
And there was given to him to give breath to the Image of the beast, that the image of the beast might even speak and came as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed. And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the .laves, to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and he provides that no one would be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.
Frend tells us,
Moreover, census and tax rolls provided by local officials in each district controlled the number and identity of those who presented themselves to sacrifice. On completion they received a certificate (libellus) signed by the commission testifying that they had duly done sacrifice (p. 303).
As already noted some of the Christians thought that they could serve God without compromising themselves in spite of sacrificing to idols. Frend tells that some Christians went so far as to illegally purchase the certificates (p. 305). The scriptures tell God’s attitude toward those who made such compromises:
. . .If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his Image, and whoever receives the mark of his name (Rev. 14:9-11).
Well, how about it. Have you ever been called an atheist? I think in light of the way that the word was used at that time in history some Christians can indeed be called atheists. Only if we do not receive the religious practices of the world around us, though, can we be called atheists in the way that those Christians were.
There are a lot of doctrines and practices of the surrounding religious world to which we should be called atheists. Some are awaiting the coming of the kingdom of Jesus-so much that anyone who believes the Bible, which teaches that the kingdom is already here, is considered an atheist. The miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit is another doctrine which is held by some to which we should be considered atheists. The tenets of Calvinism are avowed by almost every sect of denominationalism. We should be atheist to such views and others.
But the Romans did not consider Christians atheists merely for their doctrine, but also for their practices. In fact, they really could have cared less about the doctrine, as long as the sacrifice was paid (this is evidenced by the actions of the compromising Christians). Today there are such practices that we should be looked upon as atheists in that we do not keep them. The “religious holidays” (holy-days) such as Lent, Easter and Christmas would be some examples. No doubt the Christian’s nonobservance has caused many to feel that he is an atheist-and rightfully so! But what about abuses of authority, such as misuse of the Lord’s money? Should we be like all the world about us and support missionary societies, colleges, old folks and orphans’ homes out of the church’s treasury? No! Be an “atheist”! Where would such abuses end? Church socials for saints? Providing refreshments for aliens and saints whether it be every Sunday or for “Vacation Bible School”? Games? Ball Teams? Movies? Gymnasiums? Instruments of Music? Abusing the authority given by God to do what He has told us to do (and not to do what He has not told us to do) makes us atheists all right-but not in the sight of men, as we have found with the Romans’ charge toward the Christians; we would be atheists in the sight of God!
Have you ever been called an atheist by men?
Perhaps it is time that you were!
Truth Magazine XXII: 35, pp. 568-569
September 7, 1978