The First Atheists

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens that day was typical in the Roman Empire of the time. As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the statues, veneration and worship of countless gods and goddesses. The ancient world was certainly “very religious”.

The scholar Keith Hopkins chose to title his book on the religion of the ancient world “A World Full of Gods.” This is no exaggeration. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in a small shrine in every Roman home. Even the Emperor was the object of divine worship, imperial cults were found across the empire venerating Emperors past and present.

This is the world in which Paul found himself walking as he journeyed through ancient Athens, and it is the world that the Early Church continued to operate in for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 300s that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal faith of the Empire, and even then it took hundreds of years for the stronger pagan cults to disappear.

So what does this make the Early Church? In a world busy with gods and divines of every kind, the Early Church was radically countercultural. Accepting only one, true God. Rejecting all others.

Early Christians were Atheists.

Didn’t see that one coming? Odd though it may sound to us, the charge of atheism was a popular one levied against the Early Church. Why so? Because when Paul promised to make known to the people of Athens their unknown god, he wasn’t asking them to make space for another deity in their pantheon. He was arguing for the existence of a God who utterly disproved and removed any claim of divinity that every other being had. Christianity was radical because it was monotheistic.

The third century Christian thinker, Tertullian, had this to say in response to unbelievers challenging the atheism of the Church.

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

The Early Church were atheists because their worship was directed not at traditional gods, but at the God of the Bible.

The Early Church rejected the sin, error and misdirected worship of these pagan religions because they knew there was only one God worthy of worship.

Our own world is full of gods. In the same way the pagan Romans worshipped a god of every occasion, our own culture is obsessed with money, fame, sex and popularity. Our culture is obsessed with self-promotion in these areas. Our culture is obsessed with worshipping things that make us feel good.

The Early Church faced a backlash for denying worship directed at the wrong things. When we aim our worship at God alone, we are denying people and things the praise they think they deserve. But Scripture is clear on what worship is, and who deserves it.

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you”

Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (NIV).

Only God deserves our worship. False gods don’t. Celebrities don’t. The gods of the people around us may have changed from those surrounding the Early Church, but the truth of Scripture hasn’t. Because of who He is and what He has done, our God deserves our worship, undividedly so. In the first few centuries the Church looked ridiculous denying the might of Rome for the praise of their God, but they knew what we do too, that only He is truly worthy of worship. These early atheists were not ignorant of the one God that truly deserves their respect, honour and worship.

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