Let's begin with an outlandish claim: Christians are atheists. We want to add to the new generation of atheists that have arrived on the scene, i.e. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al, a new and unique category of atheistic persons: Christians. How can such a claim be substantiated? Aren't Christians supposed to be theists? That depends on your definition of theism and atheism. Christians are theists if you mean by that term a belief in a creator, sovereign God who is personally involved in creation. However, if you're counting on Christians resting their faith on 'all things that are not god' then Christians can rightly be labeled atheists. In other words, there are some things Christians do not believe in. The claim that Christians are atheists is not new, however.
The argument for Christianity on the basis of a specific definition of atheism finds it roots in the second century. In fact, it was used by one of the first Christian apologists of the church, Justin Martyr (A.D 100 – A.D. 165). Let me explain. One of the charges against the early church was that Christians were atheists because 'they did not believe in the gods of the time.' Christians rejected belief in the pantheon of gods of the ancient world in favor of belief in the One, True God. When Justin Martyr was making his defense of Christianity before the Roman Emperor, Titus Aelius Adrianus Antonius Pius Augustus Caesar (b. AD 86 – d. 161) who ruled Rome from AD 138 – 161, he used a novel form of the atheistic argument that captured the essence of Christianity in succinct terms.
Here's what Justin said in 'The First Apology of Justin' before Caesar: "For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue. Hence, are we (Christians) called atheists. And 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 impurity."
In essence, what Justin Martyr did was morph the accusation that Christians are atheists by embracing the accusation and reinterpreting its meaning. Christians are full-blown theists if that means a belief in the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But if theism is defined as a general belief in the things that the world considers holy then Christians are atheistic when it comes to a belief in the 'gods of this world.' What are these gods that Christians do not believe in as ultimate reality?
One god that Christians do not believe in is the god of 'self', or 'the old self'. According to 2 Corinthians, once the unbeliever is saved, he or she is a 'new creation' in Christ, 'the old has gone, and the new has come'. Though saved, the Christian remains in a constant struggle with the god of self. Daily, the believer is enticed to follow his own will and to reject God's way. The book of Philippians gives a vivid picture of what the 'god of self' looks like when he states, "Their (non-believer) end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things."
The writer in Proverbs realizes the folly of following the god of self when he states, "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death" (Proverbs 16:25). Pride so easily lures the believer into 'gratifying the desires of the flesh' (Galatians 5:16). The apostle Paul knew that the war with self would only become worse when in 2 Timothy he states that, "people will be lovers of self." But, since the believer is led by the Spirit of God he is now able to shun the selfish desires and passions of the old self. Therefore, the Christian is 'atheistic' by rejecting the 'god of self', and clinging to the One True God.
Another god that Christians do not believe in is worldly knowledge. Christians are not anti-intellectual. Rather, for the Christian, true 'knowledge' is found in fearing the Lord, and not in earthly knowledge or wisdom. In fact, the god of knowledge in an unbelieving world is exposed in 1 Corinthians 1 when Paul writes, "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" The only true "knowledge" comes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. To the unbeliever, the Gospel is folly, but to the believer it is "the power of God."
If anyone had reason to put faith into human knowledge, it was the apostle Paul. Before his conversion to Christianity he says that he was "advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people," and that he was a "Hebrew of Hebrews." It was not uncommon for Paul to have had the first five books of the Bible memorized. Talk about intellect! However, Paul knew that the only thing worth "knowing" was Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." By not putting faith in the knowledge the world offers, the Christian can once again be labeled atheistic.
Christians are also atheistic in that they do not believe in the god of family. Family is good, precious, and beneficial. Family was created by God in the beginning. Families are made to glorify God. However, many in the world value family above God. Family heritage, siblings, and parents are elevated to a status that is more important than Christ. For the Christian, there are principles in Scripture that teach how a family should function (Ephesians 6), but family should never take the place of the living God. Jesus hit on this point in the gospel of Matthew when He said, "…whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37). So, the Christian is an atheist in that a commitment to Jesus Christ supersedes commitment to family.
Christians can also be classified as atheists by not believing in politics as the source of ultimate reality. An ambiguous term nonetheless, politics can include: political parties, presidents, authorities, leaders, governments, kingdoms and various institutions. It can also refer to a belief in the 'collective' of the body politic as the most important factor of human existence. The writer of Psalms (20) knew that trusting in Kings was futile when he said, "some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Christians respect political persons and processes; Christians pray for political leaders; Christians participate in the political processes of their respective country. But Christians do not view politics as the summa of all things.
Along with the aforementioned gods, Christians do not believe in the god of sports. Our family loves sports. But, sports can't save anyone. The point is that we have placed our faith in Christ and not sports. Sports can be good, but the world we live in today is one where sports ego and pride have been elevated to an all time high, morphing sporting into a religion with its many centers of worship (arenas & stadiums) and hero worship of specific athletes. There is no doubt that the New Testament is full of sports analogies/images when speaking of the Christian life, but the writers knew that sports, games, or athletics should never be more important than Christ. In fact, by using these sporting analogies, the writers of Scripture often prove the point that the Christian life is not about sports, but about Christ.
For example, in 1 Timothy chapter 4, Paul says that "physical training is of some value, but godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. " Paul was not naïve. He lived in a culture that valued sports; but he also knew that worldly competition and training are temporary and worthless compared to knowing Christ. Because the Christian does not have faith in sports, he or she can be classified once again as an atheist.
Another god that Christians cast aside is the god of sex. Sex is not intrinsically evil – God created it to be enjoyed in a committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. Sex becomes a god, even in marriage, when abused and misused, when it is taken out of the context of its intended purposes. Don't get us wrong, marriage is good. Marriage was created by God and gives a marvelous representation of Christ's love for the church. However, Paul knew that relationships can cause us to so easily take our eyes off of Jesus. He knew that human relationships could potentially take the place of Christ, and that is why he warns us to worship Christ alone. Jesus and the Apostles also knew how easily human sexuality can be perverted and corrupted. Christians are to love the Lord passionately, while keeping relationships in proper perspective. Therefore, Christians are yet again atheistic by refusing to worship the god of relationships, instead, worshiping the God of the universe.
And what about the god of work? Perhaps the most disguisable, but most common deity set up by man is the exertion he puts forth to further his career. Though hard work and advancement in vocational abilities can be used to bring glory to God, often man will shift his focus from the pursuit of God's glory to the more immediate self-gratification of climbing various sorts of corporate ladders. It becomes necessary for the Christian to adopt an atheistic view of the god of work as a self-serving being if he is to be a conduit for the glory of God. Therefore, the most prodigious career path that can be taken lies not in the genre of trade one desires to pursue, but the motivation with which one pursues it. If the final result of hard work is monetary success and social prestige, the Christian has conceded to the god of work and is a servant to it. Yet if he relentlessly seeks to bring glory to God – and sees that as his chief purpose - the means of hard work can be extremely useful in such an endeavor.
To this list of gods could be added the gods of false ideas, of false religions of all stripes and types (all 'isms' that are not true), the god of tradition, and the god of science as the explanation of all things meaningful as manifested in the scientific method as the lens by which all truth is analyzed. Christians respect many of the aforementioned ideas and issues. Yet, when it comes to making these ideas and issues ultimate reality we choose to disbelieve. So, move over Hitchens and Dawkins and make room for the new atheists on the block who do not believe in any of the gods you suggest have usurped the One True God in who we believe!
This article was co-written with sons Isaac and Caleb Shrum.