When Christians were Atheists

Polycarp was a Christian Bishop in Smyrna (which is in modern Turkey). He was martyred for his faith about 155 AD. At his trial before the Roman Proconsul he was asked to swear an oath to Caesar, revile Christ and thus to repudiate atheism. He made the rather moving reply ‘Fourscore and six years have I been serving him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’ He was put to death for his refusal to repudiate Christianity, which the Romans called atheism.

It was it seems not uncommon for Christians to be accused of atheism in these early decades. The accusation is itself instructive about the nature of Christianity. In the first instance we see that from the outset it repudiated pluralism. Secondly, it viewed itself as self-consciously arising from a different source than other religions.

The contemporary idea that is trotted out that all religions are the same and arise from the same common psychological need do not fit well with the nature of early Christianity and the distinctive beliefs of those early Christians- nor indeed authentic Christianity today.

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9 Responses to “When Christians were Atheists”

  1. PalMD Says:

    Certainly all religions are not the same, and whether some worship the same God or not, how can one truly know? However, it is an interesting illustration of the aphorism that “we are all atheists about all gods other than our own…true atheists simply go one god further.”

  2. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks for the comment Pal. We can certainly ‘truly know’ whether or not all religions worship the same God since the divine demands of each religion are different. Whether or not we can know the true God is another question which I am happy to answer in the affirmative
    Enjoyed your aphorism- even if it sounds like sophism- it was a new one for me.

  3. PalMD Says:

    It’s actually typical Dawkinsian sophistry, but true…those who have chosen a particular form or object of worship inherently reject others. I would venture to say you won’t find many Christians burning incense to Vishnu, and they are atheists as far as Hinduism is concerned. To worship God, you must believe in God, and must “disbelieve” in other “gods”.

  4. sibbesian Says:

    One would of course think so but pluralism is still alive and well, not to mention syncretism. Furthermore as my original post notes many atheists still try to dismiss all religion as being essentially the same and arising from the same root e.g. polytheism evolving into monotheism or some Freudian need etc. However the Romans who were great pluralists saw something both distinctive and indeed threatening in Christianity.

  5. PalMD Says:

    Certainly. Christianity, whether for socio-political, or “truth” reasons, was/is an especially powerful movement, needing to be destroyed or co-opted. Of course, the Romans chose the latter, and adjusted their practices to cope. I’m not sure if the practice of sainthood as it currently exists would exist without the Roman pagan influence (not to demean the belief, just a look at its “worldly” aspect).

    While Christianity certainly has roots in earlier religions, it is of course different, if only because its adherents believe it to be. If you perceive your religion as “truth”, then it is “more truthful” than other beliefs, and therefore very different.

  6. PalMD Says:

    Clarify…i don’t mean that Christianity currently needs to be destroyed! Just that the Romans thought so.

  7. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks for the qualifier I’ll sleep more safely this evening! You are of course right that as the church has evolved over the centuries it has been shaped by many influences. Your example of the saints being one- although the cult of sainthood is not the true biblical view of saints.
    I’m less comfortable with your second assertion that Christianity has its roots in earlier religions. Apart from the fact that it obviously has a connection with the faith of historic Israel I am not aware of such roots. Furthermore Christianity does have a distinction that other faiths do not. That is the person of Jesus Christ. The unique place he has in the Christian faith is a continual barrier to inter-faith dialogue and reductionist views of religion.

  8. Feargal Says:

    Sibbesian – I think C.S. Lewis would have the last word on this. His confrontation during his atheistic years of the common root to all major religions tied a knot in his rejectionism. Jesus himself used the illustration of the dying wheat ear to Greek visitors, who would have known all about pagan pictures derived from Demeter and such.

    If christianity is true, it is true to what is the best in us, as poisoned and smothered as it is by egotism, hate, pride, arrogance, fear.

    What is your view of Buddhist ideas of Jesus as a boddhisatva? (forgive my misspelling!).

  9. sibbesian Says:

    I think the NT model is that the gospel is presented in terms which have cultural elements e.g. Paul at Athens and John’s use of ‘the Word.’ But it not only is presented in cultural terms but in a way that so challenges those cultural reference points so as to utterly transform the hearers understanding of them. So one must be careful how those cultural reference points are used. Also I think it must be the gospel which interprets how Jesus is viewed and not other religions.
    I’m not quite sure I agree with your statement, ‘If christianity is true, it is true to what is the best in us, as poisoned and smothered as it is by egotism, hate, pride, arrogance, fear.’ The Christian gospel is more radical than that. It tells us that no good thing lives in us. Every aspect of our being is touched by the fall. And only a new birth through the power of the Holy Spirit can transform us.

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