By Craig A. Evans
The Bible is nothing if not a small library of books very much focused on God. God is presented as the Creator of the Universe, the architect of the planet earth — humanity’s home — and of humanity itself. In the Bible God has revealed his character, his law, his wisdom, his grace, and his redemptive purposes. Through his prophets God has spoken to humanity in a variety of circumstances and on a great many themes and topics. God has rebuked humanity, including his own special people Israel, for its corrupt and sinful activities. Chief among these is humanity’s tendency to indulge in idolatry, either in worshipping various gods or in making idols that represent these gods. There are passages in the Bible where humanity is rebuked for ignoring God. Yet curiously, the Bible says very little about atheism, the belief that there is no God.
Of course, having said that, a well-known verse immediately comes to mind: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” The verse in fact occurs in two passages in the book of Psalms (at 14:1 and 53:1, verses in this article are from the RSV translation). Psalms 14 and 53 are slightly different versions of the same psalm, appearing in two distinct books (books 1 and 2) that make up the five books of the Psalter. Most commentators believe Psalm 14 is closer to the original form of the psalm. In yet another psalm the same assertion appears. According to Psalm 10 we are told that the thoughts of the wicked may be summed up as “There is no God” and “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (vv. 4, 11).
What is the meaning of the bold assertion, “There is no God”? Commentators rightly maintain that the statement is not a literal denial of the existence of God (or of gods), but a description of the wicked, who live and behave as though God takes no notice of human behavior. The respective contexts of Psalms 10, 14, and 53 support this interpretation. According to Psalm 10 the “wicked hotly pursue the poor” and the “man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord” (vv. 2, 3). The wicked man believes that God “will never see” his evil deeds (v. 4). Moreover, this man believes that he will never encounter adversity, but will get away with theft and murder (vv. 6, 8, 9). According to Psalms 14 and 53 the man who says there is no God is corrupt, is a liar, and never does good. It is no surprise that the Apostle Paul cites portions of these psalms in order to make his point that no human is righteous and that none seeks for God (Rom 3:10–12).
Similar thoughts are expressed elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. According to Psalm 73 the wicked ask, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11). We find the same idea in the Prophets. Jeremiah declares : “They have spoken falsely of the Lord, and have said, ‘He will do nothing ; no evil will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine’” (5:12), while in Zephaniah the Lord warns that he will punish men “who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (1:12), that is, the Lord will do nothing in response to human behavior, whether to reward the righteous or punish the wicked. In short, the declaration “There is no God” is an expression of practical atheism, of living as though God is distant and indifferent.
Early Jewish interpreters understood the declaration “There is no God” the same way. This is seen clearly in the Aramaic paraphrase of the Psalter. According to this version (called the Targum), the thinking, “There is no God,” implies the assumption on the part of the wicked person that “none of his thoughts are revealed before the Lord” (Tg. Ps 10:4). In Tg. Ps 14:1 the fool’s declaration that “There is no God” is paraphrased to read, “There is no rule of God in the land.” Though expressed differently, the same point is made in Tg. Ps 53:1, “The fool has said in his heart that God does not punish him.”
Accordingly, the atheists of the Bible are those who believe God takes no notice of human behavior, either to reward or to punish. The wicked man, therefore, may do as he pleases. He need not fear that God will observe or take action against him. The fool’s assertion that “There is no God” is not an expression of philosophical atheism but rather a reckless assumption that God takes no interest in human affairs.
In late antiquity things began to change. To be sure, belief in God (or, in most cases, in the gods) remained almost universal. Explicit and outright atheism is very hard to detect in the classical world of late antiquity (though see the discussion of Philo below). Nevertheless, in some philosophical circles traditional beliefs about the gods were beginning to be questioned. A small number of philosophers and writers in the Greek world questioned the existence of the traditional gods, that is, the gods of Olympus. For example, some claimed that Epicurus, who publicly taught that the gods existed but took no notice of human affairs, was really an atheist but kept this opinion private out of fear of the public (apud Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.85.121). In an academic setting as described in Plato the question of the existence of gods or God was raised (Apology 26c).
Elsewhere Plato speaks of contemporaries who believe that the world is governed by chance, not gods, and that morality is man-made, not divine (Laws 10, 889a–890a). Similarly, in a play by Critias a character asserts that the gods are an invention designed to deter crime that other wise would go undetected and therefore unpunished (Sisyphus frag. 19). Plato also speaks of those (like “public” Epicurus) who assert that the gods exist but are indifferent to humanity (Laws 10, 885b, 899d-e). Here we have a practical atheism not unlike what we see in the Hebrew Psalms.
Although theism was almost universal in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity, a “vocabulary of atheism,” one might say, did emerge. The two principal words are atheos, an adjective that means “godless” or “ungodly,” and atheotēs, an adjective that means “ungodliness.” Neither word implies the idea that there is no god. The words almost always are used in reference to the impious or to those who fail to honor the gods properly. Atheos can also be in reference to a person (or thing) that has been abandoned by the gods, i.e., he is a man who is “without god.” We find an example of this use in Sophocles (Oedipus Tyrannus 662), as well as in later magical texts (e.g ., P GM 36.319: “I want to flee the godless [atheos] Typhon”; ibid. 36.337: “consume with fire the godless [atheos] Typhon”). Examples of atheos meaning showing the gods no respect are found in Sophocles (Trachiniae 1038), Aristophanes (Thesmorphoriazusae 671), and Euripides (Orestes 916).
The vocabulary of atheism in late antiquity also includes the adjectives atheei, meaning “without God (or the gods)” or “without the assistance of the gods,” atheia (same as atheotēs) meaning “impious” or “without respect for the gods,” and atheiastos, meaning “uninspired by God (or the gods).”
We encounter some of this vocabulary in Jewish and Christian literature. For example, in the Sibylline Oracles pagan temples are said to be “godless” (3:32). Later oracles in this diverse collection refer to “godless men” (5:309), “godless laws” (8:106), and “godless service” (8:394). The Testament of Solomon, a late first-century Jewish pseudepigraphon, refers to a “godless angel” (6:3). These examples make use of the adjective atheos. A second-century Christian pseudepigraphon declares, “[S]inful, unrighteous, and impious [ is] the man who falls away from piety and righteousness and godliness” (Apocryphon of Ezekiel 4:1). Here, “impious” translates atheotēs.
In the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish apologist and allegorist who lived at the turn of the era, most occurrences of atheos mean “without god,” “atheistic opinions” (Allegorical Interpretation 1.51), “atheistic reasonings” ( ibid. 2.57), “impious opinion” (ibid.3.13), “impious disposition” ( ibid. 3.212), and the like. Philo also makes use of atheotēs in the sense of “impious” or “godlessness” (e.g ., Allegorical Interpretation 3.33, 108; On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 69; On the Posterity of Cain 2, 52; That God is Unchangeable 21; On Drunkennes 18, 78; On the Confussion of Tongues 2, 114, 121, etc.).
But Philo does make use of atheos and atheotēs in contexts where he speaks of atheism, meaning belief that God does not exist. A half dozen passages are worth considering, even if very briefly. The first appears in Philo’s discussion of creation: “Moses teaches us also many other things, and especially five most beautiful lessons which are superior to all others. In the first place, for the sake of convicting the atheists [atheoi], he teaches us that the Deity [theios] has a real being and existence” (Creation 170). In this context Philo speaks of two types of atheists. The first are those of “two minds,” by which he means what we would probably call agnostics, that is, people who are not sure if God exists. But Philo also speaks of those who assert that the “Deity does not exist at all, but that it is a mere assertion of men obscuring the truth with myth and fiction” (ibid.). Here we have reference to true atheism in the philosophical sense.
Elsewhere Philo speaks critically of “the opinion which denies any god [atheos], and that which worships a multitude of gods . . . he who worships no god at all is barren, and he who worships a multitude is the son of a harlot” (On the Migration of Abraham 69). Indeed, according to Philo, “If you know it not, you are an atheist [atheos], and atheism [atheotēs] is the beginning of all iniquity ” (On the Decalogue 91). In another context, Philo describes atheism, often associated with men who study philosophy, as “the greatest of all vices” (On the Special Laws 1.32). Later, he speaks disparagingly of those “who are utterly atheistic”(ibid. 1.334).
The last example to be considered is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates. Philo speaks of one Theodorus :
It is said that Theodorus, who was surnamed the Atheist [atheos], when he was banished from Athens, and had come to the court of Lysimachus, when one of those in power there reproached him with his banishment, mentioning the cause of it too, namely, that he had been expelled because he had been condemned for atheism [atheotēs] and for corrupting the youth. (That Every Good Person is Free 127)
To advocate atheism, it is understood, is to corrupt society. This was the very accusation leveled against Socrates, for which the great philosopher was forced to drink hemlock (Plato, Phaedo 117a–118a).
We may infer from these passages that there were indeed individuals, probably mostly philosophers, known to Philo in Alexandria, Egypt, and probably elsewhere who openly advocated atheism. They were not especially influential, for there is little reaction to them and no body of atheistic literature, if there ever was one, has survived. The language of atheism, that is, principally words like atheos and atheotēs, was utilized almost exclusively in reference to behavior and morals.
The word atheos appears but once in the writings that make up the New Testament. In his letter to the church of Ephesus Paul reminds the Gentile members : “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God [atheoi] in the world” (Eph 2:12). In describing them in their pre- Christian life as atheoi (“without God”) Paul does not imply that these Gentiles were atheists, that is, people who did not believe in God or in the gods. He simply means that they were estranged from the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus the Messiah.
The perspective presupposed in Eph 2:12 is not too different from what we observe in the book of Acts, where Paul addresses the men of Athens at Mars Hill : “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 an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22–23). The men of Athens were very interested in gods and divinities, as seen by the numerous statues, temples, and inscriptions in and around the market place and the Acropolis. To underscore his point, Paul calls attention to the inscription that reads, “To an unknown god.” Today visitors to the Acropolis and the market (or agora) that is situated at its foot can see the remains of many of these temples, inscriptions, and statues of various gods.
We should assume that the perspective of the Ephesians was essentially the same as that of the Athenians. That is to say, they were religious, they built and supported various temples, and they devoted themselves to a host of divinities. In short, they were, like the Athenians, “very religious” (Greek : deisidaimonesteros – “very [concerned with] divinities and spirits”), but they were nonetheless without God. The true God, the God of Israel and Father of Jesus the Messiah, was “unknown” to the people of Ephesus. Hence, in their pre- Christian existence these people were atheoi, “without God.” In responding to the gospel they became acquainted with God and came to share in the promises and covenants that God gave Israel long ago.
By the beginning of the second century, if not earlier, pagans were describing Christians as atheoi, “atheists,” for denying the existence of the Greco -Roman gods. The charge was sometimes leveled against the Jews too in the first century and beyond (e.g., Apollonius Molon, apud Josephus, Against Apion 2.15; Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14.1–3; Julian the Apostate, Against the Galileans 43B). The accusation of atheism in large part justified the state’s persecution of Christians.
Closely related to the denial of the gods was the refusal to confess Caesar as Lord or as divine. In the Roman world Caesar was regarded as divine, as in some sense a “son of god,” and as high priest (pontifex maximus) who represented the people to the gods. Christians denied both the gods and the divinity of Caesar, which provoked the state and led to severe persecution and martyrdom.
Two of the earliest and best known Christian martyrs accused on the grounds of atheism — either denying the gods or denying the divinity of the emperor or denying both — were Ignatius (d. c. 110) and Polycarp (d. 155). In custody and on his way to Rome to stand trial Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, wrote letters to six churches and one letter to Polycarp. Eusebius tells us without providing details that Ignatius was taken to Rome and there was thrown to wild animals (Hist. Eccl. 3.36.1–15). In his letter to Polycarp (cf. ibid. 3.36.10) Ignatius writes, almost in passing , “our God ( is) Jesus Christ” (To Polycarp 8:3). Such a confession implicitly contradicts the imperial doctrine, well attested on stone and papyrus, that Caesar is lord and god. In the latter part of the first century and on into the second century the Julio – Claudian emperors and the Flavian emperors were routinely called “lord,” “god,” and “son of god” (e.g., for Augustus, see SB 401, BGU 628; for Tiberius, see SB 8317; for Claudius, see SB 4331; for Nero, see P.Oxy. 1021; for Vespasian, see SB 1927; P.Oxy. 112; for Titus, see SB 1016; P.Oxy. 1028; for Domitian, see SB 2084, P.Oxy. 2186).1 Their precedent-setting practice continued in the second century under Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines.
It is interesting to observe that the language of atheism appears in one of the letters of Ignatius, though not in reference to Christians. In two places in his letter to the church of Tralles Ignatius speaks of the godless :
I am sure that you agree with me regarding these matters, for I received a living example of your love and still have it with me in the person of your bishop, whose very demeanor is a great lesson and whose gentleness is his power; I think that even the godless [atheoi] respect him (Trallians 3:2).
Later in his letter, in reference to the Docetists who deny the reality of the bodily incarnation, Ignatius asks : “But if, as some atheists [atheoi], that is, unbelievers, say, he suffered in appearance only…, why am I in chains ?” ( ibid. 10:1). In the first passage Ignatius uses the word atheos as we have already seen many times. He has called pagans atheoi in the sense that the y are “without God.” We see this in other Christian writings (e.g ., Clement of Alexandria , Paedagogos 3.11.80; Ps.- Clement, Homilies 15.4; Sibylline Oracles 8:395).
But the meaning of atheos in the second passage in the letter to the Trallians is harder to determine. Its use is admittedly ambiguous, meaning either those who are without God or those who deny the very existence of God. If the latter was Ignatius’s intent (and I suspect it was), then it represents a sharp polemical thrust, for Docetists believed in the existence of God. But to deny the reality of the incarnation was, in the mind of Ignatius and many other early Christians, tantamount to the denial of God and so in a sense could be called a form of atheism.
A few decades later Polycarp himself is faced with the prospects of martyrdom. As had Ignatius before him, Polycarp refuses to confess the divinity or lordship of the emperor. Standing before his judges he is asked :
‘Why, what harm is there in saying , ‘Caesar is Lord [kurios kaisar],’ and offering incense’ (and other words to this effect)‘and thereby saving yourself ?’ Now at first he gave them no answer. But when the y persisted, he said : ‘I am not about to do what you are suggesting to me’ (Mart. Poly. 8:2).
Polycarp served in the mid-second century as the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor (Izmir in modern Turkey). His refusal to confess the divinity of the emperor, as well as his refusal to worship the gods of the Greeks and Romans, led to the charge of atheism. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written not long after the death of the bishop, we are told that the pagan multitude shouted against the Christians : “Away with the atheists [atheoi]! Find Polycarp !” (Mart. Poly. 3:2; the story is retold in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.15.6; cf. 4.15.18). When Polycarp is brought before the Roman proconsul, the latter demands : “Swear by the divinity [tyche] of Caesar” (Mart. Poly. 9:2; 10:1). Polycarp of course refuses (ibid. 9:1–3). The proconsul demands that Polycarp swear the oath to Caesar and revile Christ. His refusal to swear by the divinity of Caesar would have been interpreted as proof of the charge of atheism. In the trial that follows the crowds shout, “This is the teacher of Asia , the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods [ho tōn hēmeterōn theōn kathairetēs], who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship” ( ibid. 12:2). The bishop continues to refuse and so is executed.
The charge against Polycarp is quite remarkable. His refusal to worship the Greek and Roman gods, including veneration of the Roman emperor, is according to Roman belief tantamount to destroying the gods. To the extent that what is said here in an admittedly rhetorical and apologetic text truly reflects pagan thinking, one can see why the charge of atheism was taken so seriously in late antiquity.
However, there is more than rhetoric and apologetic in play. We know from Governor Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan (Epistles 10.96; c. 111 AD) that pagan sacrifice and cultic activity in parts of Pontus (central Asia Minor) had all but ceased thanks to Christian influence. It is to this problem that the accusation that Polycarp “teaches many not to sacrifice or worship” refers. Ever since the days of Paul, the Christian movement in Asia had a significant impact on religious culture (cf. Acts 19:17–20).
From the mid-second century on pagans regularly accused Christians of atheism. In his First Apology (c. 155) Justin Martyr replies to this charge : “[W]e are called atheists [atheoi],” though at the same time conceding and explaining, that “we are atheists, so far as gods of (the pagans) are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God” (1 Apol. 6.1). “What sober-minded man,” Justin further argues, “will not acknowledge that we are not atheists [atheoi], worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe . . . ” (ibid. 13.1). He adds further that “those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though the y have been thought atheists [atheoi]” (ibid. 46.2). In his Second Apology (c. 161) Justin complains that Crescens the pagan philosopher unfairly describes Christians as “atheistic and impious [atheōn kai asebōn]” (2 Apol. 3; the story is retold in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.16.3). Tatian (c. 160) complains too that the Greeks exclude Christians “from civic rights as if we were the most godless [atheōtatoi] of men” (Address to the Greeks 27.1). Athenagoras (c. 177) devotes several chapters of his apology, in order to counter the charge that Christians are atheists (Concerning the Christians 4–30).
The accusations and counter-accusations of atheism in late antiquity rarely had any thing to do with what we moderns understand as atheism. Jews, Christians, and pagans all believed in the existence of God or gods. A few pagans may well have entertained philosophical atheism, but they were very few and their atheism seems largely to have been a reaction to the crude and contradictory nature of much of the polytheism of their day.
The real atheism of late antiquity was practical atheism, the belief that God or the gods were indifferent to human affairs or that God or the gods simply did not or could not observe human behavior. The practical atheism of late antiquity is not unlike the atheism that is reflected, as we have seen, in a few of the ancient Hebrew scriptures. Although people believe in God, they often live as if God is not present. The person who thinks and lives like that, says the Psalter, is a fool.
By way of conclusion, what is worth noting is that the practical atheism of the biblical period and late antiquity is much like the atheism of today. Most of humanity believes that God exists, but much of humanity lives as though God does not exist or, if he does, he takes little interest in human affairs. The atheism of today is much more than what we see in writings and pronouncements of atheist celebrities, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Atheism is much more than an explicit denial of the existence of God. The atheism that should concern all who believe in God is the practical atheism reflected in the lives of many theists, including Christians. The fools are not limited to those who openly state, “There is no God”; they include those who profess belief in God but live as though he does not exist.
1 SB refers to F. Preisigke et al., eds., Sammelbuch griechischer Urkunde aus Ägypten (Strassburg : K. J. Trübner, 1915–); BGU refers to Ägyptische Urkunden in den staatlichen Museen zu Berlin: Griechische Urkunden, vols. 1–9 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895–1937); and P.Oxy. refers to B. P. Grenfell et al., eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1898–). Numbers refer to the numbering of the primary texts, not to page numbers.
[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at Wikipedia Commons.]