The term atheist comes from the Greek ‘atheos’ meaning ‘without God’. Atheos is used once in the New Testament in Ephesians 2:12 saying ‘remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, exluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God (atheos) in the world.’
Stanley Hauerwas writes , 'Indeed, one of the ironies of the recent spate of books defending atheism is the confidence these "new atheists" seem to have in knowing which God it is they are sure does not exist. They have forgotten that one of the crimes of which Romans accused Christians - a crime whose punishment was often death - was that Christians were atheists.
The Romans weren't being unreasonable. All they wanted was for the Christians to acknowledge there were many gods, but Christians were determined atheists. Christians were atheist because they assumed the primary problem was not atheism but idolatry. Idolatry, moreover, has everything to do with thinking that you know God's name.'
Polycarp was an early Christian writer who was executed by the Romans in around 155 A.D for his commitment to Jesus Christ. At Polycarp’s examination the Pro-Consul asked Polycarp to repent and say ‘Away with the Atheists’.
The Romans believed in many gods and named them and worshipped them and knew what these gods did and how to control them. Christians knew that you couldn’t name God, only God can name Himself. So Christians worshipped the God who had revealed Himself to them and refused to bow to the pressure of any other way. The God who raised Jesus from the dead was their God. Christians were something altogether very different. Christianity is not about ‘belief in god’ but a calling to way of life. Christianity is not defined by what you believe, although belief plays it part, no Christianity is about the orientation of your life, about who you worship. Who you worship matters, because whatever is the most important thing in our lives will ultimately be the thing we worship and adore most. What I believe means nothing unless how I live my life reflects that.
Atheism assumes you can name God and thus get rid of God because you have God all figured out. You’ve figured out who God is, why you don’t need God and why belief in God is irrational. Theism quite simply means ‘belief in a god’. If you believe in the existence of at least one god then you are a theist – it is a general naming of God.
Christians argue that both these ways are inadequate. The general ‘god’ who started everything, who atheists deny and who theists affirm is not the God who delivered Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. This God cannot be named by us, defined by us or figured out by us because of what we believe. This God calls people to a Way of life not a set of beliefs.
Christians are once again called to be atheists. Christians do not believe in many gods. They do not believe that God can be named by humanity, manipulated by prayer or figured out and tested in a laboratory. Christians therefore are atheists to the gods of this world. They follow the God who has revealed himself in Jesus.
There will always be atheists, but I suspect that many people today desire and hope that they are not ‘without God’. Whatever people believe today I suspect few would want to believe they are without God and hope that somehow and in some way that God is indeed very much with them.