Jesus was an atheist…and we should be too!

The title’s a little sensationalist and exploitative. I know. But bear with me.

Jesus was an atheist! I believe that.

But not in the way we understand atheism today.

Traditional atheism is understood as someone choosing not to believe in a particular representation of God.

The new atheists (not a term I came up with) Dawkins, Hitchens et al, are rejecting particular forms of theism (belief in God). For example the belief in a creator God or a God who interacts with humans. Not the concept of God itself.

“atheism, at its best, is always provisional- meaning that it is always limited to a particular expression of belief.”

So, in a traditional understanding of atheism, Jesus was an atheist.

He rejected the Pharisees understanding of who God is. He rejected the Roman’s understanding of who God is.

Anyone with a faith in a particular understanding of God is an atheist because in order to believe in one understanding, we must reject others.

I am an atheist towards fundamentalist understandings of God.

I am an atheist towards a God who condemns those to eternal punishment because of a different understanding of God. A God who encourages picketers at gay soldiers’ funerals. A God who oppresses women, children, homosexuals, other faiths etc.

But let me push things a little further.

Rather than simply be atheists towards the understandings of God that we disagree with, we should be atheists towards any conception of God that takes the place of God.

In Exodus 20, the second commandment declares that we should not make an image of God. We should not bow to any description of God that claims to be the absolute authority of God. This is key to the Judeo-Christian faith.

Yes, we can reflect on the experiences of God that we have encountered personally and in the person of Jesus and help the young people we work with to experience this God but to claim that we have the absolute truth of God would be idolatrous.

Once we understand this, we can, as peter rollins suggests, ” stop arguing about God and…dedicate our lives to being the manifestation of God”.



4 responses

  1. Interesting idea – although I don’t entirely agree with you!

    In terms of dealing with human absolutes, I think you’re spot on – we cause ourselves so many problems by attributing an undue degree of certainty to our limited attempts to make sense of “who God is”, and then forcing other people to assent to them or face the consequences.

    Where I’m not so sure your right is in the implicit Christology of the article. It seems to me that Jesus was about as clear as he could be that his understanding of the character of God was spot on the money. In the way that you want to understand atheism, then it’s pretty clear he fits the description. Even more than that though, he claimed that his own life was a perfect expression of the character of God, and it’s in that context that I’d be nervous about abandoning the idea of a “description of God that claims to be the absolute authority of God”.
    That said, we then have the tricky task of making sense of what we’re presented with in that description, which is where we enter the tricky area of finite, sin-distorted creatures attempting to envision the infinite perfection of the triune God. So, while on one hand I think it’s important to preserve an understanding of Scripture as ‘inspired’, I agree that we need to maintain a distinction between what is ‘inspired’ and what is the product of human thinking.

    Overall, I’d imagine that we’re not really that far apart in our thinking, but I think it would be an unnecessarily risky move to allow the boundaries between the subjective and the objective to collapse: it’s the difference between a fruitful post-foundationalist approach to theological reflection, and a vague pluralism stripped of any real ability to ‘speak truth to power’.

    Of course, one of the key issues that all this raises is how to judge between competing visions of God?

  2. I completely agree with your argument on Christology. I do believe Paul’s poem in colossians that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” and don’t have any issue with Jesus (as the physical incarnation of the Word) claiming to be the true expression of the character of God.

    My problem is, and you pointed it out, that when we as “finite, sin-distorted creatures” claim to hold the true expression of God.

    When we say that our understanding of Jesus is the right one.

    Jesus was a republican.
    Jesus was a socialist.
    Jesus was this. jesus was that. There is no problem in saying, “well I think Jesus would react to a situation like this” but to say, “This is the character of Jesus. End of discussion” would be disingenuous.

    Even many of the Jews of the day, who immersed themselves in the scriptures, did not compute Jesus with the God of the OT and we also need to be careful of moulding God the father, god the son, and god the spirit into figures that we are comfortable with.

  3. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it.

    I had to read your points through a few times before really grasping the thistle, so to speak. I guess because of what you point out to be the more modern understanding of ‘atheist’, it makes some of your statements somewhat provocative, presumably with intent.

    I do, however, find the idea of referring to Jesus as being ‘atheist’ in this context still a little difficult, as I can’t help but feel that the phrase is redundant when presented with the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus knew the Father and was one with Him, all arguments for or against any representation of God become invalid. I’m reminded of the problems surrounding Anselm’s Ontological argument, and the arguments that ‘existence’ is not a property that can be applied when looking for God.

    On a different note, the points on Exodus 20 got me thinking. The law commands not to make images of God, yet we see God made visible in the person of Jesus, who came to fulfil the law and not to abolish it. That’s what I love about Jesus – on the face of it He presents Himself as being contradictory, yet He brings total order and sense.

  4. I wouldn’t say using the term “atheist” in reference to Jesus is redundant. It all depends on how much you think Jesus knew of who he was and what his ultimate role was/is.

    My original title was going to be “Moses was an atheist…” but knew that referring to Jesus as an atheist would gain more interest (as you rightly pointed out)

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