How important is a reputation?
Some people don’t care about theirs at all; others have died to protect it. Sometimes reputations are precise and sometimes they’re horribly inaccurate.
Perhaps the most erroneous – and ironic – reputation in history belonged to the early Christian church; they were considered “atheists.”
It was the Romans who gave early Christians this reputation. According to them, there were several reasons why this young, fragile “religion” should be dubbed “atheist.”
It’s well-known that the Romans worshipped a pantheon of gods; they had a god for almost everything. In fact, the planets around Earth are synonymous with several of those names: Jupiter was the god of the sky, Mars was the god of war, and Neptune was the god of the sea. There were many others; the goddess Juno was Jupiter’s sister…and wife. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, and so on.
But Christians didn’t worship these figures.
Why should they? They worshipped the Lord of lords! They didn’t need a multitude of gods to take care of them. Jesus was doing just fine, right by Himself. But because Christians didn’t worship their gods, the Romans labeled them atheists.
A second complaint the Romans had about Christians was their God could not be seen. If he/she/it could not be seen, then surely, he/she/it must not exist…right? That rationale came from people who had statues of their gods everywhere: lining the streets, beside the city gates, and filling the temples. Statues of Roman gods were in great number across the empire.
But the Christians used no such images or icons. (Ummm…they were told NOT to by God, Himself, in Exodus 20:4!) But citing that commandment didn’t help Christians in Rome’s eyes.
The final reason Christians were labeled “atheists” by Rome stemmed from Christians’ refusal to worship Caesar. Usually, the Caesars were a tolerant bunch; whenever they conquered a new land, they let the natives keep their system of worship, thus there were many religions inside the empire. The Caesars made one “simple” request, however: new subjects must worship Caesar, too!
But Christians wouldn’t worship him, nor would they embrace any of the “accumulated” religions of the empire. (Again, the one true God – whom Christians worshipped – had commanded His people in Exodus 20:3 NOT to have any other gods.)
These are the reasons why Christians were called “atheists” in the ancient empire of Rome. Because Rome could not understand or agree with Christians, they greatly persecuted any “atheist” they found who worshipped Jesus Christ.
Acts of the Christian Martyrs by Herbert A. Musiurillo. Clarendon Press, 1972, Pages 64-65.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)