Did you know that there was a time when Christians were called “atheists?” If you’re inclined to think “Wow, that must have been a dark day for Christianity,” you couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the early centuries of Christianity the Roman world was extremely suspicious of the Christian faith. They even regarded Christians as “atheists,” and called them “godless,” because Christians served a God who was invisible. Despite the widespread antagonistic stance toward followers of Jesus, the impact these early Christians were making on Roman society could not be denied.
The Roman emperor Julian (AD 322-363) had his mind set on a religious resurgence of paganism within the Roman Empire during his reign, but he found a road-block in his way due to the authentic impact being made by Christians. He said:
Atheism [i.e., Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
How amazing is that quote? What if Christians in America began to impact our nation the way Christians, who were regarded as atheists, did the Roman Empire? Did you catch what emperor Julian said about the poor? The state didn’t have the means to care for the poor, but it didn’t matter, because the Christians were doing it. There wasn’t a single beggar among the people of God, and the state took notice. Though they were regarded as “godless atheists,” their reputation was not what mattered–the mission of Jesus was.
Is it just me, or does it seem like we have it backwards in American Christianity? How many Christians and churches that you know are more concerned with “fighting the culture war” in America than with feeding the poor? How many are more obsessed with how we are viewed, or what rights we are given by the state, than with doing the job that we are called to do and that the state doesn’t have the ability to do? How many are more worried about how non-Christians refer to the holidays than with engaging the lost and dying with the love of Jesus Christ? How many are too distracted by political debate to remember that we’re called to heal the sick?
What do you think would happen if we returned to the days when Christians were called atheists?
 This first appeared in Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions. I read it in John Piper’s Risk is Right, p. 34.