The early followers of Jesus were sometimes accused of being atheists. This was one of the first smear campaigns against Christianity. These men and women confessed Jesus as God. He alone was their Lord.
This exclusivity, however, was culturally scandalous. It meant Christians refused to worship the popular gods of the time. Thus the charge of atheism. For instance, in the early 2nd c., when an angry mob demanded the execution of the elderly church leader named Polycarp, they shouted, “Away with the atheists!” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:2).
Of course, in a twisted sort of way, the mob was correct. The followers of Jesus did, in fact, deny the existence of the gods—at least the smorgasbord of Roman divinities. Jesus and Jesus alone determined for them who and what God was. Anything or anyone that claimed divinity, yet was contrary to the Son of Mary, was a non-divinity. If that’s what being an “atheist” was, well then, guilty as charged.
I find that much the same applies in our cultural conversations today. When I hear people describe the god they don’t believe in, no longer believe in, or can’t bring themselves to believe in, I often nod in agreement. Yes, as a follower of Jesus, I do not and would not believe in that god either.
Hell’s Doors Are Locked on the Inside
For instance, I don’t believe in the sadistic god who gets his jollies from sending people to burn forever in hell. Is there a hell? Yes, there is. For if there is a place where people who love and believe in God can be with him, then there must also be a place for those have no desire to be with him.
No one goes to hell who doesn’t want to be there. They choose that address. The doors are locked on the inside, as C. S. Lewis observed. The wedding feast of the Lamb is all prepared, the invitations are sent out, the dinner and wine and dessert are all exquisite, but some would rather squat morosely in the darkness outside and enjoy their own little pity parties of unbelief. Sadly, their will, will be done. But don’t go blaming God for sending them there. Much less pretend that he enjoys seeing them suffer because they chose to exclude themselves from the party. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but he wants them to turn from their evil ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11).
The Huge Whiteboard in Heaven
Nor do I believe in the god who stands before a huge whiteboard in heaven, writing down every mistake, every sin, every shortcoming when we don’t toe the line. Then, if and when we confess these things, he picks up an eraser and wipes them away. Writing and erasing, writing and erasing, ad nauseam. This god, a dictatorial teacher in the skies, is keeping a precise tally of our naughtiness, but also willing to use the eraser when we're good boys and girls and fess up.
What’s the true God doing? The handwriting against us, the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, God set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14). His hands are way too busy now for writing and erasing. His hands are holding us up as a father does his tottering children. They're wiping away our tears. They're feeding us and washing us. And, yes, at times, they're disciplining us. But they're not scribbling down sins and glaring at us until we confess. Our sins sank into Jesus as he hung willingly from the cross for our salvation. They're gathering dust in his empty tomb. And we are receiving from him handfuls of grace that will never end.
Nor do I believe in the god who plays favorites. The kind of god who prefers white over black or black over white; who campaigns for conservative Republicans over liberal Democrats, or vice versa; who will protect and bless America as long as we are on the side of Israel; who hates gays and loves straights, or who hates those who reject gay marriage and loves all things LGBTQ.
The true God doesn’t play favorites. We’re all in the same moral boat, and it sank long ago. He looks down on humanity and sees that none of us understand, none of us seek him, none of us are righteous. We have all turned away, together we have become corrupt. No one does good, not even one (Psalm 14:2-3). None of us have been worthy of his love, his attention, his mercy. So God wills our entire lives to be ones of ongoing repentance, of turning away from ourselves, our navel-gazing, our selfishness, stupidity, lust, greed, malice, and all our destructive ways. And to discover in him, in Christ, the only lasting joy and contentment for those created in the divine image.
God doesn’t play favorites. But he did once play a game, a special kind of wrestling game, in which he allowed us to win—to pin him not to the ground but to the cross, to put the righteous one to death, that in his resurrection we might win the victory he ordained for us from all eternity. It’s the victory for all, for God was in Christ loving the world, reconciling us all to himself, and declaring us all forgiven and righteous in Jesus. Believe it. It’s his gift to you.
The Bloody Pulpit
We could go on-and-on with the list of gods that Christians don’t believe in. The church confesses, and has always confessed, with the Apostle Thomas that Jesus is “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). We know no God apart from him. He is “the icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), for “in him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). He alone makes known the Father, and he alone is the one through whom the Spirit comes.
Thus, with the early church, we embrace the scandalous outrage of exclusivity. We boldly confess Jesus alone as the revelation of divinity. And this is the best of news, for who is this Son of Mary? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is the one who was sent into the world not to judge the world but to save it (John 3:17). He is the King who deigns to be our servant—washing our feet, healing us, forgiving us, shouting to all the world that he is our brother and we his family.
As a follower of Jesus, there are many gods I don’t believe in. But if you ask me which one I do believe in, I’ll kneel before the one who hangs from the cross and preaches from that bloody pulpit the absolution of the world.