Worse than an Unbeliever: An Atheist Grapples with the Bible

It’s been a long time since I’ve approached something like this. I “came out” as an atheist a few years ago, and I’ve tried to avoid finding “the right interpretation” of the Bible since then. I used to love it. But, over time, it got really frustrating when I finally realized that no one really cared if I had arrived at some fresh interpretation.

Interestingly, a few months ago I listened to some interviews with Jehovah’s Witnesses and actually agreed with many of their interpretations as better than the ones I had grown up with as an evangelical. My conclusion: if you go far enough down the path of finding “the right interpretation,” you will end up creating what many consider to be a cult.

When I was still working for an evangelical church, I kept hearing a verse quoted that really bothered me (there were a lot of these):

1 Timothy 5:8 - Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

This verse was thrown around a lot, but it was never explained. It seemed to be used as a sort of guilt trip for “lazy” men. But, what I never understood was, what the hell does it actually mean to be “worse than an unbeliever?”

This led me to start looking into how the New Testament uses the word “unbeliever” in general. What I discovered I found to be pretty enlightening. But, I also had a really hard time finding anyone who agreed with my proposal. I couldn’t find a single scholar or commentator that followed my line of thinking.

I am revisiting this now because I think that we commonly use this language of “believer” and “non-believer” – or “unbeliever” – without really clearly defining what we mean by it. Believer in what? Or who? What is the object of that belief (or unbelief)? And, what does belief mean? It seems like a really simple binary, but it isn’t. These terms are very loaded, and I think can be really unhelpful.

In simplest terms, I think most people use it in an attempt designate who is or is not a Christian (another usually undefined word), but I’ve come to severely doubt that those categories have next to anything to do with how this kind of language was used in the first century.

Regarding the root of these words (“pistis”), I think it is a complete misinterpretation to interject modern ideas about “mental assent to a propositional statement” into this and related terms. In the NT sense, faith (belief) was about personal commitment, allegiance, trust, fidelity, faithfulness, and so on. It did not mean what most of us mean, when we say something like “I believe ____ to be true.” So, “unbelief” should probably usually be translated “faithlessness” or “unfaithful.” This, then, wouldn’t mean “one who lacks a cognitive assent to propositional statements (about God or Jesus, etc.).”

There also seems to be a stream of passages that speak of one who “turns back” or rejects his or her previous commitment. This, I think, better gets at “one who is faithless.” But, I think there is another element to this idea of a “denier of the faith.” In that context, obviously, most of the earliest followers of The Way were Jews. The “new thing” that Jesus inaugurated was a Way of being-in-the-world, not simply a set of beliefs. It was the Way of Love. This, of course, was inherently subversive against the primary religious and political context, a counter-way. I think that “the faithless” was a category of Jews who had either rejected this New Way, or had made a commitment to it, but then did not follow through. Those who said publicly and practically “I commit to the Way of Love” but then gave up, and fell back into “the ways of the world.”

Regarding the 1 Timothy statement, maybe it means “you cannot say you commit to the Way of Love and reject your relational commitments” (which would bring about a potentially interesting contradiction to Jesus’ statement about denying your family to follow him). The context, of course, seems to help clarify what “Paul” may have been getting at.

What might this mean for how we view the other texts in the NT that use this kind of language? What might this mean for our own assumptions about how we use it today?

I accepted a long time ago that, sometimes, there is simply no “relevance” or “application” from certain sections of the Bible to today. Maybe this is one of those sets of categories that simply does not apply to us anymore.

If this is true, then should we chuck the language of believer and non-/un-believer? What do you think?

Am I onto something, or am I just a crazy atheist who needs to stick to my hedonism?

Rob Davis blogs at Skeptically Emerging, which he describes as “my attempt at finding and/or creating space within the “emerging/emergent church movement” for non-believers like myself, as what I perceive to be a better option than groups that are specifically founded upon non-belief.”

  • eric

    And then you have Matt. 12:28 where family values are totally absent. Things that seen mutually exclusive in the Bible; I think, were written by different people, at different times, for different purposes.

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