Is Christianity Rational? A Look at Athenagoras of Athens

Greek for “[those who are] without God.

One worldview that challenges Christianity in the West is that of metaphysical naturalism. According to this worldview, there is only the material world. There is no creator God – the world came about by chance. There is no God sovereign over the past, present, and future – the universe is but a cause and effect system. Beauty and morality are not rooted in the nature of God – they are rooted in physical causes and explainable only through physical means. Christians follow an ancient, outdated religion that presents a faulty view of the world. For some, Christians are unreasonable for not only believing that God exists, but also for believing that the Bible is God’s word that informs their knowing.

While this challenge speaks to the time in which we live, it is not unique to 21st century Christians. Even as early as the second century Christians faced challenges from the Romans for irrationality. In his Embassy for the Christians, Athenagoras addresses this charges in his answer to the Roman claim that Christians are atheists.

If the fifth-century historian Philip of Side is correct, Athenagoras was a Platonist philosopher who headed the Academic School in Alexandria. Then around 176 AD, Athenagoras became a Christian through reading Scripture (which he initially sought to refute). After his salvation, he wrote two works (that we know of) in defense of Christianity (Embassy for the Christians) and on the nature of man (On the Resurrection of the Dead). Unfortunately, little is known of Athenagoras, yet he stands among the great early Christian apologists.

In Embassy, Athenagoras writes to Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius on behalf of Christianity calling for a fair hearing. Appealing to their status as philosophers of high standing, Athenagoras argues that Christians should – at the very least – be placed on equal footing with the philosophers. That is, he does not seek to equate Christianity with pagan philosophy; rather, by pointing out the beliefs espoused by the Romans’ revered philosophers, it should be clear that Christianity is more reasonable and good in its doctrine. Thus, Christians should not be persecuted for such charges as atheism.

Religion in ancient Rome was not a private or personal matter – a matter of choice or merely personal piety. Rather, religion was intricately and intimately intertwined in the political and societal life of the Roman Empire. Though even a summary discussion of Roman religion is beyond the scope of this post (see John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]), let it suffice here that the worship of Roman gods lent to (in part) the protection of and blessing of the State. Thus, the Christians’ refusal to worship the pagan gods was seen as a seditious act. Further, the Romans were skeptical toward anything that was new. By worshipping one God (monotheism), the Christians were considered atheists in the Romans’ eyes. Christians, then, essentially denied the divine, hence their atheism. Seditious and atheistic, the Christians were a threat to the very stability of the Roman Empire. What person in their right mind would walk in such a manner?

The primary mode of attack in Athenagoras’ Embassyis to address the charge of atheism. If he could eliminate the charge of atheism, then the validity of the other charges would dissipate. Athenagoras’ takes a two-pronged approach by addressing the philosophers’ own monotheism and ‘irrationality.’ 

In Chapter 5, Athenagoras quotes two well-known playwrights – Euripides and Sophocles – who posit that there can only be one true God and that the so-called gods of Rome have no real existence. Though these playwrights (and other philosophers) affirmed monotheism, they did not believe in God as revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, by quoting from the Romans’ own revered poets, he sheds light on their inconsistencies. If Roman poets and philosophers reject polytheism yet are lauded, why are Christians – who likewise reject polytheism – persecuted?

In Chapters 15 and 16 of The Embassy, argues that it is the Romans, not the Christians, who are irrational in their beliefs. Following Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:9-20), Athenagoras exposes the folly of idol worship. Christians worship the one true God, who is not of this world. The one true God is not of, nor is like, his creation; he is the cause of all things and sits in majesty over creation. The Roman gods, however, are like humans in that they are made of material things. The so-called gods of Rome are but created things – they are blind and impotent. Though Athenagoras’ point was the impiety of the Romans (and not the Christians), we see implied as well the irrationality of worshipping Roman gods. For, according to Plato (whom the Romans claimed), “that which is called heaven and earth has received many blessing from the Father, but yet partakes of the body; hence it cannot possibly be free from change” (quoted by Athenagoras). Romans, then, worshipped imperfect, creature-like gods, unworthy of one’s worship. Christians, on the other hand, worship the one true God who made all things and is above all things. Perfect and holy, God alone is worthy of one’s worship. Who, then, is lacking reason? The Romans for their worship of corruptible things.

Though Athenagoras’ apologetic may sound foreign to modern ears, the heart of his message rings true in the 21st century. Christians may no longer be labelled atheists, and modern atheists may claim the crown of rationality, but his appeal to what is rational speaks to our challenges today. How is it that Christians are irrational for their worship of the Creator God? The appeal to science for truth – ultimate truth – is a leap of faith. Metaphysical naturalists essentially have faith that science and reason will always lead us to untarnished truth. But an appeal to finite and contingent human reason as the arbiter of truth is a recipe for uncertainty and confusion. Creatures relying upon creation alone for universal truth is akin to the Romans praying to material idols for protection and blessings. Christianity, on the other hand, accords with reason for all of creation points to the reality of and existence of God (Romans 1:20).

Athenagoras provides other helpful arguments in the defense of the Christian faith. To read more, see: Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians: The Resurrection of the Dead, trans. Joseph Hugh Crehan, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 23. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956).