GK Chesterton (famous Catholic apologist) writes in his popular book Orthodoxy:

Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

GK Chesterton seems to be saying that Jesus was an atheist, at least for a moment.

Is this actually orthodox, i.e. consistent with what most Christians thought in most times and places? Before reading Orthodoxy I'd never heard of such an idea.

  • 4
    “Seemed to be”. Not was.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 1:41
  • To say it is a mere appearance would negate Chesterton's point here. If it was mere appearance, then Jesus never actually uttered their isolation.
    – yters
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 2:26
  • At worst an agnostic for an instant
    – 007
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 16:33
  • 1
    Did you read the context of that statement as a necessary part of understanding what Chesterton meant? Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 16:41
  • @StephenDisraeli yes, I've read the entire book. It certainly seems that GKC is going for the "Jesus was a rebellious atheist" angle. You can search for the phrase here to see it in context: gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.txt "But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt....in a garden God tempted God."
    – yters
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 22:37

4 Answers 4


The key phrase here is, "They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation," implying that he was an atheist "for an instant." This is a clear reference to Matthew 27:46, during the crucifixion:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Chesterton's statement here should not be understood literally; it looks like he's trying to be clever more than anything.

The thing worth noting about this passage is that, like so many other things Jesus said, it has reference to an earlier writing. These are the opening words of Psalm 22, and much like in our own culture, where it's common to cite a short quotation from the middle of some work in order to focus the audience's minds on the whole thing, the ancient Jews would often cite the beginning of it to reference the whole. The 22nd Psalm is a strong expression of faith in God, that even though God isn't aiding the speaker in his tribulation right now, that he knows God is there and will still have faith in him, and in the end "All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee."


Chesterton has a penchant for paradox that often leads him, on the one hand, to probe very deeply into the tissue and joints of any topic; on the other hand, it sometimes leads him into statements like this one whose effect is not entirely clear or helpful in advancing his argument. Clearly Chesterton, a devout Christian (an Anglican when he wrote Orthodoxy, and later a Roman Catholic) neither believes that God does not exist, nor that Jesus is not God, nor that God believed that God did not exist; after all, his entire book is a defense of orthodox Christian doctrine.

But he is saying something very valuable nonetheless, akin to Hebrews: "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb 4:15). Atheists and those who doubt God's existence should take seriously what Chesterton says here, that according to the Christian Gospel even God in His Incarnation felt the helplessness and horror of human death, and gave voice to the cry of anguish and abandonment that fills the human soul confronted with a world where to the eyes of human weakness God does not appear to be at work.

The real tragedy, I think, is that the isolation suffered by atheists is not a solution to any of their problems: it is rather their stance against what they consider a false hope, the hope of a God who loves us and is able and willing to help us in our vulnerability and need. Chesterton, by siding himself and Christ so daringly with this anguish of theirs, is ultimately offering them an invitation to hope by presenting them with the crucified Jesus Who knows and sympathizes with their pain. It would be possible to draw wrong inferences from what Chesterton says, but only by ignoring the rest of what he says, and indeed the rest of what the Bible says about Christ and these dying words of His.

I hope that helps!

  • In context, GKC is saying Jesus surpassed the human breaking point (experienced atheist desolation) and did not break (did not choose to be atheist): gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.txt " Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point--and does not break. ... When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God."
    – yters
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 22:10

No, Jesus who is the Messiah and sitted at the right hand of the Great White Throne or power was never an atheist. Jesus hardly said anything without mentioning God or Father.

John 14:28

ye loved me, ye would have rejoiced, because I go unto the Father

Luke 14:22

My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, may Your will be done."

John 9:3

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him

So you shouldn't be reading literature that's not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Hallelujah, God foretold the end right from the beginning. The world will never overcome the cross, because the power behind the cross is the power of God Almighty who was and is and is to come.

Look at the world fulfilling what was written thousands of years ago

For in the end men shall become lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, lovers of what is evil instead of what's good


It would be nice to have the page number of the book you quote from, then we might be able to check context. Without that, we cannot speak about the long-deceased Chesterton here, let alone "for" him.

Knowing a little about some of his poems, I would confidently suppose that his use of words about atheists and Jesus are no more to be taken literally than the words he put into the braying mouth of the donkey he wrote about in his poem of that title. At the end of verse two, Chesterton asks us to believe that this donkey, dead for nearly two centuries as he wrote, says he is,

"The devil's walking parody on all four-footed things."

Poetic license. Making a point. The literary genre. That's what authors of books and poems do. They are word-smiths. Many Christian authors, like Chesterton, strive to produce what the Bible book of Proverbs speaks about: crafting words that are so fitly spoken, or so beautifully formed on the page that they appear as

"Apples of gold in settings of silver" Proverbs 25:11 (or "in pictures of silver." A.V.)

Jesus was never an atheist at any moment, for as God incarnate, the only thing he could (and did) cry out in unspeakable anguish was a time when the Father's presence with him was absent, due to Christ becoming sin on the cross, even though he had never sinned. As God cannot look upon sin, and "cursed is every man hung on a tree", that was the point at which Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet that is not a cry any atheist can utter! Just think about it! He is addressing God as having been with him, then having forsaken him at that moment. A non-entity cannot forsake a living human. And Jesus' opening words were not spoken as a blasphemy.

Further, a little later, before Christ actually died, fellowship with his Father was restored, for before breathing his last, he said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." To get the answer to the question, "Was Jesus ever an atheist", simply requires the asker to read the gospel accounts, written by eyewitnesses. The answer is there, never mind how poetically, or shockingly human writers then wax lyrical about it, no matter what philosophies they might try to test it by: just stick to what was written by inspiration for our instruction, that we might be fully equipped for every good work - 2 Timothy 3:16-17. There you will find that the answer to your question is, "No, and such an idea would never be orthodox."

  • gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.txt In context, GK Chesterton certainly seems to be getting as close to saying "Jesus was an atheist" as he can. He is arguing that Christianity is the only religion where God is a rebel, and even rebels against himself, thus Christianity is a more universal religion than any other religion. "Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king."
    – yters
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 22:36

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