Christian Living,  New Testament

Thanksgiving: the Atheist’s Least Favorite Holiday

Photo of thanksgiving, which is a difficult holiday for atheists

The Thanksgiving season is one of my favorite times of the year. There is just something about the weather, the excitement, and the theology behind the holiday that attracts me. The whole idea behind Thanksgiving is intrinsically biblical.

We are all used to Thanksgiving as the title for our American holiday, but it is also a noun which refers to the act of giving thanks. The whole reason Thanksgiving is so named is because it is to be a special time reserved for giving thanks. (Although, I will say the advent of Black Friday really kind of cheapens the whole idea thanksgiving).

Biblically, although the New Testament only directly commands thanksgiving in one place (1 Thess 5:18), that does not mean it is unimportant. Paul constantly practices thanksgiving, most often thanking God for fellow believers and their faithfulness (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4, 14; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3; Col 1:3, 12; 1 Thess 1:2, etc.). Furthermore, Paul describes thanksgiving as a key ingredient to being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:20). Clearly, being thankful is very important. In fact, it is to be one of the defining marks of a Christian, not simply a periodic holiday!

When thinking about the theology of thanksgiving, one thing that strikes me is how unthankful people are categorized in the Bible. In Romans 1:21 Paul condemns unbelievers because, although they know God exists, they do not respond with thanksgiving:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Rom 1:21).

In other words, thankless behavior is overt rebellion against the Creator and is characteristic of the unbeliever! Additionally, because of the lack of worship and thanksgiving, God gives these sinners over to hearts of impurity and sexual perversion (Rom 1:24-27).

It is the sinner’s natural tendency to ignore God and to refuse to acknowledge Him as Creator and Sustainer. Paul gives additional descriptions of these sinners, being filled with all kinds of evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, slander, hateful behaviors, boastings, disobedience, foolishness, and heartless behaviors (vv. 28-32).

This should be a grave and serious warning for the Christian. Not that we fear God’s condemnation, but rather that we fear we would insult our Creator by living like practical atheists. Those who ignore God refuse to acknowledge Him with thanks or honor. In contrast, Christians are to be known as a most thankful people. The Thanksgiving holiday is simply another reminder of this intrinsic part of the Christian life.

Thanksgiving was first practiced by Christians because the theology of Christians mandates giving thanks to God for every good gift (cf. James 1:17). It is incredibly sad that although the first Thanksgiving was observed by Christians who had endured incredible loss and suffering, we who have so much are often so slow to give thanks to God.

May we be marked by our constant thanksgiving to God. Not just on the holiday called Thanksgiving, but even and especially throughout the rest of the year.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Note: This post originally appeared on November 27, 2014. It has been heavily edited and reposted.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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