Ordinarily, most people today use the term atheist to refer to those who do not believe in a supreme being of any kind. Yet that is not how the word was used in the first-century Roman Empire. Many pagan apologists in that day labeled the early Christians atheists, not because they were unaware that the Christians believed in a Creator God but because the Christians did not worship the gods of the Roman Empire. According to these pagan apologists, true theists served the deified emperor and other gods in the Roman pantheon.
Most of the original readers of Ephesians originated from this pagan background, having once been considered pious by their neighbors for worshiping the Roman deities. Because such worship formed a part of what it meant to be a good Roman citizen, these same pagan neighbors would also have considered the Ephesian believers to be good patriots before they came to faith in Jesus. All that changed, however, upon the Ephesians’ conversion. These new followers of Christ were instantly seen as impious traitors in the minds of the general Roman populace, and these new disciples paid a high price to serve the Lord.
But this loss of esteem was worth it because, as today’s passage explains, the Gentile Christians in Ephesus actually lived without God before they believed in Jesus. As Matthew Henry comments, they were “atheists in the world; for, though they worshipped many gods, yet they were without the true God.” No matter how pious they appeared, life apart from Christ meant life without God, and the same principle applies today. No matter how good or satisfied our Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and other non-Christian neighbors seem, they actually live, in a sense, as atheists, for they do not know the one true Lord of all.
Not knowing the Lord God Almighty not only makes people into functional atheists, it also renders them hopeless in this world (Eph. 2:12b). Only those who know Jesus have hope for the future — the sure expectation of eternal resurrected life, full purification from all sin, and unhindered fellowship with God (Jer. 29:11; Col. 1:3–5; 1 Thess. 4:13–18). This indeed shows us the greatness of our salvation — having once been hopeless, we now have a sure hope in Christ Jesus.