After I made the claim that modern secularists and atheists like to brand Christians with the image of the fire and brimstone preacher, one might be tempted to point out that in Section 15 of his Oration 38 St. Gregory the Theologian sounds an awful lot like a fire and brimstone preacher:
Against which is he more angry?…It would have been better for you to be circumcised and possessed by a demon, if I may say something ridiculous, rather than in uncircumcision and good health to be in a state of wickedness and atheism.
This characterization, however, would completely miss the point of what St. Gregory is trying to say. Whereas the fire and brimstone preacher is typically urging morality (stop sinning so you don’t go to hell), St. Gregory really isn’t talking about moral behavior in Section 15.
The point, rather, is about how to answer that most important question: Who is God? and subsequently Who is Christ? St. Gregory mentions demons because they, unlike his Arian opponents, understand that Christ is God.
This section talks about how the Triune God is one in essence and distinct in persons. Father and Son have their own activities (the Father sends forth and the Son is sent), yet both have the power to resurrect. Therefore his point about being a demon possessed Jew (an illustration he calls ridiculous) isn’t about behavior, but understanding.
In order to have a proper relationship with God, and therefore be able to partake of His divine nature (cf 2 Peter 1:4), we must have a proper (aka orthodox) understand of who God is. If I go around insisting that all women are really men and that all men are really women, all of the relationships in my life are going to be dysfunctional. How can it be otherwise with our relationship with God?
To demonstrate this relational understanding, St. Gregory mitigates his own characterization of God as angry by correcting himself: Rather whom must he pardon more? God is a loving God. The relationship, therefore, is about love (who must He pardon) and not anger (who must He condemn).
Ultimately, what do the Arians and the atheists gain from who they insist God is? Nothing. If Christ is a created being (as the Arians insist) we cannot partake of divine nature — we merely partake of creation, something we already do at every meal. Since Christ would have a beginning (as we do), he must also have an end (just as we do). Therefore, both Arians and atheists really have only one hope: death.
In contrast, St. Gregory lives in hope that by partaking of Christ, who is one of the persons of the Triune God, we may all share in God’s eternity and thus overcome death. Morality really doesn’t play a role in this discussion, because we are all hypocrites and sinners. In fact, that is why Christ became a babe born in a cave.
Thus, to mirror St. Gregory’s self-admitted ridiculous statement, it is better to be a sinful hypocrite who has a proper understanding of who God is than an atheist who is unquestionably moral.