***Note parts of this article have been adapted from
Ancient Voices: An Insider’s Look at the Early Church,
available for your partnering gift, please click here. ***
This is an online article from the Christian Research Journal.
For further information or to support the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When you support the Journal, you join the team of to help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever growing database of over 1,500 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.
Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10 which is the cost for some of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here
Athenagoras of Athens is one of three great Greek pagan philosophers who, during the second century AD, converted to Christianity on account of the wisdom of its teachings and the moral lives of its followers. Rather than abandon their former training, Aristides, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras all used their pagan learning as a springboard for bearing witness to the gospel before the most powerful rulers of their day.
WITNESSING BEFORE KINGS
Although the church faced sporadic persecution from Rome during the second century, many of the emperors who reigned during that period were well-educated, largely just, and respectful of philosophy and ethics. Seizing the opportunity, Aristides delivered a defense of the church before the emperor Hadrian around 125. About twenty-five years later, Justin gave his own defense before Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius. About twenty-five years after that, Athenagoras took his own turn at presenting an apology for the now century-and-a-half-old religion before Antoninus Pius’s successor, Marcus Aurelius, one of the chief stoic philosophers of antiquity, whose Meditations is still read today.
Later apologists from Athanasius to Augustine, Aquinas to Calvin, Pascal to C. S. Lewis would tackle such thorny theological issues as the precise nature of the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement, the origin of evil, the problem of pain, and the authority and proper interpretation of Scripture. The chief concern of these early apologists was to demonstrate that Christianity was good and true, that it did not promote incest or cannibalism, and that it was a blessing rather than a curse to the empire.
In the Footsteps of Socrates
Interestingly, Aristides, Justin, and Athenagoras all presented themselves before their respective emperors as testifying, not in the tradition of Peter and Paul, but in that of pagan Greece’s greatest martyr for truth, Socrates. Just as Socrates’ persecutors falsely accused him of worshipping foreign gods, making the weaker argument the stronger, and corrupting the youth, so the persecutors of the church falsely accused its members of atheism, sophistry, and immorality.
For Athenagoras and his predecessors, Socrates, though he died four centuries before Christ was born, had given his life for many of the same monotheistic and ethical truths for which the Christians were now giving theirs. As far as they were concerned, it was they, not the Greco-Roman philosophers who slandered their beliefs and practices, who were the true successors to the mission and calling of Socrates.
“[F]rom of old,” explains Athenagoras in his “Plea for the Christians,” “it has been the custom, and not in our time only, for vice to make war on virtue. Thus Pythagoras, with three hundred others, was burnt to death; Heraclitus and Democritus were banished, the one from the city of the Ephesians, the other from Abdera, because he was charged with being mad; and the Athenians condemned Socrates to death” (31).1
Shared Virtues with Rome
Athenagoras, like Aristides and Justin before him, was eager for his imperial audience to recognize the fledgling church as possessing the same virtues that Rome held in high esteem. Among those virtues were piety, unity, and a respect for tradition and law. Christians, far from being rebels, were ideal citizens who conducted themselves with justice, perseverance, and purity.
Like the Founding Fathers of the United States, Roman stoics from Cicero to Seneca to Marcus Aurelius believed that a sense of religion that brings with it a morally self-regulating kind of fear and awe is foundational to any republican form of government. Aware of this, Athenagoras begins his “Plea” by celebrating Roman religious tolerance, even to the bizarre pantheon of Egyptian deities.
They allow this tolerance, Athenagoras writes, because they deem, “on the one hand, that to believe in no god at all is impious and wicked, and on the other, that it is necessary for each man to worship the gods he prefers, in order that through fear of the deity, men may be kept from wrong-doing” (1). Building on their shared belief in the goodness of religion, Athenagoras asks only that the emperor judge Christians on the basis of their deeds rather than the slander leveled against them.
The Transformative Power of Christianity
Thus far, the “Plea” of Athenagoras tracks closely with those of Aristides and Justin. As he builds his defense, however, he slowly begins to push the envelope. The Christians not only practice a piety equal to that of the best pagan philosophers; they exceed them. The teachings of philosophers may make their pupils smarter and more adaptable, but they do not make them better people.
Who of their pupils, Athenagoras asks, “have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them (to abstain from which is of itself an evidence of no mean forbearance), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives?” (11). The philosophical schools of Greece and Rome lack the power to purge their disciples of hatred and resentment; neither can they change and transform them from within.
Furthermore, the Christians do not, as do the scholars of Greece and Rome, limit their followers to a small cadre of rich, elite young men. Among us, Athenagoras explains, “you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves” (11).
FROM APOLOGETICS TO THEOLOGY
Shortly after delivering his “Plea” to Marcus Aurelius, Athenagoras presented a treatise “On the Resurrection of the Dead” to an audience of skeptical Greek philosophers who, like the stoics and epicureans who attended Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus, likely sneered at such an odd and offensive notion as the resurrection of the body (see Acts 17:32). In his treatise, Athenagoras demonstrates a sophistication in thought that bridges the apologetical orations of Aristides and Justin with the systematic theology of the slightly later church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.
Given the nature of Roman persecution, it is not surprising that the voice of the first- and second-century church was predominately defensive. In “On the Resurrection,” however, Athenagoras goes on the offensive to construct a vision of man’s beginning and end that is as systematic as Aristotle while possessing the mythic power of Plato’s Timaeus and Myth of Er (Republic X).
The Telos of Man
God, Athenagoras argues, did not create human beings to be a means to an end but to be ends in themselves. He fashioned us as rational creatures in his own image, and “nothing that is endowed with reason and judgment has been created, or is created, for the use of another, whether greater or less than itself, but for the sake of the life and continuance of the being itself so created” (12).
But if that is so, then it is not possible that we should share the fate of animals, whose lives end when they have fulfilled their purpose. We are not tools that can be discarded when they have served their purpose: “He would not have fashioned such a being, and furnished him with everything belonging to perpetuity, had He not intended that what was so created should continue in perpetuity” (13).
In thrilling passages like this, Athenagoras unites Christian revelation with Greco-Roman philosophy. While remaining true to the Judeo-Christian truths of the Bible, he expresses them in philosophical terms. Here, for example, he fuses the uniquely Christian virtue of hope with an Aristotelian understanding of the telos (purposeful end) for which each species was made.
But Athenagoras does not stop there. He goes on to argue that our true telos is to joyfully use our God-given intelligence to contemplate God, not for the span of a single lifetime, but for all eternity. Now, there were many Platonists and Aristotelians in the second century who would have agreed that our telos was to attain to the beatific (blessed) vision of that which is divine, eternal, and unchanging; but they believed that the immortality of the soul was sufficient to achieve that end. Not so Athenagoras.
Whereas, for the Greeks, the body is finally a prison house of the soul, a shell that the true philosopher hopes to shuffle off someday, for Christianity, man is an enfleshed soul, an incarnational being who is truly physical and truly spiritual. In one long, beautiful sentence, Athenagoras connects the dual nature of man at creation with the equally dual nature of his eternal state:
For if the whole nature of men in general is composed of an immortal soul and a body which was fitted to it in the creation, and if neither to the nature of the soul by itself, nor to the nature of the body separately, has God assigned such a creation or such a life and entire course of existence as this, but to men compounded of the two, in order that they may, when they have passed through their present existence, arrive at one common end, with the same elements of which they are composed at their birth and during life, it unavoidably follows, since one living-being is formed from the two, experiencing whatever the soul experiences and whatever the body experiences, doing and performing whatever requires the judgment of the senses or of the reason, that the whole series of these things must be referred to some one end, in order that they all, and by means of all, namely, man’s creation, man’s nature, man’s life, man’s doings and sufferings, his course of existence, and the end suitable to his nature — may concur in one harmony and the same common experience. (15)
The ’Dissolution’ and Resurrection of the Body
The only end suitable to our dual nature, Athenagoras makes clear, is a resurrection that takes up both soul and body and reintegrates them for eternity. Enfleshed souls were we at the start; enfleshed souls shall we be at the end. Man is not man if he is not a perfect fusion of body and soul. The latter does not merely reside in the former but is fitted to it in the most intimate fashion. As the two experienced life together, so will they experience eternity together.
Our earthly body will be dissolved, but that is only because it does not possess in itself the natural immortality of the soul.2 To join with the immortal soul, the body will have to suffer a change that includes death and dissolution as one of its stages. While we await that change, that transformation of the earthly, mortal body into a spiritual and immortal one, according to Athenagoras, our soul will sleep as it does in the intervals between night and day.3
Knowing these things, “we both await the dissolution of the body, as the sequel to a life of want and corruption, and after this we hope for a continuance with immortality, not putting either our death on a level with the death of the irrational animals, or the continuance of man with the continuance of immortals, lest we should unawares in this way put human nature and life on a level with things with which it is not proper to compare them” (16).
The Final Judgment
Truly, Athenagoras concludes, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body represents the logical outcome of our uniquely dual nature and the unique purpose with which God infused us at creation. But it is also fitting and wholly necessary to the judgment that awaits all of us on the last day.
To say that all people get their just deserts is not to say that God is vindictive or lacks grace; it is to say that He is a God of justice who rewards and punishes fairly and equitably in accordance with our actions. Without that justice, God would not be God and justice would be a meaningless term — as it must finally be when measured against the immoral actions of the Greek pantheon.
God’s judgment must be just, but that justice cannot be enacted in eternity unless we are the same dual person who committed the acts of good or of evil for which we are judged. Equity, writes Athenagoras, “is wanting to the judgment, if the being is not preserved in existence who practised righteousness or lawlessness: for that which practised each of the things in life on which the judgment is passed was man, not soul by itself” (20). Neither body nor soul sins alone; neither practices virtue alone.
Punishment and Reward
The one who spends eternity in heaven or hell — that is to say, in or out of God’s gracious and loving presence — must be the same person who lived his life and made his choices on the earth, Athenagoras concludes, “but it is impossible for the same men to be reconstituted unless the same bodies are restored to the same souls. But that the same soul should obtain the same body is impossible in any other way, and possible only by the resurrection; for if this takes place, an end befitting the nature of men follows also” (25).
Reward or punishment is not meted out to groups but to individuals, and the only way a unique individual can persist into eternity is by means of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Only when a unique immortal soul is joined to its unique resurrected body can that dual person participate fully in the beatific vision for which both Plato and Aristotle yearned: “the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees” (25).
This exultant voice of the early church would resound throughout the coming centuries and would be joined, not only by the medieval Catholic Aquinas, but by the Puritan Reformers, who would choose to begin their Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) with this thundering assertion: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian (formerly Houston Baptist) University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His 25 books include Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2010), Atheism on Trial (Harvest House, 2018), The Myth Made Fact (Classical Academic, 2020), and Ancient Voices: An Insider’s Look at the Early Church (Stone Tower, 2022), from which parts of this essay have been adapted.
- My quotes from Athenagoras’ “A Plea for the Christians” and “On the Resurrection of the Dead” are taken from the translations of Rev. B. P. Pratten of Bristol, first published in 1909. They can be read online at Early Christian Writings and New Advent. Quotes are referenced in the text by the chapter number.
- Editor’s note: it should be acknowledged that the word “immortality” is equivocal and requires much more clarification than can be offered here. According to the Bible, Louis Berkhof explained, “in the most absolute sense of the word, immortality is ascribed only to God. [The apostle] Paul speaks of Him in I Tim. 6:15,16 as ‘the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, who only hath immortality.’ This does not mean that none of His creatures are immortal in any sense of the word. Understood in that unrestricted sense, this word of Paul would also teach that the angels are not immortal, and this is certainly not the intention of the apostle. The evident meaning of his statement is that God is the only being who possesses immortality ‘as an original, eternal, and necessary endowment.’ Whatever immortality may be ascribed to some of His creatures, is contingent on the divine will, is conferred upon them, and therefore had a beginning. God, on the other hand, is necessarily free from all temporal limitations.” Louis Berkhof, “Immortality of the Soul,” Monergism, https://www.monergism.com/immortality-soul.
- Editor’s note: Athenagoras explicitly states that after the death of the body, prior to resurrection, the soul “continue[s] by itself” (“On the Resurrection of the Dead,” 25). For helpful commentary on Athenagoras’ view of the intermediate state of the soul, see Fr. Peter Farrington, “The Intermediate State of the Soul,” The British Orthodox Church, 2019, https://britishorthodox.org/glastonburyreview/issue-121-the-intermediate-state-of-the-soul/.