This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 04 (2012). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Lamentably, Christian witness today is often crippled by timidity or intellectual incompetence. In a pluralistic setting — whether in the university or elsewhere — Christians too often fail to present their deepest beliefs to unbelievers in a wise, reasonable, and knowledgeable manner. As a result, non-Christians typically think that Christians hold beliefs having no rational support. I encountered this attitude at a public forum in which I responded to an anti-Christian film called, “The God Who Wasn’t There.” Questioners from the largely hostile and atheistic audience kept assuming there were no reasons for my Christian faith. I countered this by presenting a rational case for Christianity and arguing against secular critiques of it. Since I never appealed to any leaps of faith, I challenged their stereotype of the unthinking Christian.
My situation that night was very much like what the apostle Paul faced in Athens when he addressed the thinkers of that famous center of learning and culture. In fact, the apostle’s Athenian address inspired me to speak in a secular forum in the first place, and gave me necessary insights on how to handle myself under pressure. By understanding how Paul presented the Christian message to this ancient and unbelieving audience, Christians today can discover principles that will empower them to speak the Christian worldview into the contemporary marketplace of ideas.
Taking Aim at Idolatry. Paul was a tireless missionary. Relying on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), he would find a receptive audience and (usually) set up a church; then he would be persecuted and have to travel elsewhere, or he would be thrown into prison (where he wrote some of the Epistles and evangelized everyone in sight). Paul’s witness at Athens is the most detailed account in the book of Acts of Christianity challenging non-Jewish thinkers. Paul spoke in Athens just after he had fled persecution in Berea, leaving his colleagues behind (Acts 17:13–15).
Athens in Paul’s day was not at the height of its intellectual, cultural, or military influence, but was still a cultural powerhouse. It was much like a major university town today. Yet Paul was not impressed by Athens’s heritage; he was incensed by its idolatry. Paul was “greatly distressed” because the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16, all Bible quotations from the NIV). Despite its intellectual pedigree, Athens did not honor the one true God, but rather had sunk into idolatry. We, too, should be vexed and bothered by the false religions and irreligion that dishonor God and lock people into spiritual darkness. While respecting freedom of religion, we should never make peace with deep theological error (see Gal. 1:6–11).
Connecting with the Pagan World. But instead of unleashing a thundering condemnation to the Athenians, Paul was wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (Matt. 10:16), as his Master had taught. He began to reason with the Jews in the synagogue and with the God-fearing Greeks day by day, as was his custom. The book of Acts reveals that Paul reasoned, or had dialogue, with everyone about Christianity. He did not simply preach; he explained and answered questions (see Acts 19:8–10). That is, he was an apologist: someone who defends Christianity as true, reasonable, and pertinent (see 1 Pet. 3:15–16; Jude 3). Paul was also ready to bring the message to those beyond the Jews and God-fearers. There was “a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers” who “began to dispute” with Paul (v. 18). Although they wrongly accused him of being a “babbler” (or intellectual plagiarist) who advocated “foreign gods,” they nevertheless invited him speak to the Areopagus (vv. 18–19). This was a prestigious group of thinkers who deemed themselves the custodians of new ideas.
Paul found common ground by noting that they were “very religious” in light of their many “objects of worship” (vv. 22, 23). Paul knew this was idolatry, but he used a neutral description in order to build a bridge instead of erecting a wall. We should follow Paul in this. While we should be distressed by the emblems of unbelief in our midst—such as New Age symbols, occultism on television and in cinema, and the many non-Christian places of worship cropping up everywhere—we should nonetheless try to discern and capitalize on points of contact with alien spiritualities.
Paul then reports that he had found an altar to “an unknown God.” But what they took to be unknown, Paul now declares to them. His declaration (vv. 24–31) is a masterpiece of Christian persuasion, the beauty of which cannot be captured in a short article.1 Knowing the perspective of the philosophers he was facing, Paul begins with the rudiments of the Christian worldview. He does not begin with the message of Jesus, but with the doctrine of creation—a belief alien to both Stoics and Epicureans (and to all Greek thought). Paul affirms that a personal and transcendent God created the entire universe, which depends on Him for its continued existence. “He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (vv. 24–25; see also Heb. 1:3). This sets up a sharp antithesis with both philosophical camps. The Stoics believed in an impersonal “world soul” — something like the Force or Principle of New Age spirituality today—while the Epicureans believed in several deities who had no interest in humanity.
This Creator, Paul declares, is also closely involved with humanity. He created all people from one man and established the conditions under which they live. God is not only the Creator of the universe as a whole, but is also involved in the particularities of life. God did this so that people “would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). Against the Athenian philosophies, Paul presents a God who is personal, transcendent, immanent, and relational. He conveys all this before uttering a word about Christ. Paul should be our apologetic model here as well. Unless we establish a Christian worldview (monotheism), people will likely place Jesus into the wrong worldview, taking him to be merely a guru or swami or yogi or mere prophet, rather than God, Lord, and Savior (Col. 2:9).
Cultural Connections. Having established the antithesis between “the Lord of Heaven and Earth” (v. 24) and the erroneous conceptions of the Athenians, Paul again makes a point of contact with their worldview by citing Greek poets: “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (v. 29). Although their fundamental worldview was off base, the Greeks had some sense of the divine and their dependence on it. They were partially right, although largely wrong. Given God’s general revelation in creation and conscience (Rom. 1–2), Christian witnesses should always try to find the scattered elements of truth embedded within darkened worldviews. To do this, we, like Paul, must know our culture and its history. This requires careful study and prayerful discernment.
Paul continues by arguing that since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like any humanly crafted image. As Adam Clarke writes, “If we are the offspring of God, He cannot be like those images of gold, silver, and stone which are formed by the art and device of man, for the parent must resemble his offspring. Seeing therefore that we are living and intelligent beings, He from whom we have derived our being must be living and intelligent. It is necessary also that the object of religious worship should be much more excellent that the worshipper; but man is…more excellent than an image made of gold, silver, or stone. And yet it would be impious to worship a man; how much more so to worship these images as gods!2” The logic of Paul’s argument is compelling. What is more, he makes his case on the basis of the Athenians’ own beliefs about God and humanity. Paul displays an astute apologetic prowess.
Going Beyond Philosophy. Paul lastly says that in the past God overlooked ignorance about Himself, but that now “he commands everyone everywhere to repent” because He has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” He has proven this truth by raising Him from the dead (v. 30). This passage in Acts gives us a summary of Paul’s speech; he would have spoken far longer in this context than the written text permits. So, we can be sure that he explained the full meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:1–3 for a summary of the gospel).
In his address to the Athenians, Paul is not content to give a philosophical lecture comparing the biblical and Greek worldviews. He calls his audience to respond individually and existentially to Jesus Christ. Likewise, apologists today should be alert to the times when they should invite people to repent and accept the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ as Lord.
This remarkable narrative ends with the author (Luke) relating that some sneered at Paul, others wanted to hear more, and some became “followers of Paul” (vv. 32–34). To win this response from a group of worldly philosophers is a godly achievement. Any success was wrought through the work of the Holy Spirit, on whom Paul depended for courage and wisdom (see Acts 1:8)—as should apologists today.
Unlike Paul, too many Christians today suffer from apologetic agoraphobia: the fear of taking our Christian worldview into the open intellectual spaces of culture. But Jesus Himself calls us into the world to present the gospel (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:8). With Paul as our model, we should be disturbed at the evidence of unbelief in our midst. Therefore, we should winsomely and lovingly enter the marketplace of ideas as apologists who defend the Christian worldview. We do this by establishing common ground with our audience, by distinguishing the Christian worldview from alien philosophies, and by calling unbelievers to respond rightly to the truth of Jesus Christ.— Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of ten books, including On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003).
- See D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” Telling the Truth, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 384–98.
- Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, abridged by Ralph Earle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), 1006. I have altered the quote slightly to make it more readable.