The Gospel Belongs in Athens Too - 3/23/97

March 23, 1997 / Acts 17:16-34

Some cultures are intimidating.

A hospital, for example, has its own distinctive culture. The people in white coats and surgical scrubs get deference at elevators, in food lines, and when they walk into patient rooms. Guests typically stand to leave a patient’s room when a physician walks through the door. And when he or she speaks to the family, everyone listens intently and with respect — sometimes as if to the voice of a god. After all, life or death may be in the balance.

For most people, intellectual cultures are particularly intimidating. What is the old adage about keeping your mouth shut and being thought a fool rather than opening your mouth and removing all doubt? Nobody wants to come across as a "country bumpkin" and become the object of a put-down. There is often an insufferable arrogance about intellectual cultures. (Truly bright people are typically unimpressed with themselves and are often aware of the distance others feel from them. They take the initiative to bridge the gap with easy conversation or by self-effacing humor.)

When a college freshman goes through the registration line or meets his or her first class, for example, there is typically nervousness borne of intimidation. When a college graduate applies to a graduate or professional school, she tends to be intimidated by the faculty member or committee with whom she must interview — wanting desperately to make a good impression and to appear competent as a scholar.

Just try to imagine, then, what Paul might have felt when he approached Athens on his second missionary journey. It was the intellectual center of the ancient world. Vanderbilt, Harvard, Princeton, Yale — all had their scholastic counterparts in the city. There were Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians holding forth their philosophies of science, metaphysics, and epistemology. The debates among the scholars from these different schools were clever and heady exchanges. Only the better-educated citizens could follow their arguments and rebuttals.

Paul could have been intimidated by Athens. He could have judged the doctors of that city to be a bunch of arrogant academics — stuffed-shirt eggheads, if you prefer — inclined to make fun of a traveling preacher such as himself. He could have chosen to "invest his time more wisely by focusing on common people" who would not have been so self-impressed as the Athenians. But Paul knew that Athens needed the gospel too.

Paul at Athens

Paul knew full well that God intended for the gospel to be preached at Athens as well as in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was the natural place for the church to be established. It was the holy city of the ethnic group through whom Yahweh had sent his Messiah. It was a place where Scripture was generally regarded as the authoritative Word of God. Thus the church’s earliest evangelists preached in Jerusalem and offered their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible which proved that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and Redeemer of the World. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, for example, he quoted from the writings of Joel (Joel 2:28-32; cf. Acts 2:17ff) and David (Psa. 16:8-11; 110:1; cf. Acts 2:25-28, 34-35) to establish his case about Jesus.

Yet even on that day, Peter affirmed by the Spirit of God that salvation and the gift of the Spirit were "for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:39). Through the narrative we have been reading together in Acts, we have watched the Lord show the early Christians the meaning of that statement. Philip preached in Samaria. Peter went to Cornelius. Barnabas and Paul had established Gentile churches — and an all-church gathering at Jerusalem had affirmed their work. So it was simply unthinkable that Paul would pass by Athens without offering them the knowledge of Christ.

"Greatly distressed" by all the idolatry he saw while being a tourist there, he decided not to wait for his co-workers Silas and Timothy to join him before beginning a teaching ministry. "So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:17-18).

Paul was invited to the Areopagus (i.e., Mars Hill, KJV) where scholars debated issues of the day. There he was allowed to address any who would listen and opened himself for questions and further study to all who were interested. I’m fascinated by his methodology.

He didn’t organize a gospel meeting at the synagogue and send out flyers. He didn’t print up song sheets of Christian hymns to teach the Athenians. And he didn’t quote a single line from Scripture or any Christian poets. He didn’t ask them to bow their heads for a word of prayer. He went into the public arena, "reasoned" with the people who would listen, and quoted appropriate lines from their poets!

The Epicureans were naturalists. They were atheists who believed that the material elements of the universe were the only realities. They did not, of course, believe in a created universe. They insisted that the world was a "chance collision of atoms" and that death ended everything. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" was their slogan about life and how to live it. All pain should be avoided, and any pleasure that one could attain was both permissible and good.

The Stoics were pantheists. For them, god was not personal but the "world soul" inhabiting all things. God is everything, and everything is god. Their pessimistic philosophy taught resignation to fate. The quenching of all desire was the goal of existence for them.

Into this environment and before these professional philosophers walked Paul the Christian evangelist. After complimenting their desire for investigation and their openness to religion at Athens, he mentioned an altar he had noticed "To an Unknown God." He took that as his starting point and said, "Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23).

His speech made the following points: (1) a personal, self-sufficient God who is other than the world he has created has made all things (vs.24-25), (2) God has created all nations and races of humankind from a common source (v.26), (3) God has created us for his fellowship and our hearts naturally long for him (vs.27-29), (4) all human beings are accountable to the God who has created them (v.30), and (5) God wants all people to be saved through Jesus (v.31, cf.v.27b).

Luke gives us nothing more than this brief outline of Paul’s message. It is clear in this summary, however, that Paul struck at the very heart of atheism, pantheism, idolatry, and naturalism in his presentation. Yet he made it clear that the God who has created all human beings had willed their salvation through the work of Christ. The fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead is the ultimate proof that all the claims he made for himself are true — and that he will someday have the right to judge us all.

Paul was not intimidated by Athens. Neither was he aloof and unconcerned. He saw his responsibility as a Christian evangelist to approach the Athenians in a way appropriate to their culture. So he reasoned, proclaimed, and heralded. He challenged unbelief and presented the resurrection of Jesus as the final definitive proof that what he was preaching was true.

Why are we not doing the same thing today? Why are we so confined to methods that presume a predisposition to faith? Why are we comfortable at Jerusalem but bullied by Athens? Why don’t we penetrate the marketplace and challenge the university campuses with the gospel message? Maybe we are too intimidated by our culture.

Cultural Intimidation

Metaphysical naturalism dominates world culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Naturalism is the doctrine that nature is the sum total of reality. The Bible opens with these lines: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). The late Carl Sagan’s Cosmos opens this way: "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." Those two statements juxtapose two irreconcilable worldviews.

For centuries, Western civilization was built on a shared creation story that affirmed men and women as creatures in the likeness of God. In the biblical account of creation, God deliberately brought all things into being and is actively concerned about what goes on in his creation. More than that, he intervenes in his creation at strategic times for the welfare of the people he has created. The most dramatic intervention was in the person and work of Jesus Christ to save all people from sin and its terrible fate. On this worldview, the most important thing in all of human life is to seek, know, and honor the will of God.

Today the dominant creation story is not theistic but naturalistic. It denies that we were created by God and therefore disavows any duty to him. It turns the old creation story on its head not only by denying that God made us but by insisting that our unenlightened ancestors created God out of their prescientific ignorance, fear, and wish-projection. According to the new account of creation, all living things evolved by purposeless, unguided processes of natural selection and random genetic mutation.

In his book Reason in the Balance, Phillip Johnson offers this devastating analysis of how intimidating the culture of naturalism is in American universities:

The domination of naturalism over intellectual life is not affected by the fact that some religious believers and active churchgoers hold prestigious academic appointments. With very few exceptions, these believers maintain their respectability by tacitly accepting the naturalistic rules that define rationality in the universities. They explicitly or implicitly concede that their theism is a matter of ‘faith’ and agree to leave the realm of ‘reason’ to the agnostics. This is true in every field of study, but especially so in natural science, the discipline that has the authority to describe physical reality for all the others. A biologist may believe in God on Sundays, but he or she had better not bring that belief to the laboratory on Monday with the idea that it has any bearing on the nature or origin of living organisms. For professional purposes, atheistic and theistic biologists alike must assume that nature is all there is. [p. 8.]

The climate of our time has capitulated to the claim that Christian faith is some form of credulity — next of kin to superstition, belief in UFOs, and self-delusion. H.L. Mencken once said that "faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

But Mencken was wrong in his anti-supernaturalist, anti-Christian dogmatism. Christian faith is not gullible and unreasonable. To the contrary, it demands the exercise of one’s full rational powers and asks for faith only on the basis of hard facts and sound reasoning.

A fundamental difference between Christianity and Greek mythology at Athens was that the religion of Jesus Christ is an historical religion that appeals to the facts of history for its vindication. The beauty of the gospel is its factual nature. Faith and sight are set in opposition to each other at 2 Corinthians 5:7 as different means to knowledge; but faith and knowledge or belief and reason are never contrasted. Authentic faith is founded in the use of one’s reason, and God always seeks the heart and will of an individual through his or her intellect. Jesus Christ never asks for mindless, unevidenced commitments.

Faith is trust grounded in facts and careful thinking about those facts. Does Jesus sound like someone who wants to avoid critical thinking? "Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does," he said. "But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John 10:37-38).

Our World Needs Jesus Christ

One of many reasons our world needs Jesus Christ so desperately is for the sake of preserving rationality. Naturalism leads unswervingly to relativism in ethics and politics, education and the arts. When naturalism reigns, no absolute standards remain. All things are equally right and equally wrong. Before you think that is too broad a diatribe, just think it through.

If what we call human thought is nothing more than the random percolation of chemical reactions and electrical impulses in the brain, there is no reason to trust it. Who is to say that the brain of a "madman" is not as normal as yours? Who is to say that a pedophile’s lifestyle is immoral? Who is to say that unrestricted drug use, the abortion of any unwanted baby, or the physician-assisted death of a burdensome mother shouldn’t be legalized? Who is to say that politicians shouldn’t have as their one goal getting elected by whatever means they can, that entertainers shouldn’t have the right to have sex on stage as artistic expression, or that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to gamble on the games they play?

You say, "But we already do and/or argue for those very things." Yes, I know! And that is the inevitable sorry outcome of metaphysical naturalism. These aberrations that all of us know to be absurdities are defensible only in a world that has jettisoned reason because of its prior rejection of God. Some issues will never be dealt with ethically and productively until we reject naturalism for supernaturalism, Darwin for Moses, and Woody Allen for Jesus.

Christianity is most definitely not an appeal to reject reason for gullibility, truth for myth, or science for superstition. To the contrary, it is an affirmation that faith in Jesus Christ embraces reason, truth, and science as its strong allies. I will go so far as to say that the only reason I would ever ask anyone to accept the Christian faith is that it is true.

The roads through both Jerusalem and Athens end at the foot of the cross of Jesus. And both those roads are travelled by reason.

An Exercise in Natural Theology

Some of the people who are giving naturalism its biggest fits these days are scientists from physics, biochemistry, and genetics. For example, Michael Behe has dropped an intellectual bombshell into academia with his book Darwin’s Black Box. A biochemist who once accepted Darwinian evolution has dared to say that an elephant is in the room with scientists who are trying to explain the origin and development of life. The elephant’s name is Intelligent Design, and the naturalistic scientists refuse to admit it is there. "Cells are simply too complex to have evolved randomly; intelligence was required to produce them," insists Behe.

The molecular systems in a single living cell are too complex to have originated by an ever-so-gradual, step-by-step process. Behe’s illustration is a mousetrap. You can’t start with only a wooden base and catch a few mice, then add a spring and catch a few more. All the parts have to be assembled simultaneously or the mousetrap simply doesn’t work at all. In the same way, he insists, the complex systems in our cells must have originated all at once in order to function.

Suppose I walk into my house and find Scrabble letters scattered across the table in our dining room. I look and perhaps surmise that Myra and Trisha had some idle time, started playing Scrabble, and then left the table with letters still scattered around. But suppose those same Scrabble tiles are arranged on the table to spell "Lets go out to dinner tonight." My assumption is very different now.

In this instance you immediately infer design, not even bothering to consider that the wind or an earthquake or your pet cat might have fortuitously turned over the right letters. You infer design because a number of separate components (the letters) are ordered to accomplish a purpose (the message) that none of the components could do by itself. Furthermore, the message is highly specific; changing several of the letters would make it unreadable. For the same reason, there is no gradual route to the message: one letter does not give you part of the message, a few more letters does not give a little more of the message, and so on. [p. 194.]

The point in Behe’s illustrations of the mousetrap and Scrabble letters is that we not only have the right to infer intelligent design when we see it in man-made objects but in the objects of our physical universe. Infinite time is not a substitute for intelligent ordering of parts — in the molecular structure of a cell, in the function of a kidney, or in the complex eye-brain vision process. A blind man without fingers did not make the first watch or PC; neither did unguided natural forces create this inhabitable world with human life in it. There is an elephant in the room with people who can’t bring themselves to infer intelligent design in the cosmos we know!


Scholars debate the "success" of Paul’s mission to Athens. Luke writes: "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others" (Acts 17:32-34).

What’s to debate here? Of course it was a successful mission, for Paul bore witness to the truth. Success or failure is not determined by the number of converts but by one’s faithfulness to the Lord, to the truth, to what is right.

Athens as well as Jerusalem — skeptical intellectuals who have swallowed the line of an intimidating naturalism as well as people inclined to biblical religion — need to know the gospel. It is our task to take the message to all people without being intimidated. Truth, after all, is powerful enough to stand in any arena for investigation in broad daylight.

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