Encountering World Religions: Acts 17:16–34
If we want to share the gospel with those of other religions,1 it is important to know what the Bible says about this. Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in Acts 17:16–34 is the classic text for sharing the gospel with those from different religious backgrounds. In order to engage with his audience in Acts 17, Paul uses the biblical meta-narrative of the Creation-Fall,2 redemption, and consummation.
Where Does Religion Come From?
Before looking at Acts 17, it is important to understand the origin of religion; in order to know the meaning of anything, we have to understand its origin. The origin of religion began in the Garden of Eden when God clearly revealed himself to Adam. However, Adam and Eve rejected that revelation and chose to believe a falsehood about Him. In this act of disobedience, they chose to follow Satan’s worldview over God’s worldview (Genesis 3:4–5). They created the first human religion, rejecting God’s perfect and true religion.
Religion . . . is first of all a response to God’s revelation—it is either in faith or rebellion. It is either based on God’s Word or man’s word.
Adam’s disobedience had consequences for the rest of his descendants since it affected how they viewed God and creation.3 This can be seen at the event of the Tower of Babel, which was the beginning of the religious diversity we see in the world today (see Deuteronomy 32:8, 16–17, 21).4 At the Tower of Babel, monotheism devolved into polytheism, pantheism, and the worship of anything other than the one true, living God. When the people were dispersed at Babel, they would have taken with them a hybrid truth of the living God mixed with the twisting and distorting of the truth of that revelation about Him (Romans 1:18–32). Religion then is first of all a response to God’s revelation—it is either in faith or rebellion. It is either based on God’s Word or man’s word.
Idolatry in Athens
At his arrival in Athens, Paul sees that the city is full of idols, which to him are actually not gods at all (1 Corinthians 8:4; cf. Acts 19:26); in fact he believes that demonic influence lies behind them (1 Corinthians 10:20; 1 Timothy 4:1). Paul would have also understood the idolatry in Athens as evidence of suppressing the truth of God’s revelation in creation (Romans 1:18–20). When we realize that misdirected religion is a human idolatrous response to God’s revelation, behind which are demonic influences, it will help us think about communicating the gospel to those of other religions.5 Nevertheless, Paul was so “provoked”6 at seeing the idolatry in the city that he was moved to preach the gospel in the market place.
Paul’s Religious Audience: The Epicureans and Stoics
It was because Paul was preaching Jesus and the Resurrection (Acts 17:18–19) that some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers invited him to the Areopagus in order to know more of what he was teaching. These two philosophies were different from Paul’s worldview.
For example, the Epicureans were indifferent to the gods because they believed the gods were too removed to be objects of concern; the Epicureans were basically like todays agnostic secularists.7 They argued that the chief human good was “pleasure” and that the gods did not interfere in human affairs. The Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife but rather believed that at death the body merely returned to its various elements.
The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists who argued for the unity of humanity and relationship with the divine.8 Both the Epicureans and Stoics were essentially materialists who, unlike Paul, did not believe in one God who created the world and was sovereign over it (Acts 17:24–26; cf. 14:16).
Paul’s Platform: The Areopagus
Paul was invited by the Epicureans and Stoics to speak at the Areopagus,9 not because he was speaking about a generic God, but because he was preaching Jesus and the Resurrection (Acts 17:18–19), something the Greeks were philosophically opposed to (verse 32).
One of the primary problems in Christian apologetics today is that, rather than defending the faith, many Christians end up defending a generic theism.
Paul did not look for some supposed neutral ground10 between himself and his Greek audience by speaking about God in generic terms in order to win the people over; this is important to keep in mind. One of the primary problems in Christian apologetics today is that, rather than defending the faith, many Christians end up defending a generic theism. We must realize that theism does not equal Christianity. As Christians we are not meant to make theists out of people; we are called to defend the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15). This means sharing what the triune God of creation has done for us in the gospel and standing on the authority of Scripture.
Paul, however, begins his speech by noting that the Athenians are “very religious” (Acts 17:22, δεισιδαιμονέστερος deisidaimonesteros), a term which itself is ambiguous since it can be used either in a positive (religious) or negative (superstitious) sense; it is probably used in a negative sense here.11 For a rhetorical device, Paul deliberately chooses a word which would draw his audience into the context of his explanation of God, Creation, mankind, redemption, Resurrection, and judgement. He preached to the Athenians in this unique way because he recognized that his worldview was different from theirs; they were basically evolutionary in their thinking.12
Paul was able to do this because he was not ignorant of the culture, nor was he consumed by it; but he observed the culture with the intent of proclaiming the gospel to it (Acts 17:16, 23). If we are to be better communicators of the gospel to people from other religions, it is important that we know something about what they believe.
Encountering and Exposing the Unbelieving Worldview: Creation and Fall
Since Paul understood the people he was preaching to and their religious background, he knew the topics he needed to address. For instance, after seeing the idol to an “Unknown God,” Paul used it as a springboard for explaining who God really is. By doing this, Paul deliberately went against the philosophies of the people in his preaching by proclaiming God as Creator of everything (Isaiah 42:5; Exodus 20:11).13
The reference to one ancestor in Acts 17:26 . . . is an unambiguous reference to the biblical tradition of the beginning of all human existence in the creation of Adam, the first man whom God brought into being (Gen 1:26–27, 2:7). There is no clear parallel in Greek thought or mythology to this conviction that the human race can be traced back to one man who was created by God.16
Paul deliberately refers to Adam in order to show that all people have their roots in the one man God originally created.
Paul deliberately refers to Adam in order to show that all people have their roots in the one man God originally created. The background of Acts 17:26–27 is Deuteronomy 32:8, which asserts monotheism in the face of polytheism, with the division of the nations mentioned in Genesis 10 and 11 as the remote background.17 This serves to highlight how God has providentially arranged the movements of the nations of mankind so that they may seek Him.
However, Paul tells the Athenians that their fallen attempt to seek after and find God is ultimately a failed one. In Acts 17:27, the term “grope” (pselapheseian) used “in both classical and biblical texts . . . refers to the groping of a blind person or the fumbling of a person in the darkness of night.”18 Witherington notes,
The image is not an encouraging one, even when coupled with what follows it—“and yet God is not far from each one of us.” The overall effect of this verse is to highlight the dilemma and irony of the human situation. Though God is omnipresent, and so not far from any person, ironically human beings are stumbling around in the dark trying to find God. When one is blind, even an object right in front of one’s face can be missed. The sentence does not encourage us to think the speaker believes that the finding of the true God is actually going on, apart from divine revelation. To the contrary, the true God remains unknown apart from such revelation.19
This is why Paul will go on to present the revelation of the light of the gospel so that it can shine through the darkness of idolatry in Athens (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6).
Exploring and Evangelizing the Unbelieving Worldview: Redemption and Consummation
For the Athenians to relate to what he was saying, Paul connected the truth of who the Creator God is with the truth that God has already given to them by way of natural revelation. He did this by quoting two Greek poets to these Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:28).20 Paul used these Greek poets as a part of his defence and persuasion of the gospel. By taking what they already knew and bringing it to his defence, Paul used God’s revelation in nature to persuade them of what they already knew to be true. He connected that inner knowledge to who God is, adding explicitly Christian content to it.
This connection with the knowledge of God that the Athenians already have leads to a bridge for Paul to share the gospel. Paul then tells the Athenians that God has overlooked the ignorance21 of the nations22 who find themselves in need of repentance and being reconciled to God through Christ (Acts 17:30).
The gospel is subversive because it stands as the contradiction and confrontation to all manifestations of world religions.
In this way, the gospel can be seen as subversively fulfilling world religions. The gospel is subversive because it stands as the contradiction and confrontation to all manifestations of world religions. It makes a call for repentance from idolatry to the true and living God (Acts 17:30, 14:15; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9). But it is also the fulfilment of what these false religions seek. Since idols are counterfeits of the one true God, the metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological questions that other religions ask (but ultimately cannot answer) are answered by the triune God alone.23
Unlike the Stoics, who had a cyclical view of the world, Paul concludes that there will be a definitive judgement on the world by Christ, so it is incumbent of all men to repent of their sin and turn to Him (Acts 17:30–31). The Resurrection of Jesus is the proof that there will be a final judgement.24
Reaction to Paul’s Message
There was a threefold reaction to Paul’s mention of the Resurrection and future judgement. First, it is mocked (Acts 17:32) by the Athenians. The idea of the Resurrection was incompatible with the Athenian view of life who believed that “once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.”25 This is why, by the cultural standard of wisdom, the Cross and Resurrection was foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23). The second reaction is that some have an open mind to hear Paul again about this. Third, there was a positive response as some believe that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:34). Contrary to what some have wanted to suggest, Paul’s apologetic methodology was not wasted in Athens. Rather it was successful, in that it gave the Athenians the foundation for understanding the gospel message and should be seen as a model of how to approach those who are “Greek” in their thinking.26
World religions are a rebellious, idolatrous response to God’s revelation of Himself in creation. Because God has made himself known to every person, we need to communicate the truth of the gospel in such a way that it connects with the truth that God has already communicated by way of natural revelation. The good news is that God is now redeeming people from false religions throughout the earth and uniting them into one people of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.