LCN Article

The Challenge of Athens

July / August 2018

Wallace G. Smith

The world is not what it once was. For decades, God’s Church has preached the Gospel of His Kingdom to a culture that—to a great degree—at least respected the Bible. That is changing quickly.

Within the United States, those who do not identify with any particular religion are not only increasing, but also growing more secular. Where once we could assume that our audience largely had a basic familiarity with the Bible, we can assume no longer. Younger generations are raised believing that only the ignorant or "religious zealots" question evolution, same-sex "marriage" holds the same moral status as traditional marriage, and the Bible is simply an old book that may offer some good advice, but also most certainly contains falsehood.

In 2016, the Barna Group's David Kinnaman summarized the results of research concerning American attitudes about the Bible. "With each passing year, the percent of Americans who believe that the Bible is 'just another book written by men' increases," he wrote. "So too do the perceptions that the Bible is actually harmful and that people who live by its principles are religious extremists." Other countries are even more skeptical than the United States.

While our usual Tomorrow's World audience remains Bible-friendly, we increasingly preach the Gospel to individuals who see Jesus Christ's teachings and the God of the Bible as utterly foreign to their experience—and often offensive.

These accelerating cultural changes represent a great challenge to God's Work, today. For reasons that will become clear, I have come to call this the challenge of Athens. This article's goal is to explain that challenge and look at a key biblical example of how to meet it. My hope is that God's people will appeal that much more fervently in their prayers that He guide and empower His Work to reach a culture from which He is increasingly estranged.

Fundamental Differences

At the heart of much of our preaching is the truth that the Bible does not say many of the things people believe it says! This is part of why our telecast often encourages viewers to search their Bibles to verify what we say—in order to see that our teachings are those of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, recorded in Scripture. When someone believes that the Bible is God's word and is shown, for example, that it teaches Saturday as the Sabbath and not Sunday, it can be convicting. For many of us reading this article, that was how God first grabbed our attention.

But what of someone younger, who sees the Bible as no more credible than the Quran or ancient myths? Reactions may vary. Such an individual might be so repulsed by religion in general that he doesn't hear the message: Wasn't religion at the root of the September 11 attacks? Isn't Christianity anti-science? Isn't the Bible why my gay friend is bullied? Such ideas are, at best, overgeneralizations, and at worst, utterly wrong. But for some, these are "truths" that culture has ingrained in their minds.

In an odd twist, perhaps such a one will agree that mainstream Christians are wrong about Sunday-keeping but will also consider this understanding personally irrelevant. He is not a Christian himself, so why should his behavior change? If anything, he may use this information only to poke fun at his Christian friends for getting their own religion wrong!

If such individuals differ so fundamentally from the more Bible-friendly (or at least not anti-Bible) culture in which the Work has blossomed in decades past, can we even hope to reach them? Should we write them off—concluding that, since the end is coming, it makes sense that fewer will listen, and we shouldn't worry about it? Or should we decide that, since the Father does the calling (John 6:44, 65), we don't have to concern ourselves about how people of this growing culture understand our message? Will God simply "take care of it" while we keep doing everything the way we've always done?

We don't have to guess the answers. God has recorded examples of how He inspired His early Church to approach these questions—examples that teach us about our responsibility as stewards of His message and inform us about the approach we should take today.

"All Things to All Men"

The Apostle Paul's work was similar to our modern work in many ways. Though he was commissioned to reach the "uncircumcised" (Galatians 2:7–9), he strove to preach God's truth to all he met. His efforts are recorded for us in detail, as is his approach to reaching those of differing cultures and backgrounds. He describes that approach in 1 Corinthians 9:19–22.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

This passage is easy to misunderstand, but Paul does not say that he became lawless to those without the law. He carefully explains that he remained under God's law as a Christian should. He took advantage of the lawful liberty he possessed under Christ to relate to Gentiles, just as he took advantage of his knowledge of the Old Covenant, including those parts no longer applicable to Christians, to relate to fellow Jews.

One obvious takeaway from this passage is that Paul did not use "God does the calling" as an excuse to do less than his absolute best as a tool in God's hands for reaching the world. He certainly believed that the Father must call people to Christ—one of the plainest references to this doctrine comes from his own words in 1 Corinthians 1:26–29. Yet he still believed it was his responsibility to do all within his power to relate to his audience in a godly and lawful way, acknowledging their own perspectives and backgrounds in order to present God's truth to them as effectively as possible.

And the Bible goes beyond revealing that Paul strove to be "all things to all men." Through Luke's pen, God shows us just how Paul practiced that principle. We see this by comparing—and contrasting—what is recorded in Acts 13 and 17.

Paul in the Synagogue of Antioch

Consider the record in Acts 13 of Paul's preaching in Antioch in Pisidia. As he visited the synagogue there, its rulers asked if he had anything to say to the assembled attendees. Of course, Paul did! He began:

Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He brought them out of it. Now for a time of about forty years He put up with their ways in the wilderness (vv. 16–18).

Please read verses 16 through 41 yourself. Addressing himself to both the Jewish listeners and to the "God fearers"—Gentiles in the synagogue who had accepted Israel's God ("devout proselytes," v. 43)—Paul begins by recounting the history of Israel, from their time in Egypt to the time of David (vv. 16–22). He reminds them of the promise of a Messiah to come through David's line and tells them that Jesus fulfills that promise, having been heralded by John the Baptist (vv. 23–25).

Paul then tells these "sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God" that they are now receiving the word of salvation they have awaited, explaining to them the events that have taken place in Jerusalem, including Jesus' condemnation, execution, and resurrection—events to which many witnesses could attest (vv. 26–31). Paul then anchors his claims in the Old Testament, pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies of a future king, through whom forgiveness of sins is now available (vv. 32–39). Finally, he reminds them of prophetic warnings concerning those who do not believe God's Work when it happens in their time (vv. 40–41).

Paul at the Areopagus in Athens

Now consider Acts 17. Again, it is helpful to read the entire account yourself, in Acts 17:18–34, but we note here some highlights.

We find Paul in very different circumstances. In the Greek city of Athens, the Apostle spoke in the local synagogues with the Jews and "Gentile worshipers" of God, just as he had done in Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 17:17). However, he also spoke daily in the marketplace, where he would have encountered individuals of diverse backgrounds and cultures. There, he attracted attention from important men.

Verse 18 says that some Athenians dismissed him as a "babbler," while others noted that he seemed to preach "foreign gods." This latter comment had the potential to be serious, as it was anciently illegal in Athens to preach gods the city did not officially recognize. One accusation against the philosopher Socrates, resulting in his execution in 399BC, was that he introduced new gods into Athens.

As a result, Paul was taken to the Areopagus, atop "Mars Hill." This was an important Athenian court that heard cases related to very serious crimes, such as homicide and sedition (The Law in Classical Athens, Douglas M. MacDowell, pp. 27–28). There is no need to conclude that Paul was on trial, but the history of the Areopagus proves that this was an important audience of prominent individuals. As Paul speaks to those assembled, his "all things to all men" approach is brilliantly put into action.

First, Paul mentions to the council that he has observed how "religious" Athens is, noting the idols and places of worship throughout the city, including an altar dedicated "To the Unknown God" (vv. 22–23). Then—with, perhaps, inspired savvy—he argues that he is, in a sense, not preaching a "foreign" god in Athens, for he only preaches this "Unknown God" they already acknowledge: "Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (v. 23).

Paul then argues that the God who created the universe is too great to dwell in temples of man's design or be captured in the worshipped idols of man's creation (vv. 24–25). He highlights that this God created all men from the same blood (v. 26) and placed the different peoples in appointed places on earth to seek Him (v. 27). He then quotes two Gentile poets, with whom Athenians would be familiar, stating, "for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring'" (v. 28).

The first of those quotes matches the writings of the ancient poet Epimenides of Cnossos, an honored figure in Athenian history. In one of his poems, Epimenides pictures King Monos of Crete speaking to the god Zeus and saying,

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,

Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.

But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,

For in you we live and move and have our being.

Paul quotes this last line to the Athenians, though students of the Bible might also recognize the second line, which Paul quotes to Titus, citing it as having been said by "one of them [a Cretan], a prophet of their own" (Titus 1:12).

The latter quote Paul provides from "some of [their] own poets" has been identified as one from Aratus, who had been a popular poet and philosophy student in Athens three to four centuries earlier. In Aratus' work Phenomena, he writes, "Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring…."

Having established—using their own poets—that the Athenians recognize their utter dependence on a universal Creator, of whom they are offspring, Paul points out the folly of thinking that a man-made idol—"gold or silver or stone"—can capture the "Divine Nature" of that Creator (v. 29). He then says that God, in His mercy, has overlooked such sin but now commands all the world to repent, since He is bringing judgment through His chosen Man—validating this by raising that Man from the dead (vv. 30–31).

At the mention of Christ's resurrection, "some mocked, while others said, 'We will hear you again on this matter'" (v. 32).

The Bible records nothing about a great "Church of God in Athens." Part of what originally provoked Paul was how "given over" the city was to idolatry (v. 16), and Luke testifies that the men of Athens and those of other nations who lived there were consumed with a profitless curiosity about new ideas (v. 21). In a sense, they met the description Paul gives elsewhere of individuals who are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). Yet, even in Athens, some did believe (Acts 17:34).

Two Audiences, Two Approaches, One Message

Looking at Paul's evangelism in Antioch and Athens, we see some things in common. For instance, in both cities the Apostle preached a relevant biblical truth to his audience.

To the Jews and Gentile proselytes in Antioch, he ultimately sought to convince them that the prophesied Messiah had come, and judgment would ultimately strike those refusing to follow Him. To the Gentile Greeks of Athens, he taught that God was not to be worshipped with idols, and that He had appointed One to judge the world in the future for such sins. Clearly, both messages are rooted in biblical truth, and God's Church preaches both to this day.

Yet, when we contrast the two accounts, we find that there are also important differences, and these are extremely instructive.

In Acts 13, Paul preaches to his fellow Jews and to Gentiles who had adopted the Jewish religion and beliefs. He uses touchstones of their culture that would resonate with them: Israel's history, biblical prophecies they have heard all their lives, and prophets with whom they are familiar.

But in his address at the Areopagus in Acts 17, Paul's message, while truly biblical, is significantly different. He does not quote a single passage of Scripture—how many on the Areopagus would have known those scriptures anyway? God's commandment against idolatry is the heart of his message to the Athenians, yet he does not quote Exodus 20. Instead, he appeals to their faculties of reason about why the true God would not want such worship, and when he quotes sources, he carefully uses their own poets to illustrate his points. He speaks to them not with Jewish culture or his own, but with their culture—and after referring to one of their own idols to begin his speech! 

Was he watering things down? Far from it! Recall Acts 17:16. Paul saw that Athens was "given over to idols," was provoked in his spirit, and he cried aloud and spared not! What boldness does it take to walk into a country devoted to idols and make the spearpoint of your message an attack on idolatry—all while on trial? Boldness of the highest order!

Paul did not dismiss the Greeks as unreachable. He did not conclude, "If God's calling them, they will understand no matter what I say," and then approach them just as he did those in Antioch. Rather, he sought to be "all things to all men" and made a powerful effort to reach them in the most effective way he could.

Not many responded—but some did. Acts 17:34 reveals that Dionysius the Areopagite (possibly one of the very judges examining him) and a woman named Damaris, along with several others, believed what they heard. When they would have asked where a Jewish "babbler" like Paul learned such amazing truths that had escaped even the wisest Athenians, the stage would have been set for him to teach the real source of wisdom—not human philosophies, but God's revealed word.

Paul's example is relevant in ways that many could not have foreseen even 20 years ago. Whatever biblical literacy is left in Western culture, such remnants are evaporating in the heat of radical secularism and an actively cultivated culture of godlessness. Some have even noticed that our culture, once described as "post-Christian," is increasingly better described as "pre-Christian"—so removed from biblical principles that it is as if they were never a part of the society at all.

Meeting the Challenge of Athens

Our world is no longer predisposed to respect the Bible. We face one in which biblical concepts and truths need to be fought for differently. God does not give permission to "write off" anyone. Paul did not see the heathen, idolatrous people of Greece and dismiss them as "unreachable." He labored to meet the challenge of Athens. We must, as well.

We are learning. Most Tomorrow's World efforts focus on our religious audience, and this is as it should be. That audience is still strong. But we have also begun exploring ways to reach different audiences. For example, the Canadian-produced version of Tomorrow's World is more geared toward secular individuals, as the "challenge of Athens" in Canada is very real. Canada's sharp, professional Tomorrow's World Viewpoint series of online videos is also beginning to make a dent in different demographics we have not previously reached as successfully, and our first few "whiteboard" videos—introducing viewers to biblical topics in a fast-paced and visually interesting manner—have shown great promise.

We are also developing new materials that approach popular topics from different angles and perspectives, seeking not only to teach what the Bible says, but also to defend those teachings in new ways. It is our hope that God can use these efforts to reach those who have never considered His word before.

But we still have much to learn.

The Goal Never Changes

Our commission remains: Preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to all nations. In a world where biblical literacy and the remnants of Judeo-Christian culture are vanishing, the challenge of effectively reaching that world is real. The cultural values and touchstones of previous generations are not those of upcoming generations. It is not simply a matter of making sure we are on the Internet or social media. Regardless of the means of delivery, the message Paul delivered in Antioch would not have worked in Athens. Athenian culture was too different, and much of what resonated with the Jews and proselytes of Antioch would have meant nothing to Dionysius the Areopagite.

We could choose to be lazy and ignore the challenge—just continuing to do what is comfortable and familiar without venturing into new territory. But do we want God to call people despite our efforts or through them? How deeply do we long to hear the returning Christ say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21)?

Mr. Gerald Weston has said that if the world is going to be reached, God will have to reach it. Our desire is simply to be the best tools we can be in our Father's hands, just as the Apostle Paul sought to be. Let us make sure that, when we see Paul in the resurrection, we can truthfully tell him that we sought with all our strength to be such tools as well. To the best of our ability, let us rise to meet the challenge of Athens.