READ : Acts 17:16-31
Here’s what a lot of people think: All religions are basically the same so it doesn’t really matter what you believe. And no religion is better or truer than any other.
Everybody knows that the world is shrinking today. Never before have so many different cultures and beliefs been mixing with one another. Because we now live in a pluralistic society, we need the quality of tolerance (the willingness to respect peoples’ differences) more than ever. Christians, of all people, should be tolerant of others. It took Christianity a long time and much needless suffering before it finally embraced the idea of religious liberty, so Christians should especially value the right of everyone to follow his or her conscience in matters of belief.
But pluralism (the co-existence in one society of many different world views and religious systems) often produces another attitude that Christians don’t share -relativism. In this view, it doesn’t matter much what anyone believes or practices because all religions are pretty much the same. They’re all more or less true (or, depending on your view of things, more or less false). So it doesn’t make much difference which one you follow as long as you are sincere. That’s the way a lot of people think today. And to this way of thinking, the claims of biblical Christianity seem downright offensive. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). This claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to the true God is one that, to say the very least, flies in the face of contemporary attitudes. Is it reasonable or fair that Christ should be the only way to God? What does that mean for those who have never heard of him? Doesn’t it make more sense to believe that God could be found through any religion?
To that last question Christians answer with a respectful “No.” While we do not claim that we alone know all the truth, we do say that there is only one way to God, only one name that can save the name of Jesus. In a pluralistic world of many religions, we say that no religion (defined as a human search for God) can ever find him. Rather, God must find us. To a relativistic age which blurs all distinctives, we claim that Jesus Christ is the truth; not one option among many equal alternatives, but God’s supreme statement to the world. The way Christians make these claims can be seen in the story of the apostle Paul’s visit to the ancient city of Athens.
IS IT SAFE TO GUESS ABOUT TRUTH?
Athens, though some 500 years past her golden age in the New Testament, was still the chief center of culture, art and philosophy in the Mediterranean world when Paul arrived there in the middle of his second missionary journey. His friend and companion Luke tells what happened during Paul’s visit to the great city.
While Paul was waiting . . . in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 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 17:16-18, niv
The city of Athens was a very religious place. Wherever one turned, temples and altars to the various gods of the Greek world abounded, and statues of them sprouted like weeds on a vacant lot. Paul’s reaction to all this was intense distress. He did not look at the city like a tourist, admiring the Parthenon and the other glorious buildings; nor did he view it as an art historian would, deriving pleasure from the beauty of the sculptures and the painting; nor, yet again, as a sociologist, fascinated by the diversity of religious practices. No, Paul viewed Athens as a Christian, and therefore his reaction was a strong one. From the Christian point of view, the idolatry of Athens was not interesting or attractive but appalling, because it was dishonoring to the one true God. Paul was grieved by the ignorance of people who, as he would elsewhere put it, “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
The apostle responded to the pluralism of the Athenian religious scene by introducing a new subject. Speaking both in the synagogue and the marketplace, to religious people, to the highly educated, and to ordinary folks, Paul began to preach “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). He came not with another philosophy or religion but with the gospel, the announcement that God had come into our world in Jesus Christ, and that he had died and risen again to save lost, confused people of any and all religions, or of none whatsoever.
The intellectual leaders of Athens were puzzled by Paul’s message, so they invited him to speak to their assembly.
Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The dominant spirit of our age maintains there is no absolute truth and that no religion is more right than any other. But they can never be sure. Is it safe to merely guess about ultimate truth or absolute truth? It is always possible that “the unknown God” could make himself known to us. Christians believe that this is exactly what has happened. God has actually revealed the truth about himself to the world through Jesus Christ. Shouldn’t we then listen to him? Modern secularists, who pride themselves on their openness, are dismissive of the claims of Christ, and often curiously intolerant in their behavior toward believers. In contrast, the apostle Paul was firm in his assertion of the truth of the gospel, but he was very gentle in his approach to the followers of other religions. He began with a simple statement: “What you worship as unknown, I’m going to proclaim to you.”
THE UNKNOWN GOD REVEALS HIMSELF
And then he proceeded to do just that. Luke summarizes the sermon Paul preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17:24-31. The apostle began with a criticism of the idol worship that was on display all over the city. The fundamental mistake of such human religion is that it assumed God is dependent upon us instead of us on him. The evidence for that was seen in the way people assumed that God could be housed in man-made buildings (v. 24), and sustained by the offerings they gave (v. 25), and represented by the images they fashioned (v. 29).
And Paul accompanied his criticism of the pagan religion of Athens with a proclamation of four fundamental truths about the living God, the real God, the God of the Bible:
- God is the creator of all. God is the one “who made the world and everything in it” (v. 24), including “every nation of men” (v. 26). The true God is the creator of everything; we are his creatures. Isn’t it strange that people would make their own gods to worship, that so many even today would ascribe supernatural power to statues or pictures, to symbols, lucky charms and crystals, or to the planets and the stars? Idolatry isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid! The reason is that we were made by God in his image, but with idolatry we make gods in our image. When humans worship idols, they are substituting created things for the Creator of all things. That is deeply wrong, profoundly misguided. It offends the living God of heaven and earth.
- God is the Lord of all. God is the sovereign ruler and sustainer of the universe and of every living creature in it. God is not contained even within the whole of his creation, let alone within any buildings that humans erect. God is not served by sacrifices of food or treasure, as if he needed such things. On the contrary, God is the one who sustains us, who gives us all that we need. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). Remarkably, this quotation, which Paul used to confirm his point, is not from the Bible but rather from an ancient Greek writer. Paul quoted their own literature to reinforce his criticism of Greek religion. Paul was not just familiar with the writings of non-Christian philosophers and religious teachers; he was also willing to accept whatever truths they contained a good lesson for Christians today.
- God is the Father of all. “We are his offspring,” says Paul, quoting a Greek philosopher once again. The apostle affirms the universal fatherhood of God in the sense that God has made and gives life to every single person and that he desires all to seek and find him (v. 27). This is what gives every person value and worth. It makes every life precious. It is God the Father who has planted within human nature the desire to know him, and this desire is what gives rise to religion. Just as we all have physical and social instincts, so we all have an instinct for worship. All religions are not alike; not at all. But they do all have this in common: they all spring from the hunger for God in the human heart. They all have their origin in the various ways human cultures are searching for him. Whether they can find him, though, is another matter.
- God is the judge of all. “He has set a day,” the apostle declares, “when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (v. 31). The proof of this is seen in God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead. If you want to know what warrant Christians have for putting the claims of Christ above everything else, the evidence we offer is the resurrection. This is what makes Christianity unique. If Jesus has actually risen from the dead, that changes everything!
SNEER OR BELIEVE
Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers met with a mixed reaction. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead,” Luke writes, “some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ . . . A few became followers . . . and believed” (vv. 32,34).
The Christian gospel is different from most religion. It doesn’t tell us how to find God. It tells us how God has found us. Christianity isn’t a religion at all, in the usual sense of the word. It is a message about Jesus and what he has done for us, and about how we can come to know God by putting our trust in him.
In the past, declared Paul, God tolerated much ignorance on the part of people who lived before the time of Christ or who had never heard of him. But now he commands that everyone repent, turn to him, and put their faith in Jesus Christ. The bad news is that no one will find God on their own by searching for him. The good news the really marvelous news- is that no one has to do that. God hasn’t abandoned us to our own devices. Instead, he has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. He searches and finds us. To know God, we have only to believe in Christ. Think about it: if God could be found through philosophy, then maybe only philosophers would find him! But if the way to come to God is by repentance and faith in Christ, then it is open to everybody, including you.
If you think it’s enough just to search for God, then any religion or philosophy will do. But if you want to find him, Jesus Christ is the way.