READ : Acts 17:22-31
Objection: All religions are basically the same so it does not really matter what you believe, and it is certainly arrogant to assume that your religion is better or truer than the others.
Everybody knows that ours is a shrinking world where today as never before different cultures and religions are mixing with one another. I happen to live in a medium-sized city in the middle of America. It is a long way – in every sense – from either New York or Los Angeles, but about a mile from my house, there is a building that has been turned into an Islamic center to serve our city’s Muslim population. People who look and act and think and worship very differently from us are no longer just the inhabitants of faraway places, known only from books and picture magazines. They have become our next-door neighbors.
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. It was Christianity that eventually gave rise to 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 and tolerance often produce another attitude that Christians do not share, the viewpoint known as relativism. In this view, it does not matter much what religion people believe or practice because all religions are pretty much the same. They are all more or less true (or, depending on your outlook, more or less false), so it does not make much difference which one you follow as long as you are sincere. To this way of thinking, the claims of biblical Christianity seem downright offensive. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way and 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, contradicts much contemporary thinking. 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 can be found through any religion?
To all these questions 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, and that is the name of Jesus. In a pluralistic world of many religions, we say that no religion, no human search for God, can ever find him. Rather, God must find us. To a relativistic age that blurs all distinctions, we claim that Jesus Christ is the truth, not one option among many equal alternatives, but God’s supreme statement to the world. How we do this can be seen in the story of the apostle Paul’s visit to the ancient city of Athens. It is told in Acts 17.
The Gospel and the Philosophers
Athens, though some 500 years past her golden age, was still the chief center of culture, art and philosophy in the Mediterranean world when Paul arrived there in the middle of the first century. His friend and companion Luke tells what happened during Paul’s first visit to the great city.
While Paul was waiting for them 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.
The city of Athens was a very religious place. Wherever one turned, temples and altars to the various gods of the ancient 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, deriving pleasure from the beauty of the sculpture and painting, nor, yet again, as a sociologist, fascinated by the diversity of religious practices.
Paul viewed Athens as a Christian, and therefore his reaction was a strong one. From a Christian viewpoint, the idolatry of Athens was not interesting or entertaining but appalling, because it was dishonoring to the true God. Paul was grieved by the ignorance of people who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
The apostle did more than merely observe and react to his surroundings, however. He 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 alike, Paul began to preach “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” He came not with another philosophy or religion but with the gospel, the announcement that God had come into our world in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to save lost people.
The religious and intellectual leaders of Athens were puzzled by Paul’s message, and they invited him to speak to their assembly.
So 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.
(Acts 17: 22-23)
God Made Known
The dominant spirit of our age believes there is no absolute truth and that no religion is more right than any other. But modern secularists are often curiously intolerant in their behavior toward believers. In contrast, Paul was dogmatic 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 that would be arrogant if it were not both true and motivated by genuine concern: “What you worship as unknown, I’m going to proclaim to you.”
And then he proceeded to do exactly that:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all . . . by raising him from the dead.”
The fundamental mistake of human religion is that it makes God dependent upon us instead of us on him. The evidence for this is seen in the way people assumed that God could be housed in man-made buildings (“God does not live in temples”), and sustained by the offerings they gave (“he is not served by hands, as if he needed anything”), and represented by the images they fashioned (“we should not think that the divine being is like…an image”). Paul accompanied his criticism of the pagan religion of Athens with a proclamation of four fundamental truths about the living – to them the unknown – God:
- God is the Creator of all, the one “who made the world and everything in it” (v. 24) including “every nation of men” (v. 26). He is the Creator; we are his creatures. The reason idolatry is wrong is that we were made in God’s image, not God in ours.
- God is the Lord of all. He is the sovereign ruler and sustainer of the universe and of every living creature in it. He is not contained within his creation, let alone any part of it. He is not served by sacrifices of food or treasure, as if he needed such things to live. On the contrary, God is the one who sustains our life. “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 from an ancient Greek writer. He quoted their own literature to reinforce his criticism of Greek religion, which shows that Paul was both familiar with the teachings of other religious traditions and respectfully accepting of whatever truths they contained. (In these things he set an example for all Christians to follow.)
- God is the Father of all. “We are his offspring,” Paul quotes again. The universal fatherhood of God is affirmed in the sense that God has made and gives life to every single person and that he desires all to seek and find him. 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 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 everyone and 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! Then it is not a question of debating the relative merits of this religion versus that religion. God will judge all people not by their religion but by their response to his Son, Jesus Christ. The only thing to do is to repent and turn to him in faith.
Found by the Truth
There are some truths that are common to many religions. As the Bible itself shows in this story of Paul’s encounter with the philosophers of Athens, most religions teach that there is a God who is the universal Creator, the Lord and Father of the human family. Most religions also talk about how to find God through acts of obedience, charity and morality. But here is the crucial difference: though many are seeking God, none can find him on their own.
The Christian gospel is different. It does not tell us how to find God. It tells us how God has found us. Christianity is not a religion at all, in the ordinary sense of the word. It is a message about Jesus, about what he has done for us and about how, if we believe in him, we can come to know God. In the past, God has tolerated much ignorance among those who lived before the time of Christ, or who have never heard of him. But now he commands that all people repent, turn to him, and put their faith in Jesus Christ.
If you think it is enough just to seek for God, then I guess any religion will do. But if it is important for you to find him, then Jesus Christ is the only way. It is not arrogant to say that. It is just the truth.