Over the last five years, my family and I have had the privilege of frequently visiting missionary friends in Athens. Every time I have gone, I have made sure to visit the Areopagus, the scene of Paul’s address in Acts 17. Of course, you have to use your imagination when visiting today. It’s basically a big hunk of uneven shiny rock to clamber up on and walk around (being careful that the kids don’t topple off the sheer drop at the back!). But when I’m there, I always like making the point, to anyone around who’ll listen, that I’m actually standing on the place where the actual apostle Paul preached to the Athenian cognoscenti all that time ago.

Anyone interested in cultural apologetics and Christianity’s relationship to other religions will know Acts 17. Indeed, all roads seem to lead back to this Athenian outcrop. Though my students might inwardly groan at yet another theological trip there, it never becomes tired or clichéd, for it remains a ‘touchstone:’ a microcosm of the gospel of Jesus Christ encountering the religious Other in public. Whether it’s recent bathroom-related legislation, or the pronouncements of a would-be president, we are constantly faced with how to relate Christianity to other worldviews, and it often leaves Christians dizzy and disoriented. We need some basic theological clarity with regards to how we remain faithful to the gospel—handed down to us from Christians through the ages—in a multi-faith society.

So, whether it’s to clear up misunderstandings or give us fresh understandings on our mission and ministry today, I think it’s well worth yet another quick whistle-stop tour of the Areopagus.

Idolatry Should Be Distressing

Well into his second missionary journey, a solitary Paul is on a stop-over in Athens, having packed his friends off to collect Silas and Timothy, who were still in Berea. One can imagine him wandering around this proud city renowned for its history, learning and cultural creations. However, what frames Paul’s visit, and what serves as the backdrop for his later address, is a different creation: idolatry, what the Old Testament defines as the “work of human hands” (Ps. 115:4, ESV).

Our focus is entirely drawn to Paul’s revulsion and righteous anger at the idolatry he sees in Athens. Just as God himself was provoked by idols in Deuteronomy 32:16–19, so now Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, ESV). This introduction must never be left out. It is this deeply negative reaction which gives us the mood music for the whole Athenian encounter. However respectful, intellectual, and contextual Paul may be in what follows, we must not forget this context. It is an unfortunate example of spectacularly missing the point that those of a more liberal persuasion miss this framing prologue and continue to see in this passage as a justification for a more inclusive attitude for inter-faith engagement.

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Paul’s attitude toward idolatry challenges us in two key areas when it comes to interfaith dialogue. First, in our politically correct, “tolerant,” multi-cultural context, do we have the biblical eyes—and frankly the biblical nerve—to see and feel all our evangelistic and apologetic encounters in the context of idolatry and its provoking nature? I’m not talking about an application which issues in facile, red-faced ranting and raving, but a background theological commitment which understands the real theological nature of all that is not of Christ. Idolatry is to my mind the seminal biblical tool through which to view the religious Other. Its sophisticated explanatory power does not bludgeon like a machete but offers the precision of a scalpel.

Should we be more ”distressed” than we often are? Would there be a renewed urgency to our mission if we were?

Idols are parasitic on the truth and are always counterfeit. Idolatry takes a good thing in creation and makes it a god thing. It takes some aspect of the character of the living triune God of the Bible and twists it so out of shape that it seriously distorts the true nature of God.

Idolatry is always ultimately against God and against the way he has chosen to reveal himself to us. Its scope is broad enough to include not simply displacements of God, but also distortions of him, and even denials of him (for atheism makes up the ultimate false story about God: that he does not exist).

Using this idolatry prism we are presented with a simple hermeneutic but not a simplistic one. Of course, when it comes to Judaism and Islam, there is much more to say (see my book on the topic) given those traditions’ long relational history with Christianity. However this “more to say” is decisively not a “different to say,” which would remove the charge of idolatry from such traditions. An evangelical understanding of other religions where the evangel—the gospel—is both center and boundary means an identification of God inextricably bound up with this evangel. According to Christian orthodoxy, “‛God’ means ‘Father, Son and Spirit’ or ‘the Father of Jesus who raised him from the dead.’ Those who disbelieve the gospel are talking about some other being than this. As Paul puts it in a Christological revision of the Shema, ‘For us, there is one God, and one Lord Jesus Christ.’”[1]

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Therefore, as we look across our cities, do we have that zeal and passion for God’s glory, his glory which idolatry so cruelly destroys? Should we be more ”distressed” than we often are? Would there be a renewed urgency to our mission if we were?

Distress Should Lead to Action

The second way that Paul’s attitude challenges us is that Paul’s distress leads to a determination and drive to proclaim the truth and to work hard at communication. Not content to wash his hands of Athens and its inhabitants, leaving them in their idolatry, he gets involved in strategic and thought-through reasonings with different groups throughout the city. We know enough about Paul to know that he was not motivated by malice or vain-glory, but by a deep compassion and love for those who are lost because they do not know the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul knew only too well that he himself had once been dead, lost and distant from God, but had been wonderfully and graciously found by the risen Christ.

It may be a cliché, but gospel proclamation really is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. Or more biblically, it’s about getting people who are on their hands and knees trying to lick up stagnant residue from a broken pot to stop and think, and turning them to find a stream of living water (Jer. 2:13; John 4:10; also Isa. 44:19). As we see time and again in the Bible, worshiping idols is harmful at all levels, and always ends in ruin. In summary, passion for God’s glory and passion for lost souls, together with distress over idolatry and distress for those who worship idols, are all intimately related and certainly not mutually exclusive.

It’s not a problem or a deficiency that Paul does not give us a full-on gospel presentation.

We now pause to examine Paul’s speech before the council. Contrary to the common criticism of the Areopagus episode, it’s not a problem or a deficiency that Paul does not give us a full-on gospel presentation. At the beginning of Acts 17 we learn that Paul ”reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (17:2–3). In Athens he has been proclaiming “the good news of Jesus and his resurrection” (17:18b), before being brought before the Areopagus.

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Christ crucified is very much front and center during Paul’s time in Athens, but the reception of his message is one of confusion. The Greek for “babbler” in verse 18 can be rendered more literally as ”seed-picker”, or one who scavenges and pecks at various ideas without really understanding any of them. Therefore when Paul stands up and starts to speak, his purpose is to give a defence of this good news; to put it in the context of life, the universe, and everything; to show its implications and applications for humanity. As Don Carson notes, “What Paul provides is the biblical metanarrative. This is the big story in the Bible that explains all the little stories. Without the big story, the accounts of Jesus will not make any sense.”[2]

What Paul is doing here is giving a run-up and then a run-through. For the good news of Jesus to make sense in Athens, Paul needs the longer run-up which gets some basic stuff in place, stuff which the Athenians just don’t have: A God who is both absolute and personal, both far and near; a creation that is distinguished from its Creator; a view of providence which has a purpose; a fall, a time of long-suffering, and an end to history with a judgment coming. Without these basic building blocks in place, Jesus and his resurrection do not make sense.

Back to Basics

So here are the ways that Paul’s method challenges our approach to evangelism.

First, in our increasingly post-Christian, biblically illiterate culture, we need to be starting further back in our conversations with unbelievers. We need to spend more time running through these worldview basics, putting together a picture into which Jesus and his resurrection makes sense. Of course, our goal is always to get to the good news of Jesus. So, running up and running through is not a substitute for gospel proclamation but rather a support for such proclamation, which will take more time and patience and prayer than maybe we’ve needed in the past. In our listening and speaking we need to make sure we are clearing the ground by clearing up misunderstandings that people have.

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If we think all this theological talk is for other, more intelligent or gifted Christians, we need to ask ourselves: Do we even know what kind of god we believe in?

These days when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I often say “I bet I don’t believe in that god you don’t believe in either.” It’s essential that we distinguish the living triune God of the Bible from all other imagined “gods.”

We should look no further than Paul’s own outline in Acts 17:24–31 for an example of how to do this well. In these verses, he lays out the fundamentals of a Christian view of the world. It’s a super–charged, super-condensed constructive statement of systematic theology, steeped with Old Testament allusions, which in turn destructively knocks out all other ways of viewing the world.

Paul describes a Creator God who has made everything, sustains everything, and is sovereign over everything, and who is no way dependent upon this creation. Not only that, he is a personal God who can be spoken of in personal terms and who engages his creation personally. Paul also explains a linear view of human history, which talks about both origins and endings.

Paul’s little summary of the building blocks of our faith deconstructs so many other worldviews. But here’s the challenge to us: Do we know these fundamental building blocks deeply enough to be able to communicate them simply? If we want to proclaim Jesus and the resurrection, if we want to be evangelistic and do apologetics, we have to get theological. We need these building blocks to communicate the gospel.

If we think all this theological talk is for other, more intelligent or gifted Christians, and that our simple faith doesn’t need to get bogged down in all this detail, we need to ask ourselves: Do we even know what kind of god we believe in? “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Paul didn’t skimp on the fundamentals; neither should we.

We Can’t Avoid Confrontation

The second challenge Paul’s approach gives us is that when it comes to communicating with those who identify themselves within more explicitly religious traditions, we need to recognize that our theological framework of idolatry means establishing both connection and confrontation.

Although it certainly serves as a way in and point of contact, Paul’s opening statement to the religious Athenians with their “unknown God,” is not a straightforward commendation of their undoubted religiosity, but rather a description of their idolatrous and ignorant speculation and searching. It’s not as much a warm handshake as a football scrimmage. This point of contact is more than cordial. As one writer puts it, “Paul knew very well that this altar had nothing to do with the worship of the God who appeared to us in Jesus Christ, but Paul here heard the cry of misery, and this made it possible for him to sketch boldly the sole way of escape.”[3]

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That we are all created to worship something or someone, that human beings seem to ask the same questions time and again about life the universe and everything, that there is suppressed truth about the nature and character of God that other religions grasp at—this is where we connect, where there is commonality in our humanity. Where we do not connect or have commonality is how those perennial questions are answered.

Paul’s example in Acts 17 is the practical outworking of a principle he speaks about in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25. The Cross of Christ confronts and confounds the wisdom of the world. It connects with Jews who look for signs and Greeks who look for power, but only because Christ is the power of God and is the wisdom of God. The gospel both subverts and fulfills at the same time. Our presenting of the gospel must do the same. Yes, this means some effort on our part. What does our Muslim friend look for? Our Hindu work colleague? We will have to know not simply about them and their traditions, but also to know them as people, to have a relationship with them.

Judgment, Repentance, and Faith

For our final stop, we come to Paul’s appeal at the end of his speech. There are two things to note here. First, when we think of the resurrection, we think of new life, new beginnings, hope, joy, etc. All wonderfully true, of course. But that is not how the resurrection is used by Paul in Acts 17:31. Here the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the proof that a just judgment is coming: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He had given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

The resurrection is the greatest public proclamation that Jesus Christ has been vindicated and given all authority. He is both just judge and savior Lord. Second, if there were any lingering doubts as to the gulf between the gospel of Christ and every other religion or philosophy, any nervousness regarding Paul’s anti-idolatry mood throughout, then the call to repentance in Acts 17:30 nails it all down securely.

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We must not forget to talk about judgment together with the command (yes, command) for repentance and faith.

So, our last challenge comes from Paul’s appeal to the Athenians: In our sentimental, so-called “sophisticated” and “progressive” culture, we must not forget to talk about judgment together with the command (yes, command) for repentance and faith. Such a command, of course, is counter-cultural but not as unpersuasive as we sometimes think.

Yes, in our cultural context there is an ongoing and sometimes legitimate distrust and suspicion of authority, so that our understanding of a sovereign God resembles something more like a dictator or despot. But, like it or not, we are all under some authority of some kind. As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it “you're gonna have to serve somebody.” Jesus Christ, the servant king, has both the might and the right to rule his creation. For those who bow the knee, his yoke is easy and his burden light.

Moreover, the idea that human beings are accountable for their actions and that there will be a judgment in which all wrongs will be righted is so much more attractive than “imagining” a world where “above us there is only sky.” That history is heading somewhere and means something does resonate with us deep down. C. S. Lewis notes, “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”[4] The “about turn” of repentance is not regress but the most wonderful progress because it is life-giving good news (Acts 14:15).

However, we must not forget the urgency of all this. Now is the time to turn before it is too late. God’s incredible tolerance and patience will one day come to end. As Paul indicates elsewhere, if we refuse to turn from idols and to serve the living and true God, there will be no rescue from the coming wrath (1 Thess.1:9b-10). However painful and uncomfortable, it would be most unloving not to communicate this warning.

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Returning to the Epicenter of Evangelism

If I go to see my friends in Athens next year, I’ll be heading back to that piece of rock where Paul once stood, and will no doubt be making an idiot of myself again. And in my teaching on apologetics and culture next year, I’ll be frequently referencing Acts 17 again. It seems now more relevant than ever. Luke’s account of Paul in Athens is a wonderful guide with which to navigate our engagement with our culture and other religions. Through the power of the Spirit, this account gives us eyes to see not only the method and means of our engagement, but the motivation behind it. Paul’s motivation, which we should imitate, is a reflection of God’s motivation: a passion for his own glory in the compassionate pursuit of enemies who have turned away from their Creator. In love, we connect, we confront, and we call people to turn away from their idols and turn to that fount of living water, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Daniel Strange is academic vice-principal and tutor in culture, religion, and public theology at Oak Hill College, London. His most recent book, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan, 2015), received an Award of Merit for Theology/Ethics in Christianity Today’s 2016 Book Awards.

[1] Peter Leithart, ‘Muslims, Christians, and the Gods’ First Things available at: https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/12/muslims-and-christians

[2] D. A. Carson, "Athens Revisited," in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns ed D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 384-98.p. 395.

[3] J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1960), p. 140.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 22.