How do you explain God and Christianity to intelligent but curious people? Very carefully and thoughtfully, as Paul does in Athens. ◊
Mars Hill in Athens, Greece (also called the Hill of Ares or the Areopagus in the Bible – see Acts 17:19,22) is a literal hill just below the larger mount called the Acropolis on which stands various Greek temples including the famous and massive Parthenon.
Mars Hill was a meeting place for the highest court in Ancient Greece for civil, criminal, and religious matters. This “Classical” or the “Hellenic” period ran for most of the 5th and 4th centuries BC (roughly between 500 BC to 320 BC). These were the times and stomping grounds of the famous Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the great playwrights Sophocles and Euripides.
As we find in the Bible, even under Roman rule in the time of the New Testament (1st century AD), Mars Hill was still an important meeting place where philosophy, religion, and law were discussed.
Paul and the Intellectuals in Macedonia
Even before getting to Athens, Paul is in Thessalonica, 300 miles to the north, where he reasons well with the people but encounters Jewish opposition:
As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. (Acts 2:2-5)
He moves on about 40 miles to Berea where he encounters people who were intellectually curious and responsive:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. (Acts 17:11-12)
Nevertheless, angry Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul and his team to Berea and agitated the crowds against them. The team split up and Paul went on further south to Athens where he waited to be rejoined with Silas and Timothy. (see vv. 13-15)
Paul in Athens, Greece
While waiting, Paul was very disturbed to see this city full of idols. He engages both Jews and God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue as well in the marketplace over a few days. He debates a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who strongly question his reasoning and “advocating foreign gods.”
Paul was talking about Jesus and the resurrection. (see vv 16-17)
The intellectuals took Paul up to Mars Hill (the Areopagus) to speak to a larger group of curious people:
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:19-21)
Paul was facing Scripture-savvy Jews who knew their Old Testament history and were skeptical of news of a risen Messiah, as well as pagan intellectual Greek philosophers. The Epicureans were known as moderate yet practical utilitarians. They believed in empirical reasoning, no after-life, and that all the world was made of atoms, even the gods who were distant and non-involved. Stoics sought happiness in virtue rather than material goods and believed attainment of that came through self-control, namely via meditation, training and self-vigilance.
Paul approaches them in a very intelligent and effective way, fully respectful of their philosophical differences and penchant for their past Greek thought-leaders:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People 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. So what you therefore worship as unknown, this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though He is not far from any one of us.
Paul even quotes some of their own philosophers as he logically makes the case for Christ:
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 human 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)
Paul, the Skilled Rhetorical Master
Paul was hand-picked by God and was the perfect man to spread the Gospel message into very new and harsh frontiers. He could fearlessly and effectively engage at the level of deeply religious Jews given his Hebrew pedigree and knowledge of the Old Testament history and Scriptures.
He could also deal with the secular intellectual elite of his day, the equivalent to our modern-day, university-trained atheists.
But note how wise and gentle and shrewd Paul is in his discourse. He finds immediate common ground and there is no harsh confrontation or ridicule of their ignorance or philosophical bent. He connects them to the one true God and how they can be reconciled to Him.
He positions human life today in the context of God, the all-powerful yet practically approachable Creator. He closes out his carefully crafted speech with a challenge to end the period of ignorance and give way to full repentance to avoid coming judgment. He reinforces his point with the fact that all of this is backed up by the unassailable resurrection of Christ from the dead.
A Long Sales Cycle
What’s interesting here is that Paul didn’t convert everyone immediately on Mars Hill at this time. As the Bible states and history records, some were intrigued and some scoffed and mocked him. Paul never did establish a church in Athens like he did in the city of Corinth about 65 miles away.
But ultimately, over time, Athens, Greece, like the entire Roman Empire, succumbed to the power and truth of the Christian gospel message.
Are you an effective communicator of the Christian Gospel?
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. – Acts 17:32-34