The Radical Alternative

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[dropcap3]P[/dropcap3]reaching the Gospel in today’s world is anything but an easy task. How do we do it? Should we soften down some of the more confrontational aspects of the gospel message and focus on issues that resonate with today’s culture to try to get a hearing from an audience that is increasingly uninterested in what we have to say? Preachers who take this route are numerous. They emphasize experiencing love, having purpose, and finding your best life now. Or should we instead focus on the Christian message as a radical alternative to what this world has to offer, a confident proclamation of Christ crucified?

In the 17th chapter of the book of Acts, during Paul’s short stay in Athens, he is confronted with the wide diversity of Hellenistic religion and philosophy. Paul finds himself debating with the Athenian philosophers in the agora of Athens. These interchanges ultimately lead to the apostle being brought before the Areopagus where he addresses an audience of these philosophers.1 What makes this incident of such crucial importance is that it is the most extensive record in the Bible of a message preached by the “apostle to the Gentiles” to an audience of gentile non-believers. More importantly, it is the only record of the Apostle Paul’s interaction with Greek philosophy. For Christians today, William Larkin’s comments are enlightening: “The prevailing philosophies of the West’s post-Christian era – secular humanism’s scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of postmodernism – are remarkably similar to the Epicureanism and Stoicism Paul encountered at Athens. Paul’s speech becomes a model for how to witness to the educated post-Christian mind.”2 Therefore, what can we learn from Paul’s technique in his address?

Paul begins his message to the Athenian philosophers by commending their search for spiritual meaning but points out to them that they have an altar to “The Unknown God.” In so doing, Paul is reminding them that in all of their searching, they still have a sense that they have missed something. Paul addresses this insecurity with a message of hope. He proclaims to them that there is but one God and that he is utterly transcendent; “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,” And yet this transcendent God is not far away, “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’”3 Because Paul cites from two of their poets, some scholars have tried to argue that what Paul is doing is toning down the antithesis between Christianity and paganism and using a rational approach to prove the existence of God.4

However, Paul’s Areopagus speech should be seen rather as a exposé of the religious ignorance and idolatry that characterized Greek religion and philosophy. Paul’s reference to man’s knowledge of God in nature is not intended to give him hope in being able to rationally prove God’s existence, but rather, to prove that in spite of what their own philosophers taught, ultimately, their philosophy was one of ignorance and agnosticism.

Graduate Student
Graduate student Barbara Vemeus in a summer session 2010 class

Instead of validating the Stoic arguments for God, in reality Paul is showing their futility. Paul does not attempt to prove the truth of Christianity, instead, he authoritatively asserts it. This positive affirmation stands in stark contrast to the self admitted ignorance of Hellenistic religion. And it is this kind of powerful proclamation that is needed in our world of postmodern ambiguity about the truth.

The question of why Paul refers to any general revelation or knowledge of God amongst the pagan philosophers might still be asked. Again, as was stated above, Paul’s purpose in this was to show the irrationality of their own idolatry. He was pointing out to them the logical conclusions of their own system. And it was that system that had failed to lead them to a sure knowledge of God, instead provoking the grossest idolatry and superstition. One can almost hear the echo of “professing to be wise they became fools” (Rom 1:22, NASB) in Paul’s discourse.

This same kind of technique is practiced and advocated by Francis Schaeffer in his “taking the roof off ” strategy.5 Schaeffer argues that the Christian must confront non-believers with the logical irrationality and meaninglessness of their worldview. This confrontation will cause them to see the meaninglessness of their system of beliefs and thus be prepared to hear the Gospel message. This seems to be precisely what the Apostle Paul is doing in Athens. He quotes the Stoic philosophers showing that they have some innate knowledge of the transcendence of God and then confronts them with the irrationality of their system of polytheism and idolatry. He appeals to what they know from nature, and then proceeds to show them how their system has let them down. In the end, their inclusive polytheism did not lead them to a knowledge of God, but rather to an ignorance of Him.

Today we live in a world that says that there is no absolute truth and celebrates virtually all religious expressions and experiences. We cannot hope to influence this world by merely presenting Christianity as a meaningful personal experience, self improvement, or as a way to find purpose in competition with other choices. Rather, we must demonstrate to our culture that ultimately a world without truth is meaningless and instead offer them the certainty of Christ crucified as the sure path to the knowledge of God and the hope for eternal life.

[framed_box]David Hard, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Bible and Ministry.  He has taught at PBU since 1992.


1Scholars debate whether the Areopagus refers to the hill near the Acropolis of Athens where the philosophers would tend to congregate or that it refers to a court where new philosophical/religious ideas were officially evaluated (C.f. Polhill, John B. vol. 26, Acts, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 367.
2Larkin,William J., D. Stuart Briscoe and Haddon W. Robinson, vol. 5, Acts, The IVP New Testament commentary series (Downers, Ill., USA: InterVarsity Press, 1995), Ac 17:16.
3Epimenides of Crete and Aratus
4For example, see Dibelius, M., “Paul on the Areopagus” Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, Ed.  H. Greeven (New York:  SCM Press, 1956) 58.
5Schaeffer, Francis. The God Who is There, vol 1, book 1 in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer (Westchester, Crossway Books, 1982) 140-142.