There is a brief moment in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles where the apostle Paul speaks to a group of pagan Athenians regarding their worship. The verses most commonly quoted from this episode are:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” [Acts 17:22-23; ESV]
Of all possible conclusions, this verse is often used to support either one of two things: 1) universalism, which says all religions are right, or 2) justification for saying that some of the other monotheistic faiths (such as Islam) worship the same God as Christians. Careful examination of the scriptural context, however, does not support this.
First, let’s present some background. Paul, along with fellow apostles Timothy and Silas, has been traveling throughout Greece spreading the gospel and debating in various synagogues. The group meets some hostility at Thessalonica (17:1-9), but encounters greater success at Berea (17:10-12), where Paul continues on to Athens awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy (17:15).
Those who believe Acts 17 supports universalism or some form of it would be shocked to discover that, upon entering Athens, Paul’s first reaction is not one of interest or open mindedness – but rather divine anger.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him… [Acts 17:16-18; ESV]
Paul feels his spirit “provoked within” by the copious amount of idols, and, without waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, begins to reason with the people just as he did in the synagogues. Soon this spreads out, and he is not only debating the Jews but the pagan philosophers as well. This leads many to be interested in what he has to say:
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” [Acts 17:19-20; ESV]
The Areopagus, or “Rock of Ares,” is a hill of rocky terrain overlooking Athens that in ancient times was used for criminal or civil cases, as well as important meetings in general. The nearby temple to the “Unknown God,” which Paul will make mention of soon, is a historic reality: it served as a sort of “fill-in” position in addition to the twelve known gods of Greek mythology. Incidentally, the original Greek for “Unknown God” is Ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ – it’s from the root word for Ἀγνώστῳ that we get the word “agnostic.”
Now we have finally arrived at the passage quoted in the beginning of this blog post. Does it present universalism? It would seem that Paul’s goal is the conversion of the people he is speaking to, in the hopes of bringing them into Christ’s arms. Therefore the end of Paul’s statement makes much more sense:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” [emphasis mine]
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” – or rather: “This ‘Unknown God’ you worship has an identity, and I am making Him known to you now.” In fact, the language Paul uses is very similar to what he uses at the very beginning of Acts 17, when speaking in the synagogues:
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” [Acts 17:2-3; ESV; emphasis mine]
It would be wrong to assume that Paul was telling the Jews they could simply ignore Jesus as the Messiah, for he announces that he is proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. Similarly in Athens, he announces that he is proclaiming Jesus as the Unknown God. Paul is doing in many ways what many missionaries today try to do: initiate conversation with a person of another faith by finding some similarity between the two groups. More importantly, however, he is destroying the ignorance of the Greeks, as we will soon see.
Paul continues from here. In full:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” [Acts 17:24-31; ESV]
This speech contradicted much of what the Athenians knew – in fact, Luke records that “some mocked” Paul for what he had said (Acts 17:32). Partially this was because he was telling them that Jesus died and rose again in a spiritually glorified body, whereas most pagan cultures of that time had the idea that the soul and body were separate (sadly, some Christians today believe this too). Partially this was also because Paul clearly mocks idolatry and its reliance on creation rather than the Creator, for he tells them:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” [Acts 17:24-25; ESV]
Greeks worshiped creation: where there was thunder, there was Zeus; where there was dawn, there was Apollo; where there was forests, there was Athena; on and on it went. By contrast, Paul brings forward the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the one true God, from Whom all creation sprung forth. This God “made the world and everything in it,” and is “Lord of heaven and earth.” Likewise, the Greeks (and many pagans of that time) committed to worship of gods and goddess through material objects, which they worshiped as if the gods were there. Paul attacks this notion by pointing out that these same hands, breath and all matters of living supplied by mankind to idols are, in fact, source directly to God. He has no need of them – just as they exist, He exists.
Following this, he outlines the “religious” nature of the Athenians that he discussed earlier:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.'” [Acts 17:26-28; ESV]
The quotations supplied by Paul are believed to have come from two Greek poets, possibly Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s “Phainomena.”
Paul preaches here the “religious” nature of mankind. Every religion on earth seeks, in one way or another, to “feel their way” towards the Unknown God. One might think this supports the pro-universalism argument, but afterward Paul clearly states:
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” [Acts 17:29; ESV]
Idolatry and the use of idols, which the Greeks were doing, is clearly condemned. Remember that this “Unknown God” was not the only god which the Greeks worshiped, for, like Hindus of today, they went from temple to temple where giant statues dedicated to various gods and goddesses towered over the worshipers. If Paul were tolerant with what the Greeks were doing, as some argue, why then would he suddenly condemn the very method of worship a few sentences later? The Greeks were not agnostics (as one might suppose given the argumentation), but polytheists.
This is all, incidentally, very similar to the words Paul uses in his letter to the Romans, in which he also speaks of idolatry.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. [Romans 1:18-25; ESV]
It might be worthy to stop here and regard the “religious” nature of the Athenians: there is a wide difference between being “religious” and being “spiritual.” A Muslim man in Syria who attends mosque regularly, engages in the Ramadan fast, and reads the Quran, then goes out and cheats on his wife – this man can be said to be “religious,” but hardly “spiritual.” To be fair, this is true even for Christians – a man who is godly in church and atrocious outside of church may be “religious,” but not “spiritual.” A religious nature, as Paul says the Athenians have, does not equal a complete faith. Even if we were to say, for the sake of argument, that there existed some Greeks who worshiped the Unknown God alone, that would not equal a complete faith, for as the apostle James said, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2:19).
Returning to Acts, Paul finally states:
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” [Acts 17:30-31; ESV]
The times of ignorance are over because God has finally made Himself known through the Incarnate Son, and has dispatched His Church throughout the world to preach the greatest message of all: that death is not the end, and that we may have life through Jesus Christ. He is no longer “the Unknown God” to be worshiped besides twelve more – He is the almighty God, the pantocrator, who is to be worshiped alone. The muddied window of paganism is washed clean, and the light of God shines through. No longer can men accept their error in worshiping creation, for the Creator has made Himself known throughout all of creation, for through creation He has reconciled them.
Paul had stated that man had been made to “seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” While pagan faiths such as those held by the Athenians are man reaching up to God, the true God proclaimed by Paul is reaching down to man, and now “commands all people everywhere to repent.” This Unknown God is unknown no longer. This is a direct attack against the wisdom which many of Paul’s audience would have upheld. The greatest wisdom is not a philosophical outlook (as the Greeks treasured), but the knowledge of the true God through Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead to give life to the dead. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Cor 2:6-8; ESV]
The idea, therefore, that Paul is arguing, “Well, God is OK with you Athenians, because you have a religion that seeks after Him in your own special way,” is eisegesis. Paul is seeking nothing more than the conversion of the Athenians to Christ. He not only condemns the idea that God can be found solely in a temple, but also idolatry and transforming God into images. He highlights that salvation is found only in Christ through the Resurrection. For this, he receives some mockery – a curious thing if he was supposedly preaching that the Athenian religious were in the right. How many times in history has a person been mocked by someone for agreeing with them?
Paul’s focus here is, as with his other sermons and lessons found throughout Acts and his epistles, is Christ as Redeemer and Savior. To Paul, the apostles, and the great men of the Church, anything else is a distraction that keeps us from our goal of seeking union with God.