During my trip to Athens, Greece, I stopped at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, “a name originating from his position as head of the Olympian gods,” near the Arch of Hadrian. The temple complex took nearly 700 years to complete:
The temple’s glory was short-lived, as it fell into disuse after being pillaged during a barbarian invasion in the 3rd century AD, just about a century after its completion. It was probably never repaired and was reduced to ruins thereafter. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was extensively quarried for building materials to supply building projects elsewhere in the city.
The image of a fallen column at the Temple of Olympian Zeus reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers: “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
The Apostle Paul was always ready to defend the faith against anyone who raised a question or an objection. Paul went to the very heart of religious skepticism by confronting the Greek philosophers of Athens with their own ignorance. The Bible says that “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). At this point, Paul went to work defending the faith, “reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present” (17:17). Even “some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him” (17:18). They, however, found that some of his views differed greatly from their own. He was accused of being a “proclaimer of strange demons” (17:18). He was then brought to the Areopagus, a public debating forum, so they could learn more about these new teachings. Here is a summary of Paul’s defense in Acts 17:22–33:
Application: No person is without basic religious commitments. Even atheists are religious. They believe there is no God. There is no way an atheist can prove either philosophically, logically, or scientifically that God does not exist. Notice that Paul reminds the Athenians that they are “religious in all respects.” Their religious ideas give meaning to everything they think and do. But because their religious starting point is distorted, their understanding of the world in which they live is also distorted. A crooked ruler can never be used to draw a straight line.
An Atheist will claim that he is not religious. Nonsense. The best he or she can do is believe that God does not exist or be an anti-theist, as the late atheist Christopher Hitchens self-identified as.
Application: The skeptic wants to be the judge as to whether God exists and what kind of God exists. But how can he ever be sure that his God exists? How can he be sure that his kind of God exists? Not having all the facts limits the dogmatism of the unbeliever and humbles the believer. Ultimately, when we do not have personal observations of all the facts, the argument will come down to a faith-commitment because all of us are forced to trust some other authority outside ourselves which interprets the observed facts and reveals what we do not observe. Paul’s point is that God is that outside Observer who has revealed Himself to us in His Word and in the person of Jesus Christ.
Application: The Bible never leaves the skeptic in his ignorance. The skeptic is left with nothing helpful if he is only shown that his entire belief system is based upon unknowns or probabilities. He can’t be sure of anything. But the Christian’s position establishes that because God is “Lord of heaven and earth,” the world makes sense. Randomness does not characterize the universe or the way people live in the universe.
Application: The Athenians would not exist if there was no God. The air they breathe in a body that neither came into being on its own nor evolved from a primordial slime that needed God to come into being.
Application: The Psalmist asks, “Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:7–8). There is no escaping God. Denying His existence does not make Him go away. A personal God who sees and judges what man does is banned by those who want to live independent, autonomous lives, free from the restrictions of a holy God. The unbeliever hopes to define or rationalize God out of existence. By doing so he destroys any hope of giving meaning to life. When King David was confronted by the prophet Nathan with his sin, David’s confession brought him back to reality: God sees and judges all things. There is no escape from the gaze of God: “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak, and blameless when Thou dost judge” (Psalm 51:4a).
Application: The defense of the faith is not solely about knowledge of the facts but about ethics, that is, how we act. The reason that man seeks to escape from God is that he has sins to hide from a Judge he doesn’t want to face. Most arguments that seek to deny God or the validity of the Christian message are simply smoke screens to obscure the real issue: Men and women are sinners who “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).
Application: The skeptic cannot remain neutral when he is confronted with the gospel. A refusal to decide for Christ with a wait-and-see attitude does not absolve him of his guilt and eventual judgment. Straddling the fence will not save him. Judgment is coming. Death is not the end. There will be a reckoning.
Application: The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is only incredible for those who deny God; it is not incredible for those who acknowledge that God is Lord of heaven and earth and supplies to all life, breath, and all things. Why should it surprise us that the God who created the world should recreate a portion of it? Paul asked his fellow Jews: “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8). The resurrection is a confirmation of God’s power and a vindication of His grace. Paul assumes the reality of the resurrection.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this’” (17:32). This is the essence of defending the faith. Some will reject the faith because what you tell them does not fit within the framework of their worldview. Those who rejected the faith as presented by Paul did so because their starting point was contrary to the Christian faith. Their worldview was constructed on a foundation of unknowns: unknown gods, unknown forces, unknown random facts, unjustifiable universal laws, and unverified claims to authority. Such a worldview is destined for judgment. It can only lead to skepticism, mysticism, and irrationality. The words to the youthful student Timothy are appropriate advice for any Christian: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’-which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you” (2 Tim. 6:21). Greg Bahnsen sums up the Christian’s apologetic task.
As long as the unbeliever’s presuppositions are unchanged, a proper acceptance and understanding of the good news of Christ’s historical resurrection will be impossible. The Athenian philosophers had originally asked Paul for an account of his doctrine of resurrection. After his reasoned defense of the hope within him and his challenge to the philosophers’ presuppositions, a few were turned around in their thinking. But many refused to correct their presuppositions, so that when Paul concluded with Christ’s resurrection they ridiculed and mocked.
Acceptance of the facts is governed by one’s most ultimate assumptions, as Paul was well aware. Paul began his apologetic with God and His revelation. The Athenian philosophers began their dispute with Paul in an attitude of cynical unbelief about Christ’s resurrection. . . .
Paul knew that the explanation of their hostility to God’s revelation (even though they evidenced an inability to escape its forcefulness) was to be found in their desire to exercise control over God (e.g., v. 29) and to avoid facing up to the fact of their deserved punishment before the judgment seat of God (v. 30). They secretly hoped that ignorance would be bliss, and so preferred darkness to light (John 3:19-20).1
Paul’s Athenian encounter is quite modern. All the elements of skepticism, ignorance, and arrogance are present today among those who claim to worship the same old idols dressed up with new religious slogans. Just like in Paul’s day, the Biblical faith is dogmatic. It makes absolute assertions about fundamental concepts: God exists, man was created, sin has infected this world, man is accountable to God, and Jesus Christ is our only hope in life and in death. These declarations are not acceptable to the secular mindset which does not accept the notion of absolutes that make man accountable to God.
The goal of the secular worldview is to strip self-proclaimed Christians of their absolute worldview and to clothe them with the robe of criticism and relativism. No view of life is sacred. All views but one are equal. Secularism has only one dogma: criticism. It has only one absolute: Nothing is absolute (all is relative).
Christians are not called on to accept every new idea or every interpretation of someone’s view of reality without a degree of healthy skepticism. Questions should be asked of every worldview. Christians must be on the alert so they will not be “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). Mature Christians must be, above all else, discerning, refusing to be sucked in by the latest faddish worldview. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). A question remains: What standard are we to use to test the spirits (worldviews)?
For our “enlightened” culture all absolutes are exposed to criticism. Are we to hold the existence of God up for criticism by “peer review”? What “checks and balances” govern the “community” engaged in the criticism? Consider what it means to maintain that “no claim, issue, or position is insulated from critical inquiry” and that all values “are all subordinate to this one.” The claim that God is the sovereign ruler of heaven and earth and that man is accountable to Him in thought, word, and deed “is subordinate” to critical inquiry. The men of Athens are still with us. Men and women (if we can even use these designations)2 has been reduced to machine-like status, to something less than what he was created to be. With God slowly pushed to the edge of the universe, man is no longer a “little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5); he is only a little higher than the apes.