I’ve often heard over the years that God’s Word is the only thing we need to reach a lost world. If people are receptive to it, or would otherwise call themselves church goers or religious, I can see the appeal in that statement. What about those that don’t prescribe to a certain religion or to a philosophical view of God? Or how about those that see the Bible as irrelevant to them, just plain fake or created to control mankind?
The Apostle Paul ran into this exact issue when He visited Athens during His ministry. Greece has a long history of being the philosophical capital for the world, especially Athens and even under Roman rule, this was no different. While preaching in the markets to the Jews and the Gentiles, some philosophers approached him. These philosophers were Stoic and Epicurean (Acts 17:18) and had never heard of Jesus, the one true God, or the resurrection. You see both of those schools of philosophical thought are ironically extreme opposites looking for the same goal (which is probably why they were together, for discussion).
Epicureanism is a sad ideology which has gripped the modern world. We can see it in our book stores, on television and in the types of businesses and events that are run. Epicureanism advocates that hedonism will save you from pain and anxiety and the needless fear of death and the gods. Basically they prescribe that pleasure is our salvation from all of the horrible things that happen to us and around us. Our current world tells us that we need to put “me first” and that we “need” to shop for things, we have bars filled with alcohol that encourage drunkenness, we have clubs that encourage promiscuity, and we have the internet that encourages everything else.
Paul saw the danger of this ideology, and no doubt was slightly perturbed that it existed still, even 400 years after Epicurus (the founder) lived. However, there was another group that was with them and they were equally dangerous. Not that they encouraged blatant sin in order to cure the pains of this world, no, the Stoics advocated for much different; however, the Stoics had a lot of things right about the world as well and Paul used that to his advantage.
Stoicism: A quick overview
Stoicism comes from the greek word Stoa, or painted porch where the founder of the philosophical school of thought, Zeno of Cyprus, would teach. True to the modern epithet of “Actions speak louder than words”, the Stoics believed that a person’s behavior in relation to external stimuli was more important than their words. On a physical plane, they held that everything that was real was material. On a metaphysical level, they taught there was a logos.
If that word sounds familiar to you, it should. In John 1:1 we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word “Word” is translated from the Greek word “logos”, meaning “reason”. This is extremely important to consider that not only are the stoics on the same page-ish as Christians, but God has allowed them to deduce through their worldly wisdom, that God exists and through Him everything was created.
See, the Stoics were philosophical decendents of Socrates and Socrates was a student of Plato (supposedly, but that’s for a different discussion). Plato also had another famous student, Aristotle. (Now, you’re all getting upset because I’m bringing back high school geometry and this isn’t what you signed up for.) Aristotle wrote, in the 12th book of Metaphysics this quote, “And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God”
WOW, this is one of the most intelligent philosophers to ever live, and he understood that the pantheon is wrong, all the Greek myths were false and over it all proclaimed there is only one God and HE IS GOOD.
So we know that these Stoics understood that A). There is a single God and B.) Not only is there a God but He is the active reason that created all of the material in the world.
But why did I say their philosophy is equally as dangerous as the hedonistic Epicureans? They believed they didn’t need God and that they could overcome the pains of this life themselves. They believed all emotion was equally threatening to their existence and in the process of wanting peace they only relied on themselves.
Paul’s arrival to Mars Hill
Paul as a person, was well educated not only in human doctrine (such as the philosophies listed above), but also in the laws, prophets and history of the Jews. Not only had He searched the scriptures and seen that His Savior was Christ the Lord, but He was personally visited by the Lord a few times after His miraculous conversion.
So when Paul arrived to this hill that had alters to all the gods, he stopped to look at one. It was interesting because it said “To the unknown god”. Paul siezed this opportunity to explain that this God, whom they didn’t know, was the only God. I find this especially ironic since the Stoics and Epicureans initially accused him of speaking of a “foreign god” (Acts 17:18), which they were in reality worshipping a foreign god all this time.
Paul made sure he was well versed in their ideology before he spoke to these intelligent men. He knew of their teachers and understood what they were taught. As Christians, which this blog is aimed at, we need to make sure we are aware who our audience is, what they believe, and know how to counter it. Sometimes early on in the conversation that requires us to relay our knowledge of their beliefs before even bringing up the Bible. If we study not only the scriptures but other ideas that challenge what we believe, not only will that refine our faith but give us the tools to give the gospel effectively.