Thursday, March 02, 2023

Philosophy, Fate or Faith?


All photos by Unsplash

The apostle Paul had sensibly travelled far south to Athens following hostility to his message in northern Greece. While waiting for his friends, Silas and Timothy, to catch up, Paul, like any other tourist today, looked around the city, viewing the Acropolis, etc. He was quite moved by what he saw. 


Athens was then the cultural centre of the Roman Empire. It had been the cradle of democracy and was the centre of learning in just about every field of human interest: philosophy, music, theatre, religion, mathematics and science, etc. It reads like a list of university departments. Indeed, says the Bible, the whole city seemed to be given over to the full-time pursuit of novelty, ‘hearing and telling some new thing’. 


Paul followed his normal practice of preaching in the synagogue to Jews and Gentile proselytes. Still, in order to meet others, he went to the marketplace – The Agora - with its public debating place, the Hyde Park Corner of its day, and engaged in street preaching and debating with people he met. 


A crowd of passing philosophers – does anyone have any ideas for a collective term for philosophers? Please email - heard him discussing his ideas with people. Interestingly the philosophers represented the extremes of views about human life.

Epicureans - light-hearted

- eat, drink and be merry  

- make the best of life  

- get as much pleasure as you can  

- take it easy; life is just chance, anyway

 Stoics - serious

- tough it out 

- accept your fate 

- be proud of yourself 

- if you tried hard, you could be equal to any god

 So what was it - chance and fate, lighthearted or serious? 

They listened to Paul but couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying. Some said disrespectfully, ‘What is this seed-picker saying? He seemeth to be announcing two foreign gods - Jesus and the resurrection.

 However, Paul’s preaching obviously satisfied the criterion of being novel because they took him away from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace to the calm of Mars Hill, the site of the open-air supreme court of Athens, then out of session.

In his sermon on Mars Hill, Paul skilfully built on what his hearers knew. First, he conceded they were extremely religious, given that the city was ‘covered with idols’, probably more than 30,000. Petronius, a contemporary writer at Emperor Nero's court, said sarcastically that finding a god in Athens was easier than finding a man. 

Paul then said that he had come across an altar to an unknown god during his trips around the city. He said they obviously worshipped him, not knowing who He was, so said Paul, I’m announcing Him to you. 

 He said essentially seven things about God. He is the God: 

  1. ·      Who made the universe 
  2. ·      Who gives to all life, and breath, and all things
  3. ·      Who has a hand in events, in terms of time and space
  4. ·      Who wants people to seek Him
  5. ·      Who is not far from anyone
  6. ·      Who now commands all men everywhere to repent
  7. ·      Who will judge the world

This God was going to judge the world, with His Son Jesus as the judge, Whom He had raised from the dead. Paul didn’t get any further because when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of his hearers ridiculed him, bringing his sermon to a premature end. Some procrastinated and said, ‘we’ll hear you again’; however, some believed. 

For the unresponsive philosophers, pleasure on the one hand or pride on the other obviously overrode any other considerations and held them back from the Christian faith.  However, among those who believed, two are named Dionysius, a high-court judge – quite a notable convert - and a 'woman named Damaris’. 

 Written by a guest blogger


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