Lessons from Mars Hill
by Dr. Jeff Cockrell
A recent survey suggests that a question once firmly identified with American evangelism is no longer pertinent: “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?”  While societal ideology may be changing somewhat, people are searching for truth .
The myriad of voices offering their views and opinions makes it difficult for the credulous person to know what to believe. Thus, they believe what appeals most to them. There is a sharp decline in confidence that we can know what is objectively true and good. As one author notes, “Everyone can believe what he or she wants, and no one is accountable to anyone else for his or her faith” . How can we minister in such a culture?
The apostle Paul ministered to a similar culture in Acts 17. Athens was a place of speculation and ideas. The Athenians were so concerned about offending some gods that they even erected an altar dedicated to “the unknown god” (Acts 17:23) . Peter M. Marty believes the Athenians suffered from scrupulosity in religious matters. In other words, the Athenians were indecisive in religious commitments.
Yet Paul’s approach summoned them to a place of decision. The events of Acts 17 offer us insight for reaching the lost today. Some have even called Paul’s speech “the greatest missionary document in the New Testament” . His speech is a defense, or an answer (‘apologia’) . Thus, apologetics is answering objections to the Christian faith and establishing an attractive presentation of the Gospel . Here Paul is confronting Athenian culture with such a message. From it, we can learn four important principles for engaging the culture with the Christian faith.
Principle 1: Perception
Paul did not jump into The Four Spiritual Laws or the five points of Evangelism Explosion. He first developed a biblical understanding of God. In addressing his audience, Paul took his point of contact from an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription: “To the unknown God” . Paul started where the people were in their religious understanding and bridged that knowledge to Jesus. Similarly, if we are to reach our contemporary world effectively with the Gospel message, we must devote time and effort to understanding the philosophical framework of our world. As C.S. Lewis has written, “We must learn the language of our audience” .
Paul introduced his talk by focusing on the positive aspects of the Athenians’ belief system. Though the Athenians’ idolatry disturbed Paul, he did not ridicule their religiosity . To establish a link with the philosophers, Paul cited two of their own poets . And although Paul did not quote directly from the Old Testament, he was true to the biblical message of salvation .
What does this mean for us? To reach a contemporary world, the Christian should seek conciliation before conversion. In many cases, a Christian can begin a witnessing encounter by affirming some positive aspect of the person’s belief system. However, we must note that Paul did not give a blanket approval of the Athenians’ beliefs. Rather, he commented on the areas in which there was agreement. Thus, one can speak positively while not agreeing on ideas that are contrary to Scripture. While this may be difficult at times, we can generally find an area of agreement even if it is only in the fact that the lost person has some kind of belief .
Principle 2: Philosophical Reasoning
Once Paul had open ears, how is it that he addresses those problematic areas of their religion? He began to offer certain philosophical arguments for God’s existence and to explain God’s nature. In verse 24, Paul states that God is personal and is the Creator of everything.
Here Paul contrasts the Epicurean belief in chance with the Stoic belief of pantheism. Against that ideological backdrop, Paul introduces the idea of a living personal God before presenting the Gospel fundamentals.
Paul then declares that God made the world—He is the owner (v. 24) . When Paul speaks of God, he is not referring to one god among many others, but to God who is God alone . Paul further describes God as the preserver of the world. Next, he makes a striking contrast between God and His creation (v. 25). God does not need anything from the world. The world needs God, rather.
Paul continues, stating that God created the entire human race from one blood (“one man,” v. 26), which contrasts with the Athenians’ notion of being indigenous. God placed humanity on the earth to dwell, which presupposes that God designed the earth and prepared it as a dwelling for people. God’s motive in preparing the dwelling place was that “they should seek God … and find him” (v. 27).
Skeptics today can also see evidence of God’s existence when they look at God’s creative order. The expression “having determined the allotted periods” (v. 27) refers to God’s establishment of the seasons of the year, for instance. Before a person has a concept of God’s existence in creation, he is like a blind man groping in the dark (v. 27) .
Paul references the Athenian poets when he states, “in him we live and move and have our being” . Paul explains that humanity is nothing without God. Since the Bible teaches that humanity is made in God’s image, humanity in some sense evidences God when it functions rightly. Thus, Paul concludes that humanity cannot construct an image of God by gold, silver, or stone (v. 29). Yet, the Athenians sought some form of worship, because they had some idea of God .
Similarly, the question we must ask when we begin to examine the arguments for God’s existence is: What is the relationship between man’s reason and God’s revelation? We must understand that though God does not reveal Himself through reason, correct doctrine is always reasonable. Christians cannot consider these arguments as proofs of God’s existence, because they are not totally convincing to people. However, the arguments affirm the likelihood of God’s existence. In witnessing to a contemporary world, we can use these arguments as Paul did—to affirm the probability of God’s existence.
Principle 3: Pointedness
Having engaged them philosophically, Paul enlightens their ignorance with some pointed theological claims. He is emphatic that the God he describes is the one and only God . Paul acknowledges in verse 22 that the Athenians had received God’s revelation of himself. For skeptics to believe in Christ, he must first know him propositionally . Paul thus informs the Athenians that the God who created heaven and earth is knowable.
Paul applied his message by explaining the true nature of God and by emphasizing God’s judgment on the world. He states that none will escape God’s judgment; therefore, all must repent (v. 30). He further states that the judgment day has been “fixed” (v. 31), which Christ will issue forth. And the proof of His judgment is His resurrection from the dead.
Principle 4: Persuasiveness
Finally, Christians are under an obligation to persuade. Paul’s persuasiveness was a result of his viewing of the idolatry in Athens . Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” (v. 16) . He was moved by the moral and religious plight of the citizenry. He was disturbed to see the Athenians give glory to idols that was due to God alone.
Though Paul’s speech encompasses only five verses in our English Bibles, there is no doubt that they continued their debate for a protracted period. The Christian who wishes to reach his neighbors with the Gospel must be persistent in his pursuit to persuade. Because a generation raised with minimal biblical literary has little familiarity with the symbols and terms of Christianity, it may take time for them to comprehend the Gospel before they actually convert. Thus, we must show patience in our perception, philosophical reasoning, pointedness, and persuasiveness.
Christians shall proclaim God’s truth in a world that is seeking truth. This proclamation will require apologetics if we are to be successful in our task. The conclusion of Paul’s apologia in Acts 17 shows that people will often mock Gospel presentation (v. 32). Nevertheless, Luke points out that some did believe (v. 34). From Paul’s example, we can see that the antidote to a lack of persuasion is a proper understanding of God’s nature. Paul was angered that the glory deserved by God was being directed to lifeless idols. Until this misdirected worship provokes Spirit-led Christians, the contemporary generation will not come to knowledge of God.
 “Spotlight: The Question That Died,” Christianity Today March 2012: 9. Print.
 Gary R. Habermas, “Paradigm Shift: A Challenge to naturalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 146:584 (October 1989); Ingolf U. Dalferth, “I Determine What God Is! Theology in the Age of ‘Cafeteria Religion,’” Theology Today 57:1 (April 2000): 5.
 Dalferth, 10.
 The ESV is used throughout this essay.
 Adolph Deissmann, Light from the Ancient Near East (New York: Doran, 1927), 384.
 Colin Brown, ed., “apology,” Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986): 51.
 Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
 A comparison of Acts 17 with Acts 13 reveals that Paul used different approaches with different audiences. Likewise, one would not give the same lesson in the same way to a Junior Sunday school class as he would to a group of senior adults.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 96.
 v. 16, “his spirit was provoked within him.”
 One of the poets, Arastus, had lived for some time in Athens and was a pupil of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. See Lenski, 732.
 Some Greek texts list up to twenty-two allusions in the margin, which indicates that Paul’s message was biblically based.
 Jas. 2:14-26 teaches that all have some form of belief, even the demons.
 This is the cosmological argument used by apologists. It basically says there must be an uncaused cause. The idea is expressed in Psalms 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
 The definite article occurs before God.
 This argument is similar to what would later be called “the teleological argument” or “design argument.”
 The quote of the pagan poets in verse 28 alludes to the Athenians’ understanding of God’s revealed truth: “For we are indeed his offspring.” This is akin to the later known anthropological argument which uses the physical capacities of humanity to affirm God’s existence.
 A form of the ontological argument is seen in verse 29. It is the argument that seeks to prove the existence of God from humanity’s idea of a perfect being. The originator of the ontological argument, Anselm of Canterbury, said that man has the idea of a perfect being, and since we cannot conceive a more perfect or greater being, there must be a perfect being to correspond to the idea.
 Paul speaks with authority when he says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I declare unto you” (v. 23).
 Propositional knowledge refers to knowledge of facts. See Peter Klein, “A Proposed Definition of Propositional Knowledge,” The Journal of Philosophy 68:16 (Aug. 19, 1971): 471-82.
 He stated in 2 Cor. 5:11, “Therefore, knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade others.”
 The root of “provoked” was used in biblical times in reference to a seizure or epileptic fit; Scott, 278-79.
 One believer, Dionysius, became the first bishop of Athens, and he was martyred under the emperor Domitian. See John McRay, Archeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 309.
About the Author: Dr. Jeff Cockrell serves as pastor of Ahoskie Free Will Baptist Church in Ahoskie, North Carolina. He holds degrees from Liberty University (B.S., M.A.R.), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MA), and the University of Wales (PhD). He also serves as an adjunct instructor for several colleges.