The Gospel in a Secular Society
A Christian was talking to a student who was curious about Christianity. He described part of the conversation as follows:
I told him Jesus was the solution to his problem. He wondered, "What problem?" I told him Jesus could forgive his sins. He wondered, "Why is that necessary?" I told him that he could escape the fear of death. He told me that he never really thinks about death. He wasn't trying to be difficult. He was one of the most sincere students I've ever met.1
This conversation illustrates the difficulties we face in attempting to communicate the message of the Christian faith today. People do not understand what we mean by sin; they do not realise their need for forgiveness; they do not think about death, or heaven, or hell. In our New Zealand society today we cannot assume a knowledge of the Bible. How will we convey the message about Jesus in this context?
Effective communication of the Christian faith requires an understanding of the Bible and the times in which we live, and the ability to relate these two together. The Bible itself is full of examples of people who had this understanding and this ability. These examples are instructive for us when speaking to people today. One example that is particularly helpful is the address of the Apostle Paul in Athens because there are many parallels between first-century Athens and our present Western culture. We can learn a great deal from how he approached those people. It is not that he changed the message – rather he adapted his approach depending on who he was speaking to. We need to do the same: We must address people living in this situation taking into account the understanding they have or do not have.
Athens in the First Century
In Acts 17 Luke is recording the travels of the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey. Paul had been in Thessalonica but because the Jews had stirred up trouble he went on to Berea. When the Jews also agitated the crowds in Berea Paul went on to Athens. He left Silas and Timothy behind with instructions to join him there as soon as possible. While waiting in this city he wandered around taking in the sights of the town. There was plenty to see as Athens was one of the great cities of the Ancient World. Even today, in the ruins of the old buildings, you can see something of the glory the city once had.
Athens had been at the height of her power in the fifth century BC. During that time she produced some of the greatest architecture, literature and art the world has ever seen. When Paul walked the streets of Athens 500 years later the city was still the philosophical capital of the world, but she had passed her peak, and was in the late afternoon of her glory. The first century was a period of breakdown and despair. We can see this in the two philosophies that dominated this period – the Epicureans and the Stoics. Both had started off as noble attempts to deal with the deep issues of life but, by the time of Christ, had become a means of escape from troubled times, disillusioned with the traditions and philosophies of the past.
The Epicureans of Paul's day believed that the highest aim in life was pleasure. The most important thing in life was to be happy. There was nothing beyond death – nothing to live for, hope for, or strive for. They believed in the gods but thought that the gods had no involvement in the world. For them the gods were faraway and remote and took no interest in people; nor did the gods need anything from people. The world wasn't governed by the gods but by chance: What happens is a matter of luck, just the way things fall.
The Stoics held a different view. They believed that the world was governed by fate – a blind impersonal force they called the 'world soul'. This 'world soul', or god, was in the world in a pantheistic sense, i.e. they believed that god was in everything – in the trees, the table, the buildings. They also believed that everything in life was determined and there was nothing a person could do about the future. So the best thing to do was accept your lot; don't struggle, or complain, or get uptight. Rather you must be guided by your reason. The way to cope with things was to resign yourself to the way things were. This was the philosophy of the stiff-upper-lip, of fatalism – what will be will be.
Alongside these two main philosophies were all the idols of ancient Greece. This was a polytheistic culture – they believed in many gods – and every god was represented by an idol. And to be sure they had everything covered they even had one to an 'Unknown god'!
New Zealand in the Twentieth Century
There are striking similarities between the first century and our twentieth century. The Ancient World had its optimistic philosophies; so has our Modern World. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century promised that man by his reason would achieve a new world, a heaven on earth. This, however, has not come about. Since the 1960's people in the Western world have come to the realisation that human reason, science and technology will not solve the problems of our world – of unemployment, inflation, war, famine, corruption, crime, and AIDS. In response people in our western world have not only rejected reason but the concept of truth itself – people today no longer believe that there is One Truth, or Ultimate Truth, or Absolute Truth. Instead everyone has their own idea about what is true. This new situation is described as 'postmodern'. Postmodern describes a rejection of the modern period and its high hopes for reason and science. We too, then, are part of a civilisation in decline. Old solutions and answers have been discarded as unworkable but nothing satisfactory has been put in their place. Many of the ideas today are very similar to the ideas held in first century Athens.
Today too there are people who are chasing pleasure, although instead of calling them Epicureans we call them hedonists. According to these people you do what gives you pleasure. If it feels good, do it! The highest goal is your happiness. There is nothing beyond this life so you might as well make the most of this one: Do what makes you happy, whether that be with food or drink or drugs or sex. This is the attitude of the 'me' generation with its preoccupation with self – self-esteem, self-fulfilment, self-gratification, and selfishness. These people do not think much about God, and if they do they picture him as being faraway and removed from our situation. He has nothing to do with us, and we need have nothing to do with Him. As with the Epicureans these people believe in a chance universe. Look at the flashy adds promoting Lotto and the roaring business the Lotto counters do on a Saturday afternoon – maybe this week will be their lucky break!
Yet there are more and more people adopting the world view of the Stoics, especially through the influence of other religions in this country. The fatalism of the Stoics comes through in the Islamic faith – what happens is the will of Allah – we must simply accept all things as his will. And the pantheism of the stoics comes through in the New Age philosophy which has its roots in the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. They believe that god is everywhere and in everything. True happiness in life is to find 'god' – to find the god in you, the god in the universe, and to become one with god.
The idolatry of the Ancient World takes a different shape in New Zealand today. We do not have an idol carved out of wood or stone located on every street corner. No, we have it parked in our garage, or occupying a prominent place in the living room where it can command the attention of the entire family, or secured in the bank, or invested in the stock market. An idol is anything a person puts before God: It is something or someone that is worshiped over and above the Lord.
Idolatry is not simply a matter of ignorance, but part of the reason people are so busy pursuing these gods is that they do not know the Creator God. New Zealanders are ignorant of the Bible and of the truth about the Lord. We are living in a time of Biblical illiteracy. In this our situation parallels ancient Athens. They too knew little or nothing of the God of the Bible or of His revelation to His people. How, then, did the Apostle Paul speak to them? And how should we speak to people in our own nation?
Communicating the Gospel Today
Rather than being impressed by the marvels of Greek civilisation the Apostle Paul was disturbed by its idolatry. He was "greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols" (vs. 16). He was disturbed and irritated by what he saw. On the outside this was a magnificent city but on the inside it was hollow. The people of Athens were religious but their faith was misplaced. Their lives had no purpose. They were chasing the wind. The same is true today. We live in a culture full of impressive technological achievements, of rapid communication, of medical advance, but spiritually people are empty, the family is breaking down, marriages are on the rocks, young people have lost hope and many live without a sense of purpose or aim. We ought to feel the distress felt by the Apostle Paul. We ought to be disturbed that so many do not know God as their Creator or Jesus as their Lord; that people we work with or study with are busy with activities that are the Devil's distractions from the matters of eternal significance.
Coping with Ridicule
Some of the philosophers who heard Paul speaking mocked him; "What is this babbler trying to say?" (vs. 18) The term they used originally referred to a bird picking up seeds; it came to be used of someone who would pick up bits and pieces of knowledge and then put them across as his own ideas. They were suggesting that Paul did not know what he was talking about.
In New Zealand today we need to be prepared for ridicule. Christianity has always been despised by some who refuse to believe. Yet we should not be ashamed of the Lord Jesus and His gospel. We must believe that it is "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). When Paul was accused of being insane by the Roman governor Festus he defended himself; "What I am saying is true and reasonable" (Acts 26:25). We need to believe this – what we are saying is true and reasonable. It makes sense to be a Christian and we don't have to apologise for believing these great truths of the Bible; rather, we must proclaim them!
God the Creator
When invited to speak to the Athenians at a meeting of the Areopagus Paul began with God as the Creator. This was a different approach from his preaching to the Jews. When speaking to Jews he could assume a good grasp of the Old Testament and he would try to prove that Jesus was the Messiah who had been promised by the prophets. When speaking to the Greeks he could not assume any prior knowledge and so he began further back, with God and His creation. The world was not made by the Greek gods, nor did it come about through chance. Rather it was created by the God who is Lord of heaven and earth (vs. 24). He is not part of the world (i.e. pantheism) but is distinct from what He made; He is the Creator, this world is His creation. The Apostle Paul also pointed out that the Lord is self-sufficient (vs. 24-25). He does not need our human temples and He is not served by human hands. He does not need us to provide for Him; no, He provides for us!
Paul's approach is instructive for us. In today's world we need to begin with God. Unless people know who God is they will not understand their place or purpose in the world, they will not grasp the concept of sin, and they will not appreciate who Jesus is or why He came. People today need to know that the world did not come about by time plus chance (as taught in the theory of evolution) but that it was created by God for a purpose.
A Purpose for People
Having explained that God was the Creator Paul went on to tell how God made people as His offspring. God created us to seek Him, to reach out for Him, and to find Him. God wants people to love and serve Him (vs. 26-28). This is our purpose for life, our goal for living. But many do not know Him. Instead of worshipping God they worship idols, either themselves or things they have made (vs. 29). God, however, calls all people to acknowledge their sin of idolatry and "commands all men everywhere to repent" (vs. 30).
In our conversations about the Bible we must help people look beyond their preoccupation with themselves to the real purpose for life: To worship and serve God as the Creator and Maker of the universe. We were created to know God and "our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee" (Augustine).
Jesus: Resurrected and Returning!
Paul's speech about the Creator God and about human sin laid the basis for his preaching about Jesus. When people have heard about the greatness of God and that we are called to serve Him but do not, then we can preach about the gospel of Christ. It is interesting to note how Paul did this. He knew that the Greeks were interested in novelties (vs. 21). They were after the newest and the latest! If it was new it was good! So Paul told them about the newest thing that had happened: God had sent His Son into this world and had raised Him from the dead! (vs. 31). This was something new! This was novel! This had not happened before! When they heard about the resurrection some sneered. The Greeks put all their emphasis on the spirit world and they tended to despise the body. To them a bodily resurrection of Jesus seemed unimportant. Modern-day liberals have a similar disdain for the physical resurrection of our Lord. This, however, is the truth of the Bible and we, like Paul, must be prepared to state it without hesitation.
We must also proclaim the truth of Jesus' return as the Judge of the world. He is coming again and will call everyone to stand before Him and account for their faith and life, their words and deeds. This is a difficult truth in today's world of pluralism and tolerance. Today people believe that there were many roads to God; it does not matter what road we are on, we are told, because we will all arrive in the same place. The Bible, however, claims there is but one way to God the Father and that is through Jesus His Son – "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). This exclusive claim runs against the grain and many people find it offensive. People may willingly talk to us about religion in general, and even about the Christian faith in vague terms, but when we begin to speak about Jesus people often get prickly. This is because Jesus makes demands on us: He demands that we believe in Him, love Him, serve Him, and follow Him.
We have a message for our pagan, postmodern society. In putting it across, however, we must understand that many people have little or no knowledge of the Bible, no background in Sunday School, do not know the Ten Commandments, and have never thought seriously about God or matters of spiritual significance. The message about Jesus will only make sense to such people if they understand something of the background of the Old Testament and its truth about God the Creator and his purpose for mankind. This is where we must begin, and then take them on, as far as we can, to the truth about Jesus.
We must be like the Psalmist who delighted in God's law and studied it closely (Psalm 119); but we must also be like the men of Issachar "who understood the times and knew what Israel should do" (1 Chronicles 12:32).