Reaching Intellectuals for Christ

(The Traditional site of the Areopagus at the Base of the Acropolis in Athens)

Paul at Athens

Due to the persecutions inflicted on the Apostle Paul, as well as those endured by his friends Silas and Timothy, as they sought to proclaim the Gospel to people in Thessalonica and Berea, many of whom were not at all eager to receive the Good News, Paul was escorted to Athens by those he had been ministering to, where he waited for Timothy and Silas to join him again.

It was in Athens that Paul faced a unique challenge.  Rather than being confronted by hostile Thesallonian gentiles or agitated Jews who opposed his teaching, Paul found a number of ancient intellectuals, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, who delighted in demonstrating their mental skills to one another and sneering at those who disagreed or couldn’t follow their arguments.  

Here is the story from the Seventeenth Chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke:

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:16-18).

Significantly, Paul first shares the “Word of Truth” in Athens to the receptive Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, those people who were anxious to receive Paul’s message.  Significantly, Luke writes that Paul “was reasoning” with them, not condemning their beliefs or arguing with them.

Nevertheless, a number of Athenian philosophers sought out Paul to discover what “strange deities” he was proclaiming.  This phrase (“strange deities”) is exceptionally ironic, given the context of the culture in ancient Athens, which Luke describes as a “city full of idols,” so many idols that the people even had an altar dedicated to the worship of an “unknown” god (as we will soon see in the passage below).  

The Areopagus in Athens

First, however, the Athenian philosophers brought Paul to their gathering place (click here to learn more about this ancient site: “Areopagus“).  These intellectuals wanted to hear what Paul had to say, for as Luke describes them, these intellectuals used to do nothing all day but attempt to discover new ideas and teachings, a common approach of many intellectuals still to this day:

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

Their request is significant, for they seem to be open and receptive to Paul’s new teachings, even though their true attitudes are soon revealed.

Paul’s Sermon on Mars Hill (at the Areopagus)

Of course, most people today would never believe their homes and cities to be filled with idols, or objects of worship. However, this distinction is merely a matter of definition.  Please see the following poignant site for clarity on our own objects of worship in today’s culture:

22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
Notice that Paul does not attempt to enter into an intellectual discussion or engage in a debate with these philosophers, an approach that they would not only enjoy but also one in which they would be proficient. Instead, Paul commends them for their religious propensities, while raising a provocative question about their lives and beliefs:
“I see that you have an altar in your city that is devoted to an unknown god.  Since you are apparently ignorant concerning spiritual truths, I will reveal to you the secret, or mystery, that has confounded you” [paraphrased].
In order further to engage these philosophers and entice them to listen to his words, Paul tells them that the “unknown god” they worship is the very one he himself has been declaring in Athens.  He then continues to reveal God’s attributes, specifically that God does not conform to their solipsistic  (click to see definition) notions reflected in their many idols throughout the city:
24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;
Paul then cleverly appeals to their own Athenian interests and beliefs, at least those of their own Athenian poets:
28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’
Paul then provides a significant insight that reveals how insufficient their temples and idols are in worshiping the one, true deity:  God should not be worshiped through the things He has made, reformed images made of gold and silver, or worshiped in temples made with human hands.  And all humans, regardless of their origins, were created by God to seek Him and find Him:
29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because 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.”
Finally, Paul concludes his message by revealing the proof of his claims about God:  Not only is God in control of all things, but also this God may not be found through idolatry, using manmade objects made with natural elements.  Consequently, this same God is calling all men to repent of their idolatry, for all will be judged by His messenger, the One Paul proclaims who was raised from the dead as proof of His divinity.  
According to typical reactions of intellectuals who solipsistically tend to believe as factual only what they see and hear, Paul’s message, one that hinges on the possibility of a human’s being raised from the dead, is the point when the audience divides into two groups: those who immediately reject even the possibility of such a miracle and those who follow Paul’s ideas as worth pursuing and learning more about.       

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.”

Did all of the Athenian philosophers become believers in Jesus Christ?  Having delivered his message, Paul simply left the results with God;

33 So Paul went out of their midst.

Having planted the seeds of the Gospel, however, Paul soon saw that a harvest of souls was the result:

34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.


What may we learn from Paul’s message to the Athenian Philosophers, the intellectuals of his day? And how do we share with those in our midst today who claim to know better than others what to believe?

Clearly, we need to deliver a message of love and hope, just as we would to any seeker.  Messages filled with the fires of Hell or eternal damnation usually only alienate those who may be listening.  And see below how Paul includes the message of judgment, but not in a non-loving way.  

Speaking personally, one of the most miraculous conversions I have experienced from one of my intellectual friends in the academic world came not as a result of debates or arguments, but instead as a result of compassion and willingness to pray with that person.

Here are some additional strategies to consider:

  • Most people, specifically those we label as “intellectuals,” are not moved to change their lifelong, strongly-held beliefs as a result of debates or arguments.  Usually, these strategies only serve to strengthen them in their own beliefs and ideas.
  • We must avoid what are termed ad-hominem attacks when addressing or sharing with unbelievers.  In our society today, these attacks are common, yet they serve only to alienate those being addressed, and to do so is to commit the worst of all logical fallacies: (see ad-hominem fallacy definition by clicking).
  • We must strive to find “common ground,” while also sharing the truths of the Gospel.  Paul does this when he commends the philosophers of Athens for being “religious in all respects”:22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)  
  • Notice in this passage Paul’s declaration that the Athenians are worshiping in “ignorance,” a statement that seems to be an ad-hominem attack.  Instead, however, Paul is merely repeating their own confession of their ignorance, for the altar is dedicated to the worship of the “UNKNOWN GOD,” presumably to ensure that they do not mistakenly leave any particular god out of their lives of devotion.  
  • Finally, Paul makes clear to the philosophers that listening and adhering to his message will benefit them greatly, as he delivers a warning that they need to repent of their ignorance in preparation for the judgments to come.  

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