Acts 17:16-31 by Robert Dean

"There's nothing new under the sun." Similar to many people today, the Athenians liked to dazzle everyone with grand words and brilliant insights. Listen to this lesson to see how the Apostle Paul bettered their arguments by tweaking superstitious beliefs so they could understand the gospel. Discover how all primitive religions believed that matter always existed which is a core belief of evolution today. See how clarifying the truths of the Creator God is a vital part of witnessing.

Click here to access Dr. Dean's paper presented at the Conservative Theological Society referenced in this Bible class.

Athens: GOD, Unknown gods, Stoics, Epicureans, Evolution, and the Chain of Being - Part 2
Acts 17:16-31

Paul knows something when he is talking to an unbeliever. He knows that deep inside their soul they know God exists. They understand that truth but they are rejecting it, so basically what Paul's strategy is in a simple way when he is communicating to an unbeliever is to tweak that suppressed truth. So like a Jack-in-the box all of a sudden that suppressed truth is going to pop up and move from being suppressed to being out in the open. Then the person has to respond one way or the other—usually in anger and resentment. That is what the Holy Spirit uses. If we look at John chapter 16 Jesus talks about the fact that the Holy Spirit is going to convince the world (unbelievers) of sin, righteousness and judgment. That is what the Holy Spirit uses to convict people of the truth. So when we think about witnessing and communicating the gospel to unbelievers it is not just a matter of shooting them with our gospel gun. It is not just a matter of doing drive-by evangelism where we throw a tract at them and just say, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. But we enter into a conversation with the individual, treating them as a person, and sometimes this ends up being a life-long conversation. Sometimes it takes two or three times going over the gospel with sometimes with people, but maybe even dozens of times over a period of decades before they respond to the gospel. And throughout that time God the Holy Spirit is working.

Remember that the apostle Paul probably heard the gospel dozens and dozens of times before the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. So when that happened as he was headed to Damascus he had a clear understanding of who Jesus was and knew exactly what Jesus had done. He had a clear grasp of the gospel so that as soon as he saw the risen, resurrected Lord Jesus Christ he immediately responds in faith because it was that last piece of evidence that gave him that knowledge of the gospel.

So Paul knows exactly the kind of person he is talking to at the Areopagus because he himself was that kind of intellectual target audience who kept rejecting the gospel. He is not going to let his audience hide behind some sort of subterfuge, some sort of camouflage technique used to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. He is going to be very clear.

His sermon in vv. 22-31 give an explanation of what he is teaching. The introduction begins by using the idol to the unknown god as a starting point for his talk. He doesn't view this as a point of common ground, he is not saying that this "unknown god" is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he just says this shows and is indicative of their God-consciousness. Now he is going to tell them about the real God.

He gives a description of God, focusing on God as the creator, and that is so important as we will see in vv. 24-29. And then he challenges them in vv. 30, 31.          

Acts 17:22  NASB "So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.'" That word "religious" is the Greek word deisidaimon—the last part daimon is translated "demon"—and he is using this word because in Greek it also had the connotation of being religious or superstitious. He is sort of tweaking them a little bit because he is using a word that also has this implication of demonic. He is indicating that the source of their religious system and their superstition has its origin in Satan and the demonic. 

Acts 17:23 NASB "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."

We need to look at how the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Greeks all looked at this idea of the chain of being. What this is going to do is help us get a handle on why Paul takes this approach with the Stoics and the Epicureans. He is not emphasizing God as the creator because that just seemed like a good idea. He has a strategy, and that is something that we ought to think about when we are witnessing to people. Every person is different and we need to think through several different strategies for how we are going to communicate the gospel to people, and truly listen when we are explaining the gospel so that we understand whether they are hearing us correctly.

So lets understand a little bit about these ideas of origins, how these different cultures and religious systems viewed how life ultimately began. And the one thing they have in common is that matter is eternal—just like the big bang theory.  If you push everything back according to modern views of origins and evolution, it all goes back to some super-compressed, dense mass of matter that exploded. Well, where did that matter come from? If we look at these primitive stories about origins they all start with something that is already there. There is no creation out of nothing.

Quote from The Book of Knowing the Evolutions of Ra and Of Overthrowing Apep. This is an Egyptian document, and E. Wallis Budge was one of the foremost Egyptologists of the 20th century makes the observation that the word that is rendered in the English "evolutions" in the Egyptian is kheperu, and it is derived from a root word which means to make, to fashion, to produce, to form or to become. It is a creation type term. And it has a derived sense of to roll something. In the text the words are placed in the mouth of the god Nebertecher, the lord of the universe—and he is also the sun god Ra, and he says, "I am he who came in to being in the form of the god kheperu (translation: I came in the form of the god evolution, change) and I was the creator of that which came into being." So there is this god that comes out of him. How do we know? Regarding his own origin we have this statement: "I came into being from primordial matter." How does that differ from the big bang? The primordial matter was already in existence and the god comes out of this matter. He is part of the universe; he is not separate and distinct from the universe. "And I appeared under the form of multitudes of things from the beginning. Nothing existed at that time (primordial matter did!) and it was I who made whatever was made. I made all the forms into which I appeared by means of god-soul which I raised up Nu (the sky goddess)."

All of these gods and goddesses are basically part of matter, a part of creation. They are all part of the same beingness, as we will see. We see this same kind of structure when we look at Babylonian mythological cosmology. They don't have an ex nihilo creation either. They have these gods that are really matter. They are a part of the creation. Mankind and everything in creation is created out of something from these gods and goddesses. They are really personifications of matter. What is eternal? Matter is eternal.

What happens today in many Old Testament faculties is that they have views that the Babylonians mythologies and the Egyptians mythologies were written, and where did Moses live? He grew up in Egypt, and he gets his ideas for Genesis chapter one from the Egyptians and from the Babylonians. And they say what we need to do is understand Genesis chapter one in light of the Babylonian and Egyptian cosmologies. So they retranslate. They translate the beginning of Genesis chapter one, "In the beginning." That begins with the Hebrew preposition bu, which normally mean "in," but it can mean "when". So they translate this, "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void." What they have done is polluted the ex nihilo creation of Genesis 1:1 by saying that verse is saying the same thing as all these other pagan mythologies. What they are saying is, when God began to create matter was already there. This begins a process and a rationale for compromising with evolutionary beliefs, so that today there are more and more Bible colleges and seminaries and schools deserting any kind of literal belief in Genesis 1-11. And it affects all kinds of different people.

What the Greeks thought of creation. According to Orpheus their view was that time existed first. There was no actual beginning. This is one reason when I teach Genesis 1:1 I emphasize that Genesis 1:1 isn't simply a topical sentence. It is not parallel to Genesis 2:4. Genesis 1:1 is a clear statement of ex nihilo creation. Genesis 1:2 then breaks and there is a contrastive conjunction "But … the earth became formless and void," indicating some sort of transformation from the original created state. We believe that between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 is when the Satanic rebellion occurred. If you don't put it there then we don't have anything in the Bible that talks about the beginnings of evil, the beginnings of Satan, or the beginnings of even the universe.

The Greeks thought that time always existed, but that it was cyclical, that history repeats itself over and over again, ad infinitum, for eternity. There is no actual beginning. Time is always there, and then time generates chaos. See, some people want to say, "Chaos! That's like without form and void. See, that's where the Bible got it." It is just a perversion of what the Bible originally taught. They are suppressing the truth and re-explaining things. So there view was a time-generated chaos which was an enormous space containing night, mist and the upper regions of the air, or what they called ether. Time commanded and the mists spun around with such speed that the mass congealed and solidified into the shape of a huge egg. This broke into two halves which became the heaven and the earth. Isn't this time plus random chance that just generates matter and everything else? So that was the starting point with Orpheus.

Homer came along. He saw that the earth was flooded by Oceanus (the god who personified the ocean), and a vast sea surrounded the earth. So once again everything seems to come out of water.  

We can draw certain conclusions from this. First, all pagan myths begin with the existence of some sort of matter, or the gods themselves are often the personifications of matter. Just like in modern forms of evolutionary theory it starts with the eternal existence of matter. Everything comes out of that. That's why we talk about this chain of being. Everything basically participates in what that stuff is—even the gods. They are not completely separate from it, they are just part of the system.

Secondly, the mechanics of creation involve some sort of procreation. In some cases the two gods have sex and the result is that one gets pregnant and gives birth to the earth, or different things like that. There is always some sort of procreative activity which leads to something coming along. So there is no such thing as creation out of nothing.

All of these ancient cosmologies tell stories where already existing material is transformed into something else. One part of the universe causes or self-generates another part of the universe.

This shows a basic continuity between all existing things, between all living things whether you are talking about a god or a rock. The only difference is the amount of being that each one of these things has. They are all part of the same system.

That has tremendous implications fro all kinds of things, but if you want to think about something just think about environmentalist thinking and the pantheism that is part of that. This ends up with man being one with the universe. We have to learn to be one with the universe!

Satan makes the same kind of claim when he suggests that Eve can be like God. "God doesn't want you to eat from that tree because you will be like Him. But see, isn't that fruit good? You can be just like God." So she can be one with God and elevate herself up the chain of being.

The bottom line is, we have to be clear whenever we are talking to other people that we maintain this clear distinction between the creator and the creation, because the God that we are talking about isn't a god like any other god. He is totally distinct.

The God of the Bible is a personal, infinite God who exists as a triune person. He is eternal. All of His attributes He possesses in an unmeasured or infinite manner, but yet He is personal. He can carry on a personal relationship with an individual. He exists in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Everything is created by Him. God is completely and totally distinct from the finite universe where we find angels, man, animals, vegetation, matter energy, etc.     

In the pagan view you have an infinite impersonal universe. On the Christian side ultimate reality is personal and infinite. So as persons we have value. In an impersonal universe there is no basis for personhood or individuality. So there is an infinite impersonal universe that just exists out there. And then we have the "circle of being." Inside that is God, angels, man, animals, nature, rocks, whatever. This leads to something called monism because ultimately everything is one in being. This is indicated by the Buddhist ying-yang symbol. In postmodernism these are just different constructs, but they are just part of the same being. Everything is one, there is no separate entity called God who is over against creation.

So which side of the dividing line are we as Christians? We are on the side which as a distinct, unique God. And so we can't let people try to force Him into that circle of being.

As we have gone through this we have been sliding from mythological explanations to philosophical explanations of origins that developed in Greek culture. Henry Fairfield Osborne, who is a former director of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote a book called From the Greeks to Darwin. He is an evolutionist. He said:

"When I began the search for anticipation of the evolutionary theory I was led back to the Greek natural philosophers and I was astonished to find how many of the pronounced and basic features of the Darwinian theory were anticipated even as far back as the seventh century BC. 

There is nothing new under the sun. All Darwin did was take some ideas that had always been there, reshaped and reformatted them a little bit, and came up with some new definitions; but it is the same ideas that flow out of the ancient pantheistic monism.

L. T. Moore in his book, Dogma, dealing also with pro-evolutionary books says:

Evolutionists must find a cornerstone in Greek philosophy for their doctrine. They should give this honor to Democritus whose doctrine of mechanical and Adamistic monism, in which all phenomena are reduced to material particles moving according to natural law, is in the real sense of the word modern science.    

 Get that? He is saying in this idea of monism everything is just reduced to DNA, to molecules, to physical laws. There is no such thing as soul or spirit. Modern psychology has rejected the whole idea that there is a soul or spirit. Everything is material; everything is just the result of your DNA and the way it is coded into your system. So you are not responsible for anything!

Our worldview today that comes out of this whole view of the chain of being goes back to this idea that everything is just basically chemical. This goes back to a group of philosophers called the pre-Socratics. Socrates taught Plato; Plato taught Aristotle. Pre-Socratics is before Socrates. This is really early; they are just playing guessing games, trying to figure out the ultimate nature of reality. They had the view that monism is the view that all reality is of one kind—it is neutral monism or material monism or pantheistic monism, but it is all one kind. Remember, monism is it is all one; we all want to be one with nature, we all want to be one with everybody else. One with nature is always horror, and always will because there is no real ethical foundation. Pantheism is the belief that God and the creation are identical.

On monistic pantheism the ultimate reality or the basic stuff of the universe is identified as God—air, fire, water; these are the gods and so you have just the personification of those particular gods.

We have Thales who came along and said primordial matter was water, and water is the foundation for everything in existence. Then we have Aniximander who lived a little later than Thales. He said no, it's not water; primordial matter is hot and cold, wet and dry. Some have said that his book on nature is the first primitive presentation of a written theory of evolution. Then there is Anaximenes a little later. He said ultimate reality is just air. Air is the basic stuff of life; it is equated to the soul. When sent out it becomes fire, when it is condensed it becomes wind and cloud, and when it is more condensed it becomes water. When it is condensed more it is the earth, becomes stone. Everything comes form this primordial air, and that explains everything in existence. Next is Heraclitus who lived at about the same time. He said the universe is continually changing. But it is a change in oneness, so that even though there is change it is all within the same oneness or unity. Parmenides came along and said no, they are just one.

Ultimately they are all just talking about the same thing. You start off with this one primordial matter that explains everything else in existence. This goes on through a whole chain of different philosophers until we get down to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato originates the idea of rationalism. He has the idea that there are these ideas are the ultimate reality. He called them forms or absolutes. They might be called the absolute good or the summum bonum, but that is God, and it is up in a different realm. But the realm we see is the realm of matter, which is individual things—the ideas or being itself—and everything comes out of that. Once again God is not something totally distinct. With Plato, out of its perfect fullness being necessarily creates all possible things with all possible transitions. So being is the source of everything from within itself; it is not set apart from the things that are there.

Then we have Aristotle. He was the first to really articulate this whole chain of being as God, angels, mankind, animals and vegetation. He said:

The universe resembles a large and well-regulated family in which all the officers and servants, and even the domestic animals are subservient to each other in proper subordination. Each enjoys the privileges and prerequisites peculiar to its place, and at the same time contributes by that just subordination to the magnificence and happiness of the whole.

In other words, everything is just this one chain.

That leads in our history to Epicurus. Who are we dealing with in Acts 17? The Epicureans and the Stoics. Epicurus was originally a follower of Aristotle and he denies any purpose in nature at all—everything is just a product of chance. He emphasizes that there are just these basic components called adams, and they just have this randomness to them. So there is an infinite number of worlds, there is no God—the Epicureans Paul is talking to are basically what we would called today "atheists," there is no God in their system—the universe is eternal, and everything on the earth evolved directly from the matter on earth itself. Paul is witnessing to people who are not any different from the people that you and I are witnessing to. They are just a bunch of materialist evolutionists.

One of the famous Roman Epicureans was Lucretius who wrote a six-volume work on this. He basically says, Nature is free and uncontrolled by proud masters, and runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods. (Can you say the words "random chance"? Basically that is what evolution is: time plus chance equals order and sophistication.) He also said:

I have taught you that things cannot be created out of nothing, nor once born be summoned back to nothing.

There is no ex nihilo creation.

The Stoics were also pantheistic monists, and they emphasized a simple life and submission to circumstances. Epicureans are not pursuing pleasure for pleasure's sake. The best way to understand Epicureans is they are pursuing happiness, but happiness isn't ephemeral, it isn't a momentary stimulation of our nerves so that we feel good; it is a long-term happiness. Therefore they bring in a certain ethical system because only through responsibility and hard work and things like that can you truly be happy. In Stoicism they emphasize that things are going to happen to you and you just have to learn to accept and live consistent with your circumstances, and then you can have happiness.

But what they all have in common is this same concept of being. When Paul comes along he starts to talk about resurrection and God as the creator they can't fathom that, because they have been immersed in their truth suppression so much that they redefine it. That doesn't mean that nobody listens to him because there are certainly those who do respond to Paul and to the gospel. They are going to form a nucleus in Athens. But most of them do not.  

Paul says:

Acts 17:24 NASB "The God who made the world and all things in it …" See how much that disagrees with everything they think? He doesn't back off.

" … since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands." What he is going to do when he talks about resurrection, because God is the creator, because Jesus is God, resurrection and victory over death is possible. In Greek thought that was not possible. Resurrection was a foolish, impossible notion. So Paul emphasizes at the start who God is. This has to be a vital aspect whenever we witness to people that we make sure they understand who God is, and that we are not talking about some generic concept called G-o-d; we are talking about the specific God who is the creator of the heavens and the earth and is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.