Three Greek Lessons About God — Part One: Athens

The Eastern facade of the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, Athens
The Eastern facade of the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, Athens

After being inspired by the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey video game, guest writer Chris Flux visited Greece in October to check out some of the ancient sites in Athens, Corinth and Delphi. At each location Chris learnt more about history and the Christian faith. This three-part mini series is about how the three locations deepened Chris’ understanding of God.

Part One – ATHENS

“The virtual exploration of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inspired me to explore some of the locations of Greece in real life. Naturally Athens was the first place I explored.”

As someone who attended a state school in the 90s, we didn’t do much ancient or classical history other than a few lessons about Roman Britain. For this reason, despite being interested in history, I knew very little about the Classical era before this year. That means as a Christian of sixteen years, I’ve often read the Bible without a true understanding of the historical context.

That was all changed by a video game called Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Odyssey is part of the action-based Assassin’s Creed franchise of games which are set across various historical periods and locations including Victorian London, Cleopatra’s Egypt, the American Revolutionary War and Renaissance Italy. Odyssey is set in Greece during the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) and as part of the game you can explore many of the islands including Crete and city states such as Sparta, Thebes, Corinth and of course Athens.

This virtual exploration inspired me to explore some of the locations in real life, so during the summer I booked a flight to Athens, where I stayed in a hotel for four nights. For my visits outside of Athens I booked a day trip on a tour bus. Naturally Athens was the first place I explored. So that’s where….

My Odyssey Begins….

Athens is incredible. It is packed with so much history that it’s overwhelming. The city has archaeological sites everywhere and (apparently) over 400 museums. One of the most popular is the National Archaeology Museum, which has many very old items including the supposed ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ which is dated at 1,600 BC! Seeing manmade items this ancient throughout the trip made me appreciate how long civilisation has existed and that in the times of Moses other people were farming, fighting wars, enjoying entertainment and worshipping the gods. I saw evidence of a lot of ancient paganism during my time in Greece and it’s hard for us now to imagine a world where monotheism wasn’t dominant. Ancient Athens is a primary example of this and its idolatrous paganism is highlighted as such in Chapter 17 of the Book of Acts in the Bible.

The Marketplace Of Ideas

“The first ancient site I visited in Greece was the archaeological site of the Agora. It was very different than a modern British market as it was a place where the top intellectuals would come to debate, share and even teach their ideas. Imagine Jordan Peterson teaching a philosophy class from the side of Camden Market!”

Historians estimate that St Paul visited Athens in around 51 AD. It appears from scripture that Paul didn’t originally plan any major missionary effort in the city and only stayed in Athens in order to wait for his friends before going on to Corinth (Acts 17:14-16). Yet whilst Paul waited his spirit became deeply troubled by the idol worship that surrounded him (Acts 17:16). Just like in other towns and cities, Paul took time to share the Gospel with the local Jewish community as well as interested Gentiles (Acts 17:17). The latter happened in the main market area known as the Agora. Unlike markets today, this area didn’t just have shops and stalls, but also temples, statutes and altars for sacrifice. The first ancient site I visited in Greece was the archaeological site of the Agora. It was very different than a modern British market as it was a place where the top intellectuals would come to debate, share and even teach their ideas. Imagine Jordan Peterson teaching a philosophy class from the side of Camden Market! In fact it is from this market area that Zeno founded the philosophy movement known as Stoicism hundreds of years before St Paul. What is interesting is that Acts 17:17-21 explains that St Paul engages with many of these philosophers who are so intrigued by what he has to say that they invite him to speak at what is essentially their exclusive debating club on top of a rock the Romans called ‘Mars Hill’ and the Greeks call ‘Areopagus’.

Whilst in Athens I was excited to climb Areopagus (there are steps) and I must say it is an intriguing geographical feature with some great views of both the Agora district to the north and the Parthenon on the Acropolis to the East. In ancient times the Areopagus was a place where trials for serious crimes were sometimes held and according to mythology Ares (the Greek god of war) was put on trial by the other gods for the alleged murder of another god’s son. (Ares’ Roman name is Mars, hence the site being known as ‘Mars Hill’.)

Sermon On Mars Hill

This is the southern side of the Areopagus. Paul’s sermon is written in Greek on the metal plaque.
This is the southern side of the Areopagus. Paul’s sermon is written in Greek on the metal plaque.

It was from the top of this rock where St Paul gave his famous ‘Unknown God’ sermon. This sermon is known for how Paul brilliantly tries to find common ground with his audience by quoting Pagan poets and seeming to praise their religious devotion, whilst showing them a better way. But that doesn’t mean his sermon wasn’t challenging to its hearers.

“Whilst the response Paul received wasn’t violent or an attempt to literally silence him, some of the people listening sneered and others, whilst intrigued, were reluctant to respond to the Gospel.”

Whilst the response Paul received wasn’t violent or an attempt to literally silence him (which had been the case in other places), some of the people listening sneered (Acts 17:32) and others, whilst intrigued, were reluctant to respond to the Gospel. This type of opposition is similar to what Christians receive in the UK today. Whilst it’s rare that people in the UK are assaulted or imprisoned for their faith, there is sometimes a subtle hostility (and outright mockery) towards Christians when it comes to conversations about faith.

Another similarity between First-Century (AD) Athens and the modern west is that there are people are ‘intrigued’ by Christianity (i.e., people who will watch YouTube videos about the ‘Holy Grail’ for hours on end) yet have no interest in responding to the Gospel themselves. We do know however that some people did indeed respond to the Gospel from this event (Acts 17:34). This included Dionysius the Areopagite who according to Greek Orthodox tradition went on to become the first Bishop of Athens. So the sermon was successful even if the results were limited.

So why was it a challenging sermon for the majority of the audience? One apparently obvious answer is because Paul preached monotheism in a city of pagan dominance. Upon the Areopagus, Paul would have had a great view of the idol-filled Agora on one side and literally behind him was the Parthenon dedicated to the goddess Athena, a place deemed as one of the most important religious sites of the ancient world. Yet monotheism wasn’t completely alien to the Ancient Athenians, as we know from the Bible that there was an established Jewish community in the city at the time and some Greeks who were described by the author of Acts as ‘God-fearing’ (Acts 17:17). The educated men of Athens would have also known about Zoroastrianism from the Persians, which despite huge differences from the biblical faith, was and still is a monotheistic belief system.

This is on the rocky surface of Areopagus with a view of the Acropolis in the background. St Paul probably would have stood at the end closest to the Acropolis facing the camera.
This is on the rocky surface of Areopagus with a view of the Acropolis in the background. St Paul probably would have stood at the end closest to the Acropolis facing the camera.

Maybe some of the hostility is over St Paul’s claim that the one true God doesn’t need to be ‘served by human hands’ (Acts 17:24-25). This could have been interpreted as a slight on Athena and the other gods, because Paul was basically claiming (correctly) that the Hebrew God was superior and that human efforts to please the divine were worthless. Perhaps they felt insulted that Paul had called their beliefs ‘ignorance’ that God has overlooked (Acts 17:30). Imagine being sat at a table with Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Naomi Klein, and calling them all ‘ignorant’. I don’t think that would go down well.

“The clearest explanation for the negative response towards Paul, however, is explicitly stated in the Bible. The stumbling block was Paul’s affirmation of the resurrection.”

The clearest explanation for the negative response however is explicitly stated in the Bible. The stumbling block was Paul’s affirmation of the ‘resurrection’ (Acts 17:32). One thing that has made me curious is why the resurrection was so difficult for them to grasp when the majority of ancient Greeks believe in the afterlife anyway? So I decided to do some research into Ancient Greek perspectives on death and the afterlife.

Indeed the common belief amongst most of the population was that after death the soul would travel down to the underworld, which would be the heavenly fields of Elysium for the notably ‘good’ people, punishment in Tartarus for the particularly ‘wicked’ or some moderately pleasant in-between for everyone else. Whilst Greek mythology contains stories of bodily resurrection, as in the tales relating to Achilles and Asclepius, these characters tended to be semi-divine and exceptional cases. So Paul’s message that physical resurrection was open to all on condition of belief would have been strange to most people in the Hellenic world. It could have also challenged Platonic thinkers, who saw the body as evil and temporary, whilst the spirit was good and immortal. In fact it was this misguided thinking that in later decades would lead to Gnosticism, which was an attempt to ‘harmonise’ the account of Christ’s resurrection with this body ‘bad’/spirit ‘good’ Platonic dualism.

“Paul’s message that physical resurrection was open to all on condition of belief would have been strange to most people in the Hellenic world. It could have also challenged Platonic thinkers, who saw the body as evil and temporary, whilst the spirit was good and immortal.”

However as we can see from scripture, Paul wasn’t simply addressing the general public or an exclusively Platonic audience. The people listening to Paul were largely (if not entirely) followers of the Epicurean and Stoic schools of philosophy (Acts 17:18). Epicureans, whilst not being atheists, believed that celestial beings rarely (if ever) got involved with human affairs and that there was no divine judgement either after death or during a person’s lifetime. For Epicureans death really was the end and nothing to be feared. Whilst they believed the soul existed, they thought it was material in substance and therefore didn’t live on even as a disembodied spirit, let alone inhabit a resurrected body. Stoics too were materialists and often shared similar beliefs to the Epicureans about life after death, despite having a radically different outlook on life in general. Resurrection would have made even less sense to them that it would to a follower of Plato.

It’s also worth considering how the universalism of Paul’s message might have been challenging to his audience too, as this resurrection was open to all regardless of wealth, social standing, nationality or sex. Popular Hellenic thinking contended that Elysium, the highest heaven open to mortals, could only be attained by a select few heroes who were either extremely virtuous or particularly favoured by the gods. A divine kingdom would surely not be open to beggars, prostitutes and criminals.

Even the biblical idea that we all descend from Noah (and therefore ultimately Adam) contradicted the Greco-Roman narrative on the origins of mankind. So Paul’s assertion that God “made all the nations” from “one man” (Acts 17:26) was a bold assertion to make.

“The Greeks had their own version of the story of Noah’s Flood, in which Zeus became angry at mankind’s rebellion and sought to destroy them by causing a great flood. However one couple, a man named Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, survived by sailing in a small boat.”

During my trip, the tour guide told me a fascinating story about how the Greeks had their own version of the story of Noah’s Flood. In this account, Zeus became angry at mankind’s rebellion and sought to destroy them by causing a great flood. However one couple, a man named Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, survived by sailing in a small boat. A key difference in this account (other than the name of the wrathful god) is that Deucalion and Pyrrha didn’t have any children who survived the flood and (at least in some versions of the story) were unable to have children afterwards due to their old age. Therefore the biological line of pre-flood humanity ended with them. Bizarrely the gods declared it would be impossible to enable them to have children, so instead Deucalion and Pyrrha were instructed (via a cryptic riddle) to create human beings by throwing rocks behind their heads. The rocks Deucalion threw became men and rocks Pyrrha threw became women. This is how the earth began to repopulate. In the Hellenic tradition the Greeks were created first, followed by the Romans, but in the Roman version it was the other way around.

It seems logical to assume that the rejection of the ‘one blood’/‘one human race’ idea would lead to feelings of ethnic superiority over others, especially if you believed that your people had inherited a divine bloodline. This could have been the case with the Athenians considering the half-human description of their mythological founder King Kekrops. So it’s likely that Paul’s proclamation of the brotherhood of mankind by itself would have been hard for his audience to accept. One wonders what they must have thought when Paul added that the invitation to “repent” is for “all people” (Acts 17:30), even people from rival nations.

This leads to the final reason and probably the most fundamental reason for the rejection of Paul’s message: repentance! As we know, throughout history including today, people hate being called to ‘repent’, yet without repentance people cannot be saved (Acts 2:38; Acts 11:18; Luke 5:31-32; John 3:16-21).

Repentance isn’t merely recognising your faults and saying ‘sorry’, it’s a commitment to live differently by surrendering yourself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In my experience, people tend to see ‘repentance’ as something threatening, irrelevant or too difficult. The reaction is either, ‘How dare you ask me to repent!’ or, ‘Why should I repent?’ or, ‘I’m not good enough to repent!’

“Whatever ‘reason’ people give for refusing to repent, Jesus has the same verdict: ‘People loved darkness instead of the light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.’ This is true now in Britain, it was true in first-century Judea and also true in Athens at the time of Paul.”

Whatever ‘reason’ people give for refusing to repent, Jesus has the same verdict: “People loved darkness instead of the light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19-20). This is true now in Britain, it was true in first-century Judea and also true in Athens at the time of Paul. It’s challenging, offensive, yet completely correct and important to acknowledge. In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle clarifies that unrepentance is due to a stubbornness of heart (Romans 2:5). So we now know the fundamental underlying reason for the Athenians’ rejection of the Gospel message. The hardness of their heart and their love of wickedness. Also known as rebellion!

So can this hardness of heart be overcome? The clear answer in scripture is Yes, BUT only by the transforming power of God through His Holy Spirit. This is hinted at in the Old Testament through passages such as, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:1 KJV), and the story of Pharaoh whose heart hardens and softens at God’s command (Exodus 9). In Ezekiel, the prophet declares that it will be God who removes the “heart of stone” from people, puts in a “new spirit” and gives them a “heart of flesh” so that they will become obedient people of God (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26). If salvation is a gift (Ephesians 2:8) then being enabled to genuinely repent must also be a gift too. Calvinists and Arminians may debate the role of human choice in this, but essentially it is God who does the work of repentance by transforming the human heart.

As salvation (including repentance) is the work of God, we can see that it was not Paul’s responsibly to convert people on Mars Hill, just like it’s not our responsibility to convert the old lady at the bus stop. Paul’s responsibility was to simply go there and proclaim Christ’s Name (Acts 9:15). God did the rest, which did result in observable success, even if it was limited. Likewise, we are given the responsibility of proclaiming the “Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), however it’s clearly implied that the response is not up to us (Mark 16:16). Paul would have been disobedient if he had stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 9:15; 16:9-10), so Christians shouldn’t use man’s rejection as an excuse to lock ourselves in at home and wait for the Second Coming. But neither should we be intimidated or worry if our message is rejected either.

As Christ Himself asserts in Luke 10:16, people who reject us are at the heart really rejecting Him. We need to remember that Jesus Christ was directly rejected by the whole of mankind when He hung on that cross.

 

 

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