Creation evangelism at Mars Hill
Paul’s address to the Athenians at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22–34) is often celebrated as an early example of accommodationism—that is, using elements of an unbelieving culture to reach people with the Gospel. What is often overlooked however, is how Paul tailored his message to confront the core errors of the Greek worldview—which resulted in some conversions among the Athenians. And this has a lot to teach Christians today as we engage in evangelism.
The first thing we see is that Paul did not try to minimize the differences between the Gospel and the beliefs of the Athenians. He claimed they were worshipping in ignorance (Acts 17:23)—this risked coming across as very offensive to people who prided themselves as being wise. He declared that while God had previously overlooked this ignorance, He now demanded repentance (v. 30)—another concept that often offends people who are convinced they are not really sinners. And by declaring God as the Creator and sustainer of all that exists, and that He needs nothing from humans but we need Him, Paul confronted core errors about the nature of God and man (vv. 24–25). By declaring one ancestor of all humanity, he confronted their error about human origins (v. 26), and by preaching the resurrection of the dead (v. 31), he confronted their error about human destiny.
What Luke gives us is probably the outline of a much longer sermon, in which Paul could have explained each of these concepts more fully. Paul’s message, no matter how graciously delivered, would have come as a shock to and maybe even offended the hearers of his message, but this didn’t stop him from proclaiming the whole Gospel at Mars Hill. Today’s evangelists can learn a lot from Paul.
Evangelism must confront the errors of the culture
Nearly every line in Paul’s Areopagus address seems tailored to the cultural errors and misconceptions of the Greeks. This made his message very relevant to them because it addressed particular areas where they needed correction, and where they needed to repent. Some think it is offensive or unloving to engage in this type of dialogue, but provided we do this “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), it is actually one of the most loving ways we can engage with unbelievers. That is, we should confront errors without being ‘confrontational’, and we should argue but not be argumentative.
Today, evolution constitutes a major stumbling block to evangelism, because if evolution were true, then the Bible would be wrong about origins. This is also a reason why many college students who have grown up in the church often declare themselves to be unbelievers. When we don’t try to sidestep the differences we have regarding origins, people actually have more respect for that sort of forthrightness and that can open up opportunities for conversation. This is especially true when we express our disagreement in ways that seek to respect people while disagreeing with their ideas.
This is also why it is so misguided to compromise regarding origins in an attempt to win people to Christ, or to keep young people in the church (or to win young people in the church to Christ, which is a continual concern for Christian parents). How can we preach Christ from a secular foundation? Rather, we should stand confidently on the foundation of Genesis, as Paul did, and for which he is often called the first ‘creation evangelist’.
Evangelism must proclaim the true nature of God
The Greeks at the Areopagus had a wrong view of God—Paul claims that though they were ‘religious’ in a sense (the Greek word at that time carried the connotation of ‘superstitious’—as per KJV, Vulgate—different from the positive word in James 1:27), they were worshipping in ignorance (vv. 22–23). In response to this ignorance, Paul tells them about the Creator God who is not made from wood or stone, and who needs nothing from humans, but who sustains us continually. Paul’s comments are doubtless drawn from Old Testament polemics against idols such as are found in Isaiah 44.
People are sometimes offended when we tell them about the God on whom they depend and to whom they are accountable, but without this truth, it is impossible to understand why we need to be saved. Because God is our Creator, He also must act as our Judge when we sin—and Scripture tells us that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). This provides the proper foundation for the Good News of how God has provided a way of salvation from the judgment that our sin demands.
Evangelism must proclaim the true nature of man
Some commentators assert the Greeks at the Areopagus had a wrong view that they were superior to other ‘races’ of people. In response to this false view, Paul proclaims that all humanity is descended from Adam (“one man”, v. 26) and all humanity will be judged by one man, Christ. Every person is sinful, and every person needs to be saved. So we all stand on level ground and there is no room for thinking one is superior to another.
Today, there are all sorts of ‘racial’ divisions, and creation evangelists often see how powerful it is when people realize the truth that people, no matter what ‘race’, are all descended from one man, Adam, therefore we are all closely related.
Evangelism must proclaim salvation through Christ alone
Paul was brought to the Areopagus because he was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”, and the Athenians wanted to hear in more detail. Christ was always the focus of Paul’s preaching, and the climax of his address comes at the end when he proclaims the resurrection of Christ. Interestingly, Paul seems to emphasize Christ as Judge—that is, if someone does not receive the free gift of salvation through Christ, he will have to face Jesus as his Judge.
It is sometimes unpopular to focus on the judgment aspect of the Gospel message, but without the ‘bad news’, it is hard to see why the Gospel is ‘Good News’. Again, it can seem unloving to tell someone that they will be judged for their sin if they do not receive a free gift, but if this is done in a gentle way, there is hardly anything more loving. A doctor does not withhold a cancer diagnosis from a patient because it would be ‘unloving’—rather, the loving thing is to honestly tell a person their situation so that they have the option of taking the appropriate remedial steps. In the case of evangelism, if the unbeliever is not clearly told that they are a sinner, that they are accountable to God, and that they must repent to avoid judgment, the Good News of salvation through Christ lacks critical context.
Evangelism is often rejected
Paul did not shy away from controversial elements of Gospel proclamation. When he proclaimed the resurrection, the Greeks—who thought that resurrection was impossible, and would be grotesque if it were possible—started to scoff. Paul, who had been educated in Greek literature, would have known that some could react in this way. But this didn’t stop him from proclaiming it.
Interestingly, this isn’t the only place where Paul faced difficulties with a Greek audience regarding the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses the Corinthian church’s misunderstanding of the resurrection, which led some in the church to reject the doctrine entirely. Paul makes it clear that this is not an option for the Christian, because without the resurrection we are without hope.
Creation evangelism bears fruit
However, not all at Mars Hill rejected Paul’s message—some believed, and judging by the listing of a few names, these may have become influential people in the church who would have been known to Luke’s original readers. When we evangelize, we should boldly proclaim the truth in love and trust God with the results, as it is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts of the hearers to convert them.
Paul’s sermon clearly shows us that when we seek to evangelize, we should stand confidently on the foundation of Genesis, particularly regarding areas where creation corrects cultural error, and not compromise with secular worldviews.