The Church faces the challenge of modernity: America, along with much of the Western world, has become a post-Christian society. The reliability of Scripture, the existence of God, and other foundational truths of the Christian worldview are no longer broadly shared. Additionally, traditional authority structures have been replaced.
Whereas news anchors and journalists were once authoritative guides to current events, one now turns to social media where articles from the New York Times are forced to compete with personal blog posts. Similarly, the words of pastors and other spiritual leaders can be quickly checked—and challenged—via an instant search on one’s smartphone. Everyone has immediate access to the world’s knowledge, along with the world’s doubts. Those sitting in the pews have their attention divided between the message from the pulpit and the questions of the world.
What ought our response be?
We can get swept along with the cultural current by presenting an agreeable Christianity which equates prayers to positive thoughts, reframes Jesus as an inspiring role model, and presents Scripture a source of ancient wisdom that we mine for motivational nuggets–best presented on a mountain background for full feel-good effectiveness–or we can engage with the world’s questions with clarity and charity.
As a student on a secular university campus, I’ve often found myself hungry for the latter. Too many times, I have seen friends abandon the Great Hope because they came to believe that Christianity failed to address their honest intellectual questions, yet just as many times I’ve seen friends embrace that same hope as they discovered the reasons for it.
Overwhelmingly, I’ve found young adults longing for a faith that sheds light on the difficult questions from biology (What accounts for life—and death?), cosmology (What was the first cause of our universe?), philosophy (What is the good life? Is there Truth? Can we know it?), sociology (Is religion merely a social phenomenon, or is there something transcendent to it?), history (Is history more than just a series of events? Is it going somewhere?), political science (What makes a law just?), theology (Why trust Scripture? What can we know about God?), and other fields of study.
Christianity, after all, makes radical claims which speak to every area of human inquiry with force, and has profound implications for how one orders their life. But what value is Christianity if its claims are false? As far as Paul was concerned, none whatsoever (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul decidedly, yet respectfully, engaged with the truth claims of the world-views of his society in order to share the Christian hope. His ministry—especially his trip to Athens recorded in Acts 17—offers a rich model for how the Church might continue to thoughtfully engage with the world-views driving our rapidly changing society.
Prior to Athens, Paul had spent much of his energy dialoguing with those in the synagogues about Scripture, “Explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’ ” (Acts 17:3). Along the way, he met with a good amount of success, but also plenty of resistance. A suffering Messiah was alien to contemporary Jewish thinking, and following a Man stripped, beaten, and shamefully executed on the cross was perceived as foolishness. But Paul appealed to “many proofs” to establish his case (Acts 1:1).
What were these proofs? There was the eyewitness testimony of the hundreds of living individuals who had encountered the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:5-8), their testimony buttressed by the empty tomb. And of course, central to Paul’s apologetic, was his own encounter with the risen Jesus, transforming him from persecutor to apostle. Most importantly, there was the collective testimony of Scripture—Paul argued that a suffering and resurrected Messiah best explained the testimony of Moses and the prophets. Indeed, the more a community would examine Paul’s claims for themselves in Scripture, the greater the number that would believe (Acts 17:11-12).
But this wasn’t Paul’s approach in Athens. It couldn’t be; he had a very different audience. Rather than facing Jews who worshipped the Creator and revered the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul was addressing Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Epicureanism had been popularized a century earlier by the Roman poet Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things. In it, Lucretius sought to alleviate the anxiety many felt over facing divine wrath in the afterlife all by arguing for a naturalistic account for the universe and the origins of life. While the gods still had a place, they did not function in human affairs; everything from thunder to the presence of complex life forms could be explained by the laws of nature.
Meanwhile Stoicism, tracing back to Zeno three centuries earlier, was a form of pantheism which sought to align the individual with the divine logos thought to be present in all. The Epicureans believed in transcendent gods altogether removed from human affairs, the Stoics believed divinity was entirely immanent and present in each of us, and in the midst of these two groups stood Paul with the message that the transcendent God had become uniquely incarnate in the Person of Jesus.
Paul’s approach? He met them on their own playing field; he appealed to their authorities. First, Paul established that we are made in the likeness of God, but rather than cite Genesis as proof of this, Paul points to a poem about Zeus that affirms “we are his offspring”. Does Paul recognize this poem as an authoritative revelation of the Creator God? Absolutely not. But he meets his audience where they were, in order to move them towards accepting a definitive conclusion.
Recognizing that we are made in God’s likeness establishes the second commandment to make no graven image, for it is foolish to try to capture divinity in stone and wooden idols when God already left an imprint of the divine image in us. Beyond foolish, it was sinful. At one time that ignorance was overlooked, but now they stood condemned. Hence, a call to repentance in light of judgement. And at the center of his judgement message was the Man who was the perfect image of God. His evidence for Jesus’ special status? Resurrection.
Paul was intentional to present the Christian hope in a way they could understand and appreciate, but in essence it was the same message that he delivered to his Jewish hearers. And he kept the resurrection, that doctrine that he must have known would incite the ridicule of this learned audience, central to that message.
Paul couldn’t take the same approach he took with the Jews, but he also couldn’t hold back any of the message of hope, especially those parts at intellectual odds with his audience. That is, Paul, as a faithful messenger, had a responsibility to both communicate the entire message, and to communicate it in such a way that it could be grasped. This involved carefully reasoning with his audience and respectfully appealing to their authorities, which of course meant first being familiar with those authorities. A presentation of Scripture alone would have been insufficient for this apologetic task.
The Significance of Acts 17 for Adventism
Just as Paul, prior to Athens, had focused his attention on leading a Jewish audience to embrace their Jewish Messiah, so also the Adventist Church has labored to lead a Christian audience to fully embrace the Christian hope of Christ’s soon return. This makes good historical sense. Adventism was born into a primarily Protestant nation. Christian elements such as the existence of God, the value of prayer, and the reliability of Scripture were commonly accepted. While there is a rich history of non-Christian religions in the United States, they were much less visible and recognized.
Hence, Adventism supplied what was missing in the popular expressions of Christianity: a recognition of the importance of obedience, the forgotten Sabbath command in particular, and a sense of urgency for Christ’s soon return. And like Paul, Adventism offered many convincing proofs from both Scripture and history. The more individuals caught a “spirit of investigation” to examine, for instance, what the Scriptures taught about the Sabbath or, say, the nature of hell, the more they came to accept and spread the Adventist message.
Yet the challenge of modernity calls for a new approach—we cannot now assume those Christian elements which were once common. We must meet our culture where it is. Mirroring the Epicureanism of Paul’s day is the naturalistic sentiment commonly expressed today that denies supernatural agency, and exalts science as the only source of true knowledge.
Like Lucretius, Richard Dawkins and other New Atheist advocates are seeking to free us from the fear and drudgery of religion for a more enlightened and altogether naturalistic understanding of the cosmos. Mirroring Stoicism is the revival of pantheism in its various new age forms and its popular “spiritual but not religious” expression, holding to a vaguely defined higher power or cosmic force.
Many have recognized the challenges the Church faces in a post-Christian culture, and have attempted a diversity of methods to contextualize its message. These have been met with varying degrees of success. Strangely though, there has been little attempt in Adventism to apologetically engage with the major world-views shaping our culture. While some resources exist, such as those created by the Geoscience Research Institute and the Biblical Research Institute, Adventist young adults, especially those in secular academic settings, often find themselves woefully unprepared to give a defense of the hope that is within them.
Granted, a number of Christian initiatives, such as The Veritas Forum, and the ministries of William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, have determinedly engaged with the major intellectual objections to faith, and equipped a generation of students. However, we cannot leave this work entirely to our friends in the wider Christian community. Adventism offers a theological richness that fills in many of the gaps of mere Christianity and presents a uniquely attractive picture of God’s love in Christ. After all, if we believe ourselves to be a prophetic movement, then we should not be surprised to find that our message speaks with distinctive clarity to the intellectual concerns of modernity.
More Than Arguments
Acts 17 has been of special interest to me since a recent trip I took to Athens to participate in an international mathematics conference. Between conversations on mathematics, I reflected on how Paul must have carefully studied and crafted his arguments for faith in Jesus as the Messiah. We need such intellectual excellence in the Church today that, like Paul, we can meet “logic with logic, science with science, philosophy with philosophy” (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 244).
I should conclude, though, by conceding an important critique: Paul’s missionary work in Athens wasn’t very successful. Few believed (Acts 17:32-34). Why? There is a tendency for apologetic dialogues to result in never-ending argumentation. For every argument, there is a counter argument, and the audience falls into a continuous, “We’ll hear you again about this” (Acts 17:32), never committing to follow Christ.
Paul recognized this as he journeyed from Athens, and he corrected this tendency when he arrived at his next destination, Corinth, by emphasizing the simplicity of faith in Christ.
He determined to avoid elaborate arguments and discussions, and “not to know anything” among the Corinthians “save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” He would preach to them “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. 1 Corinthians 2:2, 4″ (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 244).
There is a need for apologetic engagement by the Church today, but as we seek to intellectually engage with the world-views shaping our society, the person of Christ must be central in every discourse. We must make it clear to the world that God is not simply a hypothesis to be abstractly considered, but that He has entered human history in the Person of Jesus in such a manner that demands a full-life response, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31).