What do you think about the title of this blog post? If you are a Christian, are you wondering if it bad advice? When we talk about Jesus, why would we not refer to the Bible? When I was a teenager going on mission trips with my church youth group, and then when I was a young adult in Bible college, I learned lots of verses and passages from the Bible that teachers and authors suggested should be peppered into conversations about Jesus, in order to properly talk about how to have a relationship with him. But what if the people we’re talking with don’t know about the Bible? What if they are not convinced of its authenticity? What if they believe other ways of looking at life are authoritative?
As we saw in the first post in this series on Acts 17, the reality is that American culture is changing, and we should not assume that quoting biblical passages is a meaningful way to connect people with the story of Jesus. Interestingly, we would do well to learn from the example of Paul in Athens. In the previous post, we learned that the academic community heard Paul conversing about Jesus, and they brought him to their gathering of scholars on Mars Hill, giving him a chance to share his views. As I mentioned in the previous post, Paul used a three-step method in his speech, with the goal of inviting the people there to consider that God wants to be in close relationship with them, a view that would have been very different for most of the people in the group listening to him.
Paul knows, therefore, that he has to prove his case, especially to the scholars there who disagree with his view of God. So in verse 28, he does something incredibly smart. To provide some backing to his argument, Paul draws on his knowledge of Greco-Roman poets, showing that they have written about the very things Paul is talking about. Of course, those poets weren’t referring to Jesus. But those poets made some statements that supported Paul’s relational view of God.
The first poet Paul quotes is Epimenides who wrote, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Very relational, right? Epimenides is describing a view where humanity has a very close connection to deity. The next phrase, “We are his offspring,” is possibly from the poet Arastus, another Greco-Roman poet talking about how humanity is closely connected to God.
Paul wants the people at Mars Hill to see the relational nature of God. Humanity is connected to God. It doesn’t matter that the Greco-Roman view of deity was different from the Judeo-Christian view. All that Paul is trying to do is establish a bridge between the two theological systems so that he can help his listeners cross that bridge.
Why? Because he wants to introduce the people to Jesus. And that is exactly what he does next. In verses 29-31, he concludes that if God wants to be in relationship with us, then it does not make sense for us to conceive of God as an idol made of stone or wood. Instead, God invites people everywhere to repent of that viewpoint. God is a living being who created us and wants to be in relationship with us.
Furthermore, Paul says, God has done something amazing to prove this relational idea of God. What did God do? He rose someone from the dead. Resurrection. Notice Paul doesn’t mention Jesus. Or belief. He simply says that there is a man from God who brings justice to the world, and the proof that this special messenger is from God is that God raised this man from the dead.
That claim causes a stir in the crowd that day on Mars Hill, as you can read in verses 32-34.
“Resurrection? Really, Paul?”, you can almost hear some of them say to him, thinking Paul is a babbler, “A dead person came back to life?” To some in the Areopagus that day, this sounds preposterous.
We Christians believe resurrection is the essential miracle of our faith, of course, but some people that day sneered at Paul, just as some people in our day struggle with the idea of the resurrection. But as Paul would go on to write in 1st Corinthians 15, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. The resurrection of Jesus is absolutely necessary for Christian faith.
But because dead people don’t come back to life, is it reasonable to believe in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection? A person who denies the possibility of the miraculous or the supernatural will say, “No, it is not reasonable,” and they would be entirely consistent with their view of life. Responding to them, I would ask if they would join me in looking at the evidence. Much more thorough investigation has been done, than I have time for in this blog, but I do want to mention a few words. If you want to read much better sources, I’d be glad to point you to some, starting with Surprised by Hope by NT Wright.
Admittedly, the case for the resurrection is circumstantial. It is something that Christians believe by faith. Theologically, we believe God is capable of such a miracle, like raising Jesus from the dead. But did he?
The primary piece of evidence I commend to you is Jesus’ body. There were plenty of people in Jerusalem that first Easter weekend, and in the days and weeks that followed Jesus’ death, including people who had a vested interest in squelching the Christian movement. That’s why they killed Jesus. They wanted what they considered to be a cult, an uprising, to go away. But it just kept growing and growing. The reasons why it grew were numerous, but most important among them was the claim made by Jesus’ followers that Jesus’ dead body had come back to life. The Jewish and Roman authorities who wanted to stop this movement could have easily discredited this outlandish miraculous claim. All they had to do was bring out the dead body. They never did. We believe they couldn’t produce a body because that body had risen again.
Are there other potential reasons that the Jewish and Roman authorities could not produce a body? Sure. Jesus’ disciples could have stolen the body and disposed of it, which is what Matthew’s account suggests the authorities claimed at the time. But the likelihood of that is suspect, as the disciples were extremely skittish, afraid that the Jews and Romans could conspire to kill them, as they easily did to Jesus. The apostles were in hiding. Furthermore, would they risk their lives at that moment, then proclaim a lie (namely, that Jesus had bodily risen) for the rest of their lives, and then sacrifice their own lives for what they knew was false? It seems fairly unreasonable to believe Jesus’ disciples would pursue that. To be fair, other religious leaders have staked their lives on total fabrications, so it is not impossible. In the end, we have evidence for and against the resurrection, and in my view the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus far outweighs the other.
In Athens, Paul was talking with a group of highly educated people, people who had very good reason to be skeptical about an idea so fantastical as the bodily resurrection of the dead. His creative approach to sharing this story of good news, by employing Greco-Roman poets to substantiate his claim that God wants to be in close relationship with humanity, won some over and it turned others away. As we seek to talk to people in our day about the good news promised by Jesus, and verified by his resurrection, like Paul, we face a tall order. What cultural connection points might help us? Check back in to the next post as I’ll talk about a few that I’ve discovered!