Paul on Mars Hill and My Favorite Atheist–Acts 17:16-34

God Running is a place for anyone who wants to (or even anyone who wants to want to) love Jesus more deeply, follow Jesus more closely, and love people the way Jesus wants us to.

I recently mentioned I generally don’t find myself involved in apologetics oriented conversations. But this last month two different people have initiated three conversations about God and suffering, and God and free will, and God and morality. And this week I found myself in a fourth conversation with a third person. Again it was about God and morality. Curiously, it fits with where we’re at in the book of Acts.

Acts 17:16-34

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

“as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

The City of Athens and the Philosophers There

The city of Athens was unrivaled in beauty at this time. It’s architecture was (and still is) spectacular. And there were statues everywhere. Statues of the pagan gods. Some streets were lined with statues. There were shrines with statues. And many of the buildings had pillars adorned with the head of Hermes. So all these statues, they were idols. And Paul’s concern is for the impact these idols had on the souls of the people of Athens. A great reminder that just because something is beautiful, doesn’t mean it’s good. I think sometimes beauty can confuse people.

So there are two groups of philosophers mentioned in this passage. The Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans believed in avoiding pain and living for pleasure. The Stoics were aesthetics who cared about virtuous behavior.

As a Jesus follower, Paul had a lot more in common with the Stoics than he did with the Epicureans so he immediately begins to appeal to the Stoics.

“In him we live and move and have our being,” as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

These were two famous quotes from two famous Greek poets, probably Epimenides and Aratus respectively. (Keener)

My Favorite Atheist

I have an atheist friend who’s engaging and interesting to talk with. Sometimes he likes to talk about God and we’ve had a few conversations about Him. One thing I like about my friend is that he has a charitable way of communicating. Our conversations feel more like a collaborative effort to discover truth than a debate, even if sometimes that truth is simply understanding how the other person sees the world.

My friend read the blog post Can there be morality without God? and in that post I make the statement that there can be no objective morality without God, only subjective morality. So my atheist friend wanted me to know that his morality isn’t subjective. His morality is based on moving humanity as close to bliss as possible and as far away from suffering as possible. And he said he believes there is universal moral truth. (To be fair to my friend, this is only a very brief summary of an hour long conversation, and, it’s only the way I understand what he said.)

I love this guy. We have a lot in common including the way we value integrity, honesty, and high character.

And I really appreciate how he recognizes there is universal moral truth. That’s another thing we have in common.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking of what Paul said in today’s passage but in the end, what I said to my friend was similar to what Paul said. The way I see it, and the way all Jesus followers see it:

Jesus is that universal moral truth.

Jesus embodies universal moral truth.

He personifies universal moral truth.

It’s almost as though Christ anticipated that conversation when he said,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

John 14:6a


Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, IVP Academic; 2nd edition, January 3, 2014, pp. 376-377

Image of Saint Paul Preaching via AJ Alfieri-Crispin – Creative Commons

Available on Amazon!Love Like Jesus: How Jesus Loved People (and how you can love like Jesus)Love Like Jesus begins with the story of how after a life of regular church attendance and Bible study, Bennett was challenged by a pastor to study Jesus. That led to an obsessive seven year deep dive. After pouring over Jesus’ every interaction with another human being, he realized he was doing a much better job of studying Jesus’ words than he was following Jesus’ words and example. The honest and fearless revelations of Bennett’s own moral failures affirm he wrote this book for himself as much as for others.Love Like Jesus examines a variety of stories, examples, and research, including:

  • Specific examples of how Jesus communicated God’s love to others.
  • How Jesus demonstrated all five of Gary Chapman’s love languages (and how you can too).
  • The story of how Billy Graham extended Christ’s extraordinary love and grace toward a man who misrepresented Jesus to millions.
  • How to respond to critics the way Jesus did.
  • How to love unlovable people the way Jesus did.
  • How to survive a life of loving like Jesus (or how not to become a Christian doormat).
  • How Jesus didn’t love everyone the same (and why you shouldn’t either).
  • How Jesus guarded his heart by taking care of himself–he even napped–and why you should do the same.
  • How Jesus loved his betrayer Judas, even to the very end.

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