God has overlooked the times of ignorance,
but now he demands that all people everywhere repent
because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world
with justice’ through a man he has appointed,
and he has provided confirmation for all
by raising him from the dead.”
Not in Corinth, a place saturated with vice and sailors; nor in Macedonia, a region containing pagan veterans and uneducated yokels; nor even in Rome, home to deranged emperors, emperor cults, and gladiator madness; but in Athens, home to great philosophers, artists, and leaders does Paul find his greatest challenge in evangelizing. Out of any group of people, Paul should have had the easiest time converting people already so close to the Truth, a people so well versed in the language of religion and spirituality.
Instead, Paul’s proselytizing falls on deaf ears. Out of anyone, the “tolerant” cosmopolitans of Athens dismiss Paul as another cultic kook, another magician, another inferior philosopher trying to create another school.
No place would resemble the modern Western world so closely as Athens. The Athenians had seen their share of triumph in all realms of life; they had endured so many changes of leadership; and, unlike the Jews, they had stopped thinking in tribal or ethnic terms. In their sophistication, they busied themselves with the work of culture, trade, and education. In their passivity and weakness, they rendered all these cultural assets to their brutish occupiers, the Romans.
At this point in history, the philosophic schools of Athens, who served as the arbiters of culture and morality, consisted of the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Academics (skeptics). These three schools debated one another on many points, many of them obscure and irrelevant, but they all curiously agreed on one point: man was the beginning and end of all things. At their core, these philosophies were self-centered, and as a result, self-contained. With impressive exactitude, they settled every questionable imaginable and laid out a set plan for any adherent. The Stoic would seek personal honor and fortitude; the Epicurean would pursue the perfect balance of work and pleasure; and the Academic would pursue Truth. Then, they would all die, and all this would end, for their teachings never went beyond the mortal perspective.
Paul tries to grab the Athenians’ attention by referring to the “unknown God” that they keep in their temple. This unfortunately bears little fruit because his audience actually prefers to keep this god unknown. They would rather worship themselves and blather endlessly about the “journey” instead of the destination. They want to talk, not decide. Nothing is serious, nor is anything real. Everything is reduced to ideas, and Paul’s talk of resurrection makes more sense in their epics, not in their ego-centric ideologies.
Catholic apostles today find themselves in the same difficulties as St. Paul did in Athens since the modern audience looks at Christianity in the same way that the ancients did: they view it as another idea, not the truth. As a mere idea, the Resurrection does not conform to a person’s notions of life and death. A heavenly kingdom does not fall within the realm of senses. Jesus Himself, the Son of God Who sacrifices Himself for humanity, has a greater resemblance to myths than anything historical. For this reason, a modern enlightened audience will react very much like the Athenians, hearing the gospel only to reject it, deride it, and move on to another spiritual trend.
Fortunately, neither Paul nor any other apostle has to rely on the force of argument to make disciples of the nations. They have the Holy Spirit working through them and their listeners. Bursting the logical confines of man’s philosophies, the Holy Spirit reaches the true center of man, the heart. Even in a city where men have hardened their hearts for the sake of man-made orthodoxies, Paul at least finds a few souls willing to believe and be saved. This should give the modern apostle hope. If he can reach the heart and put his faith in the Holy Spirit, conversion may happen.
Life holds more than the mind can conceive. Only the heart can contain the Truth sent through the Holy Spirit. Believers and nonbelievers both must put away man-made ideologies, and embrace the reality of God. All must repent.