Luke records an interesting encounter that his traveling companion, the Apostle Paul, had in the city of Athens.
Paul, while visiting that ancient metropolis, was disturbed by what he saw, and he began to discuss his thoughts with the religious people of the city. He expressed his views as opportunity arose in the public marketplace, and for this he was dragged before the supreme court of the city and required to explain his teaching.
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’” (Acts 17:22, 23 NIV).
If you are not careful, you will miss the subtle but important point the Apostle makes in his opening remarks. He recognizes the religious nature of the people, but — and this is the point we many times miss — he also recognizes the uncertainty of religious belief.
Here is a city full of religious seekers, they had all kinds of gods and ideas about how to please those gods, but just in case (and this is where the uncertainty of their beliefs is revealed), they’ve erected a special monument dedicated to an unknown god. Like many today, they are covering their bases.
Paul goes on to describe the God of Creation and what God has done through His chosen one, Jesus of Nazareth, when he says something unheard of in religion, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22, 23, 31 NIV).
Did you catch it? No, it is not the concept of final judgment — all religions, including Hinduism in its many forms, contain the concept of an ultimate judgment.
The thing that Paul claims here is the thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religious system: proof.
Into the uncertainty of the religious world systems, into the concept of “no one can know for sure that what they believe is right,” Paul says in effect, “We can know what God wants and we have, not feelings about these requirements or not philosophical speculations about what God may require, but we have historical, verifiable proof of what God requires; the uncertainty has given way in our generation to certainty!”
That’s a bold claim for the Apostle to make. Please note, he doesn’t say this proof is because “the Bible says,” but rather this proof rests on something easily verified or vilified at this early point in history, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
It was this very proof that transformed Saul of Tarsus, the avowed enemy of early Christianity, into Paul the Apostle, the prolific champion of early Christianity.
Unlike every other religious system, Christianity does not rest on what the earliest followers of Christ believed, but on what they saw and heard. Thus, Peter, who fell apart with fear when an 11-year-old girl asked him if he was a Christ-follower just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, responds boldly when standing before the very men who had arranged the execution of Jesus.
He answered them boldly, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20 NIV). Then, much later in life, anticipating the possible objections, this same Peter writes, “For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes”. (2 Peter 1:16 NLT).
You may have never really thought about this before, but the message of Christ is thoroughly rooted in history and, as such, is open to forensic historical evidence. The million dollar question is, how in the world can you explain the evidence of the empty tomb?
You may not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but, all the evidence of history, both from those who proclaimed the message as well as those who opposed the message, is this glaring fact: the body of the man Jesus somehow was missing. That is a fact. How you choose to explain that fact will determine if you live your life with certainty or uncertainty.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway Web site at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.