Athens: The Price of PluralismPastor Lutzer | June 2, 1991
Christianity debunks the idea that it’s okay to believe whatever you want and that all of the religions of the world can be harmonized.
Selected highlights from this sermon
Athens was a city whose influence extended around the globe. From the philosophies of Plato and Socrates to the city’s culture, art, and even their politics, Athens’ footprint is still seen across the world today. But there was one area where they lacked true understanding, one area that their philosophies, and all philosophies throughout the ages breaks down: when it comes to religious matters—to God—philosophy doesn’t have the building blocks upon which a system can be built.
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As we make this study of the cities of the Bible, I’m reminded of the fact that there are some cities that have a great impact on their immediate community and on their country. And then there are some cities that influence the entire world. For example, Nineveh had a great influence in its time, but it didn’t necessarily impact the whole world.
Athens is a city whose influence extends literally around the globe. As we stop and think of Athens, the great city in Attica (one of the provinces of Greece, and by the way, Athens is named after the goddess Athena), I’d like to outline some ways in which Athens has influenced us, and still is among the wonders of the world.
First of all, when we think of Athens, we think of its Greek culture, and by that I mean art and architecture, and all of those things that are so prominent even in Athens today. When you go to Athens you see the huge Acropolis, filled with numerous temples, and on the Acropolis, the predominant one, the Parthenon. Now you look at that Parthenon and you realize that it was built in the fifth century B.C. during the time of Pericles. And there are people who come from all over the world. Tourists come from all over the world. Architects come. And what they are interested in is to find out how those ancient Greeks had the wisdom and the brilliance to be able to build such buildings before the days of engines and steel and cranes. And you know, of course, one of the most important things about the Parthenon is that the columns were built crooked so that they would look straight. And people come and gaze in wonder at the culture of Athens.
And then secondly, politics. Athens influenced the world. You can leave the Parthenon area, the Acropolis, and walk down, and Mars Hill is incidentally in the area, and I’ll be talking about that in just a moment. But as you walk down you can see the Agora, and it is here that the Athenians did all of their business, and it is also in this town square that you have the birthplace of democracy. The Athenians got together and decided that their leaders would be elected at least in a representative way. They didn’t have democracy like we know it today, but essentially it was a representative form of government. One of the most interesting things about it is you not only had the opportunity of voting for the candidates whom you wanted, but you also had the opportunity of voting for those who you wanted banished from politics for ten years. Now isn’t that a brilliant idea? I think that we can learn a lot more from the Athenians than we’ve even learned so far. It was the Athenian version of “kick the bums out.” And so if you got six thousand votes against you, you were taken care of for ten years. And then after ten years you could be rehabilitated. Isn’t it interesting to know that politicians evidently can be rehabilitated and once again be brought into the mainstream of society and politics?
Well, we have Athens to thank for the birthplace of democracy. But of course, when you think of Athens, and when you think of the Greeks, the thing that most of us think about instantly and immediately is not the culture, great though it is, and not politics, though it is a wonder that they began democracy. We always begin to think of the great philosophers of the people in Greece. And surely it can be said that Greece has given birth to some of the most brilliant men who have ever lived. Plato, for example! A recent philosopher in our generation said that all of philosophy is nothing but a footnote to Plato. Do you know that some of the issues that Plato wrestled with are still being wrestled with today? And you can go into any university and you can find all kinds of doctrinal dissertations written on Plato. And there are many more that still need to be written, taking lines and paragraphs of his work and fitting them into context, and understanding their implications and their awesome, incredible brilliance. I think, frankly, that Plato and Aristotle were two of the most brilliant men who ever set foot on Planet Earth.
And then, of course, you have Socrates who lived in Athens. And Socrates was put to death. Actually he committed suicide by drinking the hemlock, you remember, but he did it because he was on trial for corrupting Athenian youth because of his strange ideas. Socrates was an odd kind of man. He undoubtedly irritated people not because he went around with great philosophical answers, but he liked to go around asking questions, and he would probe one question after another, after another. And every time you gave an answer he would prove that really your answer is foolish because its implications lead to things that you don’t want to really believe. And so he irritated the life out of people. He was a gadfly on the Athenian rump, and they were glad to get rid of him. But you have Socrates. With all of his brilliance he ended his life saying, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” Brilliance!
By the way, why is it that philosophy cannot find the answers to life? Why is it that present day philosophy has left the great quest of Aristotle and Plato? They have given up on trying to make sense of the world, and it has degenerated into the analysis of language. It’s not because people aren’t brilliant. People are incredibly smart. We have put men on the moon. We have pocket calculators. We have electricity. We have some of the most modern gadgets that defy explanation and imagination. Why is it that philosophy cannot lead to truth? Very interestingly, it’s because when the human mind, though it can work with scientific matters and nature, begins to speak about the philosophical and moral matters, and ultimately about religious matters that have to do with God, it does not have the building blocks upon which a system can be built. And that’s why present day philosophy has collapsed, not only into language analysis, but also into agnosticism and the view that there is no way to make sense out of the world.
Now I want you to turn to Acts 17, and we’re going to go to Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul preached in Athens. It says in verse 18: “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.” I like it. It says in verse 21: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing (Maybe we should put a period there. They had the job that some of us would like to have at times.) except telling or hearing something new.” The Athenians loved to hear something new, and therefore they welcomed the Apostle Paul.
Who were the Epicureans? The Epicureans were philosophers, basing their philosophy on Epicurus, who lived in the third century B.C. And first of all, they were the humanists of the day. They were materialists. That is to say they believed that everything was reducible to atoms – everything. If you are into philosophy you know that that’s the view of Hobbs and other contemporary materialistic philosophers. Everything was reducible to atoms. There was no such thing as a mind separate from the body.
And by the way, did you know that your mind is separate from your body? And I said this two years ago, and some of you who were here two years ago need not listen for the next 90 seconds. But in case you weren’t here two years ago, I always like to dispel the myth, and I don’t know where this myth started. But the myth is that you need brains in order to think. That is a myth that I’ve been spending a good deal of my time, you understand, stamping out. That is nonsense. You do not need brains in order to think. There is a rumor that after you die your brain is going to disintegrate, and you’re going to be thinking more clearly at that moment than you have ever thought in your life before because, you see, your mind is not reducible to atoms, as the Epicureans and as some contemporary philosophers have taught. Your mind is not matter. It matters but it isn’t matter. It would be incorrect to say, “I had a thought that was nearly a half-inch long and it weighed a tenth of a gram.” It’s because your mind is a spiritual substance. And with it you plug into God, and you can plug into the spirit world – the evil spirit world – because your mind is a spiritual substance.
Well, the Epicureans were wrong on that point, but they taught that there was no mind separable from the body. There was no soul. There was no immortality. There was no spiritual dimension to the universe. Everything could be reduced to atoms. They would teach that you do need a brain in order to think.
They were also Hedonists, and they believed that pleasure was the highest good. That did not mean that they were into the fleshly pleasures like some people may be today and in their day, but they stressed the intellectual pleasures of the mind. And that’s why they would delight in hearing something new. They loved to contemplate, and maybe that’s why it was that they were so brilliant. They loved to be left alone at times with their thoughts. The reason that many of us don’t like to be left alone with our thoughts is it gets rather lonely when you have so few thoughts to keep you company. But the Athenians loved it. And so they were into Hedonism.
And, of course, they could not philosophically make a distinction between the pleasures of the mind and the pleasures of the body. Of course, hedonism today, as we think of it, has to do with the pleasures of the body, so you have the people who are involved in sexual immorality. They are on drugs. They are into some occult experiences all because pleasure is the highest good. And our society has bought into this completely. I don’t mean to blame what is happening in America on the Athenians because there may not be a direct connection philosophically. But the point is, our age says today, “Feel. Don’t think.” And that’s why you have so many deceived people around. They are going by their feelings. They are going by a mystical experience. They are not thinking. We are a feeling generation.
And by the way, if you ever feel bad, you can go to a drugstore and you can get all kinds of medicine to help you feel good because we love to feel good. And if you need the medicine, that’s fine, but there are lots of people who are on medicines who don’t need them because I want to tell you today that you don’t always have to feel good. That ought to relax you a little bit. If you are miserable today or you are not feeling good, that’s okay. You don’t always have to feel good. There’s nothing in the Bible that tells you you’ve always got to feel good. There were times when Jesus felt bad. He was in Gethsemane. He was going through agony and emotional turbulence, and He was the Son of God who was perfect. So much for the Epicureans! They were glad to hear Paul.
Then we have the Stoic philosophers. If the Epicureans were the humanists of the day, the Stoic philosophers were the New Agers. They were into the New Age Movement. They were Pantheists. They believed that God is all and all is God. They believed in the immortality of the soul, and they also believed that the soul is to be absorbed into the cosmic one. I love language like this. Doesn’t that just ring your bell?
They believed that the soul was to be absorbed like a drop into the vast ocean, and therefore, one of the things that was to happen was that you were to become plugged into something that was greater than you because there was a spiritual dimension to your existence. Consequently, they also were into psychic realities. They were into such things as astrology. They were plugged into powers that were greater than they were. They were seekers of the ultimate experience, although the Stoics also believed that one should be a master of his emotions. That’s where we get the stoicism. When you accept something stoically, you don’t let it affect your emotions because they believed that tranquility was very, very important.
But you see, they believed something that we also believe in society today – not just the New Age phenomenon, which, by the way, is not new at all but very, very old. They believed in the perfectibility of human nature. All that you need to do is to have wisdom, and then exercise discipline, take control over your nature and over your desires, and soon you could, in and of yourself, be made perfect. And so those were the philosophers to whom the Apostle Paul was speaking.
And we stand today on Mars Hill too. We stand with the humanists over here that are telling us that there is no soul. Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is all that there is and ever will be.” And we stand with them. And we also stand with the New Agers over here that are getting plugged into all kinds of psychic realities. We stand with Paul on Mars Hill and preach the Gospel to both groups.
Now we live in a day today, just as in Athens, of pluralism. Pluralism means that you can have your opinion, and I can have my opinion, and we don’t need to resolve the dispute between us. Now, of course, that’s perfectly true. You may like one particular color. Someone else may like another color. The tie I am wearing this morning I have worn only the second time here at Moody Church because I wore it sometime ago and someone said, “It is too light to wear because the people at the back can’t see it very well.” And so I love this tie. I just think it is one of the most gorgeous ties I’ve ever had. It’s a personal opinion. If you don’t like it, that’s perfectly fine. It is not necessary to like it to be a member of Moody Church or anything like that.
Now, we don’t mind such personal opinions. Everybody is into pluralism. You know, years ago my father loved the General Motor cars, and so we also have a “Chev” in the family. And there are those who are into Fords. You know, let people make minor mistakes like this. (laughter) That’s no big thing. That kind of pluralism we can handle. But then, you see, in our society we are saying we cannot only make personal opinions and decisions about these matters, but matters of morality are all personal individual preferences and judgments. So if you ever watch talk shows, which I seldom do (though they are rife with great theological insight), you will find people saying things like, “I don’t sleep around, but far be it from me to judge anyone else who does because, after all, you have to do what is right for you,” and “I don’t do this but it really doesn’t make any difference what anybody else does because it is all a matter of personal preference.”
And then when it comes to God and religion, people are the same way. “Well, you know, I’m into the smorgasbord religion. I take a little bit of this. I take a little bit of Eastern Mysticism. I throw in a dab of occultism with a smattering of Christianity. And I pick and choose whatever it is that I believe. And I take whatever appears good to me.” That’s what pluralism says. “Whatever rings my bell is what I accept. Everything else is rejected.” And that’s the way we live today.
Now I want to tell you something because this is worth an entire sermon just on its own. Our society thinks today, when it comes to religion, that all the religions of the world are essentially the same, and only superficially different. That’s what they believe. And they are absolutely totally dead wrong. I want you to know that in comparison with Christianity, all the religions of the world are only superficially the same and essentially fundamentally very, very different. But we don’t think much today because we are into a feeling generation, so people say, “Well, I feel that this is the case.”
Allan Bloom in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, said that on the university campuses today anybody can believe whatever he wishes (no matter how foolish or contradictory or even absurd), and his opinion is to be taken seriously, and it is to be valued just as much as anybody else’s opinion. The only person who is ostracized is the person who believes that he has come across some truth and therefore disagrees with pluralism. A person like that can’t exist. And so we have on our university campuses today even “politically correct thinking,” so that you have to think correctly, which is, of course, the ultra liberal’s way of saying, “You had better think the way we do, and if you don’t, you’re in big trouble with us because, after all, we are very, very open-minded people, you understand.”
And so that’s the generation in which we live. We live in a day in which there is so much sloppy thinking that actually if one did not have a sense of humor one might not be able to make it until the end of the year when you stop to think of what people are believing today without even sorting it out, testing the truth claims and seeing whether or not they have actually discovered something rational.
Now what I’d like to do today is to point out just two things, and that is the way in which Christianity and what Paul preached here on Mars Hill debunks the idea that it’s okay to believe whatever you want to believe, and that all of the religions of the world can somehow be harmonized, and that really pluralism says that all the religions are only superficially different but essentially the same. And what I want to show you is that they are essentially at root different and only superficially the same.
Notice that the Apostle Paul says in verse 22 that he stood in the midst of the Areopagus: “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.’”
Pause here. What the Athenians did was this: They had so many gods, and those of us who were in Greece, even for just two days, were weary of hearing about all the mythology of all of the gods. You wonder how in the world they could possibly keep track of all these gods. And so they thought that maybe they were missing one god, so they said, “We’ll make an altar to the unknown god so that we won’t offend a god who we have overlooked.” That’s important! Don’t offend a god who has been overlooked. Paul says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul says, “I’m going to use this altar to an unknown god and preach to you a God whom you don’t know.” Brilliant in terms of making the media fit the message!
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,” and when he said that he probably looked back over to the Acropolis, which, incidentally, would be right over his shoulder when he was there on Mars Hill. He says, “The God who made the world 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 (grope) their way toward him.” And you know, that’s the best that some people can do – grope for God. And they are looking for Him in places where they can never find Him, and through theories that will never lead them to Him. “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”
And then incidentally Paul actually quotes a Stoic philosopher. He says, “Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver,” and he says in verse 28, “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Now notice what Paul is saying about God. He’s telling the Athenians, “The gods that you worship are not gods. They are only idols. There is no god who dwells in a temple by any means as if to say we should come to this temple because he has been localized there. Obviously, in one sense God is in all the temples of the earth because he is everywhere. As a matter of fact, God is even in hell because of the fact that He is omnipresent.
But Paul is saying, “You worship God in this temple. You worship Him with this statue, with this relic. You go to the temple thinking God is there.” He says, “This isn’t the God I’m preaching to you. The God that I am preaching to you is a personal God, not the God of the humanists who don’t really have a god. He’s not the God of the New Agers, the pantheistic god – god is all and all is god. Not that god, but the God who is creator.” Paul says, “I’m preaching Him to you. I’m preaching the God who chose to create and who would not have had to create. He made the decision to create. He’s a personal God, a powerful God, who spoke and all of these things were put into existence.”
Yesterday, because of an unplanned incident, I had a few moments with somebody who believes strongly in the doctrine of evolution. Now, I want you to know that I told him what I’m telling you, namely, that if you believe that, you are out of date because evolutionists themselves are finally saying, “It’s game over; evolution is impossible.” Even atheists are saying it’s impossible that we still have to believe it because the alternative of believing in God is too distasteful. So the point is that there is no way that nothing times nobody could equal everything. I mean the way in which the universe was created was “God spoke.” “And that’s the God,” Paul says, “that I declared to you. And there’s only one of Him and not a whole bunch of Him.” There aren’t lots of gods. There is one God.
And notice the nearness of God. He is near to us. You know, that is an awesome statement. Paul says, “In Him we live and we move, and we have our being.” Well you say, “Is that true? Is God inside of unconverted people?” He’s inside them, not in the sense that He is localized within them by the Holy Spirit as He is believers, but of course, God, I told you, is everywhere, and therefore in Him we live and move and have our being. There is no place that we go but that God is there. He’s everywhere.
I want you to notice how that doctrine of God runs against the New Age movement, the humanists. And by the way, most religions of the world, as well, have a pantheistic idea of God, that God is the world, and the world is God, and God is all that there is. We don’t believe that. God created the world. He is in that sense in the world. He is among the world, but He is not the world so that this glass of water here is not God. It is not God, but God is the creator. Paul says, “That’s the God that I am preaching to you.” And by the way, He is the God that every person seeks. As Paschal says, “There is within us a God-shaped void that can only be filled with the Almighty.” Paul says, “That’s the God that I am preaching to you.”
Now, I want you to know that this God is a God that has mystery connected with Him. We can’t understand everything about Him. There is no way that we can contemplate all that He is. We have only glimmers of understanding but He is the God of the universe, and that means immediately that all other gods are false.
Art Linkletter tells the story about the little boy who was drawing something, and the teacher came by and said, “What are you drawing?” He said, “God.” The teacher said, “Well, nobody knows what God looks like.” The boy said, “Well, they will when I get through.”
Nobody knows what God is like, but we do have in the Bible His attributes, His personality, and He has revealed Himself, and this is why philosophy gets nowhere. He has revealed Himself, and in doing that He has told us things about Himself that no human wisdom could ever possibly figure out. And He has spoken and He has not stuttered.
You have the doctrine of God. Secondly, you have the doctrine of salvation, and this cuts across all other religions, and differentiates Christianity from all the other religions and beliefs of the world. I told you a moment ago that all of the religions of the world are essentially different from Christianity. They are only superficially the same. You can take all the Buddhists and the Hindus, and you can take the Mormons and all the different religions that you want to list, and there are many others and various shades within even the ones that I have listed. And you can add to them also that branch of Christendom that believes that salvation comes through good works and through human effort and the perfectibility of human nature. You can put all of those on one side of the column, and I want you to know that they are only superficially different because essentially they are all the same in the belief that somehow man is able to perfect himself, that through discipline and through hard work he can make himself better and therefore attain (quote) salvation. And all of these different religions do generally have a different idea as to what that salvation is.
You put them all on one side. On the other side you have Christianity, which says that your righteousness and all that you try to attain falls short of what God requires. And while it’s important for you to be a good person (and it’s better to be a good person than a bad person), even good persons do not attain to what God requires, and therefore they fall far short of His glory, and all that He demands.
And therefore we are born sinners, helpless and undone. “But,” says Christianity, “when Jesus Christ died on the cross, His death was a sacrifice for sinners, and because of that sacrifice, He paid it all to God the Father, and therefore, if we believe in Him, and cease trusting in our own goodness, and do not depend upon our baptism or upon our church attendance or our intention to do good, if we transfer all of our trust to Him, then we do not owe God any righteousness because Jesus paid it all, and He has met God’s requirements on our behalf. And therefore we are saved, fully and totally on the basis of the merit of someone else and not human goodness.
Now you take that doctrine and you stack it up with all the other religions and the teachings of the world, and you will soon discover that that is fundamentally different from all of the other religions because Christianity is unique.
Notice what Paul says here. He says in verse 30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked (That does not mean that God overlooked it in the sense that we use that word, but it just means that God took into account human ignorance in Old Testament times before Christ came), but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (Neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics believed that there was a fixed day in which God was going to judge the world) in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (that is Jesus Christ); and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Now I want you to notice what the response was to Paul’s message. It was very typical. The Athenians’ response is very typical of responses today. Verse 21: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. (You always have those who laugh and say, “This is absurd. This is crazy. How could you believe that? How could Jesus Christ’s death on a cross two thousand years ago have any impact in my life? How could that be a sacrifice to God the Father?” They sneer.) But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ Some delay and they say, “You know, I need to have more information. It’s interesting but I can’t buy it – at least today. But I’m willing to hear it more.” If you’re in that category we’re very, very glad that your heart is that open today.
And then, third, it says, “So Paul went out from their midst.” Verse 34 says: “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite (And there’s still a street in Athens today named after him) and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
Some believed, and that’s the way it is when the Gospel is preached today. You have those that just say, “You know, he’s just crazy. I can’t accept it.” Then you have those who say, “Interesting, but I still can’t buy it.” And then there are those who say, “I believe.”
What is the price of pluralism? The price of pluralism is oftentimes found in the fact that some people, in accepting so much from others that is contradictory and sometimes even absurd, never find the truth. The price of pluralism oftentimes is perishing. It can be in the person who is so independent, who says to himself, “I’m not going to buy this, and I don’t care about Christ’s authority. I’m going to use myself as an authority to accept whatever seems good (and usually feels good) to me.” And that’s the society in which we live. We stand today on Mars Hill with people who are fascinated with anything new, and when we have preached the Gospel they sneer or laugh. They delay. But some believe.
Do you know what our responsibility is here in the city of Chicago? It’s to do as I am doing today – to proclaim to people the unknown God, to tell them that he’s knowable. Some people say, “You know, He’s so high I can’t get over Him. He’s so deep I can’t get under Him. He’s so big I can’t get around Him. Where is He?” In Him we live and move and have our being. He is not far from us, but you are morally and spiritually separated from Him, nonetheless, apart from Christ, and responding to the Savior.
Now what is your response to the Gospel today? Which category of the three that we’ve listed do you fit in? Are you a believer? Do you believe today? Maybe you’ve not believed before today, but today you believe. Do you delay, or do you say to yourself, “I can’t believe that anybody would actually believe this?”
Our Father, as we think of Paul on Mars Hill we are glad that some believed. And we thank you today, Lord, that even as the Gospel is preached today, some believe. And we think of those that have come to this service even with religious baggage, come with lives cluttered with wrong ideas about God and salvation. And we pray today that You might grant them the ability to say, “Yes, I believe,” or at least “I need to hear more.” We pray, Father, that in the pluralism that is tearing our nation and our churches apart we might understand that there’s a heaven, a hell, a Satan, and there’s a God, there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that in our society the eclecticism does not lead to truth but to error.
Now Father, do a work in the lives of those who have listened to this message that only You can do, for I transfer all responsibility for the change of heart to You, knowing that that’s your work, and not mine. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.