The resurrection of the dead is anathema to the modern mind. Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most famous New Testament scholars of the twentieth century and a theological liberal, declared, “An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.” To the Apostle Paul, however, Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was inconceivable (see 1 Cor. 15:1–11). In company with the other Apostles, Paul proclaimed the resurrection as the great fact upon which Christianity stands or falls.
How do we tell jaded and skeptical people about the resurrection? Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Athens (Acts 17:16–34) gives us much-needed direction. When Paul arrived in Athens, he preached at the synagogue, but he also went to the “marketplace,” where philosophers and teachers congregated to exchange ideas (v. 17). Paul persevered through initial misunderstanding and mockery, and he accepted an invitation to address the Areopagus, an august body of retired public officials.
In that address, Paul first gently but firmly exposes one of the fundamental and fatal weaknesses of polytheism. The altar “to the unknown god” was the Athenians’ standing acknowledgment that their religion was insufficient and inadequate. Paul then presents to the Athenians the solution that they need but never found on their own—the worship of the one true God.
Paul tells the Athenians about the sovereign and all-sufficient God who made and upholds the world and all that is in it (vv. 24–25). He also tells them about themselves (vv. 26–29). God has made all human beings from “one man,” and He has furthermore “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (17:26). The entirety of our lives is lived inescapably before the omnipresent God (17:28). We are, furthermore, His image-bearers (“offspring”; vv. 28–29).
For these reasons, we should “seek God” in the hopes of “find[ing] him” (v. 27). We should not try to think of God or worship Him with images (v. 29). As sinners, however, the best we manage is to “feel [our] way,” that is, to grope in the dark (v. 27). God is always present to His creation, but His sinful creatures willfully refuse to come to Him. Even so, because God has created and sustains us, we will one day have to give an account before Him (see v. 31).
Thus far, Paul has reasoned with the Athenians based upon what they know of God and of themselves from the creation. He then turns to a particular fact of history—God raised a man from the dead (v. 31). That God has lifted the sentence of death from Jesus and publicly vindicated Him means that Jesus was a righteous man. That is to say, He is unlike any other person who walked the face of the earth. This righteous Jesus had claimed on earth that He would judge all people (see John 5:19–29). The resurrection vindicated this claim. In raising Jesus from the dead, God publicly affirmed Jesus’ claim to judge the world at the end of the age.
Because this judgment is certain and imminent, Paul pleads with his hearers to “repent” (Acts 17:30), to turn from the service of idols to the worship of the triune God. The resurrection and the worldwide preaching of the gospel has brought to an end the “times of ignorance,” during which God was pleased to withhold final judgment (v. 30). The days of comparative but culpable Gentile blindness have come to an end. Only the gospel can dispel the ongoing ignorance and blindness in which unrenewed humanity finds itself.
Paul’s mention of the resurrection yields two very different results. Some mock and sneer—the very idea that one’s body would have immortal existence was laughable to the Greek mind (v. 32a). Others, however, want to hear more and, trusting in Christ, follow Paul (vv. 32b–34).
Proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus did not, on this occasion, win Paul the accolades of the Athenian intelligentsia. Neither did it yield a visibly impressive host of converts in Athens. But Paul did not preach the resurrection because it was popular. He preached it because it was true. The resurrection of Jesus confirmed the coming judgment but also secured blessing for the undeserving. However God is pleased to use this truth in the lives of unbelievers, the church’s task remains the same—to tell others that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.