Paul continues on in his second missionary journey from Philippi. He stops in Thessalonica and Berea and finally makes it to Athens where he is waiting for Silas and Timothy. Paul is not one to sit around and do nothing so he immediately begins to minister the gospel. He starts with the synagogue, moves out the church at large and then finds himself on the street preaching. It is here that he is heard by the various philosophers of the city and given an invite to speak to them. It is here that Paul goes to Mars, Mars Hill that is.
Mars Hills and the Areopagus were the place in Athens where the philosophers debated. Socrates and Plato had made their name in this city and on some of the same dirt and stone had debated with the others of the city. The whole of the philosophers were devoted to hearing something new. They had many schools of thought but the ones mentioned by the passage were the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and you couldn’t have not have two more opposed groups of people.
The Epicurean philosophers were basically of the opinion that all of life’s meaning was found in this life an there was no afterlife. The result was they believed that you should experience everything this life had to offer. They were the true hedonists of the philosopher world. Paul sums up an Epicurean axiom in 1st Corinthians when he says: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” The Stoics by contrast were about personal discipline. It was leading a disciplined and controlled life that lead to fulfillment. The ultimate expression of Stoic philosophy would have been the Spartan Warrior and thus Spartan and Stoic are terms that definitely go together. Their argument against the Epicurean philosophers was “eventually someone has to pay for that good time of yours.” Image, the same argument goes on today in the world!
The one thing that both of these groups had in common was that they through philosophy had dismissed the pantheon of gods, the notion of the afterlife and supernaturalism in general. This is why when Paul is talking he would have gotten nods from the crowd throughout his entire sermon, He tells them they have too many gods, they agree. He points out to them they even have a shrine to the unknown god which they might have agreed as he sets out to proclaim to them God. The philosophers were a mixed bag on this point, in modern terms they might have been considered deists, agnostics and atheists depending on the individual philosopher’s persuasion. Paul would have been carefully considered and respected as he spoke because he was preaching to the choir until he got to the end where he spoke of God raising someone form the dead. It is on this point the philosophers sneer.
The thing is that even in this hostile environment to the supernatural some still believe. Much is made of having the right argument or the proper answers and to be honest Paul does this in his sermon, he is very considerate of who his audience is. He does not insult them intellectually, understands their beliefs but at the end he has only one thing that to him is a historical fact to proclaim to them – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the key and pivotal issue. He will recognize this in writing to the Corinthians later in chapter 15 of his first letter to them. He proclaims in the same letter that God’s actions have a way of making the wisest men look foolish.
In the end the most powerful evangelistic tools available to every believer are their testimony and the resurrection. It is ultimately on these two things that a person’ faith is founded on. What God did through Jesus’s resurrection and what he did in each heart becomes the foundation of faith and evangelism.