From Zeus to Zilch: Evangelism and Post-Christian Culture
Imagine this situation. A man rolls into town. He performs an amazing feat to the applause of the crowd. Then he’s deified on the spot. No, I’m not talking about your average NFL game. I’m talking about Paul and Barnabas’s visit to Lystra, recorded in Acts 14:1-20.
Paul and Barnabas were run out of Iconium under the threat of having large stones flung at their heads. Upon arriving in Lystra Paul is led by God to heal a man who had been crippled since birth. With a simple command from Paul, God restored health to the man’s feet and provides a preaching opportunity for Paul.
But something extremely unexpected happened as the Lycaonians gathered around Paul. They immediately assumed that Paul and Barnabas were Greek gods. Paul they called Hermes and Barnabas they called Zeus. In this religiously charged moment the Lycaonians were preparing to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods when Paul intervened with a fascinating entry point to the gospel of Jesus. He said,
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).
This is a profound engagement with pagan culture, and especially important for people living in hemispheres that are becoming increasingly post-Christian.
Messiah vs. Maker
Here Paul deviates from his usual pattern. Paul’s modus operandi for missionary work was to show up in the Jewish Synagogue on a Saturday to proclaim Jesus as the messiah of the Old Testament. We might call this a Redemptive-Historical approach to the Old Testament. When he spoke to Jews, Paul knew he had a wealth of biblical knowledge to work with. His goal was to convince the Jews that Jesus was the messiah and that the messiah had to be crucified and resurrected.1 This line of reason follows the narrative of God as Redeemer.
But this crowd was different. The revelation of the God of the Torah might as well be another god in the pantheon of gods rather than the written revelation of the one true and living God. So Paul, both to share the gospel and avoid assuming deity himself, begins his preaching in Lystra with God as as the maker of all things. This line of reasoning follows the narrative of God as Creator.
Evangelism that extols God as Redeemer has a wealth of biblical information to work from; in contrast, evangelism that begins with God as Creator is the point of contact to common human experience.2 Not every human being agrees that they need to be saved. But no one can escape the fact that they were created--and that they are the Imago Dei.
Paul’s argument is that the ubiquitous Creator-creature distinction and experience obligates all people to confess three truths.
1. You were made to know the one who made you. Modern apologetics pick up on this common line of reasoning from the Bible. The common human experience of the search for God points toward the existence of God. If there were no God then we should lack an inbuilt desire to find him. While men suppress the truth in unrighteousness, Paul’s news becomes good news precisely because it speaks to men as image bearers of God. This Creator has come into the history and world that he made in order that creatures would turn from dead gods to know and serve Him, the only true God who provides life.3 This entrance of life into a dying world is through the incarnation of Jesus, the one who made all things to begin with.4
2. Provision is a sign of his goodness toward you. This God has been good to all people, regardless of their response to him. Could we stop at this point and confess how amazing this truth is? God gives food and feasting as a gracious gift to all men and women. Evangelism doesn’t begin with an introduction to the God who might do good to you but rather is an invitation to a God who has already abundantly poured out his goodness on you.
3. Even little things are a sign of His goodness toward you. The sovereignty of God, while difficult to discern at times, ensures a number of things show forth His goodness. One of which is that humans will experience gladness. When something so seemingly insignificant as laughter leaps from a mouth, a gift has left God’s hand.
Paul’s argument is that all men, whether they possess biblical knowledge or not, are already in the debt of a gracious God. So all men by their rebellion have only increased the debt by biting the hand that continues to feed them. This judge is in the process of reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. The call to everyone, whether they possess any Biblical knowledge or not, is to repent of sin and place their faith in Jesus.
The 2 Minute Drill
So where does all of this leave us? Aside from extolling the amazing grace of God to the nations, Paul’s practice is imminently instructive for us in those moments. Those moments? Yes, those moments when you look across the table at a friend who has just asked you a religious or existential question. Those moments when your hands are sweaty and your mind is racing. Those moments when you fear botching the outline you learned in that Saturday seminar. Those are 2 minute drill moments. You have 120 seconds to engage your friend concerning the gospel of Jesus.
At this point, Paul gives us several options.
Does the person you’re talking to have some sort of “Judeo-Christian” background? If so, then drive toward a discussion that highlights Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. Ask him why he thinks Biblical heroes had major flaws. Ask him why the topic of resurrection is so central to the New Testament. Ask him why righteousness through grace as a gift could be such a radical concept. Drive toward Jesus’s substitutionary death for sinners as the promised savior of all who call on him by faith.
Increasingly, however, you will find that your unbelieving friends will not have a background rooted in a Judeo-Christian outlook. In fact, many of them are probably relatively oblivious to the claims and narrative of both the Old and New Testament. No, he doesn’t have to go to Bible College before you start sharing the Gospel with him. Instead, drive the conversation toward God as Creator of all things. What might a Creator require of his creation? What would be the obligations of a creature to his Creator? What do the common human experiences of provision, beauty and laughter say about God’s gratuitous goodness? How could a man be made right with a God who is so good and so just? Then drive toward Jesus as the revelation of the Creator to creation and the only One who can justify the ungodly.5
In the end we worship and proclaim the Creator and Redeemer of all things. We preach this Jesus, “for by Him all things were created… and God was pleased… through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross."6
1. Acts 17:2-3
2. We have to admit in the end that though useful and biblical, this is a false dichotomy. Biblical and redemptive history begin with and rely heavily upon the creation narrative of Genesis 1.
3. John 17:3
4. Compare John 1 to Colossians 1.
5. Remember that no one can be saved simply by observing creation. You must in the end take everyone you share the gospel with to the person of Jesus revealed in the Scriptures. But there are different ways you can get them there.
6. Colossians 1:16, 19
Tim Keller, The Reason For God In An Age Of Skepticism
CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
Cornelius Van Til Paul At Athens
K. Scott Oliphint Covenantal Apologetics: Principles And Practice In Defense Of The Faith