Go Back to Newsletter

"On the Unknown God and Who He Is"

"Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said 'Men 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.'" Acts 17:22-25

The Greek culture is usually the first to come to mind when the topic of polytheism comes up. Inventing new gods was not uncommon in the ancient world. Every nation and province had its own selection of gods. There was a theological/mythological explosion by the time the apostle Paul arrived on the scene. There were gods and goddesses everywhere. To put it in perspective, there were more gods than there were things to rule over. The Greek island Lesbos is known to have let other cultures borrow their gods if the other’s gods were not living up to their divine duties. Elijah taunted the priests of Baal that perhaps their god was away relieving himself. If this had been said to Greeks, they may have taken it under serious consideration to assign a deity over sewers. In any case, there must have been a serious cultural/theological problem if a temple to an unknown god had to be built. So what were the Greek’s problems? Why does the unknown god resemble Yahweh more than any of the other plethora of gods that they had? First, we must understand the theological epistemology of the Greeks before we can answer such questions.

When talking about theological epistemology, we are talking about basically how one comes to know things concerning the divine being of God. For the Greeks, their belief was solely based upon their experience in the world. When one saw the roaring ocean, an account for its existence and activity was needed. So Poseidon had to be fashioned according to the observations made by the subject. When one experienced love and beauty, an Aphrodite was needed to account for it. Of course, she herself had to emulate their observations, so she was a promiscuous goddess. The growth of civilization meant a growth of new activities and aspects of society and gods were needed to account for them as well. Dionysius was the god of wine, drunkenness, parties and youthful pleasure. There was even a god to account for traveling, thievery, and language. His name was Hermes. They had gods for cooking, childbirth, sculpture, horticulture, and, of course, the god of gods, Zeus. The question of good or evil hardly played a role concerning the essence or character of a particular god. If one happened to be good then weren’t they lucky! Man is most creative when fashioning temples to house his heart.

It appears that gods were used the same way that the terms genus (category) and species (members) are used. If there was a group of common things in the world a god was assigned to watch over them. This played an important role in the dilemma that resulted in the temple to the unknown god. The problem that came out of their epistemological method was that as their understanding of the world grew so did the necessity to find more gods to account for their findings. Theological, though it may be, their method for knowing the gods was purely naturalistic; and as they increasingly understood their own ignorance of the world, they realized that they may not have all gods accounted for. There is simply no way to be certain that all the gods were known. They feared that by not acknowledging all the gods they were accidentally being irreverent, impious, or even blasphemous. The relationship between gods and men was clearly one-sided. Man was always left to himself to know the gods via guesswork and start the relationship off.

To hone in on this point, let us consider, briefly, the history of the temple to the unknown god. According to some sources, Diogenes Laërtius states that Epimenides (a Greek seer) had a plan to stave off a raging plague:

"He took sheep, some black and others white, and brought them to the Areopagus; and there he let them go whither they pleased, instructing those that followed them to mark the spot where each sheep lay down and to offer a sacrifice to the local divinity. And thus, it is said, the plague was stayed. Hence even to this day altars may be found in different parts of Attica with no name inscribed upon them, which are memorials of this atonement."

Reason and natural observation were reaching their limitations. There were multiple altars not only in Greece, but in Rome as well. In a way, the temple to the unknown god was a mark and sign of frustration within the Greco-Roman world. The temple to the unknown god was a realization that of all the gods they had known, none of them appeared to be the cause of their present ailment (or at least, were able to solve it) and that perhaps some unknown god was offended. What could they do? Gods have taken permanent residence on Mt. Olympus and don't appear to want to come down again. The best they could do was to cast sheep like dice in the hopes that someone will be appeased enough to end their suffering. Their epistemology had been one of starting from the ground and working upwards to peer into the divine realm for answers. With no help by divine revelation, what became of their religious epistemology was to create essentially a "Tower of Babel" of deities. It became a hodge-podge of gods and a worldview that was shattered and disorderly. The devoutly religious devolved into a hedonistic practice (as did the Romans), and the disbelieving philosophers developed ethical practices that were based on ignoring the world rather than trying to unify all aspects of the world into a cohesive and comprehensive whole (e.g. Stoicism). Is it any wonder that from a culture like this Pilate answers Christ's claim to be The Truth with the question "what is truth"? If according to Epimenides, "For in thee we live and move and have our being" then why is it that we are so disconnected from him?"

The Temple to the unknown god also represents a loss of real reverence for their deities. If Diogenes’ account is correct, then these temples were built merely to accommodate their needs. If you are using sheep to guide you to the object of your worship, then one would be hard pressed to find a reason to show reverence to a god who is a stranger. And really, if you are exchanging gods like playing cards to other cultures, then there’s probably not much reverential fear going on.

These people were suffering from a religious system contingent upon the knowledge of a world that they did not understand. Their scientific understanding of the world around them and the intricacies of human existence were severely limited. It is as if one is using a warped stick in the dark as a measuring rod. If you are using creation to define its author, you are going to get an author that looks like creation. If you are using a fallen creation, you get a god who is less than perfect and reflects those fallen aspects.

Their understanding does confirm Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-23:

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles."

While they tried to suppress the knowledge of the True God, they knew enough that to account for all the aspects of creation, they needed creators. As is the nature of man under any condition, they needed objects of worship. When basing a religious system on observing a world that is afflicted with sin, that world will look chaotic and confused. That’s exactly the kind of religious system the Greeks had. Their religion emulated the world around them, which is chaotic and sinful; therefore, their religion is chaotic and sinful as well (and the stories of their gods are rife with chaos and vice). Their deities reflected little sovereignty and providence, concepts that produce order and stability.

So with all this in mind, what was it about the unknown god that Paul found so familiar? As we mentioned before, their religious system was based on starting from creation and attempting to work their way up to the divine realm. The temple to the unknown god was recognition of that failure. Therefore, Paul used that as an opportunity to tell them of a God that cannot be reached by reasoning through sinful creation. Their religious epistemology was backwards, man couldn’t work his way up to God; God must come down to us.

The god that the pagans did not know was the God that is Lord of all creation, not merely a part of it. The fact that the pagans did not know their own limitations as sinful human beings was the reason why their intellect failed to reach the God that unifies all creation under the banner of His sovereignty.

The difference between Paul’s religious epistemology and the pagan’s was that faith is brought down to us as a gift so that a gap in knowing may be bridged. The pagan method was merely to assent to the physical operations of the world. Paul’s God was not merely the author and caretaker of a portion of the world, but the author of everything in the world and the sustainer of it. For all the work and trouble the Greeks and Romans put into knowing the world for the sake of seeking their gods, Paul informed them that their unknown God was as close as their very breath and provided life for all. For all their gifts into observing the smallest nooks and the farthest places, they could not see the answer to their quest was closer than they could possibly imagine. It is an irony of ironies to be given the very tools to find the One you’re supposedly looking for only to refuse to open your eyes and retreat into the darkness. They were without excuse.

Paul assured his pagan audience that God does not dwell in temples made by man, nor is He waiting to be served as if our aid was required. If they had ears to hear, the Greeks could have discovered that the true God had everything under control, and that the sovereignty and providence that they so desperately needed from their gods dwelt within the one God who graciously makes Himself known. There is a God who does not play hide-and-seek with those who seek Him but comes full force into the soul to bring us into an everlasting relationship. No god of drunkenness could withstand our God of grace and mercy, for in Him we truly "live and move and have our being".

- Jason Bader