The sky was as blue as the Aegean Sea when my wife and I left our hotel and hiked off to visit the Parthenon, the ancient ruins of a temple that has stood at the heart of Athens for about 2,500 years. Before we climbed the winding slope leading up to the Acropolis, where the Parthenon stands, we popped in for breakfast at an establishment that was actually named “God’s Restaurant.”
You know you’re starting your day off right when you have an omelet at God’s Restaurant. We took a million photos on the Acropolis, where you could get a beautiful bird’s-eye view of the city and its sea of white buildings. But the greatest thrill was coming across a small hill on our way down from the Parthenon. We had stumbled onto Mars Hill, the site where tradition says that Paul the Apostle made his famous sermon to the Athenians in the Book of Acts, chapter 17. There, affixed to the side of the hill was a plaque with Paul’s entire sermon, written in Greek.
Paul traveled to Athens because he had been driven away from Berea, where his preaching had riled up a crowd. But he was welcome to speak in Athens because people there loved to debate, and the citizens were hungry for new ideas. This was the city of philosophers, after all.
My wife and I climbed the short set of stairs leading to the top of Mars Hill, where we found a youth group praying, just before they started piloting a drone equipped with a camera. (I’m pretty sure Paul would not have had to deal with drones when he preached there 2,000 years ago.)
Paul spoke before the Areopagus Council, a group of intellectuals in Athens, and he told them that he had seen a nearby altar dedicated to an unknown God. Many years before, Athens had been struck by a plague, and the people, in their desperation, began sacrificing to gods they didn’t even know. Hence, “the unknown God.”
Paul proceeded to tell them that this unknown God was actually the Lord of heaven and earth who “does not live in temples built by human hands.” It was a brilliant way of introducing them to the one true God.
However, Paul received some pushback, especially from the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who called him a “babbler.” Their word for “babbler” literally means “seed picker,” and it conjures up the image of sparrows picking up scraps of food in the marketplace. These philosophers thought Paul was a measly commoner, who had pieced together scraps of ideas; they certainly did not think he was a sophisticated thinker like they were.
The Epicureans believed life was all about seeking pleasure. Pleasure was king. Pleasure ruled. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that humans must accept their destiny, no matter if it includes pleasure or pain. People must come through their suffering without complaint. The Stoics also believed that the individual was king and “mankind is holy,” as one philosopher put it. In a sense, they saw the individual as a type of god.
Some things never change.
Today, we too make idols out of pleasure and out of ourselves, as the Epicureans and Stoics did. We pursue pleasure at all costs, no matter the harm to ourselves and to others. In addition, we raise ourselves up as gods, pursuing our own desires and not giving much thought to others.
When Paul stood atop Mars Hill, he boldly told his listeners that the one true God gives us “life and breath and everything else.” The ultimate goal of life is not to seek pleasure or our own selfish desires at any cost. Life is about seeking and hungering for God.
“For in Him we live and move and have our being,” Paul announced in Athens. And then he dropped the big news. He said that God will resurrect the dead. Many of the philosophers scoffed at this notion, but several people heard and believed, including a woman named Damaris, as well as Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus.
From atop Mars Hill, I looked across at the Parthenon, and I thought about how this temple to Athena may still stand, but belief in the goddess of wisdom has died out. Even the statue of Athena, which once stood inside the Parthenon, has long since disappeared.
Mars Hill, in contrast, is smaller, and it doesn’t have a massive temple that draws tourists like flies with selfie sticks. But there’s another difference between the Parthenon and Mars Hill. The God who was proclaimed on Mars Hill 2,000 years ago—the unknown God—still lives and reigns. Athena doesn’t.
We all have idols—our own Athenas—in our lives. But as my wife and I made our way down Dionysius Street in Athens (named after one of Paul’s converts), I was comforted by the fact that people still hunger for the “unknown God” whom Paul spoke about.
We hunger for food on our plates, but we also hunger for spiritual food. In that sense, deep down we all desire to dine at God’s Restaurant.
By Doug Peterson