The record of Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17 provides an informative glimpse into the religious culture of the first century Greco-Roman world. Paul’s time in Athens was marked by deep distress at the extensive idolatry which he observed there. The city, Luke indicates, was full of idols (16). Beyond all the temples for devotees of the various false gods, there were the philosophers of the Areopagus, who worshipped reason and exalted it as authoritative. Make no mistake; Athens was a city of religious and philosophical plurality.
The interesting thing is that Paul did not see his time in Athens as an opportunity to seek deeper understanding of and improved cooperation with the Greek religions. Rather, he saw a different opportunity; he saw a mission. Paul was not interested in discussion for mutual understanding. He was interested in the declaration of the gospel, the good news “about Jesus and the resurrection” (18). During his hearing on the Areopagus, he was not sympathetic to the varied religion of the first century. He charged that their shrines were basically a waste of space. The God who made the world and all that is in it does not live in buildings made by human hands (24). The God who raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as judge of all is not like their statues of gold or silver or stone. Paul charged the Athenians with creating divinities made in their own image and concocted with their own imaginations (29). Evidently, he was not all that interested in sympathetic dialogue to gain a deeper mutual understanding of the religiously pluralistic society. Instead, he warned them of the coming judgment.
Paul’s feelings toward “different doctrine” are presented with clarity in his first letter to Timothy. Timothy received this first letter while in Ephesus, a site for the worship of the goddess Diana. In this pluralistic environment, Paul charged Timothy not to allow the teaching of different doctrine nor the continued study of myths and other speculations (1:3-4). He did not want Timothy studying the alternatives. He wanted Timothy to spend his time guarding the deposit of truth entrusted to him and ensuring its transmission to the next generation. When the church finds itself in a religiously pluralistic society, it is all the more important to be sure the truth is not watered down nor syncretized with false religion.
There are those in our day who seem to think religious diversity and plurality is a new thing. Recent moves by some theological schools to create institutions for multiple and simultaneous religious training is touted as the cutting edge of theological education that is necessary to meet the demands of a religiously pluralistic society. These folks appear to be afflicted with a bad case of historical myopia, though. As we have seen, the church, from its inception, has found itself at work in mission in the midst of extensive religious pluralism. The response of the early church to its pluralistic milieu was not dialogue but declaration. The mission was not collaboration but conversion. Devotees of other religions were not partners in mission; they were themselves the mission.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that Christians ought never converse with people from other religions. Paul certainly engaged the Greeks on the Areopagus. We can never be faithful to the evangelistic mission of the church if we never converse with devotees of other religions. My point is that we must not lose sight of our mission, which is not collaboration but evangelistic discipleship.
The church must not now be duped into thinking that pluralism is something new. Neither should pluralism be thought of as a good opportunity to uncritically come alongside other religions to work for a brighter future. Pluralism is, for the church, the reason for mission. It is precisely because there are non-Christian religions that our Lord has commissioned us to disciple the nations. We must stand firm in the conviction that there can be no bright future that is not built solidly on the foundation of Christ alone. There can be no lasting and righteous change unless it is the change that comes with faith in the gospel and full-reliance on Christ. Our pluralistic society is nothing new, and it is not opportunity for deeper mutual understanding but for faithful Christian preaching of the one truth in the gospel of Jesus Christ.