Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)
There has long been a history of belief in God in the Western world—especially in the United States. The Gallup and Pew organizations are well known for their surveys, all expressing a fairly consistent level of over 80 percent of the U.S. population who affirm a belief in God.1 As the gospel spread west over the centuries, the United States became one of the more openly Christian nations, maintaining an underlying spiritual strength in the general population. A recent Harris Interactive Poll, however, noted a rather significant drop over the past four years, from 82 percent to 74 percent.2 Other recent surveys have noted that there is a growing shift toward unaffiliated identity with organized religion and an increasingly personal and independent view of spiritual ideology among young adults.3
But although a significant majority still seems to believe in God, the accompanying questions reveal that the god believed in is not the God of Scripture. Just as the Stoics and Epicureans of Paul’s day reserved space in their philosophies for an unknown god to worship (like a backup deity—just in case one was missed), so most indigenous populations across the globe believe in a Great Spirit or High God that rules the universe and the other deities in a distant and mysterious way.
It is of interest that the number of those who believe in Darwinism (although still a minority of the population) has increased over 10 percent since 2005 (from 42 percent to 47 percent.2 In the Darwinian belief system, natural selection takes the place of the omnipotent and omniscient Greek Zeus of Paul’s day, personifying nature to orchestrate the evolution of the universe and all its myriad parts. This Unknown God of the modern intellectual world is no different from the pantheism of the sophisticated pagans who assembled at the Areopagus to “tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).
Indeed, there is a sense in which all humanity has a belief in an omnipotent and omniscient Being. Yet the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) blinds their minds “through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The Zeus of the Greeks and the Wakan Tanka of the American Indians have “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23).
Declaring the Creator
The religions of the world recognize a superior Force or mysterious Supreme Being that somehow superintends the universe. God has written His signature across the heavens so clearly that all humanity knows a creator exists (Romans 1:20). “Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19). There is no escaping the knowledge that God exists, but individual salvation occurs only when the gospel is declared and faith is imparted through the preaching of the Word (Romans 10:17).
With the exception of his ministry among the Jews and in the synagogues, Paul always began his preaching with a declaration of who the Creator is. Whether to the ignorant crowd at Lystra (Acts 14) or the educated elite in Athens (Acts 17), Paul boldly proclaimed “the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them” (Acts 14:15). While a belief in God is the initial step toward salvation (Hebrews 11:6), “there are many gods and many lords” (1 Corinthians 8:5). The one God in whom and by whom salvation comes is none other than the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). “No one comes to the Father” unless they come through “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Sadly, many of our churches have, either by choice or neglect, failed to connect the unique foundational authority and power of the Creator with the vicarious act of the Savior. The atonement is taught and the resurrection is celebrated, but His miraculous ability as Creator to effect salvation is often mysteriously encapsulated in the love of God—glossed over as a dogmatic necessity but rarely praised and honored as the reason that salvation could ever occur!
God does not take this critical point lightly. As the end of the age is closing, a great angelic herald is sent “flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—saying with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water’” (Revelation 14:6-7).
If we are ever to reach those still searching for the Unknown God, we must declare who Jesus is as well as what He did at Golgotha!
Declaring the Lordship
Among the important issues that Paul stressed to the philosophers in Athens was that the One who “made the world and everything in it” was also “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). While that may seem like a passing comment in the short quotations from Paul’s debate on Mars Hill, the Lordship of the Creator is not just an interesting doctrine—it is critical to our worship and to our relationship with our Savior.
The statements of grandeur and authority made by Jesus about Himself are not self-serving boasting. They are His revelation to us of the unique and eternal transcendence of who He is. Without such knowledge, our finite and natural mind could never even grasp the edges of the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent I AM of eternity!
- I am the LORD, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. (Isaiah 45:5)
- For thus says the LORD, Who created the heavens, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who has established it, Who did not create it in vain, Who formed it to be inhabited: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:18)
- Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22)
All too often our perception of the Savior stresses His love for us (and certainly without His love there could be no salvation); yet the tender and gracious side of our Lord must not obscure the fact of our being “bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). While the love of God draws us to Him, once faith has been exercised and righteousness imputed we become “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Our love for God then expresses itself in obedience to His Word: “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
If the Unknown God is declared to be the Creator, then it most easily follows that He is the Lord of all, to be worshiped and obeyed as we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Declaring the Judgment
After insisting that the god the Stoics and Epicureans ignorantly worshiped was in reality the great God of creation, that they had more than sufficient evidence surrounding them of His omnipotence and omniscience, and that they had best understand Him as the Lord of heaven and Earth, Paul struck the bold chord that this Unknown God had already “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
That sent the crowd scurrying for the exits! No more academic interest—their neutrality vanished.
What is there about God’s judgment that brings such open resistance? When the specific mission of the Holy Spirit was revealed to the apostle John, we are told that the New Testament ministry of the Spirit to unsaved humanity was to “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:8-11).
- I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give every man according to his ways, According to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17:10)
- For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. (Matthew 16:27)
- I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened....And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books....And they were judged, each one according to his works. (Revelation 20:12-13)
Without the physical presence of the Lord Jesus, we have no perfect example. But the Holy Spirit’s trifold mission to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment is obvious, and He now uses the agency of the spoken word of witnesses and the written word of Scripture to bring that conviction (John 16:13; 2 Corinthians 4:7). We, the twice-born, are “an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3). If we shy from speaking of the awesome and eternally final judgment of God, a full third of the mission of the Holy Spirit is compromised.
There is no softness to the coming judgment of God. If salvation is to come to those who may genuinely be seeking the Unknown God, then we who have been rescued from that very judgment must declare that God’s judgment is certain and sure.
Declaring the Gospel
But as certain as the righteous judgment of the Holy God is, so is the salvation available through the unfathomable grace of our Creator, who “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Although God Himself is without peer and beyond our understanding, He has revealed Himself in and through the Lord Jesus.
As Paul spoke to the scoffers and scholars in Athens, he noted that God had even designed the boundaries of nations so that as men “grope” for an understanding of the Unknown God, He “is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). The good news of God’s provision through the incarnation of the Lord Jesus requires an awareness of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of all the earth. Even though the “heavens declare” and every day and night “speak” of God’s glory (Psalm 19:1-2), the sinful state of man rushes to exchange “the truth of God” for something else—anything—that can subjugate the Creator to the creature (Romans 1:25).
- Failure to present Christ as Creator negates His power to save.
- Failure to present Christ as Lord belittles His authority to rule and demand obedience.
- Failure to present Christ as Judge refutes His holiness.
As long as man relegates the Unknown God to a mystery or an “X factor” in religion, man retains superiority over his realm and rejects all other authority. We who have the honor to receive “the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5) must declare a full account of who the Savior is for those who “might grope for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27). We are the ambassadors. We have the knowledge. We even have the promise: “Those who seek me diligently will find me” (Proverbs 8:17).
- Gallup poll #1690-Religion. Posted on gallup.com June 2014, acessed June 2014.
- Shannon-Missal, L. Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines. The Harris Poll® #97. Posted on harrisinteractive.com December 16, 2013, accessed July 2, 2014.
- “Nones” on the Rise. Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Posted on pewforum.org October 9, 2012, acessed July 2014.
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Henry M. Morris III, D.Min. 2014. Declaring the Unknown God. Acts & Facts. 43 (9).