How Can I Reach Someone Who Is Skeptical of Christianity?
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How Can I Reach Someone Who Is Skeptical of Christianity?

How to Evangelize Skeptics {Acts 17:16–34}

This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here. 

Evangelism is one of the simplest and hardest callings of Christians. It is hard not because we lack knowledge or experience but because not everyone wants to hear our message. Some will be disinterested. Others will mock. Skepticism is intimidating.

But if we left the results to God, we would find that evangelism itself is simple. In Acts 17:16–34, Luke describes Paul’s encounter with the Athenian skeptics in two steps: He assessed and addressed his audience.

Assess Skeptics

What happened before Paul’s famous speech on Mars Hill can help us evangelize more faithfully.

Understand the People You Hope to Reach

On a macro level, every Christian should study the times, getting to know dominant philosophical trends. On a micro level, we should care enough about individuals to hear what matters to them. In Athens, Paul didn’t imbibe the culture, but he was sensitive to his surroundings. He “passed along and observed” the objects of their worship (Acts 17:23). He “perceived” the religious heart of the people. So must we.

But understanding others isn’t enough.

Be Agitated by Unbelief

Paul’s “spirit was provoked when he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Historians tell us that Athens had more idols than people. Paul felt how God feels about idolatry (see Isa. 65:3). God made the world as a testimony to his glory. Yet people who should rejoice in him use their God-given energy to mock him and to set up other things in their lives as ultimate.

Sin made Paul angry; people made to worship the one true God were enslaved by the worship of dumb idols. But sin didn’t make Paul retreat, content to grumble about the prevailing wickedness of his day.

Trust that the Gospel Is for Everyone

Some of Paul’s hearers—“the Jews and the devout persons”—had a worldview informed by Scripture (Acts 17:17). They were morally decent. But even “good people” need Jesus. Others—“Epicurean and Stoic philosophers”—had worldviews shaped by philosophy (Acts 17:18). The Epicureans were hedonists; they believed in living for the pleasure of tranquility, “free from pain, disturbing passions, and superstitious fears”[1] The Stoics were moralists; they believed that everyone can live virtuously. These philosophers were intellectual but spiritually naïve—education isn’t salvation. Smart people need Jesus too.

Jesus died for our sins and was raised as proof that God accepted his sacrifice. His resurrection guarantees that those who believe in him will also rise with him. Paul didn’t care that “to the Jews” the cross is “a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 NKJ). Everyone Paul met had the same basic need: “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). But Paul’s assessment of his audience helped him present the message as appropriately as possible.

Address Skeptics

Paul’s speech tells us everything we need to know, not only to trust Jesus ourselves but also to tell others how to trust him, too. His address has three main themes.

God Made People Religious

The Athenians were “very religious.” If, as it seems, Paul is criticizing and not commending his audience, he is being gentle—a wise approach for evangelists. Surely, he is saying that people are unalterably religious and wired to worship. “There exists in the human mind, and indeed by nature itself, some sense of Deity.” In fact, “idolatry is ample evidence of this fact.”[2] Idols prove “capacity for God.”[3] Even idolaters unknowingly reflect God as they strive for excellence, seek happiness, and honor some form of justice. Almost everyone, at some point, cries out to God. We know what others want, even if they won’t admit it.

God Is Knowable

The Athenians tacitly admitted their spiritual ignorance; they had altars to an unknown God. But God can be known. God’s character can be discerned by the marks its maker leaves in the world (Rom. 1:19–20). And if God created the world then he must still rule it. Almighty God must not dwell in things (like idols), so it is foolish and wicked to worship him in this way.

Without quoting Scripture, Paul reminded his audience of what even pagan poets knew—humanity traces its origin to a single man created directly by God. Having come from God, we must pursue God and find in him answers that we can’t find anywhere else. God is seeking worshippers who seek him. The problem is, we don’t. We chase cheap replacements.

God Requires Repentance

Repentance is the only cure for idolatry. We must stop trusting in everything that is not God. If we don’t, we will face God’s judgment. How can we know this? In Christ’s resurrection, God proved him to be the only one fit to judge others in righteousness.

There are only two responses: faith or unbelief. Unbelief can be obvious—“some mocked” (Acts 17:32). It can also be tactful—some indicated interest without commitment. But the result is the same. “So Paul went out from their midst” (Acts 17:34). The truly wise ones believed on the spot. And, like the Thessalonians, the Athenian believers “joined” Paul who symbolized the visible church in Athens (Acts 17:34; cf. 4).

Few of us are professional apologists like Paul. But every Christian must converse with unbelievers about our hope in Jesus. With gracious honesty, we must assess and address the people God puts in our lives, and leave the results to him.

[1] Bruce, Acts, 330–331.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 1.3.1

[3] Morgan, Acts, 419.

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William Boekestein

William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.