Ignorance is... bliss?
David Todd grew up in Glasgow in a semi church going family, but even with that he didn’t know much of what Christianity was about. By the age of 17 he’d spent some time with people who helped him understand about Jesus and he became a convinced Christian wanting to trust and live for Him. He’s now heading towards 40, and is even more convinced about Jesus and still wanting to trust and live for him. He is now student worker at Christchurch, Fulwood, in Sheffield.
Here’s a question for you… Do you think Britain is a religious country? Would you say we’re very religious? I don’t mean Christian, I just mean religious. Is there a form of religion? Are there objects of worship? I did think it was odd that a secular country gave so much coverage to the death of the Pope. Or what about when Princess Diana died? There was quite a bit of talk about heaven. Then there’s the increase in horoscopes, and the practices of the rich and famous… Kabala for Madonna… Scientology for John Travolta. I don’t think we can quite shake off a sense of religion or spirituality. And that’s before you get to modern objects of worship. What do modern 21st century students look to and worship? The ancients worshiped the god Baal – basically a sex god. The Greeks had there own version. I think we’ve got our own. But have we got it right? Are we right to think ‘there is some kind of force out there’? Are we right to hope that there is life beyond death? And does it really matter?
Paul, an early Christian who wrote part of the New Testament, had an experience I suppose of a Faith Awareness Week. Not in Sheffield, he was in Athens with some of the big wig philosophers. They’re getting confused about what Paul’s talking about. They bring him to the Areopagus, the debating chamber. They think he’s a bit of a babbler – you might have thought that about Christians, can’t really figure out what they’re talking about. This little Christian stands up in front of academics... and he starts to speak:
22 ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 ‘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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”
29 ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:22-31)
1) Religious… but ignorant
Paul starts by commenting on what he’s seen. He says… ‘you’re very religious.’ There are temples everywhere, altars, and objects of worship. Paul said, I wandered around your city and I even found an altar ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ So Paul says, you obviously don’t know about God. You’ve really not got a clue. You’re ignorant.
And, friends, you are too.
Look before you think I’m arrogant telling you that you’re ignorant, let me just say, it’s not really me saying it… you are. You’re the one that says you’re ignorant about God. You’ve never built an altar to an unknown God, but have you ever found yourself saying…
‘I think there might be a God but I’m not really sure…’
Or ‘I think there is some kind of force out there but I don’t know what it is.’
Or ‘I hope there is life after death but I don’t know.’
Or ‘I don’t believe there is a god, but I’ve no real proof.’
They’re all ways of saying… I don’t know about God. If I had to put it bluntly, I’d have to admit I’m ignorant. It’s not me saying that. It’s not even Paul... He’s just reflecting what you’re saying. So if you want to get offended… Get offended with yourself.
Paul’s going to tell us a bit about what God is like. You might think… he’s very arrogant, thinking he knows about God. Hang on. Just because you don’t know about God doesn’t mean nobody does.
Paul explains some things to correct their thinking… Let me rattle through a few…
(i) God doesn’t need you
How we go about worship reflects what we think of God. For these guys they built temples, as if God needed them. The real God doesn’t need a house to live in. He doesn’t need to be served by human hands.
We’re not likely to build Temples. But stop and think: What do we do? We pop into churches for weddings. It’s almost as if you feel you’ve got to do God a favour. Pop over to see him like an ageing grand-parent. Or you go to see him at funerals. You think he’s looking for someone to be involved with, so you’ll allow him into that part of you life. In fact you’ll blame him when things seem to go wrong.
God doesn’t need you. Don’t even confuse the fact that he wants your worship with needing it – he made everything, why would he need you?
You cannot give God anything that he needs. Not you’re money, time, brains, nothing.
(ii) You need God…
It’s not just that you need him, but everything you’ve got in some sense comes from him.
‘He gives everyone life and breath and everything else.’ (Acts 17:25)
Your intellect, the breath you’ve just taken, sunshine, your smile, the colour of your eyes, your enjoyment playing sport, the love in good friendship – God’s idea. And he’s not withheld them even though you act as if you don’t need him
You need God…
Do you like to read when you go on trips? During his trip to Athens Paul might have been to the theatre, or picked up a book of Greek poetry because he quotes some. Just to show them that this idea of needing God in some sense is in the popular mindset. We all kind of think it at some level.
‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ (From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides)
And ‘we are his offspring.’ (From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus) (Acts 17:28)
Well that’s the primitive Greeks for you… Is it…? Douglas Coupland, a contemporary writer who is not a Christian, says this in his book ‘Life after God’. Reflecting on living in a generation that has rejected God. He writes this towards the end:
‘Now - here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.’
You need God, just to even breathe, never mind to love.
(iii) God’s not far from you
Another thing about God from here is that he’s not far from you. The Epicureans thought the gods were uninterested in them, miles off, didn’t bother with them. We’ve got our equivalents today. People who look at the world and think, if there is a God he either doesn’t care or he’s forgotten us. That’s not true – and I’ll explain why I know God is really interested in you in a moment. For people who are ignorant about God, Paul explains some things.
But here’s the second thing and I think you’ll find this a bit harder to swallow.
2. Your ignorance in culpable
Let me explain what I mean… Your not knowing about God is not due to lack of education.
The key is not education, education, education. It’s something that you can be held responsible for.
Again Paul gives us some reasons, let me try and rattle through some of them…
(i) God has arranged life so that you can find him
You see what he says in vv26-27:
‘From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.’
We struggle to know God, we wonder what he’s like; we think that if he exists he must be hiding from us. It’s not true… God’s not far from each of us and… He has arranged life in such a way that we could find him. God is as close as he can be to you… And he’s got a big sign saying ‘I’m God come and find me!’
But we don’t, we don’t find God.
(ii) We don’t look for him
The implications are clear. If God is that close to us, if he has arranged life so we can find him, and yet we don’t find him, then it’s because we don’t really look for him. That’s why our ignorance is culpable. It’s not that we can’t know about God… It’s that we refuse to know about God.
Elsewhere Paul writes:
‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings 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’ (Romans 1:18-20).
We refuse to know about God. And we do something else instead…
(iii) We invent other things to worship
‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill’ (Acts 17:29)
I imagine if I asked how many of you have made an idol that you bow down in front of, not many of you would put your hands up. There might be some of you. But I think it’s true that even in Britain people think up an image made by man’s design and skill. You’ll do it like this… When you say…
‘If there is a God and a heaven I think he’ll let everyone get into heaven, that’s what I think.’
You’ve just invented a god for yourself. You’ve not bothered to find the true god and you’ve made up one with your own design and skill. Not very imaginative that one…
When you say… ‘I don’t believe in a God who would send people to hell’
There you go again… you’re just doing what Paul says… You’re inventing a little god for yourself.
That’s what Paul is highlighting when he looks at us. We’re ignorant about God and our ignorance is culpable.
3) But God still cares about you
Now before we have time for questions I said I would tell you why I think God is interested in you and actually cares about you.
i) He’s set a day to bring justice
You look at life and you think, God’s not interested. What about all the suffering? What about the injustice? How can God allow that? Well God cares about you. What you do matters. So he has set a day to judge the world, to bring justice.
We can understand how that works I think. A terrible crime is committed. We want justice. We want it now. The authorities say. We’ve got to gather all the evidence. Things have to be arranged in an orderly fashion. You’ll need to wait. I know it’s frustrating, but the day has been set. Justice will be done.
It’s the same with God, it might seem frustrating, but justice will be done. And God’s justice is inclusive. Everyone will be invited to it. He’s not a conservative when it comes to judgement, there will be no restriction on people from other countries. He will judge the world, you and me.
You might think, how can God judge people fairly? How does he know what it’s like to live as a human? To live through injustice, bereavement, oppression, live in a country that’s been invaded, have relatives taken away and executed, be beaten up, be mocked because of your accent? How can some ivory tower God judge us?
He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.
Jesus Christ: he knew what it was like to live in an occupied country, his cousin John was arrested by the police and beheaded, his father died when he was young, he was beaten up, had death threats, was killed unjustly.
We’ll be judged by him. He’s no ivory tower bureaucrat handing down judgement
God is so interested in you that he will examine every detail of your life. You matter to him.
ii) He’s provided an amnesty
Here’s the second reason why I know God cares about you. It’s because he’s provided an amnesty. You see if God is going to judge me justly, but I’m guilty of not looking for him, that leaves me in a rather sticky position. My judgement day is set. However between now and then he offers an amnesty…
‘In the past God over looked such ignorance but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.’ (Acts 17:30)
Do you want to enjoy God’s amnesty? Repent just means change the direction of your life.
Stop ignoring God, and accept the forgiveness that he’s offering you through Jesus Christ.
How do we know this is true? God’s given a remarkable sign. He’s done something that could never happen except by God doing it. He’s raised Jesus Christ up from the dead. In actual fact his death and resurrection is more than just proof that it’s true. It’s also the way he’s able to provide for your forgiveness.
You’re not being offered a choice, you’re being offered an amnesty, a chance to be forgiven and get right with God. How are you going to respond to God’s command?
© David Todd 2005
Source: This is based on a talk that was originally given at Sheffield University Christian Union on 6th May 2005, and is here used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the speaker.