To Whom Can We Look for True Justice?
“Will not the Judge of the whole earth do justice?”—GENESIS 18:25, The Holy Bible in Modern English, by Ferrar Fenton.
1, 2. How do many people react to prevailing injustice?
PROBABLY you are sadly aware that injustice abounds. How do you personally respond to the prevailing lack of true justice?
2 Some people react by questioning the existence of a just God. They may even claim to be agnostic. Likely you have heard that term. It refers to a person who feels “that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob[ably] unknowable.” Biologist Thomas H. Huxley, a 19th-century proponent of Darwinian evolution, first used the word “agnostic” in this way.a
3, 4. What is the background of the word “agnostic”?
3 From where, though, did Huxley derive the term “agnostic”? Actually, he was drawing on an expression used in another sense by a first-century lawyer, the apostle Paul. It occurred in one of the most famous speeches ever. This speech is relevant today, for it offers us a sound basis for knowing how and when justice for all will prevail and, even more, how we personally can benefit from it.
4 The word “agnostic” (“unknown”) was taken from Paul’s mention of an altar on which was inscribed “To an Unknown God.” That brief speech was recorded by the physician Luke in the 17th chapter of Acts the historical book Acts of Apostles. The chapter first shows how Paul came to be in Athens. In the accompanying box (page 6), you can read Luke’s introductory information and the text of the entire speech.
5. What was the setting in which Paul gave his speech to the Athenians? (Have Acts 17:16-31 read.)
5 Paul’s speech is indeed powerful and deserving of our careful consideration. Surrounded as we are by gross injustices, we can learn much from it. First note the setting, which you can read at Acts 17:16-21. The Athenians were proud to live in a famous center of learning, where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had taught. Athens was also a very religious city. All around him Paul could see idols—those of the war god Ares, or Mars; of Zeus; of Aesculapius, the god of medicine; of the violent sea-god, Poseidon; of Dionysus, Athena, Eros, and others.
6. How does your area compare with what Paul found in Athens?
6 What, though, if Paul inspected your town or area? He might see plenty of idols or religious statues, even in the lands of Christendom. Elsewhere, he could see more. One guidebook says: “Indian gods, unlike their fickle Greek ‘brothers,’ are monogamous, and some of the most impressive powers were assigned to their female consorts . . . There are, without exaggeration, millions of gods dealing with all forms of life and nature.”
7. What were the ancient Greek gods like?
7 Many Greek gods were depicted as petty and very immoral. Their conduct would be shameful for mortals, yes, criminal in most lands today. You have every reason to wonder, then, what kind of justice the Greeks back then might have expected from such gods. Still, Paul saw that the Athenians were especially devoted to them. Filled with righteous convictions, he began to explain the elevated truths of genuine Christianity.
A Challenging Audience
8. (a) What beliefs and views marked the Epicureans? (b) What did the Stoics believe?
8 Some Jews and Greeks listened with interest, but how would the influential Epicurean and Stoic philosophers react? As you will see, their ideas were similar in many respects to common beliefs today, even ones taught to youths in school. The Epicureans urged living so as to obtain as much pleasure as possible, especially mental pleasure. Their ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ philosophy was characterized by absence of principle and virtue. (1 Corinthians 15:32) They did not believe that gods created the universe; instead, they held that life came about by accident in a mechanical universe. Furthermore, the gods were not interested in men. What of the Stoics? They stressed logic, believing that matter and force were elemental principles in the universe. Stoics imagined an impersonal deity, rather than believing in God as a Person. They also felt that fate governed human affairs.
9. Why was Paul’s situation a challenging one in which to preach?
9 How did such philosophers respond to Paul’s public teaching? Curiosity mixed with mental arrogance was an Athenian trait then, and these philosophers began to argue with Paul. Finally, they took him to the Areopagus. Above Athens’ marketplace, but below the towering Acropolis, was a rocky hill named for the god of war, Mars, or Ares, hence Mars’ Hill, or the Areopagus. In ancient times, a court or council met there. Paul may well have been taken to a court of justice, perhaps assembled with a view of the impressive Acropolis and its famous Parthenon as well as other temples and statues. Some think that the apostle was at risk because Roman law forbade introducing new gods. But even if Paul was taken to the Areopagus merely to clarify his beliefs or to display whether he was a qualified teacher, he faced a formidable audience. Could he expound his vital message without alienating them?
10. How did Paul use tact in introducing his information?
10 Observe from Acts 17:22, 23 with what tact and wisdom Paul began. When he acknowledged how religious the Athenians were and how many idols they had, some of his listeners may have taken it as a compliment. Rather than attack their polytheism, Paul focused on an altar that he had seen, one dedicated “To an Unknown God.” Historical evidence shows that such altars existed, which should strengthen our confidence in Luke’s account. Paul used this altar as a springboard. The Athenians prized knowledge and logic. Still, they admitted that there was a god that was to them “unknown” (Greek, aʹgno·stos). It was only logical, then, that they should allow Paul to explain him to them. Nobody could find fault with that reasoning, could he?
Is God Unknowable?
11. In what way did Paul get his audience to think about the true God?
11 Well, what was this “unknown God” like? “The God” made the world and everything in it. No man would deny that the universe exists, that the plants and animals exist, that we humans exist. The power and intelligence, yes, wisdom, manifested in all of this pointed to its being the product of a wise and powerful Creator, rather than of chance. Actually, Paul’s line of reasoning is even more valid in our time.—Revelation 4:11; 10:6.
12, 13. What modern evidence supports the point Paul made?
12 Not long ago, in the book In the Centre of Immensities, British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell wrote about the extreme complexity of the simplest life-forms on earth. He also discussed whether such life would likely have occurred by accident. His conclusion: “The probability of . . . a chance occurrence leading to the formation of one of the smallest protein molecules is unimaginably small. Within the boundary conditions of time and space which we are considering it is effectively zero.”
13 Or consider the other extreme—our universe. Astronomers have used electronic devices to study its origin. What have they found? In God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow wrote: “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world.” “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians [persons believing in creation] who have been sitting there for centuries.”—Compare Psalm 19:1.
14. What logic supported Paul’s statement about God’s not dwelling in man-made temples?
14 We can thus see how accurate Paul’s comment was at Acts 17:24, which leads us to his next thought, in Acts 17 verse 25. The powerful God who could make “the world and all the things in it” is certainly greater than the material universe. (Hebrews 3:4) So it would not be reasonable to think that he would be limited to dwelling in temples, particularly those built by men who admitted publicly that he was “unknown” to them. What a powerful point to make to philosophers who might at that very moment have been glancing up at the many temples just above!—1 Kings 8:27; Isaiah 66:1.
15. (a) Why would Athena have been on the minds of Paul’s audience? (b) That God is the Giver should lead to what conclusion?
15 Likely, Paul’s listeners had rendered devotion on the Acropolis to one of the statues of their patron goddess, Athena. The revered Athena in the Parthenon was of ivory and gold. Another statue of Athena stood 70 feet [20 m] high and could be seen from ships at sea. And it was said that the idol known as Athena Polias fell from heaven; people regularly brought a new handmade robe for it. Yet, if the God whom those men did not know was the highest One and had created the universe, why would he need to be attended to with things that men might bring? He gives what we need: our “life,” the “breath” we need to sustain it, and “all things,” including the sun, the rain, and the fertile ground where our food grows. (Acts 14:15-17; Matthew 5:45) He is the Giver, men the receivers. Certainly the Giver is not dependent on the receivers.
From One Man—Everyone
16. What claim did Paul make about man’s origin?
16 Next, in Acts 17:26, Paul set out a truth that many people should think about, especially with so much racial injustice in evidence today. He said that the Creator “made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth.” The idea that the human race was a unity or brotherhood (with the implications of this for justice) was something for those men to consider because the Athenians had claimed that they had a special origin that set them apart from the rest of mankind. Paul, however, accepted the Genesis account of a first man, Adam, who became the progenitor of all of us. (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) You might wonder, though: ‘Can such a concept be sustained in our modern scientific era?’
17. (a) How does some modern evidence point in the same direction as Paul did? (b) What bearing does this have on justice?
17 The theory of evolution suggests that man evolved in various places and types. But early last year, Newsweek devoted its science section to “The Search for Adam and Eve.” It focused on recent developments in the field of genetics. While, as we would expect, not all scientists agree, the emerging picture points to the conclusion that all humans have a common genetic ancestor. Since, as the Bible long ago said, all of us are brothers, should there not be justice for all? Should not all of us be entitled to impartial treatment no matter what our skin color, hair type, or other surface characteristics? (Genesis 11:1; Acts 10:34, 35) We still need to know, though, how and when justice will come for mankind.
18. What basis was there for Paul’s statement about God’s dealings with men?
18 Well, in Acts 17 verse 26, Paul pointed out that the Creator could be expected to have a will, or just purpose, for mankind. The apostle knew that when God had dealt with the nation of Israel, He decreed where they should live and how other nations could treat them. (Exodus 23:31, 32; Numbers 34:1-12; Deuteronomy 32:49-52) Of course, Paul’s audience might proudly have applied his comments primarily to themselves. In fact, whether they knew it or not, Jehovah God had prophetically expressed his will about the time, or point in history, when Greece would be the fifth great world power. (Daniel 7:6; 8:5-8, 21; 11:2, 3) Since this One can even maneuver nations, is it not reasonable that we should want to learn of him?
19. Why is Paul’s point at Acts 17:27 a reasonable one?
19 It is not as if God has left us ignorant of him, groping about blindly. He gave the Athenians and us a basis for learning about him. At Romans 1:20 Paul later wrote: “[God’s] invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship.” Hence, God is really not that far off from us if we want to find him and learn about him.—Acts 17:27.
20. How is it true that by God “we have life and move and exist”?
20 Appreciation should motivate us to do so, as Acts 17:28 suggests. God has given us life. Actually, we have more than simple life in the sense that a tree has life. We, and most animals, have the higher living capacity of being able to move about. Are we not happy for that? But Paul takes the matter further. We exist as intelligent beings with personalities. Our God-given brains enable us to think, to grasp abstract principles (such as true justice), and to hope—yes, to look to the future outworking of God’s will. As you can appreciate, Paul must have realized that this would be a lot for the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to accept. To aid them, he quoted some Greek poets whom they knew and respected, which poets had similarly said: “For we are also his progeny.”
21. Our being God’s progeny should affect us in what way?
21 If people appreciate that we are the progeny, or product, of God the Most High, it is only fitting for them to look to him for direction on how to live. You have to admire Paul’s boldness, as he stood almost in the shadow of the Acropolis. He courageously reasoned that our Creator is certainly grander than any man-made statue, even the gold-and-ivory one in the Parthenon. All of us who accept Paul’s statement must likewise agree that God is not like any of the idols worshiped by people today.—Isaiah 40:18-26.
22. How is repentance involved in our receiving justice?
22 This is not merely a technical point for one to accept mentally while continuing to live as before. Paul made that clear in Acts 17 verse 30: “True, God has overlooked the times of such ignorance [of imagining that God is like a puny idol or would accept worship through such], yet now he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent.” Thus, as he built up to his forceful conclusion, Paul presented a startling point—repentance! So if we are looking to God for true justice, it means that we will have to repent. What does that require of us? And how is God going to provide justice for all?
a As do many today, Huxley noted Christendom’s injustices. In an essay on agnosticism, he wrote: “If we could only see . . . the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from this source along the course of the history of Christian nations, our worst imaginations of Hell would pale beside the vision.”
Can You Answer?
◻ What religious situation did Paul find in Athens, and how does a similar situation exist today?
◻ In what ways is God greater than all the false deities that used to be worshiped in the Athens of Paul’s day?
◻ What basic fact about the way God created the human race means that there should be justice for all?
◻ How should humans react to a knowledge of God’s greatness?
[Box on page 6]
Justice for All—Acts, Chapter 17
“16 Now while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit within him came to be irritated at beholding that the city was full of idols. 17 Consequently he began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the other people who worshiped God and every day in the marketplace with those who happened to be on hand. 18 But certain ones of both the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers took to conversing with him controversially, and some would say: ‘What is it this chatterer would like to tell?’ Others: ‘He seems to be a publisher of foreign deities.’ This was because he was declaring the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. 19 So they laid hold of him and led him to the Areopagus, saying: ‘Can we get to know what this new teaching is which is spoken by you? 20 For you are introducing some things that are strange to our ears. Therefore we desire to get to know what these things purport to be.’ 21 In fact, all Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new. 22 Paul now stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said:
“‘Men of Athens, I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are. 23 For instance, while passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which had been inscribed “To an Unknown God.” Therefore what you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you. 24 The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, 25 neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things. 26 And he made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, and he decreed the appointed times and the set limits of the dwelling of men, 27 for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us. 28 For by him we have life and move and exist, even as certain ones of the poets among you have said, “For we are also his progeny.”
29 “‘Seeing, therefore, that we are the progeny of God, we ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man. 30 True, God has overlooked the times of such ignorance, yet now he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent. 31 Because he has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.’”
[Box on page 7]
The Universe Was Created
In 1980 Dr. John A. O’Keefe, of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), wrote: “I subscribe to Jastrow’s view that modern astronomy has found reliable evidence that the Universe was created some fifteen to twenty billion years ago.” “I find it very moving to see how the evidence for the Creation . . . should be so clearly stamped on everything around us: the rocks, the sky, the radio waves, and on the most fundamental laws of physics.”
[Box on page 9]
“The Search for Adam and Eve”
Under that title, a Newsweek article said in part: “The veteran excavator Richard Leakey declared in 1977: ‘There is no single center where modern man was born.’ But now geneticists are inclined to believe otherwise . . . ‘If it’s correct, and I’d put money on it, this idea is tremendously important,’ says Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist and essayist. ‘It makes us realize that all human beings, despite differences in external appearance, are really members of a single entity that’s had a very recent origin in one place. There is a kind of biological brotherhood that’s much more profound than we ever realized.’”—January 11, 1988.