Question: "What happened at Mars Hill in the Bible?"
Answer: Mars Hill is the Roman name for a hill in Athens, Greece, called the Hill of Ares or the Areopagus (Acts 17:19, 22). Ares was the Greek god of war and according to Greek mythology this hill was the place where Ares stood trial before the other gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son Alirrothios. Rising some 377 feet above the land below and not far from the Acropolis and Agora (marketplace), Mars Hill served as the meeting place for the Areopagus Court, the highest court in Greece for civil, criminal, and religious matters. Even under Roman rule in the time of the New Testament, Mars Hill remained an important meeting place where philosophy, religion, and law were discussed.
The biblical significance of Mars Hill is that it is the location of one of Paul’s most important gospel presentations at the time of his visit to Athens during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:16–34). It was where he addressed the religious idolatry of the Greeks who even had an altar to the “Unknown God.” It was this altar and their religious idolatry that Paul used as a starting point in proclaiming to them the one true God and how they could be reconciled to Him. Paul’s sermon is a classic example of a gospel presentation that begins where the listeners are and then presents the gospel message in a logical and biblical fashion. In many ways it is a classic example of apologetics in action. Paul started his message by addressing the false beliefs of those gathered there that day and then used those beliefs as a way of presenting the gospel message to them.
We know that when Paul arrived in Athens he found a city “given over to idols” (Acts 17:16). In his usual manner, Paul began presenting the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. He started by “reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers” (Acts 17:17) and then also proclaimed the gospel “in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). While at the marketplace he encountered some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18) who, having heard Paul proclaim the resurrected Jesus Christ, wanted to learn about “this new doctrine” he was teaching, so they “brought him to the Areopagus” to hear more from him (Acts 17:19–20).
We know from history that the Epicurean philosophers generally believed that God existed but that He was not interested or involved with humanity and that the main purpose of life was pleasure. On the other hand, the Stoic philosophers had the worldview that “God was the world’s soul” and that the goal of life was “to rise above all things” so that one showed no emotional response to either pain or pleasure. These groups and others with their dramatically opposing worldviews loved to discuss and debate philosophy and religion. Intrigued by what they considered Paul’s “babblings” about the resurrection of Christ, they brought him to the Areopagus where the Athenians and foreigners “spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).
As mentioned earlier, Paul’s presentation of the gospel is a great example for us, both as a pattern for how Paul identified with his audience and as an example of apologetics in action. His connection with his audience is seen in how he begins addressing those gathered at the Areopagus. He begins with the observation that they were “very religious,” based on the fact that they had many altars and “objects of worship” (Acts 17:23) including an altar to “the Unknown God.” Paul uses that altar to introduce them to the one true God and the only way of salvation, Jesus Christ.
His apologetic method and his knowledge that they did not even know what God is really like leads him to go back to Genesis and to the beginning of creation. Having a completely wrong view of God, those gathered that day needed to hear what God really was like before they would understand the message of the gospel. Paul begins explaining to them the sovereign God who created all things and gives life and breath to all things. He continues to explain that it was God who created from one individual all men and nations and even appointed the time and boundaries of their dwelling (Acts 17:26). His message continues as he explains the closeness of God and their need to repent of their rebellion against Him. Paul completes his message by introducing them to the One before whom they would all stand one day and be judged—Jesus Christ, whom God had raised from the dead.
Of course, many in the audience scoffed at the idea that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead on the third day because the idea of the resurrection to the Greeks was foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). Yet a few believed what Paul said and joined him.
What happened on Mars Hill is important because of the many lessons that can be learned, not only from how Paul presented the gospel and presented a biblical worldview, but also in the varied responses he received. Some of those there that day believed and were saved, others mocked Paul and rejected his message, and still others were open-minded and desired to hear more. We can only hope that those who were open-minded were later convinced of the truth and also repented and believed.
As with all men, those who were confronted with the truth of the gospel and did not respond in faith had no guarantee of a second chance. As Hebrews 3:15 says, “Today if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in rebellion.” Paul’s message to the philosophers on Mars Hill that day ended with a call to repentance and acceptance of the two fundamental truths of Scripture that Paul was committed to preaching—the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul preached Christ crucified to them as he always did wherever he went (1 Corinthians 2:2).