The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Acts 17 and UR

Just curious as to whether or not anyone had written on this or know of anyone who has? I’m referring to verses 22ff.

As a matter of fact, I referenced this passage in my introduction here. I’ve might have mentioned in some other posts as well. But yeah, while it didn’t totally bring me into UR at first, it was definitely a step in that direction.

Thanks Dondi, our backgrounds and current situiations are very similar. Its one of the things that leads me to believe that God may be doing something among certain people. Not real sure I’m glad He picked me, if indeed He did.

I’m curious. How would one argue UR from Acts 17? I mean, I can agree that God makes himself available to all, always and everywhere; that Christ’s work benefits anonymous Christians, those who (if we go with the text) reach out for God in sincerity and faith. This gets you the universal availability of grace at best. But one may refuse what’s universally available. So how are you seeing UR in this passage?


Hi Nimble, Dondi, Tom –

I’ve been thinking about this passage for awhile as well…
My take is that it’s maybe a “soft” UR passage; not completely compelling on it’s own but, when buttressed by all the other passages we talk about one can certainly read it as being supportive of the kind of God who has in mind the salvation of all.

Here are the words of the text (NIV)

Acts 17:22-34
22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.
23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown 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.
25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.
26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.
27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each 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 man’s design and skill.
30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
31For 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 all men by raising him from the dead.”

Several points/observations from this layman, in no particular order…

  1. I like the idea that God seems to be the initiator here; that “thing” inside folks that makes them want/need to worship IS the work of God already…

  2. God seems to “go where folks are” and meets them there – not over here in MY church (where EVERYTHING makes perfect sense!! :laughing: ) That’s very winsome of God to shoulder the task thus…

  3. The vastness of the group being talked about importantly includes the entire creation (eg v24) which makes Calv selectivity ideas difficult to embrace…

  4. The identity of those who are the object of the witness of Christ and His resurrection from the dead also seems to be the entirety of humanity.

  5. So while eventual outcomes are not really the topic/focus here, certainly the provisions and intent for UR can easily and fairly be implied I think.


Both of these quotes are originally references to Zeus. There might be a bit of uncertainty about the first one but for certain the poet who is being cited in the second one is Aratos, who, as it so happens, might have been Paul’s fellow countryman, i.e. from Tarsus. The entire poem of Aratos that Paul is quoting, called Phaenomena, “Appearances,” is still extant. Its intro, which is the area of interest here, goes like so:

genus {tribe or ethnic group}’]
And in his kindness to men he gives favourable signs
And awakes the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.
He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock
And what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds.
For he himself set the signs in heaven and marked out the constellations
And for the year devised primarily what stars should give to men right signs of the seasons
To the end that all things might grow without failure
Wherefore men worship him first and last.
Hail, Father! Mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men!

There’s quite a bit of legend and history in the background of this passage of The Acts of the Apostles suggesting that Paul’s address of the group here is meant to be the fulfilment of an old Athenian prophecy. But if we rewound the cassette as far back as the origin of the 1st of Paul’s quotes above, we end would end up in the land of Canaan, at least the fabulous Greek version thereof.

Not too long after the Flood, an African princess bore the Greek sea-god Poseidon a son named Agenor, who grew up in Egypt but eventually went on to become king of the Canaanites in the region of Tyre and Sidon. He had a daughter named Europa who was so beautiful that she was abducted by Zeus, the king of the gods, who was also Poseidon’s brother (and therefore Europa’s own great-uncle). Zeus took Europa away to the island of Krete [Crete] where they had several children, the most famous of whom was Minos, who became the island’s king when he grew up. He is best known for having given his name to the monster Minotauros, “Minos’ Bull” [the Minotaur], which was his own stepson and which was slain by the Athenian prince Theseus. So here’s our first major connection between Athens and Krete. In the meantime the continent of Europe got its name from Minos’ mother.

In some less-known details regarding Minos and his brother Rhadamanthys, these sons of Zeus bear a striking resemblance to Moses and Aaron (who would have lived roughly one generation afterwards). There was a cave on Mt Dikte in Krete to which Rhadamanthys used to go every nine years to consult Zeus, who each time would give him a new set of laws for the kingdom. Minos and Rhadamanthys had a disagreement about something, which ended in Rhadamanthys’ expulsion from Krete. From then on every nine years Minos would ascend another mountain on the island, named Ida, and there consult Zeus Idaios (Zeus of Ida) for the latest updates to the law. For their reputations as lawgiving priest-kings, and apparently men of justice as well, after they died both Minos and Rhadamanthys became part of the court of their uncle Hades, the king of the Underworld, whom they assisted in delivering justice to the dead.

According to Kretan tradition, apparently even in the time of these brothers, Zeus had been a young prince who was gored to death by a wild boar. This was the story told to explain significant differences between the cult of Zeus on Krete Island (which wasn’t really Greek, as we can tell from the legends of Afro-Phoenician origins) and the mainstream Olympian practices on the mainland. A number of places on the island were identified as the prince’s tomb, one of those being on a mountain near Knossos, the capital city of the kingdom.

Seven or eight hundred years after the time of Minos there lived an enigmatic prophet from Knossos whose name was Epimenides. He wrote a poem entitled Kretika in which he quotes King Minos decrying the tradition that Zeus was dead when he says that:

So there, supposedly, is our source for the first half of Acts 17:28. It is also the same passage that Paul quotes in Titus 1:12 (see the first emboldened line above), and Epimenides is understood to be the prophet to whom Paul refers in that passage of his letter to Titus.

Epimenides is supposed to have lived six or seven hundred years before Paul’s time, when Athens was afflicted by a horrible plague which the city’s elders believed to be a curse for their having killed a group of insurrectionists to whom they had promised amnesty. The Athenians were well-known for being careful not to neglect the cult of any deity of whom they were aware, and so they sacrificed to their many gods but to no avail. They inquired after a solution from the famous oracle at Delphi and were told that there was one god who remained unappeased for their treachery. The oracle didn’t know who this was but said that Epimenides the Kretan had the answer. So a delegation was sent to Krete to request his assistance, to which Epimenides agreed. Upon his arrival, similarly to Paul after him, he was amazed to find one of the roads on the approach to the city lined with images of gods, in their hundreds. In Paul’s time there was a Roman saying that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.

Epimenides went up to Areiopagos, commonly translated (via Latin, through Roman Catholic influence, it seems) as “Mars Hill,” Mars being the name by which the Romans referred to the Greek war-god Ares. A better translation of the name of this place would be “Ares’ Crag.” It was here that the city’s first council, closer to the time of the Flood, had tried a case against Ares himself, who had been charged with murder by his own uncle Poseidon since Ares had killed Poseidon’s son for violating (or attempting to violate) Ares’ daughter who lived in Athens. Ares was acquitted by the council and ever since then it was called after his name.

Epimenides’ solution to the Athenians’ problem was to propose to the city council that there must be a god who was unknown to them who was good and great enough to lift the plague if his aid was invoked. But, the elders questioned, how could they call upon a god whose name was unknown? Epimenides responded that any god who was good enough and great enough to save them from this crisis was probably also great and good enough to smile upon their ignorance if they acknowledged this ignorance and sought his favour.

The Kretan poet had a flock of healthy sheep, black ones and white ones, brought to the grassy slopes of Areiopagos, where a sign was sought to decide where exactly to build an altar to the god. This was early in the morning before the animals had been grazed and were at their hungriest, unlikely to stop grazing of their own accord. Wherever a sheep sat down on the grass instead of grazing, this would be the sign of where to mark the foundation of an altar. Several sheep ended up lying down and not grazing, and these were sacrificed where they lay, upon new altars which were constructed with inscriptions “To the Unknown God.” Within a week, the Athenians stricken by the plague recovered.

Peter Hiett concludes the story as follows:

It’s not at all obvious based on Acts 17 that the Athenians recognised Paul’s revelation of Agnostos Theos (“Unknown God”) as a fulfilment of centuries-old prophecy. I see a parallel here between Athens and Jerusalem.

In speaking to a Samaritan woman, the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus explicitly admits his identity as the Messiah, Jesus says to her that “an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizzim] nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know. We [Jews] worship what we do know” (John 4:21).

What I see being commonly revealed in all this, based on testimony both from inside and outside the commonwealth of Israel, is a universality of divine fatherhood.

When speaking of the Samaritan woman’s own worship, Jesus acknowledges that she does in fact worship the Father though, as a non-Jew, she does not know. I see him also essentially admitting to her that they are siblings: he the son of Judah, she the daughter of Joseph (as the Gospel-writer is sure to underscore in v. 5 of the same chapter), Judah and Joseph beings son of Jacob, and all of them being children of God.

Paul is admitting that when Aratos says that he, a Greek, as well as his fellow non-Jews, are also the children of an immanent God who participates in the daily affairs of all humankind, he is correct.

And best of all, one of the most famous sayings that we have about the all-pervasive immanence of the God being preached by Paul (in whom we live and move and consist) actually comes from a Kretan prophet whose view of God is so high that he is essentially saying: Beyond God being everywhere and in everything, rather everyone, everywhere and everything is inside God. In Paul’s letters this takes the form of God and Christ being all in all.

Epimenides and the Athenians were not the only people to have a notion of an agnostos theos. Ancient Egyptian hymns in honour of Amūn reveal that, like all Egyptian names, it was conceived of as more of an identifier of character or nature rather than a rigid label. Amūn means “Hidden” or “Unrevealed,” and the idea is that he is really an Unknown God, down to his name. I’m convinced that the nature of this deity has a lot to do with Moses’ discussion with the Existing One on Mt Horeb, about what His Name is (see Exodus 3:1-15).

Hymns to Amūn

A Self-Verifying Chronological History of Ancient Egypt, Orlando P. Schmidt

“God is Spirit, and the ones worshipping Him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
– John 4:24

The Babylonians, who have, together with the ancient Egyptians, suffered much demonisation in Western Christendom, also had a very robust theology of an unknown god, and were, as it so happens, pretty big on repentance! There’s a collection of Assyro-Babylonian liturgal poetry in which the king, much like Israel’s David, begs God (as far as he can be conceived of) for forgiveness for sin. The modern label for this material is the “Babylonian Penitential Psalms,” in which the king seeks to pacify his God, whether known or unknown, for the transgressions committed knowingly or unknowingly.

Hymn 8

– Acts 2:17

– Acts 17:23