Paul’s Proposal to the Pagans: ‘Never Was a Tale Told That Men Would Rather Find True’

We worship a God who became man, suffered death and was buried — and rose again from the grave.

Anonymous, “Saint Paul in Athens,” 19th century
Anonymous, “Saint Paul in Athens,” 19th century (photo: Public Domain)

The enemies of faith have succeeded in killing its followers many times over. They have not, however, ever succeeded in throttling faith itself. Christianity will never pass away, even as Christians themselves are often put to the sword. And the reason is perfectly plain — we have a God who knows how to climb out of the grave. That despite all the evidence telling us he died a most ignominious death, and would thus stay dead forever, he was actually seen and spoken to three days later. Crucified and Risen, no less, in the short space of a weekend! 

Everything we believe about Christianity hangs on the truth of that single historical claim. If he did not burst through the gate and the grave of death, dismantling that darkest and most dismal of doors, then it’s all bosh, the sheerest driveling nonsense we’ve ever heard. 

’And on the third day he rose again.’ What are we to make of that?” asks Dorothy Sayers in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. 

One thing is certain: if he was God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.

Isn’t this precisely the claim St. Paul set before the men of Athens when he was brought to the Areopagus to give an account of himself and his message? How startling and strange it had then seemed to the pagan world. This exquisitely presented speech in which he first congratulates them on their reverence for the gods, including even “an unknown god,” whom he thereupon reveals as the one and only true God, Lord of history and the cosmos, whom all the world must now turn to and obey. “The times of ignorance God overlooked,” he explains, “but now he commands all men everywhere to repent,

because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31)

The reaction? Plain derision from some, patronizing dismissal from others, and from a small number — “among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17: 34) — profound discipleship. Who knows? Perhaps it will fall to them to spearhead the conversion of the others. 

But how exactly are they to do this? If news of a dead Jew who yet rose from the dead and promised to return in glory to judge the world — if that’s the sticking point, and there can be no turning back from the truth of it, what do we say to people who remain unpersuaded by it?

A fellow like Porphyry, for instance, who, as a learned disciple of Plotinus, gave expression to the entire pagan mindset of the ancient world in its principled rejection of Christ. “How can one admit” he asks in Against the Christians, “that the divine should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile, and worse things yet?” By which he means, of course, those far messier details of bloody crucifixion and death. Only to be followed by the most preposterous claim of all, that on Easter Morn this dead Jew rises triumphant to take ownership of the world.

Of course, the story is incredible! It would hardly require a scintilla of faith if it were not. But, as Gregory of Nyssa reminds us, “If all things were within our grasp, the Higher Power would not be beyond us.” And — God be praised — there will always be those who, in the teeth of the skeptic’s refusal to accept anything he cannot empirically verify, will yet persist in believing it. For them, like Pascal, the heart will always have reasons of which reason knows nothing. Or as that wonderful storyteller, J.R.R. Tolkien, once said on hearing the Christian Story, “Never was a tale told that men would rather find true.”

So, how do we move people from Porphyry to Paul? How do we get them to believe? That is the question of faith put to those who have it in order to bring to Christ all those others who do not have it. And the answer is grace. The grace of those who have it, on the one hand, to be so convicted of its importance in their own lives that others, seeing the joy and the confidence they radiate, will be moved to ask why. And, on the other hand, the grace of those whose argument for Christ, for the sheer believability of the Christian claim, the Christian hypothesis, is made in such an attractive and compelling way that, aroused by the beauty of the Catholic Thing, they too will be moved to ask why.

“I remember once on the stairs,” writes Luigi Giussani, recalling his earliest years before becoming a priest, “while we were going down to the church in silence, a friend said to me, “’Just think that God became a man like us.’ He stopped short at that phrase, and it remained impressed upon me, so much that I said back to him, ‘If God became man it is something of another world! It is something out of this world that lives in this world!’” 

Many years later, returning to this, this defining theme of his life, his work, he wrote: “This is what makes the world different, more bearable, more beautiful.”