Late Modern Paganism

believe in something biggerIn Acts 17 Luke tells the story of Paul’s encounter with the Athenian Philosophical Society. Luke mentions two philosophical schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The latter were looking for the universal rational principle, for the way to align themselves with the nature of things. The former were looking for the most sublime experience. Paul preached the Law and the Gospel to both of them.

Despite their pretense  of sophistication, whereby they had moved beyond religion, Paul observed that they were, in fact, quite religious. They worshipped an unknown god. In contrast to their unknown (and unknowable) God he preached to them the God who is and who has revealed himself, i.e., who is known, whom, in their conscience, they know by virtue of the natural knowledge of God that all humans have. The God who is spoke all things into existence by the power of his word. The God who is sustains effortlessly all that he has made. We, Paul explained, are his image bearers. We are made to know him and to be known by him. Even the pagan poets recognize that we are analogues of God. We can know by natural reason that God is not an idol made by hands, that he is just, and that there is a judgment. We all know that. He concluded his law preaching by and, at the same time, pivoted to the gospel by pointing to the certainty of the coming judgement which was certified by the resurrection of Christ. According to Luke, some of the philosophers mocked him when he mentioned the resurrection but others were intrigued and wanted to know more. Some, including Denis and Damaris, believed the good news that Christ had indeed is God the Son incarnate and he has been raised from the dead.

The evidence that nothing has really changed since Mars Hill (Areopagus) is all around us. The California Lottery is openly religious in its advertising: “Believe In Something Bigger.” The statistical likelihood of winning the Super California Lotto is 1 in 18 million. Those are long odds but people line up every day at cash registers all over the state hoping blindly to win a big prize. They worship an unknown god.

The California Lottery knows that people are longing for a glorious future. In theological terms the lottery is promising an eschatology. What’s interesting is that the lottery doesn’t just promise more of what folk already have but something bigger, something transcendent. That’s religion.

There can be little doubt that the California Lottery is selling a neo-pagan religion of future blessedness. Notice the imperative: “Believe!” That’s religious language. One believes in a promise, in something or someone greater than one’s self. One does not believe in a car or a house but one does believes in a future blessedness or in a god of some sort. The lottery god isn’t entirely unknown but he is quite unlikely. The irony is that faith in the lottery god is blind faith. If one bought 50 lottery tickets each week, one would win the jackpot about once every 5,000 years. One is more likely to be struck by lightning.

The lottery god dispenses “free money” to 1 in 18 million but with that money often comes misery.  According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, “as many as 70 percent of Americans who experience a sudden windfall will lose that money within a few years.” Believe it or not it’s not easy being fabulously wealthy. The IRS pays more attention to you. Your family, some of whom you didn’t know were family, suddenly wants to reconnect. It’s hard to know if that new friend really is a friend or someone who wants something. It can be isolating and lonely. It’s a lot of responsibility. It can be a full-time job just administering the money. Playing the lottery isn’t great preparation for managing great wealth. The new wealth can become life dominating and sometimes it is life destroying: it can even get one murdered.

The lottery is evidence that people are worshipping an unknown god or at least a highly unlikely god, who does not satisfy, who does not save, who does not hear prayers, and who is not present with his people. The lottery isn’t a savior. In a perverse way that’s good news. The fact that people openly express a yearning for “something bigger” and express it in patently religious terms reveals quite unintentionally that we are all incurably religious, just like the Epicureans and the Stoics. It means that people need what Christ gives, even if they don’t know it.

When we speak the law and the gospel to a lost and dying world, we’re not wasting our time. It may seem like foolishness and it may be denounced as such, as it was a Mars Hill, but by God’s grace some will believe. Those believers will put their trust in something bigger—not the lottery but someone truly glorious and truly saving. The lottery doesn’t save. At best, winning the lottery is like painting the waiting room in the morgue. It might make the waiting room more pleasant but it’s still the waiting room and all the lottery money in the world won’t close the morgue or make it unnecessary. Only Jesus fundamentally changes the equation. Only he has overcome death. Only he gives new life.

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  1. Good post…to quote Ken Ham, “don’t expect an Acts 2 response in an Acts 17 culture”

    • In both Acts 2 and 17 the law and the gospel were preached to unbelievers. Both are examples of grace and salvation sovereignly administered. In both cases the elect came to faith.

  2. Agreed…and in both cases means were used to those ends

    The argument was that the biblical literacy of the audience has some bearing on the response, with the recognition that our society today is biblically illiterate (whether that be in California, Michigan, the Netherlands, or Nebraska) and to expect the responses we find in Acts 17:16-34. We should also expect to be provoked by what we see around us (Acts 17:16), and to pray that our own responses would be in accord with the heart that Paul had for his own kinsmen according to the flesh in Romans 9:2-3.

  3. I would welcome the responsibility if I won a lottery and I wouldn’t let it destroy my life though I would be afraid of being murdered or robbed. But it’s moot because I don’t play the Lottery nor do I gamble as both are clearly designed so that you lose.

  4. I remember the first time I attended a professional meeting at a casino hotel in Mississippi. If you are familiar with casino architecture, you know that you have to walk through the “gaming” (gambling) area to reach the meeting rooms. (Ain’t that clever!) To this day, I regret dropping eight quarters into the slots and pulling the lever. That wasted $2.00 still haunts me a bit. It certainly taught me a lesson.

    I’m headed to another meeting next month – the last one before retirement – at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. The floor walkers must know me by now. They don’t even smile when I whiz by.

  5. The next time you’re at a casino resort hotel – for professional purposes, I trust – look closely at the people in the gambling area. Except for the employees, the same blank stare is on everyone’s face. Nobody smiles. These poor people (all poor emotionally, many poor financially) seem trapped by their hope to get something for nothing. The Romans 1 suppression of the truth is as clear there as anywhere on earth. It’s all very sad. No wonder there is incessant music, constant noise, ever-shifting lights on the floor. Anything to keep people from actually thinking about what they are doing.

  6. If we are to take the words of Romans 1 seriously, we find that everybody is religious because when we don’t worship the creator, we worship the creature.

    This is true even for the self-described atheist like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Their religion was that of following the state religion according to Noam Chomsky who called them religious fanatics .

    However, if we are to provide a public distinction between who is religious and who is atheist, then, to be religious, the object of one’s worship must have access to nonnatural powers and abilities. Thus, the atheist would not be considered religious though each atheist does worship at least one idol or god.

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