The scene here takes place in Athens when Paul was traveling around with other believers and preaching the Good News of Jesus and his resurrection (Acts 17). Paul, Silas, and Timothy had journeyed to Berea, near Thessaloniki in modern day Greece. However, some Jews from Thessaloniki followed Paul and the others to Berea and began to agitate the crowds there (Acts 17:13), so the Christians from Thessaloniki sent Paul on to Athens ahead of the other two in order to protect him (Acts 17:14). And there Paul waited for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him (Acts 17:15).
Paul noticed that the city was full of idols, and began preaching to all those who would listen (Acts 17:16-17). Eventually, the people of the city brought Paul to the Aeropagus (a.k.a. Mars Hill) so that he could present this new and strange teaching to them (Acts 17:19-20).
Paul was very observant of the culture of the city and the religions therein, and had noticed an idol labeled, “To the unknown god” (Acts 17:22-23). Apparently, they just wanted to make sure they hadn’t left anyone out in their worship. Paul astutely mentioned this as a segue into preaching about the “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24), from which he preached against their idol worship, declared the good news of the gospel, and told of the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:24-31). Some mocked him, some wanted to hear more, and others joined him. (Acts 17:32-34).
Speak to the Culture
The best part of this section of Scripture is how Paul used the idols and ideas the people were already familiar with in order to preach them the gospel. This kind of culture-using mindset to preach the gospel can also be seen in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he writes:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
~ 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
And the best part of Paul’s preaching is his use of the term “Divine Being.” It is the most striking image, and one easily understood, particularly in Asia.
Buddhism is the Culture
Buddhism is easily the most widespread of Asia’s religions. The top 11 countries in the world with the highest proportion of Buddhists are all in Asia:
- Thailand (95%)
- Cambodia (90%)
- Myanmar (88%)
- Bhutan (75%)
- Sri Lanka (70%)
- Tibet (65%)
- Loas (60%)
- Vietnam (55%)
- Japan (50%)
- Macau (45%)
- Taiwan (43%)
The top 10 largest national Buddhist populations in the world exist in entirely Asian countries:
- China (102,000,000)
- Thailand (55,480,000)
- Vietnam: (49,690,000)
- Myanmar: (41,610,000)
- Sri Lanka: (12,540,000)
- South Korea: (10,920,000)
- Taiwan: (9,150,000)
- Cambodia: (9,130,000)
- Japan (8,965,000)
- India: (7,000,000)
In fact, Buddhism is so engrained in many of these countries that it has literally become a part of the national culture. Take Korea where I live for example. While 29.2% of the population professes to Christianity (Protestant or Catholic), about 22.8% profess to be Buddhist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_South_Korea). This means that we enjoy both Jesus’ birthday and Buddha’s birthday as national holidays. Additionally, as Buddhism was the religion of the land for much longer than Christianity, there can still be seen many elements from Buddhism that have been incorporated into the national culture, and even the Christian culture. Some of these things (may) include:
- Prayer notes or ribbons tied to parts of the temples (or surrounding trees) as “good luck” charms to help sons and daughters ace tests or interviews.
- Bowing down to a fully prepared table and prayer to (or for) ancestors on major national holidays like Chuseok and Seolnal.
- Bowing down to ancestors’ tombs in the countryside and pouring out alcohol for them over their graves.
- Dawn prayer services for Christians (originating from a Buddhist practice of dawn prayer).
- Prayer mountains for Christians.
- And so on (there are probably more, but these are the only ones I’m familiar with. Additionally, I’m not a practicing Buddhist, nor am I well-versed in all the ins-and-outs of their philosophies or worship practices – especially among the different sects – but these are what I’ve come to understand over the years. If there is anyone out there with more first-hand knowledge of these things than me, feel free to correct me on this).
So, honestly, Buddhism is deeply embedded into the culture of all of Asia – even in Korea, which boasts one of the largest populations of Christians in Asia. Therefore, it is imperative to use what is familiar to the culture (as Paul did) to speak biblical truth to it. So, for this image, I chose to use a statue of Buddha, and the striking quotation from Acts 17:29: “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.”
Is Buddhism Idol Worship?
Now, Buddha never claimed to be a Divine Being himself, but he supposedly was able to obtain Nirvana, which is a divine-like state. So, through his own practice of Buddhism and the achievement of Nirvana, he became something of a Divine Being, and worshipers worship him as a Divine Being today through their use of idols and incense.
Buddhists may defend their use of idols to aid their worship as Pema Chodron has:
Not at all! A piece of clay or bronze or jade is not the object of our respect and worship. When we bow before Buddha images, we are recalling the qualities of the enlightened beings. It is their impartial love and compassion, generosity, morality, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom that we are showing respect to. The statue or painting serves to remind us of the qualities of the Buddha, and it is the qualities, not the clay, that we are bowing to. We need not have a statue in front of us in order to bow to or respect the Buddhas and their qualities.
For example, if we go to a place far away from our family, we think about them and feel much love. But we also like to have a photo of them with us to remember them better. When we look at the photo and feel love for our family, we are not loving the paper and ink of the photo! The photo merely strengthens our memory. It is similar with a statue or painting of the Buddha.
By showing respect to the Buddhas and their qualities, we are inspired to develop these extraordinary qualities on our own mind streams. We become like the people we respect. When we take the love-kindness and wisdom of the Buddhas as our example, we strive to become like them’.
Others have also compared the usage of Buddhism’s idols to the usage of Islamic prayer mats, or Catholic rosaries, or Christian paintings of Jesus. These are supposedly just “ways to enter in to a fuller experience of the prayers of the religion.” However, they are nothing alike. Christians, and even Muslims, do not regularly bow down before any object, even out of respect, during worshipful prayers – yet for Buddhism, it seems to be a regular requirement. In fact, the Christian God regularly forbids any kind of bowing down before any object (idol) numerous times in Scripture (Exodus 20:5, Exodus 23:24, Leviticus 26:1, Deuteronomy 4:19, Deuteronomy 5:9, Joshua 23:7), and equates the people to whores when they do so (Judges 2:17), and declares his anger (wrath) on them as well (Numbers 25:1-3, Joshua 23:16, Judges 2:12).
Salvation is Found in No One Else
So, considering the surrounding culture in which I live, I decided to take the most stark and recognizable image of obvious, rampant, cultural idolatry I could find (the Buddha) and apply Paul’s words to the Athenians to it. And additionally, the question that is written on there as well, “Can man’s hands form the God who formed him?” asks whether or not the Creator can ever become the created. Buddha is obviously not the Creator, and he did not claim to be, but people still pray to him and worship him and depend on him to save them, to help them reach enlightenment, and to take them into Nirvana (heaven), just as Christians do to Jesus. The only difference being that Buddha cannot save them; gold Buddhas can save no more than silver Buddhas or stone Buddhas. The only salvation to be found in this life is in Jesus Christ alone:
John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(And besides, how pitiful is it when a man creates a thing with his own two hands, and then bows down and worships it – that thing which has no life in it, which never has had, nor ever will have any power to save him?)
True Salvation, True Enlightenment, True Nirvana
But, we still must do as Paul did. Take the culture we see around us, and use it to our advantage to spread the good news of the gospel, and teach people about the only true salvation (Jesus Christ – John 14:6), the only true path to enlightenment (obedience that leads to righteousness – Romans 6:16), and the only true Nirvana (in heaven, before the throne of God and the Lamb, with all his servants, worshiping him - Revelation 22:3).