If you asked the Corinthians or the Ephesians (Paul was writing from Ephesus) or the Athenians why they regarded the preaching of the cross as foolish what are they likely to have said? Paul didn’t spell it out in his letter, as its readers would have known this already - but we don’t without some research. So for starters here of a few of the objections they would have had - to which Paul would have had to reply in detail if he was to win them over - more apologetics than preaching. No wonder he spent years in some of these places. This should sensitise us for evangelism in our culture and other cultures. Also unless these issues are worked through pagan ideas will re-appear in the life of the church and be regarded as solidly Christian. Indeed this is precisely what has happened.
1. The immortal glitterati gods and goddesses on mount Olympus are a self-centred aristocracy - partying and fighting - who have little concern with mortal humans. Their occasional concern usually involves seducing beautiful women or bringing tragedy on some talented and ambitious man who is getting above his station...getting a bit too god-like for comfort. The idea of a god sacrificing himself for mere mortal was utterly unthinkable. Mortals existed in order to serve the gods with worship and sacrifices in their temples (the temple of Aphrodite- Venus- was huge with 1000 prostitute priestesses)- and to be their playthings -not the other way round.(Just like the 400,000 slaves in Corinth existed to serve their masters amongst the 250,000 freemen).
2. Even if the gods had compassion on mortal man - which they don't - they cannot save him from death and cannot resurrect him. Fate is a stronger impersonal power which even the gods cannot overcome.
3. Even philosophers who wanted a "higher" "more spiritual "idea of deity end up with a self-preoccupied deity. Aristotle's god is "Thought-thinking -about-itself" - who neither created the world nor loves it -indeed is quite oblivious to it. He - or it? -has other things on his mind - himself!
4. The idea of an immortal taking on mortal flesh was regarded as both impossible and abhorrent. Flesh and matter were intrinsically evil so any incarnation would make the one incarnated evil by definition.
5. The Greeks regarded history as cyclical - so the very idea of a directional history was strange to them. This of course is what we have in the unfolding plan of God from creation to re-creation with Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and second coming at the centre of it.
6. The Greeks had various idea of the afterlife none of which involved glorious bodily resurrection. Some held we all went into a grey ghostly world of shades in an underworld - a dismal sort of minimal life, all the joy and colour and pleasure drained away. Others, like Plato suggested that a tiny minority (philosophers mostly -he would say that!) could escape the fate of reincarnation (as humans, slugs or whatever) so that their rational souls currently imprisoned in bodies( yuk!) could escape up into the unchanging heaven of static perfection to simply be for ever.
7. For the Greeks the gods were Greek....not barbarians! So they didn't take well to any deity who was Jewish... a foreign deity! No immigrant gods!
8. Underlying all this the Greeks had no conception of Creator and creation., and the love and commitment of the Creator for his creatures. For them there was simply the higher unchanging world and the world of flux, change and decay around us; a "natural "world and a "spiritual" world .Both were eternal. There would never be a re-newed re-united heaven and earth indwelt by God-with-us, Emmanuel!
Isn't the whole biblical revelation about things so glorious - even more so when you consider the pagan alternative. The tragedy is that many aspects of paganism were brought into the church by church fathers- theologians!- and have depressingly hung around ever since in spite of reformations, renewals and revivals. We need an even more determined effort in our time to get back to the Bible! and to examine the last 2000 years of church history with prophetic eyes wide open!
Richard A. Russell