What Do Pagans Want?

Everyone wants forgiveness. Right? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

A few nights ago, Allie and I were having some talk at night about salvation. I had told her it always helps to think about salvation more so we can realize what we have. I try to follow my own advice, so when I went to sleep that night, I decided to think about it as well and before too long, my mind reached a question that I’ve been pondering.

When we talk about salvation, we talk about how we are forgiven, and we are grateful to be forgiven. However, I thought about the idea of the Christians going out and preaching a message of forgiveness and then realized what was going on. Why should I think that the pagans at the time were really wanting forgiveness?

One of the great dangers we have in our day and age is to transplant our values today onto those of the past. Today, we all talk about guilt and knowing that we’ve done wrong. In fact, this is how an argument like “The Way of the Master” (I prefer to call it “The Way of Disaster”) begins. It is the goal to get someone to realize that they’ve done wrong and that they need forgiveness.

Naturally, there are problems with it. After all, in our day and age of moral relativism, it can be difficult to get some people to think they’ve really done something wrong. If they can do that, it’s something to get them to think they’ve offended God. If you do that, to which you still have to first establish His existence to people, it’s another step to get them to think that they need forgiveness instead of God just letting it slide. Even still, you would have to show that that forgiveness is in Christ which means an apologetic for the resurrection.

I could be odd, but maybe it would be best to just start with the existence of God and the resurrection.

In fact, let’s put the situation into the mindset of the ancient world. What if the first Christians had gone to the pagans and said “Good news! Forgiveness is available!” The pagans would probably have wondered the same thing. Why do they need forgiveness? There would have been no thought of “Going to Heaven when you die.” The pagans did not have much of a view of an after-death. Of course, there were some ideas, but the greater focus was the good life here and now. Resurrection was definitely not in the picture.

Nor would they have thought in terms of sins. Sacrifices could be offered, but these were usually in a form of appeasement. If you want the blessings of Poseidon as you travel on the sea, you make an offering to him. If you want the favor of the emperor, you would do the same thing.

I started going to Bible programs then and doing searches through books of the NT and found surprises. The gospel of John only mentions forgiveness in one part, and that’s in John 20. Galatians, which is all about salvation for us, did not have mention of sin or forgiveness. Now to be sure, it talks about grace and the works of the flesh, but it’s amazing how rarely some of these terms show up in comparison to what we’d think.

Now of course, this is not to say forgiveness is not part of the proclamation nor is it saying that the Bible does not teach forgiveness of sins. It is not even saying forgiveness is unimportant. It certainly is. Forgiveness is an awesome event and it is something that we all need, but not all realize they need it.

So what are some other reasons why someone could become a believer? One aspect could be appeasement. This could contain an aspect of forgiveness to it, but the idea was that if one wanted the favor of YHWH, one would have to become a follower of Him and one would have to do this through Christ. This could be what Paul is getting at more with his message of repentance in Acts 17 on Mars Hill. Paul there works to show the grandeur of God in response to the idols of Athens and then ends by saying God is going to judge.

It could be the goal of honor. One wanted to give honor to the person who had bestowed a good blessing. This could be what Paul is pointing at as well when he speaks in Lystra in Acts 14 and says that God shows his blessing and gives an illustration of the weather cycle for that.

There could be several other reasons that have not been thought of yet. What am I really getting at? When we give the gospel, if we are to be effective, we have to show people how it does apply to their lives. If they don’t think they need forgiveness, we might have to go another route. Of course, some people do welcome the forgiveness message eagerly, like Hindus in India who would love to escape the circle of Karma. The message of salvation is about favor with God and forgiveness is one aspect of that, though it is of course an important one.

This could lead us to have a richer appreciation of our salvation. Our salvation means more than that we are forgiven. It means that right now, we are taking part in the Kingdom of God. It means that He is ruling now through Christ and has offered us all a chance to take part in that. If our salvation is so great to us, and it is and should be, we can think of the many different ways it applies.

In our witnessing today, we must remember that we live in a similar situation. Not everyone thinks about forgiveness. It’s true everyone needs it, but not everyone realizes it. We could be making our task more difficult than we realize with many of our modern evangelism tactics. Perhaps we should try the strange idea of finding people where they are and showing them how the gospel works in their lives.

I know it’s strange, but it could work.

In Christ,

Nick Peters




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