When the apostle Paul spoke to the ancient Greek philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens he made reference to an altar which had on it an inscription TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Paul said that he was making this God known to them. The altar engraved with this inscription had a history behind it, of which both Paul and these philosophers were aware.
In Titus 1:12,13, Paul quoted from the poet Epimenides of Crete. The Greek philosophers to whom Paul spoke were also familiar with Epimenides from the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others. In the sixth century B.C., Epimenides had been summoned from Crete to Athens when the people of Athens were experiencing a terrible plague. None of the Gods of Athens had been able to deliver them of the plague, and the Pythian oracle indicated that there was a god that remained unappeased. Nicias of Athens was to summon Epimenides from Knossos, Crete, who would know how to appease the offended god. After Epimenides arrived in Athens, he obtained a flock of black and white sheep and released them on Mars Hill, instructing the people to mark the places where any of them lay down at the beginning of their grazing period. When a number of sheep rested, the Athenians offered them in sacrifice upon unnamed altars built for this purpose, and the plague lifted from the city.
Paul was making known to the philosophers of ancient Athens that the God who had cured them of the plague was the God who had raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In the same passage he said:
He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26,27).
Paul may have been referring to Epimenides as an example of a pagan man who "groped for and found" a God who, although, not known by name, was actually not far away.1
The great philosophers of ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, maintained that there was only one God. In the course of defending this truth, they were persecuted. Socrates was put to death, but he refused to yield on this point. The philosophers of ancient Greece sought answers to the great problems of existence. The answers to all of these problems were given in Jesus Christ. It is not surprising, therefore, that early Christianity grew by leaps and bounds when Christ was made known to Hellenistic society, during the first few centuries of Christian history.
With these facts in view, Don Richardson has written: Do you not feel a certain question rising now within you? . . . Has the God who prepared the gospel for the world also prepared the world for the gospel? If He has, then the current assumption, held by millions of believers and non-believers alike, that pagan people cannot understand and generally do not want to receive the Christian gospel, and that it is therefore unfair (and almost more work than it is worth) to try to get them to accept it, must be a false assumption.
In the rest of this book (and in a companion volume to follow in the future) I will prove that this assumption is false. God has indeed prepared the Gentile world to receive the gospel. Significant numbers of non-Christians, therefore, have proved themselves ten times more willing to receive the gospel than Christians have been to share it! Read on--2
The Title of Richardson's book is significant: Eternity In Their Hearts: The Untold Story of Christianity Among Folk Religions of Ancient People. While his purpose in writing is basically missiological, the book is also of considerable apologetic value, since it demonstrates the universality of Christian truth. That is, Christianity is not merely one of many possible religious options. Rather, it is true in the sense that any claims that contradict it are false. And one way that we know that Christian revelation is true in this sense is that, for millennia, God has been preparing many people throughout the world to receive this truth, and that they have been eagerly awaiting this truth.
Richardson points out that many cultures have retained, since ancient times, some memory of the flood of Noah's time, of the world that existed before the time of the flood, and of the fact that, originally, they only worshipped one God, the true God.3
He also describes the eagerness with which many different people of the world have received the Christian Gospel during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, having awaited it for millennia! In an intriguing chapter entitled "Peoples of the Lost Book," he describes how people of many different cultures were expecting the arrival of "a white brother" who would show them a lost book describing to them all they needed to know about the unknown God that their forefathers had known in antiquity, but about Whom they had long since almost forgotten. Traditions of this sort were particularly prevalent among the Karen of Burma, the Kachin, the Lahu, the Wa, the Shan and Palaung Peoples, the Kui of Thailand and Burma, the Lisu of China, the Naga of India, and the Mizo of India.4
The story of the part played by such a tradition among the Karen of Burma was also told by Alonzo Bunker,5 who spent thirty years among these people. Bunker also relates the Karen tradition concerning the temptation and fall of man, which bears a marked similarity to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve.6
The Karen tradition with respect to the lost book was that their deliverer was to be a "white foreigner" and was to come across the sea from the west with "white wings," or the sails of ships, and bring "Yuah's white book."7 Richardson commented on this that "the Karen nation was thus poised like an 800,000- member welcoming party, ready for the first unsuspecting missionary who approached them with a Bible and a message of deliverance from God."8
In 1817, the great missionary pioneer, Adoniram Judson, arrived near Rangoon, Burma, where he preached seven years before finding his first convert among the Buddhist Burmese. However, all of this time, unknown to him, Karen people were passing his home daily, often singing, as was their custom, hymns to Yuah, the true God. However, Judson had not learned their language.
During these seven years, Judson had the time to translate the Bible into Burmese--a task that would have been impossible if the Karen people had gotten wind of his message. Then, a Karen man named Ko Thah-byu came to the household where Judson was staying. He began to ask questions about the origin of the gospel and about the "white strangers" who had come from the west to bring this message and the book that contained it. Richardson wrote:
Suddenly everything fell into place for Ko Thah-byu. His spirit received the love of Jesus Christ like dry land absorbing rain!
Around that time a newly recruited missionary couple--George and Sarah Boardman, arrived in Rangoon to assist Judson. . . . To the amazement of Judson and Boardman, Ko-Thah-byu manifested a total preoccupation with the Bible and its message.
For it had already dawned upon Ko Thah-byu that he was the very first among his people to learn that "the lost book" had actually arrived in Burma! Accordingly, he also accepted his own responsibility to proclaim the good news that virtually every Karen was waiting to hear. So when George and Sarah Boardman announced plans to launch a new mission in the city of Tavoy, in the panhandle of southern Burma, Ko Thah-byu said eagerly, "Take me with you!" . . .
Each time he came to a Karen Village, he preached the gospel. And almost every time he preached the gospel, virtually an entire village would respond with faith! . . .
The entire hill country beyond Tavoy seemed to come alive with excitement!9
Richardson provides similar stories for many other peoples and cultures.
1 Don Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts (Ventura, Ca.: Regal Books, 1981), p. 25.
2 Ibid., pp. 27-28.
3 Ibid., chapter 1, "Peoples of the Vague God," pp. 14-72.
4 Ibid., chapter 2, "Peoples of the Lost Book," pp. 73-102.
5 Alonzo Bunker, Soo Thah: A Tale of the Karens (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902), pp. 79-86.
6 Ibid., pp. 87-94.
7 Ibid., pp. 81-82.
8 Richardson, p. 83.
9 Ibid., p. 90.