Nitpickerus: Dionysius, some of our readers are wondering who you are. I believe you're well known for your literary attainments and that your full title is 'Dionysius the Areopagite'.
Dionysius: Yes. Areopagus is Greek for Mars' Hill. I was a member of the Civil Council which met there.
Nitpickerus: I'm told you knew the Apostle Paul.
Dionysius: Absolutely! In fact I was converted to Christianity as a result of hearing him preach.
Nitpickerus: Just like that?
Dionysius: No, I took some persuading, but eventually I had no choice but to believe. You see I became convinced that what he was saying was true.
Nitpickerus: So you were deeply searching for the meaning of life?
Dionysius: Not at all. I was quite comfortable in my agnosticism. I'd not given religion a second thought.
Nitpickerus: So why did you go to hear him?
Dionysius: I didn't. In fact we found him in the market place discussing his ideas, and thought he could provide some fresh entertainment at one of our meetings.
Nitpickerus: You were interested in what he had to say?
Dionysius: We Athenians are interested in anything new.
Nitpickerus: Do you mean you knew nothing about Christianity.
Dionysius: I'd heard the odd rumour, but that's all. That's why I was content. However, once I'd heard Paul talk I knew I had a decision to make. He told me that I was heading for judgement and that God was commanding me to get into line.
Nitpickerus: That's a bit heavy! Didn't that strike you as rather arrogant?
Dionysius: It sounds that way in the telling, but his manner was anything but. In fact he was quite reasonable about it. He said God was prepared to overlook my past ignorance provided I was prepared to do something about it.
Nitpickerus: And this disturbed you?
Dionysius: Initially it didn't. I was aware of a whole variety of opinions as to what happened after death- oblivion, reincarnation, some sort of disembodied existence of the soul- we talked about these things all the time. I thought this was just another piece of idle speculation. No-one had ever come back from the dead to give a report.
Nitpickerus: So why did you change your mind?
Dionysius: Because this is exactly what Paul claimed someone had done - risen from the dead. This person, Jesus Christ, had then claimed that death lead to judgement and that God had given him the authority to do the judging.
Risen from the dead?
Nitpickerus: But surely to an educated man like yourself that must have seemed a trifle wacky?
Dionysius: Many of my colleagues had a good chuckle. So would've I, but the evidence for the resurrection was rather compelling. Jesus had been crucified by the authorities on a blasphemy charge and his body had been placed in a sealed rock tomb under full Roman guard. Two days later the body had disappeared without trace.
Nitpickerus: Couldn't his followers have stolen it?
Dionysius: Hardly. They were scared to death after his arrest. They all ran away. In fact they thought someone else had moved the body. That is, until they started claiming to have seen Jesus as large as life.
Nitpickerus: Didn't you suspect that they had made it all up?
Dionysius: They had an urgency about them. There was no doubt in their minds that he'd risen. In fact they were the ones who had started to spread the very message I had heard from Paul- despite being under threat of death for doing so.
Nitpickerus: Couldn't they have seen hallucinations?
Dionysius: Hallucinations don't light fires and eat fish. Nor are they experienced by 500 people at once. Paul claimed to have met him too.
Believing the impossible
Nitpickerus: But surely, people don't rise from the dead? Why did you believe it?
Dionysius: I believe things on the basis of evidence. My own world-view did not allow for the possibility of a resurrection. Yet I was faced with compelling evidence that one had taken place. In the absence of any reasonable natural explanation I was forced to change my mind. After all, Jesus was no ordinary man. Even the greatest skeptics could not deny that he had performed extraordinary miracles which defied explanation, and his ethical teaching and example was exemplary.
Nitpickerus: But surely, there have been many great moral teachers.
Dionysius: Not many who claimed to have existed before the world began, or to be its judge. Not many who repeatedly predicted they would rise from the dead. Most people like that are in lunatic asylums, or six feet under.
Nitpickerus: So you accepted that Jesus was going to be your judge after death. Why should that have bothered you? You had a good reputation. Why should you have feared judgement?
Dionysius: I didn't, until I realized the criteria which were to be applied. According to Paul I already stood condemned, simply by virtue of being a member of the human race. I could escape judgement only by believing in Jesus' claims and resurrection, and acting accordingly.
Nitpickerus: That sounds like blackmail.
Dionysius: Not blackmail. Rather ransom. Paul personalised the whole thing. Jesus' death had been essential for my forgiveness. He had died the death I had deserved, on my behalf. Everything necessary had been done. All I had to do was respond to the offer.
Free but not cheap
Nitpickerus: That sounds too easy. Eternal life free of charge?
Dionysius: In the sense that we can do nothing to earn it, in the sense that none of us is worthy of it, in the sense that it is a gift, yes it is free. But it is not cheap, not without obligation. Being a Christian is a costly business.
Nitpickerus: What has it cost you personally?
Dionysius: I have not suffered physically like Paul, at least not yet. However there has been a price to pay. I have lost friends and certainly have lost the intellectual respect of some colleagues. The most hurtful thing is that many of them are now not even willing to discuss the matter.
Nitpickerus: It is often said that people believe in Christianity only because of the way they have been brought up.
Dionysius: That was not my experience. Before I met Paul, I knew very little of Christianity.
Nitpickerus: Some might say you believed simply because you wanted to believe.
Dionysius: Quite honestly I didn't want to believe. There have been painful consequences for my believing. Besides what we want or don't want has nothing to do with it. The point is this. Is Christianity true or false?
Nitpickerus: Perhaps it's true for you but not for others.
Dionysius: That's nonsense. Christianity is based on claims of fact. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't. Either he's the judge of the universe or he isn't. The truth of the matter is entirely independent of what anyone may choose to believe. If Jesus is really who he claimed to be, and I have no doubt that he is, then those who don't do something about it will be in for a rude shock on the day of judgement. We can't sit on the fence. If I 'd chosen not to believe in Christ it would have been in the face of my own objective assessment of the facts. I'd have been a hypocrite. Like Jesus' other followers, I had no choice.
A Christian out of fear?
Nitpickerus: So you became a Christian out of fear?
Dionysius: It was certainly the reality of judgement that brought me to my senses.
Nitpickerus: Wasn't that manipulative of Paul?
Dionysius: No. He was just plainly stating the facts.
Nitpickerus: But wouldn't it have been better to talk about God's love?
Dionysius: It was certainly God's love which motivated him to speak to us; but without an understanding of what Christ was saving me from, I could not have understood God's love. I felt no need for it. I was quite content as I was. It was not until I heard about the judgement that I realised I needed God in any sense at all. Perhaps it appealed to my sense of justice. In a strange sort of way it made sense that there was to be a day of reckoning. It was just a shock to learn where I stood in regard to it.
Nitpickerus: All this talk of judgement is rather distasteful.
Dionysius: The prospect of Hell is far more distasteful. I think some Christians are too afraid of upsetting people to tell them the truth. I needed to be jolted from my complacency. I am only thankful that Paul had the courage to deal honestly with me. Imagine if you diagnosed a potentially fatal illness that could be cured provided the patient submitted to an operation and you failed to tell them and urge them to have the surgery. You would be struck off.
Nitpickerus: But do we really have the right to tell people they're going to be judged?
Dionysius: Isn't it rather a matter of responsibilities?
Nitpickerus: But we can't force it on people.
Dionysius: I never felt that Paul had forced it on me. It was his earnestness and obvious concern which led me to enquire more deeply. He then had the courage to make the best of the opportunity which was presented to him. That is how I became a Christian. If you don't know you're in danger Nitpickerus, how can you ask to be rescued?