By Eric Johnson
In Acts 17:16-34, Paul addresses the philosophers and leaders of Greek gods and goddesses at Mars Hill in Athens. Instead of worshipping the “unknown God,” he explains in verse 23, his desire is to share the Lord of heaven and earth. In order to make his point, he uses no support from scriptural passages, only pagan writers. This makes sense because, in this context, these religious folks had no desire to look up Old Testament passages because these would not have been authoritative to them.
Verse 29 reads, “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 human design and skill.” Is this possibly a reference to the preexistence of human beings? The answer is “no” for several reasons.
First of all, Paul is not explaining that all humans came from a previous spirit world, but rather all have been created for a purpose. Verses 26 and 27 say,
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
Second, we must remember the context. Paul is doing his best to describe the simple gospel truth to men who were pagan at heart. He certainly is not wanting them to read into his words, and he provides no description of a premortal existence. Instead, his focus is on this “unknown God” and it’s possible to have a relationship with Him.
Third, there is no biblical proof (outside of selected prooftexts like this) to support the notion that people existed as spirits in a previous life and that their birth was predicated on their behavior in this state. This also was not the standard teaching of the early Christian church or of Christians throughout the centuries. This sounds more like an Eastern idea involving karma and reincarnation than a Christian belief.