Philosophy is the love of wisdom. As Christians, we sometimes view philosophy as a tool of the devil. In fact, Paul urged, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8). However, such a simplistic dismissal of philosophy is foolish. Understanding the basics of philosophy helps us better understand the Bible and the culture out of which it came. For example, when Paul preached in Athens, he was confronted by philosophers and was able to interact with them in their world (Acts 17:18).
Among the philosophers in Athens were the Epicureans. These were disciples of Epicurus, who was born in Samos in 341 B.C. He studied the works of Plato and Aristotle but rejected reason as the basis of truth. Epicurus believed truth could only be ascertained through the five empirical senses. Epicurus settled in Athens and established his School of Athens where he taught until his death in 270 B.C. Epicurean philosophy changed very little from his day to the time of Paul’s visit to Athens.
The basics of philosophy seek to answer two questions: What is the aim of life? How do we attain this aim? In answer to the aim of life, Epicurus said it was to seek happiness which, in his mind, was equivalent to pleasure and the absence of pain. To attain this, one must do what feels good to the body and mind. This often led his followers into debauchery and hedonism.
Out of this underlying pursuit of pleasure, Epicurus postulated that fear of an afterlife of punishment caused mental anxiety. Therefore, he concluded there is no afterlife. “Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dispersed into elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us” (Laërtius, Diogenes, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Epicurus’ Sovran Maxim, II). At death, the body simply decays without “sensations.”
Because of his emphasis on the senses, Epicurus rejected religion with its superstitions. However, he retained his faith in gods. These deities were the same false gods that were served by his Greek contemporaries. However, unlike his peers, he believed the gods lived outside our material realm, not on Mount Olympus, and had no interaction with the natural world.
Paul was invited by the philosophers of Athens to present his philosophy at the Areopagus (an Athenian court). Paul pointed out their superstitions which would have irritated the Epicureans who prided themselves on not being superstitious. Paul presented the true God, which they did not know and did not serve (17:24-31). This God created the universe, contrary to Epicureanism that thought the universe spontaneously arose from a torrent of spinning atoms.
The God of Paul is spiritual; He does not live in houses made by hands; He is not worshiped after the dictates of men. Epicureans relegated the “gods” to a world separate from men. Paul said God was “not far from each one of us” and quoted a poet, “For we are indeed his offspring” (17:28). But the Epicureans denied any interaction between deity and humanity.
Finally, Paul wrapped up his lesson speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, a ridiculous concept to the Epicureans (17:31). Nonetheless, Paul preached it to them, knowing their opposition. In the end, “some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (17:32). Paul knew some would reject his teaching. However, this knowledge did not deter him from his duty to teach.
Among modern intellectuals, Christianity is mocked. Yet, we must attempt to persuade them to the reality of Christ. We need to understand their biases and worldviews to better attempt this persuasion. Paul knew the beliefs of Epicureanism and used them to shape his appeal.