The Philosophers: Stoics And Epicureans (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of The Philosophers: Stoics and Epicureans. Please read Part 1 at here.

We began The Philosophers series by examining the role of context in understanding scriptures. The more we understand Bible context the more the stories come alive. Context allows us to explore scriptures in 3D, makes scriptures enjoyable. We get to see how things were. It’s almost like being there.

Last week we travelled with Paul to Thesaloniki in Ancient Greece. From there we went with him to Berea. Let’s rephrase that – he took off for Berea! The “opposition” went after him. Paul was deemed a controversial fellow. He was soon rushed out of Berea in the night and landed at Athens. Despite all the troubles the man wouldn’t shut up. He kept preaching Christ. Seems God chose the right fellow.

Paul had a two-pronged strategy. He would preach to Jews in the synagogue and preach to non Jews in public squares. It was while preaching in the market place that he encountered the Stoics and Epicureans. The Stoics and Epicureans were formidable thinkers and they invited him to a formal debate at the city council, Areopagus. We see Paul as a preacher but they didn’t see him as one. They saw him as a philosopher from a foreign school. He was propounding novel stuff and Athenians loved new stuff. Acts 17:21. These were the guys who gave us the atom, remember! That was actually Leucippus and Democritus.

Paul was espousing monotheism in a manner that was not remotely close to what Socrates hinted at. The Greeks weren’t monotheists. Ancient Greek theology was polytheist. They believed in many gods. There were twelve Olympian gods and goddesses. They’re the major deities. You’re probably familiar with some of the names – Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Hestia or Dionysus… Hestia was said to have stepped down for Dionysus when the young god came to live at Olympus. The deities were called Olympian gods because they resided on Mount Olympus.

What Paul was saying was incredibly radical. He was introducing something called “God,” as in “God” with a capital “G”. This “God” didn’t correlate with the Greek hierarchy of deities. In that hierarchy Zeus was king of the gods. He was god of sky and thunder, the equivalence of Sango in Yoruba mythology, or Amadioha in the Igbo pantheon. Seems gods brand themselves according to time and place, just like with automobiles. Nissan Skyline in America is sold as Infiniti Q50 and Q60 in Japan. It’s called rebadging in branding. Zeus was said to have a level of control over the other gods but he’s not almighty. Paul was talking about an almighty God. Besides, the Greek gods had vices. They behaved like humans, interacted with humans and spawned children with humans. Jesus didn’t have vices. He didn’t sleep with women, didn’t spawn children. He was sinless. 1 Peter 2:22. The Greek gods also obeyed fate. In Greek mythology fate was known as Moirai. It overrode any divine powers possessed by gods. Besides, Jesus rose from the dead. The nearest thing to this in Greek theology was reincarnation, but that was only believed by a few. Both Pythagoras and Plato believed in reincarnation but they were in the minority.

To complicate things even more Christian theology of the afterlife had some overlap with the Greek belief system, and yet it was different. The Greeks believed in the underworld. It’s where the spirits of the dead went. This underworld has compartments. One of the compartments was Hades. Hades was a brother of Zeus. The place was originally known as “the place of Hades.” But there were two other compartments. One was Tartarus. It was a place of torment for the damned. The other was Elysium, a place of pleasures for the virtuous. And no, Matt Damon didn’t go there. But you now know how Elysium the movie got its name. Christian theology recognises Hades. It’s the same word translated “Sheol” in Psalm 16:10 and further translated “Hades” in Acts 2:27. In ancient Israelite cosmography Sheol is the realm of the dead. It’s where the unrighteous will reside. It’s alternatively translated as hell in Mathew 16:18. Christian theology also recognises Tarturus. In Greek mythology Tarturus was a horrible pit of torment in the afterlife. It was lower than Hades and populated by ferocious monsters and the worst of criminals. We come across the word in 2 Peter 2:4: “For God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into Tarturus and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment…” Some translations of the Bible refer to Tarturus as lowest hell. So there’s congruence with Greek mythology. But that’s the only mention of Tarturus in the Bible.

There’s a third place. Jesus spoke about a place called “Bosom of Abraham.” There’s theological debate as to the precise meaning. Some say it’s not really a place but a description of repose in comfort. But the Biblical narrative suggests it exists in real terms. The topography of the area is described. We’re told there was a huge chasm separating Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham from the rich man in the place of torment. Luke 16:26. We also know there’s some water supply in it. The rich man had begged Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue. There was fire where he was. The Bible calls the place “hell” or “hades” or “sheol.” Luke 16:24. Theologians say the saints of the Old Testament stayed in Abraham’s Bosom until the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that Jesus led these saints triumphant to heaven. Psalm 18:18, Ephesians 4:8. When Christians die now they don’t go to Abraham’s Bosom, they go straight to heaven. 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:21-24. Thus Abraham’s Bosom in Christian theology was a holding cell for the righteous saints of the Old Testament. But there’s no mention of Elysium in the Bible. None whatsoever. You can now appreciate how radical the things Paul was saying were! No wonder the Epicureans and Stoics said “you’re bringing some surprising things to our ears.” They called it “new teaching.”

Let’s talk about the Stoics and Epicureans. After all they brought about this whole discussion.

An Epicurean was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicurus founded a school in Athens about 307 BC. He attacked superstition and divine intervention, saw organised religion as evil. He propounded a godless ethic in the literal sense. Epicurus believed “pleasure” was the greatest good, but the way to attain that pleasure was to live modestly, gain a knowledge of the workings of the world and limit one’s desires. This he said would lead to a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear and absence of bodily pain. To Epicurus one of the obstacles to enjoying tranquillity is fear of death. This fear he believed, is increased by the religious belief that if you incur the wrath of the gods you will suffer repercussion in the afterlife. But in epicurean philosophy death is the end of consciousness (soul) – when we die we’re unaware of death. He posited the atoms of the soul are distributed around the body and that they’re so fragile they dissolve when we die. It’s why we’re incapable of sensing anything when we die. If you’re unable to feel anything mentally or physically when you die it is foolish to let fear of death cause you pain while you’re still alive, says Epicurus. Of course all these contradict Christian theology. In Christian theology the soul not only survives death, memory is retained, data is preserved and information is indestructible. The rich man could recognise Lazarus for example. He retained knowledge of his brothers. He could also feel torment. Luke 16:19-31. In Christian theology man is accountable after death. Besides, Christian theology says human architecture is tripartite – man is spirit, soul and body. The body dissolves at death, but the spirit will appear before God. The spirit is the real you. It has a soul – which can be likened to some sort of interface as well as data bank. Death is not the end of the human. Now let’s talk about the Stoics.

A Stoic was a follower of the philosophy founded by Zeno. Zeno was born 342 BC. Died 270 BC. The term “Stoic” was derived from “stoa poikile.” It means “painted porch” or colonnade. That was where Zeno used to teach. The primary focus of Stoics was virtue – the development of self control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It’s not talking about extinguishing emotions completely. Rather it seeks to transform emotions by voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures. Stoicism is very complex. It incorporates the practice of logic, contemplation of death, Socratic dialogue, as well as meditation to keep one’s attention in the present moment. Stoics taught that becoming a clear, unbiased and disciplined thinker allows one to understand the “logos.” The logos is the universal reason in all things. To Stoics, unhappiness and evil are the result of ignorance. And the solution to evil and unhappiness is practice of Stoic philosophy – the examination of one’s judgments to determine the point of divergence from the universal reason of nature or logos. It seems to be congruent with Buddhism. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (c.543-483 BC). Buddhism is grounded in “four noble truths”:

  1. All life has suffering
  2. Suffering is rooted in passion and desire
  3. Happiness is freedom from the passions
  4. Moral restraint and self-discipline is the means by which one becomes free from suffering

Christianity teaches temperance but her philosophy on pain and suffering is rooted in the concept of the original sin, as well as the existence of an evil one called the Devil. In Christian theology Satan has a tripartite mission – to kill, to steal and to destroy. John 10:10. Christianity says everyone born into this world is a genetic offspring of Adam, the first and original human being. Adam sinned, changed his nature and passed on the sin nature to all his descendants. Romans 5:12. Because all humanity is poisoned with sin salvation must necessarily lie outside of man. It’s why God sent Jesus to die for mankind. Those who accept and appropriate his sacrifice will be saved. But how about the issue of temperance? Christianity says even though the spirit of man is saved man is still psychologically attuned to sin. It’s genetic. The Bible calls this psychological state “flesh.”

The need for constant discipline of the “flesh” is the closest thing between Stoicism and Christianity. There’s divergence on pretty much every other thing. Another point of divergence is with regards what or who God is. To Stoics the universe is a material but reasoning substance. Nature is synonymous with “God”. But typical of Stoics it soon gets complicated. According to Stoics, there are two types of nature – passive and active. Passive is matter. Active is Fate (or Logos) and it’s some form of primordial fire which acts on the passive matter… (Scratching my head… It’s getting convoluted).

Now we can see why the Epicureans and Stoics attacked Paul. In his submission Paul spoke about a shrine he came across as he toured the city. The shrine was dedicated to “an unknown god.” Paul contended that this “unknown god” was actually the God who made the world and everything there is. He is a self-sufficient God, the giver and sustainer of life. And he’s not far from each of us. One day he will judge the world by Jesus Christ. He provided proof for everyone by raising Jesus from the dead… Well, that was the end of the meeting. Acts 17:22-32. The issue of resurrection from the dead proved too much for those philosophers. It’s still is for many. Yet faith is simple.

If you’ll like to receive Jesus into your life please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”

© Leke Alder |

The body dissolves at death, but the spirit will appear before God. The spirit is the real you. It has a soul – which can be likened to some sort of interface as well as data bank. Death is not the end of the human. Click To Tweet