Beware of “Epicureans”
“He is so nice! He lives by high moral standards. He does not smoke, abuse drugs, or use bad language. In fact, he is nicer than some who claim to be Christian!”
HAVE you heard some use that line of reasoning to justify inappropriate friendships that they cultivate? Does it hold up under Scriptural examination? An example from an early Christian congregation sheds light on this matter.
In the first century, the apostle Paul warned the Corinthian congregation: “Do not be misled. Bad associations spoil useful habits.” Perhaps some Christians were keeping close company with individuals who were influenced by Greek philosophy, including that of the Epicureans. Who were the Epicureans? Why would they pose a spiritual threat to the Christians in Corinth? Are there people like them today, against whom we should be on guard?—1 Corinthians 15:33.
Who Were the Epicureans?
The Epicureans were followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived from 341 to 270 B.C.E. He taught that pleasure was the sole or chief good in life. Does that mean that the Epicureans lived scandalously, without principles, resorting to degrading practices in a continuous search of a good time? Surprisingly, Epicurus did not teach his followers to live that way! Rather, he taught that pleasure is best gained by living in accordance with prudence, courage, self-control, and justice. He advocated the pursuit, not of immediate and momentary pleasure, but of pleasure that endures throughout life. Thus the Epicureans may have appeared virtuous when compared with those practicing gross sin.—Compare Titus 1:12.
Similar to Christianity?
If you were a member of the early Corinthian congregation, would you have been impressed by the Epicureans? Some may have reasoned that the Epicureans’ apparently high ethics made them safe associates for Christians. Rationalizing further, the Corinthians might have noted seeming parallels between Epicurean standards and those of God’s Word.
For example, the Epicureans employed moderation in their pursuit of enjoyment. They valued pleasures of the mind over physical pleasures. What a person ate was not as important as his relationship with the person with whom he ate it. The Epicureans even refrained from political involvement and secret wrongdoing. How easy it could have been to assume: “They are a lot like us!”
However, were the Epicureans truly like the early Christians? Absolutely not. Those with properly trained powers of perception could detect significant differences. (Hebrews 5:14) Can you? Let us take a closer look at Epicurus’ teachings.
The Dark Side of Epicureanism
To help people overcome the fear of deities and of death, Epicurus taught that the gods have no interest in mankind and do not intervene in human affairs. According to Epicurus, the gods did not create the universe, and life came into existence by accident. Did this not clearly conflict with the Bible’s teaching that there is “one God,” the Creator, and that he cares for his human creatures?—1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Peter 5:6, 7.
Epicurus also taught that there can be no life after death. This, of course, was contrary to the Bible’s teaching of the resurrection. In fact, when the apostle Paul spoke at the Areopagus, likely the Epicureans were among those who took issue with Paul over the doctrine of the resurrection.—Acts 17:18, 31, 32; 1 Corinthians 15:12-14.
It may be that the most dangerous element in Epicurus’ philosophy was also the most subtle. His denial of an afterlife led him to the conclusion that man should live as happily as possible during his short time on earth. As we have seen, his idea was not necessarily to live sinfully but, rather, to savor the present, since now is all we have.
Thus, Epicurus discouraged secret wrongdoing to avoid fear of detection, a clear threat to present happiness. He encouraged moderation to avoid the consequences of overindulgence, another obstacle to present happiness. He also encouraged good relationships with others because their reciprocation paid off. Of course, avoiding secret wrongdoing, practicing moderation, and cultivating friendships are fine in themselves. So why was Epicurus’ philosophy dangerous for a Christian? Because his counsel was based on his faithless outlook: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die.”—1 Corinthians 15:32.
Granted, the Bible shows people how to live happily now. However, it counsels: “Keep yourselves in God’s love, while you are waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ with everlasting life in view.” (Jude 21) Yes, the Bible places greater emphasis on the eternal future, not the fleeting present. For a Christian, serving God is the main interest, and he finds that when he puts God in first place, he is happy and fulfilled. In a similar way, Jesus, rather than becoming preoccupied with his own personal interests, spent his energies unselfishly serving Jehovah and helping people. He taught his disciples to do good to others, not in the hope of reciprocation, but out of genuine love for them. Clearly, the basic motivations of Epicureanism and Christianity are totally different.—Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:32-36; Galatians 5:14; Philippians 2:2-4.
A Subtle Hazard
Ironically, while the Epicureans placed such emphasis on being happy, theirs was a limited happiness at best. Lacking “the joy of Jehovah,” Epicurus called life a “bitter gift.” (Nehemiah 8:10) How happy the early Christians were by comparison! Jesus was not recommending an unhappy life of self-deprivation. In fact, following his course is the way to the greatest happiness.—Matthew 5:3-12.
If some members of the congregation in Corinth thought they could associate with those influenced by Epicurean thinking without jeopardizing their faith, they were mistaken. At the time of Paul’s writing his first letter to the Corinthians, some of them had already lost faith in the resurrection.—1 Corinthians 15:12-19.
Although Epicureanism disappeared in the fourth century C.E., there are those today who adopt a similar now-is-all-we-have viewpoint. These people place little or no faith in God’s promise of life eternal. Yet, some of them have relatively high standards of conduct.
A Christian might be tempted to form a close relationship with such ones, perhaps reasoning that their decent qualities justify friendship. However, though not considering ourselves superior, we must bear in mind that all “bad associations”—including those whose influence is more subtle—“spoil useful habits.”
The now-is-all-we-have philosophy also crops up in some business seminars, self-help books, novels, movies, television programs, and music. While not directly promoting sinful conduct, could this faithless viewpoint influence us in subtle ways? For example, could we become so preoccupied with self-fulfillment that we lose sight of the issue of Jehovah’s sovereignty? Could we be sidetracked into ‘taking it easy,’ rather than “having plenty to do in the work of the Lord”? Or could we be misled into doubting the rightness and benefits of Jehovah’s standards? We need to be on guard both against exposure to outright immorality, violence, and spiritism and against those influenced by worldly viewpoints!—1 Corinthians 15:58; Colossians 2:8.
Therefore, let us cultivate association, primarily with those who are wholeheartedly following Jehovah’s guidance. (Isaiah 48:17) As a result, our useful habits will be strengthened. Our faith will be fortified. We will live happily not only now but in the future, with everlasting life in view.—Psalm 26:4, 5; Proverbs 13:20.
[Picture on page 24]
Epicurus taught that the gods have no interest in mankind
Courtesy of The British Museum