Palm Sunday and the Problem of Evil

 

Just a few centuries before the first Palm Sunday, Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) promoted to his followers the notions of another ancient Greek philosopher, Demetrius (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.). Demetrius’ had proposed the theory of Atomism to account for nature.

The theory in brief: the universe is a material system governed by the laws of matter. The fundamental elements of matter are atoms. Random, unguided ‘atoms’ smash into each other, thereby creating the world and life as we know it. Epicurus went on to tweak Demetrius’ theory by saying that atoms do not always go in straight lines but can “swerve, avoiding atomism’s inherent determinism and allowing for free will – just like the gods.

Per Epicurus, the gods were off somewhere happily doing their thing unconcerned about anything. They existed without needs, were invulnerable to any harm, and were generally living an enviable life, not anxious about anything. As such, they exemplified what Epicurus’s followers should seek to attain in their limited human nature.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by aponia, the absence of pain and fear, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.The Epicurus Reader

Epicurus also taught that nothing should be believed except for that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction – believed via the sensate and reason. Based on such thinking along with having the viewpoint that the gods were distant and uninvolved and therefore unrelated to ‘thinking’ and ‘sensing’ man’s life, man had to make do with the atoms he had been dealt. Don’t look to a personal God for help.

What was most important in Epicurus’ philosophy of nature was the overall conviction that our life on this earth comes with no strings attached; that there is no Maker whose puppets we are; that there is no script for us to follow and be constrained by; that it is up to us to discover the real constraints which our own nature imposes on us.The Epicurus Reader

As Epicurus evaluated the Greek and Roman gods of his time and man’s attempt to please and cajole the gods to obtain favors, it would make sense for him and his followers to deduce that “there is no Maker whose puppets we are”. And, for Epicurus to further reason the problem of evil paradox:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing. If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?” ― Epicurus

 The Epicurean paradox was answered with another paradox: What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Psalm 8:4

In the fullness of time, including Epicurean times, the Lord of the universe put on human flesh – dust fashioned from the created elements including about 18% carbon – to deal with the problem of evil. There was nothing ambiguous or theoretical or abstract about the appearance of God’s own son Jesus. There was direct observation -seeing, hearing, and touching – by his followers.

Philosophers and atheists, before and after Epicurus, pronounced judgement on God for all the evil in the world.

The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven. – George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce

To address evil, Jesus announced the kingdom of God on earth. What was begun in Genesis – the ordering of material creation to build God’s temple on earth so that God would dwell with man – was reinstated by Jesus. This blueprint or worldview was on the books long before Epicurus arrived on the scene. And so is the record of God’s faithfulness. God, as revealed in Jesus, puts things to right.

Jesus entered space and time flesh and blood to pronounce judgement on evil. He did so without equivocation. Jesus did not succumb to pleasure seeking to avoid pain. He did not succumb to Satan’s temptations to find happiness. Evil unclean spirits were cast out. Hypocrites were denounced and death itself was overturned. Jesus suffered the full force of evil on the cross – an act of redemption from evil’s ransom.

The King of Glory wept over Jerusalem and his chosen people. The Israelites had so often rejected their reveal-to-the-world-the-one-true-God vocation. They had not been faithful stewards of God’s vineyard. Did Epicurus see no difference in their God and the Greek and Roman gods?

On that first Palm Sunday, just a few centuries after Epicurus taught that there was no personally involved God, the King of Glory, emptied of his glory, rides a donkey into Jerusalem to meet evil head on and to put the world right. The “Epicurean Paradox” would be addressed and soundly answered.

What will you do with the knowledge that the infinite-personal God, embodied in human form, speaks to the very human concerns behind Epicurean philosophy?

“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on your back? Come to me – I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me! My heart is gentle, not arrogant. You’ll find rest you deeply need. My yoke is easy to wear; my load is easy to bear.” – Jesus, as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew 11: 28-30

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