Famous for their creed, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” Epicureanism ancitipated the late nineteenth-century German nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that although one’s life has no meaning, one can give it meaning. Although there is no transcendent purpose, I can make one for myself. “Truth is made, not discovered,” he said. Take your own short life out of the drama of God’s purposes in creation, redemption, and the age to come and it’s just so many pieces of film on the cutting room floor.
Our first parents wanted to make a story for themselves instead of play their supporting role. It’s called “autonomy”: being a law to oneself. It’s all about being in charge. “I did it my way.” “I am the master of my fate the captain of my soul.” “I want it all, I want it now.” “Sure it costs more, but I’m worth it.”
But going “solo” isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a terrible burden in trying to be God when you are not. When God casts us as new characters in his drama of redemption, we realize that we were created for a purpose larger than ourselves and look forward to a future that is grander than anything we could imagine, much less create, for ourselves. Ironically, those who seek their best life now, centering on themselves and their story rather than on God and his story, not even their life here and now makes any sense. Their own script—even when it allows God a supporting role—becomes dull. No wonder so many people walk out of the theater in the middle.
We are witnessing a resurgence of Epicureanism, but this time not only in its usual (and, I think Paul would argue, sane) form; it’s a form of evangelical Epicureanism in which Christianity is offered as a more effective path to our own self-fulfillment and self-salvation. Each of us is the center of the universe and religion is entirely subjective: how we feel, what we want out of “god,” and what it takes to make us happy. It has nothing to do with whether any of this is true or has any connection to someone or something outside of us.
Today, “nihilism” is what we call this Epicurean philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with a denial of heaven and hell as the basis for peace and harmony in the world at last here and now. At least Lennon was imagining a world of peace and love rather than narcissism and greed. Today, however, it is now evangelical TV preachers who purvey this cruder form of Epicurean nihilism in the guise of religion. Get your life together and establish a personal relationship with God by following certain principles, and you’ll be happy and successful. Even if God doesn’t exist and never raised his Son from the dead, it’s a useful lie. No, says Paul, the only sane alternative to Christianity is Nietzsche’s brand of Epicureanism straight-up: the courageous embrace of power and glory here and now. Grab it while you can. For the things that Osteen and many other preachers today promise, you do not need Christ. You do not need the Bible, just Tony Robbins. You do not need the kind of redemption that is promised in the gospel. It is not even clear why you would need God simply to have a more positive outlook on life.
When we try to fit God into our “life movie,” the plot is all wrong—and not just wrong, but trivial. When we are pulled out of our own drama and cast as characters in his unfolding plot, we become part of the greatest story ever told. It is through God’s word of judgment (law) and salvation (gospel) that we are transferred from our own “life movie” and inserted into the grand narrative that revolves around Jesus Christ. In the process, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us,
We are uprooted from our own existence and are taken back to the holy history of God on earth. There God has dealt with us, with our needs and our sins, by means of the divine wrath and grace. What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth. God is with us today only as long as we are there. Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves’ (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ…What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.(1)
Read other essays in this collection:
This article is a part of a collection of essays written recently by Dr. Horton after his interview on 60 Minutes which aired on October 14, 2007.
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