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Plato and Christianity

Published: 30 April 2016 (GMT+10)

Plato is often termed the father of Western philosophy. His ideas have had a massive impact on the West, including on Christian thinkers, and continue to do so even today. But how indebted is Christianity to Plato? Did Christianity come from Plato’s philosophy? T.S. from Spain writes:

wikipedia.org plato
Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion
I´m a student and I´m trying to do a research of philosophy vs Christianity to do a project for my philosophy teacher. He said that Christianity came from Plato’s philosophy (theory of forms). I´m really not agree with that. I would like to know how to refute that. And what articles would be better to share with him from your website. Thank you and God bless.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Plato’s philosophy was by no means the historical ground from which Christianity sprouted. Historically speaking, Christianity is a form of early Jewish messianism—it was birthed in a 1st century AD Palestinian Jewish milieu in which there was a lot of messianic speculation. Many Jews of the period hoped that the Messiah would come and overthrow the Romans, and establish universal Israelite rule. Jesus came into that context claiming to be the Jewish Messiah, though with a very different agenda than what many Jews were expecting. Of course, to understand any of this, one needs to be familiar with the Old Testament—the creative and sovereign supremacy of the God of Israel, His promise to Israel to make them a nation of priests and a light to the world, and the historical dealings God had with Adam, Noah, and Abraham before that, and David and his royal line after that. In other words, the foundational corpus for understanding the ideological origins of Christianity is not Plato’s dialogues, but the Old Testament. Christianity certainly didn’t start off as a Greek philosophical school of thought.

Nonetheless, in terms of philosophy, Christianity does share some important features with Plato. The New Testament writers believed that we remain conscious after physical death (e.g. Philippians 1:23), as Plato did. The Bible rejects atheism and materialism, as Plato did. Both believed in a supreme beneficent reality. Both believed that the physical universe was designed.

However, there are also important differences. For instance, Christianity is a form of monotheism—the belief that there is one supreme being who is the beneficent source and sovereign of all things. While Plato certainly believed in some sort of ultimate beneficent reality, so that many of his ideas are easily conformable to monotheism, he’s not really clear on the precise nature of that ultimate reality. He had two notions that he never really systematized into a single coherent worldview—his Form of the Good, and his Demiurge. The Form of the Good was the ultimate form for Plato, from which every other form derived its goodness, but it was impersonal. The Demiurge was the ‘craftsman’ who gave shape to the material universe by moulding the matter (which Plato believed to be eternal, which the Bible rejects) after the pattern of the forms. However, his Demiurge was in a real sense ‘subordinate’ to the realm of the forms. Later thinkers identified Plato’s form of the Good with God, and located the other forms in His mind as divine ideas (many early church fathers were champions of this modification of Plato), and others identified the Form of the Good with the ultimate good god, and the Demiurge with a bad, subordinate god who made the physical universe (as the ultimate good god wouldn’t sully himself by using or creating matter)—this was Gnosticism.

Moreover, Plato believed that souls are indestructible, which the New Testament rejects. We are God’s creatures, soul and body, and God has the power to annihilate our souls. We only remain conscious after death because God wills it so, not because He can’t destroy our souls.1 Moreover, Plato’s assessment of the disembodied state is very different from that found in the New Testament. For Plato, being disembodied was the desirable final destination. In the New Testament, being disembodied is a form of nakedness (and thus shame), so the dead await to be re-embodied at the final resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:4–10). This is why the disembodied state of a dead person is called the intermediate state. And since Plato thought disembodiment was the best, he certainly would not have liked the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body! For more on this, please see Soulless humans?

Nonetheless, early Christians certainly utilized some of Plato’s ideas, such as his theory of the forms, to construct defences of Christianity against competing philosophies. However, Platonism was one of those philosophies that competed with Christianity in the early centuries of the church. As such, the early church fathers almost always modified Platonic ideas in light of the data of Scripture.

For instance, Plato’s theory of the forms, and especially his notion of the Form of the Good, were ‘rolled together’ into the mind of the God of Scripture. This meant God himself played the role that Plato’s Form of the Good played in his philosophy. Moreover, Plato’s forms were reconceptualized by Christians as divine ideas, which internalized them into God, meaning that they didn’t have a separate and independent existence apart from God.

Now, the big difference between Christianity and Plato at this point was that Plato’s Form of the Good was an impersonal object, but God is personal. But this also provided Christianity with several advantages. For instance, Plato’s realm of distinct forms could all be internalized into God as His ideas, making ultimate reality much simpler. God’s personhood also means that God, unlike the Form of the Good, can act and create, and even create from nothing. This does away with the need for eternal matter, so that time, space, matter, and the forms are all ultimately dependent on God, whether as His thoughts (the forms) or His creations (space, time, and matter). It also means that Plato’s Demiurge is a superfluous concept; a poor substitute for the God who makes all things from nothing. As such, in many ways, Plato was on the right track, but the specifics of biblical theism he didn’t have access to better explain many of the things he ‘saw as through a glass darkly’.

Christianity has a long and interesting interaction with platonic ideas; sometimes fruitful, many times detrimental. But the true ideological grounds for Christianity are not to be found in Plato; they are found in the Old Testament.

We don’t have much in our resources that provide extensive discussion of the relation between Plato and Christianity, since it’s somewhat outside the regular purview of our ministry, though you may benefit from these articles: From Plato to pragmatism, Evolution: an ancient pagan idea, and What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma).

T.S. responded to this:

Thank you so much for your great reply. I needed this information to discuss it with my philosophy teacher in Spain. Creation Ministries International for me is the best Christian website to refute evolution and with many other topics.

Great Ministry!!

References and notes

  1. This does not mean, though, that God actually has annihilated or will annihilate any souls. Rather, God will subject the wicked to everlasting conscious punishment (Matthew 25:46). For more information, please see Why would a loving God send people to Hell? and Hell questions answered. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Mark P.
Thanks for the interesting article.

The verse you quoted to show the Platonic influence and that christians believed that we remain conscious after death, hardly supports that belief. It is just as consistent with soul-sleep, which is what Jesus consistently taught, emphatically even in the raising of Jairus's daughter. The normal word Jesus used for the sleep of death was koimao, from which we get coma. But in referring to that girl to the professional mourners outside he use katheudomai, "lie down; take a nap", emphasising that death is a temporary state of unconsciousness from which God has not trouble reviving us, restoring us to consciousness.
Shaun Doyle
First, I didn't use Philippians 1:23 to say that Plato influenced NT anthropology. I said it showed a commonality between Platonic and NT anthropology. Common affirmation doesn't mean one influenced the other, especially given the vastly different ways arrive at and parse out that commonality. And even if I accept your point about Philippians 1:23 not affirming a conscious intermediate state, not a great deal changes. Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:4-10 still sufficiently show that the NT affirms that an immaterial aspect to humans that persists after death, regardless of whether we are conscious or unconscious in the intermediate state. That is still sufficient to establish a commonality with Plato's substance dualism.

Still, I do think Philippians 1:23 supports a conscious intermediate state. The idea that Paul wants to depart and be with Christ so he can sleep in Christ's presence is not especially plausible. Paul desires more than anything else to praise and emulate Christ; apart from the corrupted body he can at least praise Christ without fleshly distraction. Admittedly, that's not explicit in the text, but it's a better explanation than the soul-sleep view is capable of coming up with for why Paul longs for Christ's presence in death.

Moreover, 2 Corinthians 5:8-9 strongly suggests that Paul envisioned the intermediate state as a conscious experience. Otherwise he couldn't make it his aim to please the Lord while "at home" (with the Lord—I take the usage of "home" as a metaphor for being in the Lord's presence in death to carry over from v. 8 to v. 9).

I would also argue that Jesus consistently taught the intermediate state was a conscious state. Luke 16:19-31 is instructive, Luke 22:37-38 is strongly suggestive (see Soulless humans? for more details), and Luke 23:43 is conclusive evidence against soul sleep.

Finally, the sleep metaphor is hardly definitive evidence against a conscious intermediate state. It's easily explainable as a metaphor pertaining to the repose and unconsciousness of the body in death.
L G.
Plato of course was only one of the Greek philosophers, his ideas were refined and reformed and added to especially by Aristotle and it is said that all Western education and thought was "Aristotelian" until the times of the Reformations and Enlightenment. Therefore anyone who desired an education or a patronage was pressed through this hodge podge of conflicting ideas, mixed indistinguishably with true church doctrine, and "science" was then able to claim a conflict with "religion".
It is important to realise that the teachings of these Greek thinkers were akin to those of the Freemasons and other syncretistic religious people who do not necessarily believe in any sort of god or spiritual being but understand that there are indeed things in this world which defy explanation. They instead attribute them as natural by-products of the biological phenomenon of "life" and thus they do not really mind which framework you place your emotional and spiritual and world-concept beliefs into as they reject all of them as factual and suggest they only exist in our minds.
The problem is that this is essentially occult doctrine, evolution, Hinduism etc in a nutshell and is completely and utterly contrary to the doctrines of the true God who created everything.
It goes back, if I can comment so, to the original sinner and false teacher, Satan himself, who tried to become in himself "like the Most High". "I will ascend" etc... Christian teaching is that we cannot become like the Most High unless he himself lives in us and changes us by His Spirit, and a basic belief in Him requires a basic belief in him as Creator whether of things above or things below. If He is not Creator, then He is not God.
Shaun Doyle
Personally, I’m not convinced that Aristotle had as big an impact on early church history as Plato did. Aristotle’s ideas were certainly around at the time, but they seem to have been somewhat lost for a time, at least from western Christianity, until their ‘rediscovery’ through Islamic philosophers in the 11th and 12th centuries, and reintroduction through the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal, when under Islamic control in the middle ages). Moreover, Augustine was probably the most influential theologian in the West (and perhaps still is!), and he was for a time a neo-Platonist, and that intellectual history shows in his writings (though I tend to think he became less Platonic and more biblical as he got older). And many of the early church’s theological assumptions draw quite heavily from the platonic tradition, even as they modified it in biblical directions. I think Plato and his heirs were Christianity’s first major external dialogue partners.

Nonetheless, I could certainly agree that the second millennium of Christianity has been more a reflection on and reaction to Aristotle than Plato. Nevertheless, Christianity has never forgotten its most ancient pagan dialogue partner, nor has it shaken the influence dialogue with Plato had (for better and/or for worse).

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