At the end of the second century, Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was combating a trend in theology that sought to integrate Greek philosophy with biblical truth. According to Tertullian, these two things belong in separate universes.
Tertullian’s question is a good one. What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? A lot, actually. We can argue whether or not Greek philosophy should influence Christian doctrine, but that Greek philosophy has influenced Christian doctrine is indisputable.
Most of you don’t care about Plato. Maybe you were forced to read some of his writings in college. At best, you may remember something about a republic, a cave, a philosopher king, and maybe even “forms.” How could someone whose books you couldn’t understand have an impact on the way you think?
The reality is that your thinking has been profoundly shaped by Plato. It just has. You don’t have to know who he is or what he taught. His impact on Western thought and culture—including Christian thought and culture—is incalculable.
Here are a few things that Plato taught, then I’ll explore how this has affected the way Christians think. Plato believed there were two worlds: the visible, earthly, material world; and the invisible, heavenly, immaterial world. The earthly world is somewhat artificial, misleading, temporary. The heavenly world is real, truthful, permanent. Human beings are much the same. Each person has an eternal soul that longs for the heavenly realm. Unfortunately, that soul is trapped within a material body, which must be escaped, transcended. The way to do this is through reason. Reason allows us to get beyond the material trappings of this world and look upon that which is real, heavenly, and ethereal.
Do you see where this is heading? Most Christians see the world in these same terms. We long to become disembodied spirits in heaven. This world is temporary, distractingly material, and gross. We want to get away from this earth, away from these bodies, and spend a disembodied eternity floating on clouds.
As a side note, this type of thinking is partially responsible for the grand cathedrals in Europe. They were designed to draw our eyes and thoughts away from this world and onto the mysteries of heaven. Beautiful, awe inspiring, and handed down to us compliments of Plato.
Of course, everyone who thinks this way believes that we get this worldview from the Bible. But the biblical world is different. In the Bible, the world is created to be good. Though the world is stained by sin, God’s creation still retains its goodness (it is in bondage to decay, but it looks ahead to the day of redemption—see Rom. 8).
The biblical story does not move from nasty materiality to blissful disembodiment. Rather, it moves from God creating a gloriously physical earth to God re-creating a gloriously physical earth. Look at Jesus, for example. In many ways, he validated the goodness of God’s material earth by taking on flesh. Jesus was not defiled by his body. And when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not vaporize and ghost off into space, celebrating his escape from the physicality of earth. He appeared in a resurrected body; a body that could pass through walls and suddenly appear and disappear, but that could also be touched, that could eat and (presumably) digest food (he ate fish with his disciples post-resurrection).
Plato would have us believe that this world doesn’t matter so much. Let’s transcend it. Let’s escape it. Let’s meditate and get our heads in the clouds.
But God placed us on this earth for a reason. God encased us in flesh for a reason. And when Jesus returns, he is not going back on his commitment to physicality. He won’t be feeling embarrassed about all of the sluggish limitations of matter and therefore create a new world in which we can all float around as thoughts or ghosts. Instead, he’s going to go with a world that is much like this one. A new heavens and a new earth that features a great city.
So don’t be so Platonically minded that you are of no earthly good. Be here, where God placed you, where he commissioned you, where he is empowering you.