Hellenism and Christianity

Hellenism refers to the achievements and influence of the Greeks in social and political institutions including the arts, science, philosophy, morals, and religion. In ancient Greek mythology, the term comes from Hellen (a man, not a woman), whose parents were saved from a devastating flood that destroyed all of creation. His parents, Deucalion and Pyrrha, to repopulate the world threw stones which turned into people; the first stone thrown became their son, Hellen. Hellen was believed to be the father of the nations of Greece. In ancient times, Greeks were called Hellenes (Acts 6:1). The focus of this writing is on the deleterious effects that Hellenism, particularly Greek philosophy, had and still has on Christianity.

 

To celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, my wife, Mimi, and I went to Rome, Italy. When in Rome, visiting the Vatican is almost mandatory. Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel is breathtaking, but is only part of the extraordinary and copious artwork display ed throughout the Vatican Palace. As a student of the Bible walking through the Vatican, viewing the artwork, I was struck by a number of emotions, some of which are quite contrary to the other – from awe to disgust. Some of the tapestries, frescos, oil paintings, and statues brilliantly capture biblical records providing a vivid picture to the written Word. However, more common was the grossly inaccurate biblical representations and blatant paganism.

 

One of the more shocking encounters was in the room called the Stanza della Segnatura that displays the work of Raphael, who was a contemporary of Michelangelo. They both painted at the same time in different parts of the Vatican. The fresco called School of Athens depicts that the topic of this article: Hellenism and Christianity. The central figures are Plato and Aristotle in the midst of many other Greek philosophers. The fresco also includes images of the statues of Apollo, the Greek god of light, and Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. In the Vatican, considered the jewel and throne of Catholicism, is this monument that depicts the destructive influence of Greek philosophy and paganism. Raphael’s intended theme was to seek knowledge through philosophy and symbolize the marriage of philosophy and Christianity. Many fundamental and commonly accepted Christian doctrines have their roots in Plato and his philosophy (Platonism) rather than in Christ and the Scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are the sole underpinning for the New Testament and Christianity. We do not and should not have our roots in Platonism or any non-biblical philosophy.

 

The Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, plus others less notable – lived between the time of Malachi, the last prophet and book of the Old Testament, and Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. Alexander the Great, who was born in 356 and died in 323 BC also live during this timeframe. He conquered the world and laid the foundation for the Hellenistic world. The Jews tenaciously fought to maintain their Jewish roots and to shun Hellenism from infiltrating their culture. Jesus and his apostles also stood against Greek philosophy as most of the world embraced it because it was contrary to the truth now recorded in the Scriptures. After the death of the original apostles in the latter part of the first century and the centuries following, the “church fathers,” considered eminent theologians, started to change the doctrine set forth in the Scriptures. Many of these men were adherents of the Greek philosophers and introduced various wrong doctrines that are still believed today by mainstream Christianity.

 

They recognized that Plato embraced some Christian elements, and some thought he was divinely inspired with preliminary Christian enlightenment before Christ was born. For example, Clement of Alexandria, considered a prominent Christian theologian and philosopher who lived around 150 AD, was entrenched in Greek philosophy. He said Greek philosophy was “a sort of preliminary discipline for those who lived before the coming of Christ.” “Perhaps we may say it was given to the Greeks with this special object; for philosophy was to the Greeks what the Law was to the Jews, a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ.”

 

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) a Christian apologist is regarded as the foremost interpreter and defender of Church doctrine. He is revered as a “saint” by the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. He said the Platonic dogmas are not foreign to Christianity. “If we Christians say that all things were created and ordered by God, we seem to enounce [set forth with agreement] a doctrine of Plato; and, between our view of the being of God and his, the article appears to make the only difference.” Justin was, as he himself relates, an enthusiastic admirer of Plato before he found in the Gospel that full satisfaction which he had sought earnestly, but in vain, in philosophy. The Gospel stood infinitely higher in his view than the Platonic philosophy, yet he regarded the latter as a preliminary stage to the former. His philosophical roots influenced his understanding of the Scriptures. Many “fathers” of the early Church sought to explain the striking resemblance between the doctrines of Plato and those of Christianity and supposed he knew the Old Testament Scriptures. However, many of his views were not only wrong but contradictory to the Scriptures, yet, still accepted as truth.

 

Plato (427 to 347 BC) became immensely influential in western civilization. He was a student of Socrates (470 to 399 BC), writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens where Aristotle (384 to322 BC) studied. He wrote mainly in the form known as dialogue. In the early dialogues, several characters discuss a topic by asking questions of one another. Socrates figures prominently in Plato’s writing, although he never wrote anything himself. Plato’s insights are very thought provoking but challenging to read because they seem disorganized and not given directly. Instead they are presented by asking a series of questions. His philosophical views that effect Christianity are written primarily in the Republic, Timaeus, Crito, and Phaedo. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I will spare you the laborious effort of dissecting his writing and only provide the salient points that have influenced Christianity. If you are interested in a fuller understand of Plato’s philosophy, you can find many books in libraries and online.

 

In 399 BC, Socrates stood before a jury of 500 of his fellow Athenians accused of refusing to concede the gods recognized by the state and of corrupting the youth. He was sentenced to death by drinking the deadly poison, hemlock. A number of friends gathered in his cell and, according to Plato, he encouraged them not to be overwhelmed by his demise for the soul is immortal. Socrates makes a distinction between things that are intangible, invisible, immortal, and which are material, visible, and perishable. The body is the second type, while the soul is the first kind. Therefore, the soul is immortal and survives the death of the body.

 

Plato, strongly influenced by his teacher Socrates, communicates no doctrine more frequently or strenuously than that the soul is not only superior to the body but prior to it in order of time. He believed the soul existed before the birth of the body and continued on eternally after the death of the body. Not only did he believe this about humans but everything else in existence. The soul of the world existed first, and then it was clothed with a material body. The souls which animate the sun, moon, and stars existed before the bodies which they inhabit. He believed the soul, being everywhere the cause and source of life and every way diametrically opposite to death, cannot be conceived as dying any more than fire can be conceived as becoming cold. The soul, being self-moved, and the source of all life and motion, can never cease to live and move. His immortality philosophy has profoundly affected not only Christianity, but almost all people in the world and has done so for centuries. However, it contradicts and undermines God’s purpose of the ages plus dissuades people from attaining salvation.

 

Immortality of the Soul

The Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Human beings seem always to have had some notion of a shadowy double that survives the death of the body. But the idea of the soul as a mental entity, with intellectual and moral qualities, interacting with a physical organism but capable of continuing after its dissolution, derives in Western thought from Plato and entered into Judaism during approximately the last century before the Common Era and thence into Christianity.”

We want our beliefs to be founded upon the truth within the Scriptures and on nothing else. So, the question is: “What does the Bible teach about death and immortality of the soul?” The first mention of death in the Bible is recorded in Genesis 2:17 when God warned Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Important to note is God did not say your body will die; rather, He said YOU will die. He did not say your soul will continue to live on after you die. Adam and Eve disobeyed the command and suffered the consequence thereof. After the fall, God said to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return," Genesis 3:19. These words are clear and emphatic. Your destiny in death is dust and not immortality in heaven or hell! This may sound silly, but the essence of what was said is when you die, you are dead and will corrupt.

 

The words “immortality,” “imperishable,” and “incorruption” when used in the Bible never are in the context of immediate life after death. These seldom-used words are always in the context of resurrection when Jesus returns. Not once does the Bible say that immortality, imperishable, or incorruption is received immediately after death. Plato talks like this but not God or Christ.

Job 14:10-12  But man dies and lies prostrate. Man expires, and where is he?

As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up,

So, man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no longer, he will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep.

Job’s description leaves little room for misunderstanding. When we die, our life is like water that evaporates or a river that dries up. He does give hope for the future when he says “until the heavens are no longer” referring to the end of this age when Christ returns and ushers in the new age with the Kingdom of God. Job equates death with sleep, a common connection in the Scriptures.

Psalm 13:3  O LORD my God; enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death

1 Kings 2:10   Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

Acts 13:36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay.

1 Thessalonians 5:10  who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.

1 Corinthians 15:6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep

2 Peter 3:4  Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.

In the state of sleep, the dead have no consciousness, so their last thought before death will be followed by their first thought in the resurrection when Christ returns. There could be hundreds of years in between thoughts, but to them it will seem like a moment of time.

Psalm 6:5 For there is no remembrance of You in death; in sheol [the grave] who will give You thanks?

Psalm 146:4 His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish

Ecclesiastes 9:5  For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten [gone].

Ecclesiastes 9:10  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave] where you are going.

Our hope is not in the transmigration of the soul to heaven after death but in the resurrection from the dead when Jesus returns. Until that time, the dead are asleep.

1 Corinthians 15:17-23  ….if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.

For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming.

With humility and meekness, we come to the Scriptures and allow them to speak to us even if they contradict what we and everyone else believe. We must determine if God’s Word contained in the Scriptures is our standard for truth or the common worldview influenced by Plato. Jesus is the only one who has ascended to heaven after death. Everyone else who has died is sleeping and will stay asleep until he returns.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Therefore comfort one another with these words.

 

Death is a daunting problem for everyone as is stated well in Hebrews 9:27. “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die….” Death is the mutual enemy of us all, but it will be destroyed when Christ returns. The last enemy that will be abolished is death, 1 Corinthians 15:26. Death now remains our greatest enemy. The devastating pain we experience when a loved one dies and the realization of our own mortality compel us to find some kind of comfort or encouragement. Strangely, the common solution has been denial. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islamism, and Christianity all teach some form of immortality of the soul immediately following death. Plato’s false doctrine is widely embraced rather than the truth of the Scriptures.

Do we not regard a sound night’s sleep a blessing? Should we not find comfort and encouragement in knowing our loved ones are sleeping and that their very next thought will be that of Jesus Christ when he returns. Sleep is good, not bad, and for those in it, there is rest until the glorious day when Christ returns. The truth provides genuine, godly comfort while lies set us up for problems and even conflicts with the God of comfort. The clichés commonly uttered when someone dies are intended to bring comfort, but for some they sow seeds of doubt and even disdain for God. “God called him home,” “She is in a better place,” “God needed another angel in heaven” are all rooted in the false belief that a person’s soul lives on after death. Additionally, God is blamed for the death of this person when the Scriptures speak quite differently. The devil, not God, is the author of death.

Hebrews 2: 14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He [Jesus Christ] Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.

John 10:10  The thief [the devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy….

When God warned Adam not to eat of the tree, His words were precise. He said “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." Note he did not say your body will die, but your soul will live on. No such language is found anywhere in the Bible. The person dies, not his or her body, and the person will be raised up with resurrection. The soul of the person did not exist before there was a body, and the soul does not live on after death. The dead are raised with the resurrection. Jesus is the only one who ascended into heaven; everyone else is still in the grave.

In the Old Testament, the word “soul” is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh and in the New Testament from the Greek word psuche. These words are not only translated “soul” but even more commonly “life,” “living,” and “breath.” They have a large variety of meanings determined in the context with each occurrence. However, never are these words accompanied by the word “immortality,” nor is such a concept ever communicated in any form. Immortality, imperishability, everlasting life, and eternal life are used always in reference to the resurrection at the return of Christ and the Kingdom of God that comes then.

1 Corinthians 15:52-54 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory

When a person dies, both his/her body and soul die, the whole person without any separation of the soul. Jesus often speaks about the soul. He talks about saving or losing our soul, not about the preservation of the soul in heaven or hell. In the following verses, the Greek word psuche occurs four times, twice translated “life” and twice as “soul,” giving the impression that “soul” and “life” are synonyms.

Matthew 16:24-27 Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

For whoever wishes to save his life [psuche] will lose it; but whoever loses his life [psuche] for My sake will find it.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? [psuche] Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? [psuche]

For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS.

 

Hellenism’s influence on Christianity is far reaching; therefore, we will discuss it in more detail in subsequent articles in Glad Tidings.

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