C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Plato! It’s all in Plato! What do they teach them in these schools?” Sitting in the final class of Theology III, I think Lewis might have been on to something. Listening to the professor meander on about whether or not God will destroy the world – burning it to extinction – or will renew it, and then move to trying to divine the different connotations of “heaven” in the corpus of the Bible, I wonder if Plato might provide a helpful tool.
Plato argued that reality exists in at least two planes. The manifest world is the physical realm in which we dwell. It holds people, things, and exists in itself. He also posited the world of the forms. This realm is the world of ideas. These two worlds relate to one another in terms of reality. The world of ideas, for Plato, is the realm of ultimates, of transcendent reality. Here the highest Forms dwell. Manifest objects and ideas correspond to these forms, and derive their existence from them. For Plato, these two realms are always separate and we in the manifest world apprehend the world of the forms through our nous, our minds. He argued that such a realm must exist by deductive reasoning.
This theory sounds suspiciously similar to elements of Christian theology. The Bible posits a duality. Humans dwell in the physical world, God in the spiritual realm. This spiritual realm is variously described as a city, a bride, a feast (positively), and a lake of torment, neverending suffering, and a “place of outer darkness” where the damned live out eternity (negatively). Humans are hybrid beings. As physical creatures made out of dirt, we belong to the manifest world. As bearers of the imago dei, however, we are also spiritual beings; attempts to divide body and soul quickly stray into heresy. The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that God Himself became embodied, sanctifying the body.
Where this helps with eschatology lies in resolving the question of the new heavens and new earth. John’s Revelation clearly shows that the world will be changed. Different readings diverge from that point, but all agree that change will happen. If we understand the spiritual and physical realms as two planes which dwell side by side today, yet one is invisible, then we could posit that in the return of Christ the creation of the New Heavens and the New Earth is a merging of the two realms. In Eden, God walked with man. Throughout the Bible, men long to reunite with God. Israel feared God even when he was veiled in shadow and high up on the mountain; in the consummation of the ages, the world of transcendent truth and the manifest world are made one. Here there will be no need for the sun, “for God Himself will be their light.” Perfect peace, justice, government, and life everlasting will exist in the perfect city through which flows the river of peace, alongside which grows the tree whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.”
Rather than stumbling through complicated terminology and constructing new theories to explain the eschatology of the Bible, we are better served to take Augustine’s advice and “plunder the Egyptians,” or in this case the pagan Plato. While Plato will not be in heaven, he certainly had an insight into the nature of reality, and his terms provide an illumination into the workings of God described in Scripture.
Copyright 2015 Joshua Herring