Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Resurrection and Plato

I have written on this blog numerous times (here, here, and here) about the Greek view of reality as expressed in Plato.  There is a strong dualism in Plato's thought that splits reality in two: the material reality and the non-material reality.  Corresponding to this dualism of reality, humanity is also split in two: the material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and the non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma).  In this view of the world, there is little if any interaction between these two levels of reality.  Any influence seems to be in one direction, from the non-material reality (what Plato called the world of forms(idea)) to the material reality.  That influence was actually minimal, as the material reality is said to be merely a shadow of the world of forms.

Many Christians take Plato's dualistic worldview and subscribe to it as an accurate, truthful, and even "biblical" view of reality.  They then take Christian/biblical terminology and map it on to the Platonic worldview.  For example, for many Christians, the created order (earth) is Plato's material reality and Heaven is the non-material reality.  Thus, while on earth humans have bodies (soma) made of flesh (sarx), but these bodies are inhabited by the non-material soul (psyche) and spirit(pneuma).   After the death of the body, the non-material self (psyche/pneuma) go to the non material reality, heaven.  Well, this works well enough if one does not look too closely at the biblical material.  Yet, when one looks closely at the language of the Bible, it does not map neatly onto the Platonic worldview.  The following is just one example.

First Corinthians chapter 15 contains Paul's most complete teaching on the resurrection.  The chapter is 58 verses long and contains numerous interesting passages, all related in some way to the concept of resurrection.  At one point in Paul's argument, he poses the question to himself as follows:
35 "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" (NRSV)
So, Paul is wondering what sort of existence will there be after the resurrection.  Well, to line up with Platonic thought, Paul would have to posit a material/physical existence on this side of death, followed by a non-material/spiritual existence after the resurrection.   Enter 15:44-46, where Paul says:
44 "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual." (NRSV)
So, there you have it.  Paul agrees with Plato, right?  Before death it is a "physical body" and after death it is a "spiritual body."  Here is how the NIV translates the same verses:
44 "it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”[a]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.
There again, Plato.  Before death, "natural," after the resurrection, "spiritual."  But, and here is the big but, Paul doesn't actually say what the NIV or NRSV translations say he says.

Interestingly, the word translated as spiritual here is, as we would expect, spiritual (pneumatikos, for which you can see the resemblance to the Greek for spirit, pneuma).  No problems there.  But, the word that is translated as physical (NRSV) and natural (NIV), is not the Greek word that means physical or natural (physikos), but instead, the word used there is, for lack of a better word, "soulish" (psychikos).  Here it is the soul (psyche) which characterizes existence on this side of death and the spirit (pneuma) which characterizes existence post-resurrection.  Now, it looks like Paul might not line up so nicely with Plato after all.  Plato firmly placed soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) in non-material reality, but here, Paul says that soul (psyche) is on this side of death, and that spirit (pneuma) is post-resurrection.  This is not even to mention the fact that body (soma) which for Plato is on the material side of reality, exists in both of Paul's realities.  There is a "soulish" body (soma) before death and a spiritual body (soma) after the resurrection.

I will have some further thoughts on this matter in a follow up post.  But, for now, what do you think?


  1. I can't guess what Paul meant by that distinction, if it wasn't the distinction between spiritual and physical. I look forward to your further thoughts on the matter.

  2. David,
    Thanks for the comment. I have written a follow up post, and you might find it interesting. Though, you will have to wait for the follow up to the follow up to get my full answer to your question.

    the short answer is, the distinction Paul is making is not physical(material) vs. spiritual(non-material), but rather, the distinction is perishable vs. imperishable. That is, this life is characterized by decay and death, whereas the post-resurrection existence will not be subject to decay and death. I Corinthians 15:42-43 "42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

  3. Hmmm. So Paul didn't hold with mind/body (or soul/body) dualism? Sensible of him, I'd say. It sounds as if the idea is that a living person doesn't "have" a "soul", but just is a living, thinking being (courtesy of God, presumably)? So in this life the body can perish (and stop living and thinking), but in the resurrection, that can't happen?

    Does that mean Paul wouldn't have believed in the possibility of disembodied minds?