Plato Comes to Church
It is the last half of the second century in North Africa--Alexandria, Egypt, to be exact--the "Mecca" of intellectualism and contemporary thinking in the Christian world of the early church era.
The writings of church father Athenagoras (A.D. 127-190) of Alexandria is the first clue that a departure from the Scripture's holistic view of man is on the theological horizon.
Born in Athens, Athenagoras was trained in pagan Greek learning and the philosophy of Plato before he became a Christian. And becoming a Christian did not invalidate his former views. He was the first ecclesiastical writer to publicly embrace the immortality of the soul. Without referencing the Scriptures, Athenagoras advanced his views directly from Plato's philosophical construct. His theology "is strongly tinged with Platonism" ("Athenagoras," Encyclopedia Brittannica, 11th ed., p. 831).
Combine Plato With Christian Doctrine
Athenagoras skillfully argued in his writings that Platonic philosophy was essentially embraced by Christianity. Therefore, it was congruent for Athenagoras to interweave both. "Athenagoras frequently combined the beliefs of the Greek poets and philosophers, particularly Plato, with the doctrines of Christianity" (Encyclopedia Americana , vol. 2, p. 605).
According to professor of historical theology Dr. LeRoy Froom, Athenagoras' "main premise was that God's purpose in creating man was that he should live--that the divine purpose of man's existence is existence itself. And God's purpose, he contended, cannot be defeated. It must be accomplished. It is therefore impossible for man to cease to exist" (Dr. LeRoy E. Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1965], vol.1, p. 931).
The fruitage of this argument was a "compulsory immortality" for all. With regard to the wicked, Athenagoras reasoned, they must live forever in eternal misery; and they must exist eternally because the primary reason God made man is for the purpose of living.
Tertullian Advances the Theory
While Athenagoras launched publicly the immortal soul, a younger contemporary, Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 160-240), pursued and amplified it. He was the first of the church fathers to write in Latin, soon to be the official language of the medieval church. Prior to his conversion at age of 40, Tertullian received a Greco-Roman education in Rome.
According to Froom, "it was Tertullian who first affirmed that torments of the lost will be co-equal and co-exist with the happiness of the saved." (Ibid., vol. 1, p. 950.)
Tertullian's propositions needed other modifications: "He [Tertullian] confessedly altered the sense of Scripture and the meaning of words, so as to interpret 'death' as eternal misery and 'destruction' and 'consume' as pain and anguish. 'Hell' became perpetually dying, but never dead" (Ibid., vol. 1, p. 951).
Without hesitation, Tertullian referred directly to Plato in his writings. Plato's primary theme, "every soul is immortal," became Tertullian's unwavering platform (Tertullian, On the Resurrection, chap.3, quoted in ANF, vol.3, p. 547).
These church fathers followed suit by including Tertullian's propositions in their public preaching and writing: Minucius Felix, Cyprian of Carthage, Ambrose of Milan, John Chryosostom and Jerome (translator of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate).
No Attempt to Support With Scripture
Did they follow blindly? Were these leaders naive? Dr. Froom observes: "It is to be particularly noted that all Christian Fathers who use this 'immortal soul' phrase or thought were not only familiar with but likewise in accord with this position in the writing of Plato. And it is also to be observed that none of such early Christian writers ever sought for support for this doctrine by primary appeal to Scripture, but had recourse instead to arguments similar to those used by Plato" (Dr. LeRoy E. Froom, Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers , vol. 1, p. 954).
Search for the Immortal Soul, Daniel Knauft, pp. 49-51
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