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Plato and the Immortal Soul
The Early Church Fathers
We arrive at a time 100 to 300 years after Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
The leaders of the young Christian church spent much of their time preaching and writing about Christian doctrine—such as Marcus Minucius Felix (c. ad 150–270), Cyprian (c. ad 200–258), Ambrose (ad 337–397), John Chrysostom (c. ad 339–407) and Jerome (c. ad 347–420. Each of these fathers preached and wrote in support of the doctrine of the immortal soul.
Professor of historical theology Dr. Le Roy Froom observes, “All Christian Fathers who use this ‘immortal soul’ phrase or thought were not only familiar with but likewise in accord with this position (
The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers,
Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1965, Vol. 1, 954).
So, where did the early church fathers get this doctrine of the immortal soul?
The answer is Tertullian (c. ad 155–240). Tertullian was another of the Christian church fathers. Not born a Christian, he was educated in the fashionable Greco-Roman philosophical training of his day. Upon his conversion at age forty, he produced a flood of Christian writings. The first church father to write in the Latin language, which would become the official language of Christianity, one topic he wrote about and supported was that of the immortal soul.
Froom also writes, “It was Tertullian who first affirmed that torments of the lost will be co-equal and co-exist with the happiness of the saved” (Froom, 950.) But in order to support his position on the topic, “he 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” (Froom, 951).
While Tertullian generously amplified the teaching of the immortal soul, he did not come up with it. So where did he get it?
That would be Athenagoras (ad 133–190), a slightly older contemporary of Tertullian.
Also a convert to Christianity, Athenagoras was educated in the intellectual nerve center of the world at that time—Alexandria, Egypt. He studied the pagan classics of Greek literature and philosophy before becoming a prominent theologian.
The first church father to outwardly espouse the immortality of the soul doctrine, he is credited with passing this teaching along to the Christian church.
According to 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” (Froom, 931). Because of this compulsory immortality for mankind, Athenagoras concluded that wicked people have no choice but to live forever in the eternal misery of hell.
But Athenagoras was not the ultimate human source of the immortal soul doctrine.
Each of the above proponents of the immortal soul doctrine had one man in common.
This man was the human root of this doctrine. This man was Plato.
In writing and preaching about the immortal soul doctrine, the early church fathers used as their source, not Scripture, but 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” (Froom, 954).
Tertullian openly referenced Plato in his writings, basing his support of the immortality of the soul, not on Scripture, but on the pagan Greek philosopher. “For some things are known even by nature: the immortality of the soul, for instance, is held by many; the knowledge of our God is possessed by all. I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato, when he declares, ‘Every soul is immortal’ ” (Tertullian,
On the Resurrection of the Flesh
Athenagoras also used as his foundation for the immortal soul doctrine, not Scripture, but Plato. Athenagoras’ theology “is strongly tinged with Platonism” (
, s.v. “Athenagoras,” 11th ed., 831). Believing that pagan Greek teachings and Christianity were compatible, he skillfully wove the two together. “Athenagoras frequently combined the beliefs of the Greek poets and philosophers, particularly Plato, with the doctrines of Christianity” (
, s.v. “Athenagoras” (2001), Vol. 2, 605).
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Hell in the Bible
The word “hell” is used 54 times in the Bible. It is translated from several different words with various meanings, as indicated below:
In the Old Testament:
31 times from the Hebrew “Sheol,” which means “the grave”
In the New Testament:
10 times from the Greek “Hades,” which means “the grave”
12 times from the Greek “Gehenna,” which means “a place of burning”
1 time from the Greek “Tartarus,” which means “a place of darkness”
What is Purgatory?
A tradition held by the Catholic Church that teaches people who are not good enough to be worthy of heaven, but not bad enough to deserve hell, suffer in an intermediary state until their sins are purged.
But is it in the Bible?
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