IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT THAT THE CELESTIAL HALO, which has adorned the portraits of so many heavenly-residing saints, did not originate with the Christian religion. For this we must first look to the Egyptian Mysteries; to the hidden knowledge of Zarathustra; to the heroes of Homer’s literature; as far-east as ancient India and Buddhism; to the worship of Apollo in Rome, and perhaps most importantly of all, Apollo’s counterpart—to the religion of Mithras. By garnishing one’s skull with the coveted halo we are expected to believe the venerated saint has ascended through the seven luminaries to the eighth and final layer of heaven itself. If the artists’ rendition is spiritually accurate, the saint of his devotion now resides beyond the orb of Plato’s universe.
I am often reminded that the convictions of the educated—and not to be overlooked, the initiated—were groomed with a globe and the literature of Plato to guide them. With this understanding of history I must concur—for the most part. Plato has dictated much. But there is another story rarely considered. It is the untold account of the pew parishioner, the often illiterate and competently uninitiated soul; essentially those without a voice for public discourse and the necessary education to accommodate it. The belief in a mortal soul and a flat, stationary earth—though perhaps not simultaneously held together—is of interest here; a thorn which has pestered the skulls and splintered the brightest minds of the university for several dozen generations.
Despite its occultist origin, the Christian storyteller sought to add one unique contribution to the haloed saint. This should be of particular interest here, because the portrait of a living saint—while his soul still animated the body—had not yet become intimately familiar with the orb of the universe. The shape of the earth was still his concern.
For this reason, the living Christian was crowned with a square halo.
PETER WAS DEAD. PAUL WAS DEAD. JOHN WAS DEAD. With the advent of the second-century the last of the Apostles—sanctioned mouth-pieces of God—were unquestionably buried and dead. In their absence, Christianity would expand into Egypt and Greece, to every sea port across the Mediterranean, but not everything of the Hebrew faith remained. For this reason, scouring through the writings of the early church is a fluorescent though somewhat jarring exercise. Those who immediately followed in the second centuries dawning hours, particularly apostolic fathers Ignatius and Polycarp, best functioned by pointing their congregations to the traditions of the Apostles, begging that they strive to live in light of Jesus’ teachings. And yet, despite the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and Judea’s violent end, the promise of Christ’s return had not been fulfilled. The occult still reigned supreme from Rome. Actually, the worst was still to come. And the pressing question on everyone’s mind seemed to be: “What now?”
Philosophers would answer that call.
As the road to Rome was slowly lighted with the saving Gospel, the learned men who bore the torches did not give up philosophy. Rather, it is said they became better philosophers. In hindsight their unapologetic affair with Plato is nothing short of criminal.
The Greek-speaking Gentile Justin Martyr (110-165) was born in Judea, not far from Jacob’s Well, where Jesus had offered the Samaritan woman “living water” some 80 years earlier. Martyr was a seeker of philosophical truth. Naturally, he became a Platonist. Then one day he was out walking along the seashore when an old man introduced him to Jesus of Nazareth. Martyr was convinced. Like the Apostles before him, Martyr devoted the rest of his life in defense of the Gospel. But quite unlike the Apostles, Martyr did not disrobe of his philosopher’s cloak. In order to win converts, the Platonist from Samaria advertised Christianity as the “true philosophy.” Perhaps more brazenly, he embraced the ancient bread crumbs of Greek wisdom long before Christ’s incarnation as the “seeds of Christianity.” His conversion was indeed a strange one, because for Justin Martyr, Socrates and Plato were unknowing Christians.
To this day historians tend to promote the Protestant point of view, particularly church historian Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), who emphasized a new beginning with the fathers of the second century. While the church still remained in its infant stages, the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ was overwhelmed with Greek philosophy. Despite widespread use of the phrase immortal soul, this terminology, along with globe earth, is found nowhere in the Bible. One must read Holy Writ through the lensing of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to them through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended, in order to nurture these conclusions. For Harnack, the post-Apostolic church embraced Hellenization. With the rare exception of John of Damascus and Gregory Palamas, who were ostensibly Aristotelians, and the untold Christians who embraced the Bible’s mortal narrative, Plato ruled supreme.
TO EVEN BEGIN AND LIST EVERY THEOLOGIAN WHO SUBSCRIBED to the immortal soul doctrine would fill an entire book. I confess I began to do it—list them on paper, that is—but I shan’t for a shortage of trees. One truth however appears certain. From its very conception, other doctrinal complications arose. If the soul was truly immortal, then it could neither die nor be destroyed. The anguish of hell apparently was eternal. Well—not necessarily. The introduction of the immortal soul doctrine also aroused another Scriptural perversion. We know it today as Universalism. But for the throngs of Christians today who embrace the immortal soul doctrine and yet shy away from the heretical, very few come to realize that their extra-biblical belief and Universalism were introduced together.
For this we must first look to Alexandra, the epicenter of learning, intellectual discourse, and most importantly of all the adulterous Mystery Schools, all of which served as a theological nurturing ground for the early church before the rise of the Roman Church. Its great library contained upwards of 700,000 volumes; and it is speculated that at one time 14,000 students were assembled. Pantaenus the Philosopher (120-216) can be found there among a plethora of Christian successors. Like Justin Martyr in Judea and later Rome, Pantaenus was another such convert who attempted to reconcile his new faith with Greek philosophy. Though not nearly so widely known today as Martyr, he is a significant figure for his role in the Catechetical School of Alexandra. His learning center was the earliest catechetical school, and its influence in the development of Christian theology cannot be overstated. Alexandria was its cradle.
In his book, Universalism, author J. W. Hanson wrote: “Those who are truly called the fathers and founders of the Christian church were not the simpleminded fishermen of Galilee, but men who had received the highest education which could be obtained at the time—that is Greek education. In Alexandria, at the time the very center of the world, it had either to vanquish the world or to vanish. Christianity came no doubt from the small room in the house of Mary, where many were gathered together praying, but as early as the Second Century it became a very different Christianity in the Catechetical school of Alexandria. What Clement had most at heart was not the letter but the spirit, not the historical events, but their deeper meaning in universal history.”
Like Martyr and his teacher Pantaenus before him, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) believed that Greek philosophy was the handmaiden of saving theology. Actually, Clement was influenced by Hellenistic philosophy to a greater extent than any Christian theologian of his time. “Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness,” he wrote in Stromata. “For God is the cause of all good things, but of some primarily, as of the Old and New Testaments; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenic mind, as the law the Hebrews to Christ. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.”
While the common unlearned and uninitiated man heard gladly the simple story of the Gospel, the scholar and the philosopher were attracted by the genius of Clement and more importantly, Origen after him. Writes Hanson: “The materialistic philosophy of Epicureanism, that happiness is the highest good and can best be procured in a well-regulated enjoyment of the pleasures of life; the Pantheistic system of Stoicism, that one should live within himself, superior to the accidents of time; the logical Aristotelianism, and the Platonism that regarded the universe as the work of a Supreme Spirit, in which man is a permanent individuality possessing a spark of the divinity that would ultimately purify him and elevate him to a higher life; and that virtue would accelerate and sin retard his upward progress–these different systems all had their devotees, but the noblest of all, the Platonic, was most influential with the Alexandrine fathers, though, like Clement, they exercised a wise and rational variety, in adopting the best features of each system.”
To this effect, Clement once quipped: “And by philosophy I mean not the Stoic, nor the Platonic, nor the Epicurean, nor that of Aristotle; but whatever any of these sects had said that was fit and just, that taught righteousness with a divine and religious knowledge, this I call mixed philosophy.”
Clement was not willing to accept punishment if it endangered his immortal soul doctrine. He saw no other way around eternity than to embrace Universalism. Clement insisted that punishment in Hades was remedial and restorative, and that punished souls were cleansed by a spiritual fire, which acted as an agent to purify the immortal soul and beckon its gaze once again to the Creator. “God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary (in Hades) leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of the sinner,” he wrote. Elsewhere he concluded: “We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.”
Clement furthermore argued for an equality of sexes on the basis that Jesus Christ is neither male nor female, and that God the Father has both male and female aspects. It is evident that Clement had confused and compromised the saving faith with elements of the Mystery religion which likely clothed him to some degree. Then again, he advanced Gnosticism. His Miscellanies was a disciplined instruction for “Christian Gnostics.” Among his works he gladly confessed that Plato and Pythagoras were taught by the Egyptians, and though this seems a rather obvious conclusion to make today, Clement likely had an inside knowledge of it.
But that is not all of his extra-Biblical teaching which derived from Alexandrian influence. Clement was a true Platonist. In the Paedagogus, or the Instructor, the theologian wrote concerning the shape of the earth:
“Out of a confused heap who didst create
This ordered sphere, and from the shapeless mass
Of matter didst the universe adorn.”
Like the immortal soul doctrine, it can be said that globe earth entered into the pantheon of Christian thinking soon after the simple fishermen from Galilee were dead and buried. The Universalism of Clement and Origen after him, as well as “their successors must, beyond question, have been taught by their great predecessor, Pantaenus,” Hanson assures us, “and there is every reason to believe that the Alexandrine school had never known any contrary teaching, from its foundation.”
Among his pupils one discovers Origen of Alexandria (184-253). Origen’s contributions to church history cannot be overstated. He Hellenized the Christian church in a likewise and dramatic manner as Philo of Alexandria radically transformed the Jews. For Origen, an unapologetic Platonist, the immortal soul and Plato’s globe likewise reigned supreme, and like Plato, the pre-existence of human souls, the reincarnation of the wicked, and the purifications of souls bolstered his doctrine. Actually, Origen took Universalism to its ultimate conclusion—the devil would be saved at the end of time.
It is Origen who is first accredited with teaching the intercession of saints. He wrote: “But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels…as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep.” His lavish and rather self-indulgent interpretations no doubt derived from a familiarity with Hellenistic literature, which is ironic, since these very readings—paired with his Platonic pupilage—aptly informed him that the entire Bible was not to be interpreted literally. Concerning the Genesis account of creation, he wrote: “Who is so silly as to believe that God…planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life… and anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” Rather, Origen employed his instructions in philosophy as an ancillary—at least, in his own mind—to the exposition and harmonization of Scripture. He also believed that such hermeneutics should be applied to the Gospels.
Rather than employing the Lord’s eye-witness Testimony to apply his cosmology, he is among the first to prefer the Science of his day when embracing cosmology. To this he writes: “Certainly what some say of this world, that it is corruptible because it was made, and yet does not go to corruption because the will of God, who made it and preserves it from being mastered by corruption, is stronger and more powerful than corruption, may more rightly be believed of that world which we have above called a fixed sphere, because by the will of God it is in no way subject to corruption, for the reason that it has not admitted the causes of corruption.”
Among his philosophical propositions, Origen claimed that the body and the spirit are on opposite ends of the moral spectrum so that the arms of the soul are tugged by both in either direction. That the body and the spirit held the soul at a conflict of interest is an understanding which derives directly from Platonism. For Plato, the immortal soul was cleft into three parts: reason, instinct, and desire. Furthermore, its divisions promised two alternative motives: rational concerns which aimed at the virtuous and secondly, mere desire. Origen agreed.
It is evident that the theologian from Alexandria did not receive his knowledge of the soul nor creation from the Prophets or the Apostles, but Socrates deathbed confessions in Phaedo and Plato’s Republic.
Origen, Clement, and Pantaenus—and in fact, the whole of Alexandria—was filled with dark speeches.
Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (296-373) bore traces of Origen before him. Among his earliest work, Against the Heathen—On the Incarnation, written before 319, Athanasius repeatedly quoted Plato while borrowing from Aristotle, and later in life he would become a repeat offender of citing Homer. “Since the soul moves itself,” he wrote, “it follows that, after putting aside the body, it should continue to move itself, for it is not the soul that dies, but the body, which dies after the departure of the soul.” Athanasius appears to be speaking the very words rising from the lips of Socrates on his deathbed. Death is but an illusion. And one shouldn’t be surprised to learn that C.S. Lewis described his work a masterpiece. Athanasius was practically dripping with wet and seemingly logical pen strokes of Lewis when he wrote: “The soul considers and thinks of things that are eternal and immortal because it is immortal.”
An added emphasis should be placed upon Athanasius’ relationship with Anthony the Great (251-356), the Egyptian monk who helped to found and orchestrate the Christian monastic movement. The father of the monastery was educated into the Hellenism of his Alexandrian forefathers, and his steady flow of letters reveals him to be a theologian in the tradition of Origen and Didymus the Stoic. Among his correspondences he wrote: “A true man is one who understands that the body is corruptible and short-lived. Such a man also understands what the soul is: divine and immortal.” Quite similarly, “As regards the body, man is mortal; however, as regards the mind and reason, he is immortal.”
Macarius the Egyptian (300-391) was a direct inheritor of Anthony the Great. He seemed to elevate Aristotle’s concept of the human soul to the sons of God in the heavens above when he wrote: “The soul has a form similar to that of the Angel. For, as the Angels have form, and the outer man has form, so also the inner man has a form resembling that of the Angels and the outer man.” For Macarius, like the lot of them, death was an illusion only perceptible with the body. “If He [God] was moved to such compassion over bodies that were to be dissolved and die, and did with eager kindness for each supplicant the thing that he desired, how much more will He do for an immortal, imperishable, incorruptible soul, laboring under the disease of ignorance, wickedness, unbelief, unconcern, and all the other maladies of sin.”
The charges brought against Athanasius the Great of Alexandria included the illegal taxation of the Egyptian people, supporting rebels to the Imperial throne, murdering a bishop and keeping his severed hand for use in magical rites, and other immoral conducts. It was Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339) who presided over the First Council of Tyre in 335, where Athanasius was convicted. His fate was then determined before Emperor Constantine. In Constantinople the Emperor cleared him of all charges but one: threatening to cut off the grain supply to Constantinople from Egypt. Athanasius was promptly excommunication from the Holy Roman Empire, and as Constantine’s personal counselor, Eusebius saw to it that his opponent was polemicized against.
The man who was trusted as an officiate to Biblical Canon and instrumental at the Council of Nicaea was also an admirer of Origen, much like his Alexandrian opponent, and therefore diligently sought to harmonize Platonism with Christianity. Eusebius famously said of Plato that he was “the only Greek who attained the porch of [Christian] truth.” It is my personal conviction that the book of Enoch stands as a defiant enemy of Hellenization and consequently the Holy Roman Empire which would soon inherit the mantle. Unsurprisingly, the book which bore Enoch’s name was not a friend of Eusebius. It wasn’t even considered for a place within the binding. The canonical historian furthermore questioned the authenticity of Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation, and though Eusebius grudgingly conceded in the end, it should be duly noted that any book which dared to associate with Enoch were deemed unworthy or heavily contested for their inclusion from Canon.
“Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christian theology,” Dean Inge (1860-1954), professor of divinity at Cambridge confirmed. According to Inge, if the congregation could truly comprehend the Platonic invasion into Christian doctrine, “they would understand better the real continuity between the old culture and the new religion, and they might realize the utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces.” This is important. Inge stresses: “The Galilean Gospel, as it proceeded from the lips of Jesus, was doubtless unaffected by Greek philosophy.” Here he adds: “but from its very beginning [Christianity] was formed by a confluence of Jewish and Hellenic religious ideas.”
For the Christian today, this is the rarely contemplated elephant in the room. Much of what we believe is not Biblical.
AT THE END OF THE SECOND CENTURY TERTULLIAN famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In hindsight it is clear Tertullian (160-220) was combating the Hellenization of Biblical truth. For Tertullian, Platonism and the simple Galilean fishermen were simply not compatible. It is rather ironic—and undeniably tragic—that the prolific Christian from Carthage would later abandon the faith of Jerusalem for Montanism. Tertullian concluded his life as a heretic.
IRENAEUS HAD HEARD THE PREACHING OF POLYCARP, who in turn had personally known John the Revelator. Only twice removed from the Apostles, Irenaeus (140-202) clung to the Hebrew position of the soul, which was in no way affected by the Hellenizers. This should be duly noted. If Irenaeus is to be believed, the early church held Platonism to be an ignorant and heretical doctrine which went “beyond the prearranged plan for the exaltation of the just,” and whose members, “some who are reckoned among the orthodox…affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens and the Demiurge, and go to the Mother or to the Father whom they have feigned,” and by doing so, “disallow a resurrection affecting the whole man.” For Irenaeus, the elementary doctrine of the resurrection, which the Apostle Paul once affirmed, seemed to be slipping from the faith.
In Against Heresies he wrote:
“Some who are reckoned among the orthodox go beyond the prearranged plan for the exaltation of the just, and are ignorant of the methods by which they are disciplined beforehand for incorruption, they thus entertain heretical opinions. For the heretics, despising the handiwork of God, and not admitting the salvation of their flesh, while they also treat the promise of god contemptuously, and pass beyond God altogether in the sentiments they form, affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens and the Demiurge, and go to the Mother or to the Father whom they have feigned. Those persons, therefore, who disallow a resurrection affecting the whole man, and as far as in them lies remove it from the midst [of the Christian scheme], how can they be wondered at, if again they know nothing as to the plan of the resurrection? For they do not choose to understand, that if these things are as they say, the Lord Himself, in whom they profess to believe, did not rise again upon the third day; but immediately upon His expiring on the cross, undoubtedly departed on high, leaving His body to the earth. But the case was that for three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were…as Jonas remained three days and three nights in the whale belly.”
Historians have long noted the mortalist doctrine in the early church. The humble opinion held by the less educated and uninitiated constituted what we might refer to today as the silent majority, and for this belief Plato cannot be held responsible. When Justin Martyr met the old man along the seashore, the philosopher understood that becoming a Christian meant castrating his Hellenized faith in the immortal soul, so as not to jeopardize the good news of the resurrection. That Martyr understood the majority Christian position held by those who personally knew and were handed the saving Gospel by the Apostles is also duly noted by historians. The mortal soul awaiting the resurrection is a Biblically grounded position untainted by the dark speeches of Hellenization.
Martyr did not have his wires crossed when he understood the immortal soul doctrine to be in conflict with the Gospel message of the resurrection, nor when he wrote of the Platonists: “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh.” As in the case of a yoke of oxen, he further explained; if one or the other is loosed from the yoke, neither of them can plough alone. “So neither can the soul or body alone effect anything, if they be unyoked from their communion. The soul can have no separate, active existence.” For what is man, Martyr pondered, but the reasonable animal composed of body and soul? “Is the soul by itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No; but it is called the body of man. If then neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and body.”
The early defender of the faith concluded: “Why do we any longer endure those unbelieving arguments and fail to see that we are retrograding when we listen to such an argument as this: that the soul is immortal, but the body mortal, and incapable of being revived. For this we used to hear from Plato, even before we learned the truth.” Martyr seemed to grasp what very few others care to address. “If then the Savior said this and proclaimed salvation to the soul alone, what new thing beyond what we heard from Plato, did He bring us?”
Justin Martyr’s indiscreet alliance with the Platonists proved an odd choice. Eventually, Martyr would be silenced and oppressed by the very philosophy-pushers he sought to promote. In as little as a few short centuries after the last of the Apostles had died, the Greek and Alexandrian teachers whom Irenaeus and Martyr had branded as heretics turned the tables on them so that the apostolic commentators were now the heretics. The Holy Roman Empire had yet to be introduced to Saint Augustine of Hippo.