There was a time when, at some point, every college kid would be required to read Plato. I was introduced to his writings in a first-year philosophy class, and the most memorable passage I read was his famous allegory of the cave, where he suggested that the physical world we occupy is but a shadow of a higher reality. We are like prisoners chained in a cave, forced to look at the back wall. Behind us, the higher reality of the universe passes by and casts shadows on the wall we are watching. Everything we witness is nothing but shadows; reality is nonmaterial and pure spirit.
Pagan cosmology suggested that human beings were originally spiritual sparks that leaped from the divine fire of a cosmic mind, and we have been, unfortunately and cruelly, trapped in a physical existence that is imperfect and flawed. The creation, heads of the Greek mystery schools taught, was a bit of a mistake. We cannot blame the Supreme Being for the material universe; it must have been the work of a lesser deity who essentially botched it.
When we die, they taught, we are pulled back into the cosmic mind of the universe; our spirits are then liberated to return to a perfect disembodied existence.
Death, in other words, would be a cause for celebration rather than mourning.
Plato records the final moments of Socrates, his mentor, in a discourse titled Phaedo. The great philosopher has been condemned to die for supposedly corrupting the youth of Athens, and he is consoling his students by telling them that his impending execution is actually a good thing—he celebrates death!
“But, O my friend, if this is true, there is great reason to hope that, going whither I go, when I have come to the end of my journey, I shall attain that which has been the pursuit of my life. And therefore I go on my way rejoicing, and not I only, but every other man who believes that his mind has been made ready and that he is in a manner purified.”1
Plato or the Bible?
Plato’s perspective stands in stark contrast to that of the Bible, which clearly labels death an enemy. From God’s perspective, there is nothing in death that warrants celebration. It is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23) and an enemy that God will eventually destroy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death is the tragic consequence of defiantly detaching ourselves from the Source of all life. Far from suggesting that death is some kind of upgrade, we find God mourning the death of His rebellious children: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ ” (Ezekiel 33:11, NKJV).
The Greeks, like many before and after them, were trying to console themselves. Death raises some of the biggest questions in the universe. Why do we suffer? Why are we born to live, love, and learn, only to have it all vanish in a heartbeat—perhaps forever? They figured there must be an explanation for it because most of what they observed in this world appeared to suggest order. Their solution came from ancient Egypt, where Plato picked up many of his ideas. In Phaedrus, he writes: “At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth [or you and I might say Thoth]; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.”2
Thoth was the great philosopher of Egypt, so revered that he was deified after death to become the ibis-headed god we see on the walls of Egyptian tombs. The Greeks so revered him that he was renamed Hermes Trismegistus, the “Thrice-Blessed Hermes.” His writings were passed down to nearly every pagan culture in antiquity and continued to enjoy a following among the alchemists and spiritualists of medieval Europe. In them, Hermes Trismegistus taught the same thing we find in Plato’s allegory of the cave: ultimate reality is nonmaterial, and when we die, we will return to a higher form of existence. Again, death ends up being something you celebrate.
The great Thoth, however, reveals the source of his information early on in his work: he was visited by a spirit being named Poimandres, who claimed to reveal the true nature of the universe to him. “Then he said to me: ‘keep in mind all that you wish to learn, and I will teach you.’
“Saying this, he changed his appearance, and in an instant everything was immediately opened to me. I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness rose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake.”3
Consider this carefully: the Egyptians believed that the revelation that death is really graduation to a higher plane of existence came from a serpent. They also taught (as Plato describes elsewhere) that previous civilizations were judged for evading a serpent’s advice. Ring a bell? Consider these words of a serpent in Eden: “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ ” (Genesis 3:4, 5, NKJV).
dangerous distortion of Bible truth
Can it really be a coincidence that so many of the world’s ancient cultures believed that death meant advancement to a form of godhood—and that the serpent in Eden suggested precisely the same thing?
The city of Alexandria, home to the world’s most famous library, was a key center for learning in the ancient world. There, Jewish—and later Christian—scholars were immersed in the ideas of pagan philosophers, and some of them, eager to prove that their worldview was just as sophisticated, began to synthesize their ideas with those of the Greeks. As a result, the cosmology of Thoth began to make its way into the worldview of the Abrahamic faiths. Christian Gnostic cults adopted the idea that the physical creation was a mistake—the failed work of a lesser deity they named the demiurge. This was in spite of the fact that the biblical narrative has God declaring His work (including the human body) to be very good:
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. . . . Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished” (Genesis 1:27, 31–2:1, NKJV).
It was in Alexandria that the idea of celebrating death as an advancement to a nonphysical existence made its way into Christian thinking. Prior to that, students of the Bible clearly understood that the ideal human existence is physical. We were made as physical beings (Genesis 2:7), and we will not spend eternity in the misty ether as ghosts; we will live on an earth made new (Isaiah 65:17–19). Christ—the Son of man and “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45)—rose from the dead with a distinctly physical body (Luke 24:38, 39), and it is that same Jesus who will eventually return for the church (Acts 1:11) and live among us in a place where the original excellence of physical human existence has been restored (Revelation 21:1–5).
This is why the Bible stringently forbids communication with the dead (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10–12): dead humanscan’t communicate with us. “Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun,” the Bible teaches (Ecclesiastes 9:6, NKJV).
“As the cloud disappears and vanishes away,
So he who goes down to the grave does not come up.
He shall never return to his house,
Nor shall his place know him anymore” (Job 7:9, 10, NKJV).
How do we explain the fact that something like one in six people claims to have heard from “the other side”? It’s simple: as Eve learned, there is something out there. It’s just not dead people—a fact that should make you very wary of attempting to communicate.
what is death?
What happens to us when we die? Jesus’ friend Martha explains it in very plain language:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
“Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ ” (John 11:23, 24, NKJV).
The Greeks philosophers were wrong: death is not a cause for celebration. Death is outside of our Creator’s original will, and as noted earlier, He identifies it as an enemy that He will ultimately destroy (1 Corinthians 15:51–55). The Bible shows us Jesus weeping for a dead friend (John 11:35).
Modern celebrations of death linger from our ancient pagan past when people thought the veil between the physical living and the nonmaterial dead thinned just enough to make communication possible. We can certainly celebrate the lives of those we have lost, and we can certainly celebrate the fact that, thanks to Christ, death is not permanent. In fact, we no longer have to fear it:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14, 15, NKJV).
The serpent lied. Death is quite real, and it is certainly not our friend. It is not graduation but a painful reminder that God was right about the wages of sin.
But there is no need to reframe it, to lie about it, in order to make us feel better about the inevitable. We can fearlessly name it as the enemy of humanity it is because our Creator has dealt with it decisively. Christ has lived a real human existence—a decidedly physical one—and then died a real death on our behalf. We have a Savior who truly understands what life on this planet is like, and rather than spin tales to make us feel better, He dealt with the ultimate reality for us—and He beat it. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells us, “I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:17, 18, NKJV).
Shawn Boonstra is the speaker and director for the Voice of Prophecy and hosts the radio program by the same name.
1. Plato, Phaedo, in Plato: The Complete Works, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 14/266, Kindle edition.
2. Plato, Phaedrus, in Plato: The Complete Works, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 609, Kindle edition.
3. Brian Copenhaver, ed., Hermetica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1.