What Plato Got Right and Wrong

By Louis Markos


From the point of view of orthodox Christianity, the essential flaw in the Platonic system is its incessant privileging of the spiritual over the physical. A strict adherence to the cosmic scheme of Plato renders any belief in the incarnation—that Jesus was fully divine and fully human; 100 percent God and 100 percent man—both metaphysically undesirable and logically impossible. Most people today are aware of the early church heresy known as Arianism, which taught that Jesus was the highest of created beings but was not God the Son (the second person of the Trinity). Less known today, however, was a second heresy, Docetism, which taught that Jesus was a divine being who only seemed to be human, a spirit who “wore” his body like a person might wear a shirt, but who did not actually become a human being. Docetism, a form of Gnosticism that was strongly influenced by Platonism, simply could not fathom that divinity would allay itself with inherently fallen matter and flesh.

Just as problematic, Plato’s conception of God as removed, immutable, and wholly untainted by contact with our shifting corporeal World of Becoming cannot, finally, be reconciled with the biblical revelation of a merciful Savior-God who so loves humanity that he willingly leaves the World of Being, takes upon himself the “prison” of human flesh, and suffers a very physical and bloody death. For a Platonist, the thought that the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God would deign to take on human form would have been nonsensical. And the same goes for the Christian teaching that Christ rose bodily from the dead, the firstfruits of a resurrection that we ourselves will some day share in (1 Cor 15:20). This key biblical teaching (and hope) that in the kingdom of heaven we will wear glorious resurrection bodies would have struck Plato as both absurd and distinctly distasteful. Indeed, when Paul spoke in Athens before the Platonic-minded Stoics and Epicureans, they listened very nicely until he mentioned the resurrection; it was then that most of them sneered and stopped listening (Acts 17:32). Christians today often forget that what the Bible looks forward to is not some insubstantial spirit realm of disembodied souls but a new heaven and a new earth. The body, and physicality in general, will not be done away with, but redeemed and perfected. That is not a prospect that would have pleased Plato.

The gap, I must admit, between the dialogues and the Bible is a profound one, and it may seem, at first, that Plato can be of no ultimate assistance in helping Christians to understand their nature, their purpose, and their place in the universe. But then, we must remember that before the age of Christ and the New Testament, no Jew in his wildest imagination could have conceived of an actual incarnation in which deity would allay itself with flesh. I do not imagine that the messianic prophecies that fill the pages of the Old Testament could possibly have meant to them what they now mean to those of us who live on the other side of the cross and resurrection. Those prophecies would have meant that God had not and would not forsake them, that he would continue to lead and guide them, that his covenantal love was eternal, but they could not have dreamed—as no Muslim today could dream—that God would literally take on flesh, dwell among us, and die a painful death on our behalf.

To my mind, it is clear that the leap from “I will make with them a new covenant” (Jer 31:31) to “this is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20 NKJV), from the promise of a new heart (Ezek 36:26) to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), from obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22) to salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8) would have been beyond the spiritual discernment of even the greatest of prophets. They may have known, as at least one Pharisee did, that the heart of the law is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:32‑33); they may also have known, as did the Virgin Mary, that God exalts the humble and puts down the proud (Lk 1:52); they may even have known, as did Simeon, that to look on the baby Jesus was, in some strangely splendid way, to look on their salvation (Lk 2:30). Still, this knowledge alone could not have opened itself into a full understanding of the truths of the Christian religion.

And yet, and here is the vital point, those who knew such things about God would in most cases recognize, when these Christian truths were actually revealed to them, that those truths were a fulfillment and consummation of the limited knowledge they did possess. Jesus knew full well that, no matter how many times he explained it to them, his disciples would not understand the significance of his crucifixion; indeed, not until after the resurrection and ascension would their ignorance—which, at times, borders on the comical—be transformed into authentic enlightenment. Just so, St. Paul, who devoted his life to studying the Scriptures and thus knew every facet of the law, did not understand the true and full import of the Old Testament until the fullness of Christ was revealed to him. Then, as if a window had opened on the Scriptures, he began to perceive and know, like all Christians after him, that Christ is there in every book of the Old Testament, that all of it, in one way or another, points ahead to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis addresses directly the messianic prophecies that fill the pages of the psalms, and makes an analogy between these prophetic, and canonical, “second meanings” and those few but choice moments when pagan poets and philosophers hit on something that has a distinct messianic ring to it. One of these moments occurs in Plato’s description (in Republic) of the perfectly just man who, both despite of and because of his righteousness, is seized by the populace, beaten, and killed—a description that, as we saw in chapter two, sounds uncannily like a prophecy (e.g., Ps 22) of the passion of the Christ. “Plato is talking,” writes Lewis, “and knows he is talking, about the fate of goodness in a wicked and misunderstanding world. But that is not something simply other than the Passion of Christ. It is the very same thing of which that Passion is the supreme illustration.”[1]

To help his reader understand the concept more fully, Lewis then goes on to use a more familiar analogy:

If a man who knew only England and had observed that, the higher a mountain was, the longer it retained the snow in early spring, were led on to suppose a mountain so high that it retained the snow all year round, the similarity between his imagined mountain and the real Alps would not be merely a lucky accident. He might not know that there were any such mountains in reality; just as Plato probably did not know that the ideally perfect instance of crucified goodness which he had depicted would ever become actual and historical. But if that man ever saw the Alps he would not say “What a curious coincidence.” He would be more likely to say “There! What did I tell you?”[2]

As perhaps the greatest humanist Christian of the twentieth century, Lewis knew well that Plato was made in God’s image and that, though fallen, his reason still retained a spark of that divine breath. He knew, too, that Plato’s desire to perceive and commune with absolute Goodness had its root in God, even if the execution of that desire was rendered ultimately futile by the absence of God’s grace in Christ.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1991), 184.

[2] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 185.

* Taken from From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith. Copyright © 2021 by Louis Markos. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

Find From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith at AmazonInterVarsity Press, and other major booksellers.

—Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 22 books include The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, Apologetics for the 21st Century, Atheism on Trial, From Achilles to Christ, and From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith.

Image: Crop of The “School of Athens”