Plato, Socrates, the Bible, and Reinventing Hell

So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.

Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.

The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.

I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!

So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.

All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:

“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)

And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:

“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia,  and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)

Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.

I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?

But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.

Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.

I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.

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Posted on September 20, 2014, in Belief, Books, Doctrine. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage

    Hi Tiffani. I don’t believe in hell anymore, and I have not for decades. I even wrote a series on hell in my blog if you’re interested: http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/key-baggage-issues/hell/.

    I also think the Bible was written by people who felt a strong connection to God, This does not mean they received NO inspiration from God, but the extent to which they were inspired is impossible to determine. I especially love the Gospels which were written from the memories of Jesus’ earliest followers. This is the closest thing we have to hearing Jesus ourselves.

    However, just because Paul quoted, or alluded to, pagan writers does not mean his writings are wrong. He might have been influenced by them, or he might have just used them to make his case when it was useful. But I don’t believe Paul, or any writers, were writing inerrant words dictated to them by God.

  2. Hey Tim, thanks for your thoughts. While it has been quite jarring to realize that the content of much of the New Testament is partially conflated with pagan philosophy, I also don’t think Paul was wrong. I think I technically knew on a subconscious level that Paul’s letters are not original content, reading about it still threw me for a loop, because it kinda throws a giant monkey wrench in the whole concept of divine inspiration.

    I guess you could say the same is true of all scripture—Genesis did not exist in a vacuum either, but rather built upon creation myths that already existed in that time. It just seems there should be a difference between Genesis and doctrinally explicit content like we find in the NT.

    I also think you hit on a really good point: what do we mean by divine inspiration? I’ve asked this of others before, and have never gotten a uniform answer. There is a big difference between believing the Bible literally authored by God through use of human writing and believing that the Bible is comprised very human writing–full of flaws and all–but still guided by the Holy Spirit.

    • jesuswithoutbaggage

      Agreed Tiffani. I think the Bible is much more helpful when we accept it for what it is instead of demanding it to be something else.

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