In laymen’s terms Platonism is the ancient philosophy that views the material world as evil and the immaterial world as good. Matter is bad. Non-matter is good. Platonism, which originates with the philosopher & mathematician Plato, began dominating the western perception of life around the 3rdcentury BC. By the 3rd century AD Neo-Platonism completely framed the western mind’s perception of man. The immaterial soul of man is trapped within the material body of man. The body itself is evil and a real prison of the soul. Man is entombed in his body within the physical universe. True humanity is spiritual. The soul, and man himself, is not free until it is reunited with its original immaterial source known as the One, or the Good. It needs to break free of matter to find rest. The source of sin and corruption, therefore, is matter itself. The material word is the cause of man’s sufferings and perversions. Ultimately, that which corrupts mankind is his material part while his immaterial part is pure. To be free of corruption, therefore, is to be free from the material part of us.
Obviously, Platonism immediately conflicts with a biblical and Christian perspective of both man and sin. When God created man he declared him “good.” The material part of man (his body) was included in this declaration. Man’s material side was not inherently sinful, but inherently righteous. It was also created to reflect God’s glory and serve as the means by which man actively worshiped God in tending to creation.
Furthermore, there is no sense, biblically speaking, that man’s constitution included any essential division between his material and immaterial natures. While they can be distinguished there is still a unity between the material and immaterial parts of man. The combination of the two is what constitutes man as man and distinguishes him from the rest of the created order. Man is not trapped in his body at all, but is comprised of both body and soul. Under a biblical framework, therefore, there is no way to view the flesh of man as a prison from which man needs to break free.
Also, the resurrection of the elect at the end of time includes the raising of the whole man – both body and soul (1 Corinthians 15:53-54). Man’s whole nature – material and immaterial – will be raised and enter into the eternal state. The same truth can be observed conversely in the reality of hell. The Bible teaches that in the resurrection of the dead man suffers both physically and spiritually in an eternal judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). That is – the whole of fallen man suffers in hell to the same degree the whole of the redeemed experience eternal bliss in heaven. Both body and soul are destined for the eternal state.
Additionally, when mankind fell it was not merely his material nature that was affected by sin, but his immaterial nature as well. Men are born as spiritually corrupt as they are materially corrupt (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9). All men eventually suffer a physical death due to sin. And, all men are spiritually dead at the moment of their physical conception and birth. The connection man had to his Creator is severed by an inherent wickedness. Therefore, man’s soul is no less sinful than the material side of man, if not more so. Our minds, emotions and wills are all corrupted by sin’s influence. We worship the creature, rather than the Creator. We suppress the truth. All this comes from the heart & soul of man. Therefore, man’s soul also needs to be redeemed.
This idea of a whole corruption is what the Reformers refer to as total depravity. Total depravity is not the idea that all men are as wicked as they can be (potential depravity.) Rather, it is the idea that the whole of man is corrupted by sin. This includes the immaterial part. Ultimately, the material world and our physical bodies are not our root problem (James 1:14-15). We are our root problem. All of us is sinful. There is no way, therefore, to view the soul of man as any less sinful than his body.
In a strange irony typical of contemporary evangelicals, we operate with more of a secular and platonic view of sin and the human condition than we do a biblical view. It’s referred to as Christo-Platonism and it’s rather ubiquitous. For certain, we more often view the source of our corruption and our struggle as being against the material world. This can be observed in how we view sin in moral categories at the exclusion of natural ones. Sin lies on the surface of life and not at its core. The Christian life from this perspective is more akin to behaviorism and takes on more pragmatic characteristics. This is one of the reasons why evangelicals are addicted to principles – we’ve been misinformed about the depth of our problem. Christo-Platonism has infiltrated almost all of our thinking. For example, conservative Christians (especially the Fundamentalist branch) have largely inherited Platonism’s disdain for the natural world in that we view creation as a place from which we eventually escape. This is very much in keeping with Platonism’s material escapism. Whatever may be “left behind”, we seem to forget, as Christians, that our future lies in a glorious material realm known as the new heavens and new earth. Obviously, this sort of eschatology has more in common with platonism than it does a biblical view looking to the recovery of all things in Christ.
If Platonism has affected our understanding in one area more than others it would be in the category of the mortification of sin. Through Plato’s influence evangelicals, especially pietistic models (which is to say all of them), view mortification as a material reality. Mortification is almost exclusively understood to be a battle against the fallen physical world and its influence. This is why separatism is such a prevalent reality. Evil desires originate in our physical bodies and in the fallen culture. When we encounter the idea of “flesh” in the Bible we limit the scope of its meaning to our physical bodies, but it includes more than this.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.(Romans 8:5-8)
The “flesh” is rather a reference to the totality of our fallen natures. It is a system of corruption we set “our minds” on. This can also be seen in Paul’s description of sin in Romans chapter seven. In this famous passage Paul was not blaming his sin on his material side as if his inner man was merely a victim. This, or course, would be secular dualism. In fact, Paul said it was the “sin that dwells in him” that caused his struggle. It was all of him that made him do it – the “flesh.”
Point is, we have a hard time conceiving of mortification in an immaterial frame of reference. We assume we’re victims of the influence of our fallen physical natures, or that the devil made us do it. For evangelicals, it’s strange to think of mortification in any other terms. We don’t view our real issue as the corruption of our souls, but the corruption of our bodies. We are so consistent in viewing sin as a material issue we pay no attention to the fact that mortification actually occurs, or at least begins, on the immaterial level. Our battle against sin is viewed as existing outside working its way in rather than being on the inside of us working its way out. Yet, the opposite is primarily true. Sin comes from within. It “dwells” within and not without. The issue is our heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) True mortification, therefore, is really aimed at the level of desire and not at the level of behavior. A true change in behavior will always result from a change in desire. But, a change in behavior does not necessarily signal a change of desire. But, conversely, a change in desire at the heart level will always result in some change on the surface.
In a biblically oriented view, behavior may mean little as it concerns real degrees of mortification. People reform for all kinds of reasons. We could avoid certain actions due to the potential of consequences, or the potential of exposure, but still not change on the level of desire. To assume a degree of sanctification has occurred without considering the orientation of the heart is to misunderstand biblical anthropology. This is known as moralism.
According to Jesus it’s possible to wash the outside of the cup while the inside remains filthy. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus was confronting a morally upright culture by use of this picture. Sin arises from within our wills (located in our souls) and not in our bodies. It is my sinful “person” who leads me to sinful actions and not the other way around. (James 1:14-15) On a certain level approaching mortification strictly as self-denial in a moment, or austerity in a material sense can make the internal corruption worst. This is because there is no real adjustment in desire, only the frustration of it. Jesus told a parable which describes how moralism only leads to more corruption.
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation. (Matthew 12:43-45; cf. 12:2)