Are You Embracing Christian Truth…or Ancient Pagan Philosophy?

I once had a friend who was attending seminary at the time tell me of a memorable experience he had in class. His professor listed a handful of different theological beliefs and asked the students of the class which they would agree to. As he went down the list, a number of hands went up. At the end of his questioning, the professor said something to the effect of, “Congratulations. Those of you who raised your hands have agreed with an ancient heresy.”

I don’t know what the beliefs in question where, or how subtly they were framed by the professor, but I imagine that the experience of those seminary students is mirrored in all of our lives to some degree. That is, without realizing or desiring it, we all assent to ideas that are inconsistent with biblical truth.

Often, those beliefs are simply a part of the cultural air we breathe. Consequently, we accept them without thinking.

One area in which this has been historically true for Christians has to do with our perspective toward all things physical. In many different ways, the Church has tended to view the physical world, including the human body, in a host of unflattering ways, ranging from a necessary burden to a prison we must escape to little more than a seedbed for sin.

But does this way of thinking owe more to biblical teaching or something else? It is interesting to note that a healthy stream of anti-physical thought existed in the world in which the Christian church began. Philosophical traditions like Platonism and Stoicism both devalued the physical realm. In this way of thinking, immaterial concepts and the realm of reason existed in a higher order. Physical matter was something less important, even hindering.

These ideas have proven to exert a tenacious, if sometimes subtle influence down through the centuries. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that several larger movements in both Western culture at large and in the Church itself have born their stamp (including, but certainly not limited to monasticism, the Enlightenment, and certain strains of Protestant theology).

But consider the following:

  1. Upon completing the work of creation, God’s own opinion of the physical world is summarized in the following verse: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
  2. To make a more specific point, this appraisal by God indicates his intention to create, as well as his approval of, our physical bodies.
  3. God the Son saw fit to take on human flesh. It’s not at all clear how he could do this if matter was somehow intrinsically wrong.
  4. Believers in Christ are destined to have a new body—a transformed, glorious one—but a body nonetheless (see 1 Cor. 15).
  5. Depending on the context, biblical writers often mean something different than what we might initially think when they use words like “flesh” or “spiritual.” For example, the former term often points to that which is opposed to God rather than simply our material existence, while the later indicates that which is consistent with/belonging to/empowered by God, not something that is necessarily immaterial. This helps explain why Paul says believers will one day enjoy a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44; note he does not say “spiritual spirit”). His intention is not to say we’ll be like ghosts, but that our bodies will be animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
  6. The Bible makes repeated claims that the physical world, though broken at present, will enjoy God’s redemption (see Rom. 8:21, Col. 1:20)—a fact that indicates God values the material world to such a degree that he will not abandon it to the effects of sin.
  7. Our ultimate destination as Christians is not a puffy cloud, but a “new earth” where we will dwell with God (see Rev. 21-22). Many scholars have long recognized that “new” in this context indicates, not something completely different, but rather something renewed/transformed.

All this is to say that, in some respects at least, we might have more in common with ancient pagan philosophy than we do with orthodox Christian belief. And why is this important? Because the way we think about our bodies and the material world can affect the way we view everything from sex to art to landscaping. Far from being necessary evils at best, these and other activities like them are all good gifts from God…and worthy pursuits when approached in God-pleasing ways.

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