“...the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light...”
― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
In Part 1 of this series, we were introduced to the possibility that one layer of John’s Gospel might be trying to respond to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—a 2,400-year-old attempt to wrestle with the nature of reality. For a brief introduction to Plato’s Cave, read Part 1 or check out this video. With The Allegory of the Cave in mind, let’s take a look at an excerpt of the 20th chapter of John. Jesus has resurrected. Mary has seen him in the garden and has been sent to tell the others. We join the story there...
Later on that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together, but fearful of the religious leaders, they locked all the doors of the house. Jesus entered, stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples rejoiced at seeing the Master with their own eyes. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit…knowing that when you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them? But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Master.” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house. This time Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus entered, stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “You believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it. Before we dive specifically into these verses, let’s spend just a few moments examining the connections between John’s Gospel and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. To begin, sight is a central theme in John’s Gospel—much as it is in the cave. Throughout this Gospel, people are invited to truly see. True sight permeates the stories of Jesus and Nicodemus in chapter 3, Jesus and the healing of a man born blind in chapter 9, and the death and raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. Next, there are numerous times in John’s Gospel where those who reject Jesus and the truth that he attempts to bring them are described as “lost in the darkness.” They even repeatedly try to seize Jesus in order to kill him—just like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave. Plato uses the Greek verb Helkyō to describe how the freed prisoner is actually forcefully “dragged” into the light outside the cave. In chapter 6, John’s Gospel uses the same exact verb Helkyō in a much more affectionate way to describe how God “draws” people into the light of the Christ. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel details an exchange between Jesus and the religious elite at the Temple that is strikingly similar to Plato’s freed prisoner returning to the cave.
At several points in the exchange, Jesus compares the religious elite to slaves shackled in bondage.
In verse 23 Jesus tells them, “You are from below; I AM from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
In verses 31 and 32, Jesus assures them that if they will follow him, they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free.
And in verse 12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Light—and the reality that the Christ is the Light—also radiates throughout John’s Gospel. The prologue of John’s Gospel states, “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John the Baptist is described as “a witness to testify to the light…the true light, which enlightens everyone…” John 3:19 says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light…”
John is not just making loose connections to Plato’s Cave. He is obviously determined to re-write it.
Chapter 20 literally begins in a cave—the cave of Jesus burial with the words, “while it was still dark…” After Mary has her encounter seeing the resurrected Christ in the garden, she is instructed to go tell the disciples what she has seen. She is told to take the light she now beholds back to the disciples. But where are they?
In a house with the doors locked for fear of the religious elite. That kind of sounds like a cave, doesn’t it? In fact, we don’t even know if Mary was able to get to them to deliver her message. John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that even with the doors locked, the light gets in. Jesus enters their cave and declares, “Shalom,” or “Peace be with you.” The disciples see and rejoice. Jesus shows them the marks of his crucifixion, breathes the divine spirit upon them, and commissions them to go forth and share what they have now seen—everyone except for Thomas. He missed the meeting. He wasn’t there. And when the disciples tell him—he doesn’t believe. In fact, he tells them that unless he sees and feels the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion with his own eyes and hands, he will not believe. Now, before our minds go running down the well-worn path of Thomas being the “doubter,” it’s important for us to recognize that nowhere in this story is the word “doubt” actually used. The Greek word repeated in this passage is pisteuō—which means “believe.”
Doubt is not the problem.
Doubt is normal. It’s a part of life. It’s a part of faith. The problem is unbelief. Thomas refuses to believe simply on the testimony of his fellow disciples. It’s also worth noting that Thomas doesn’t seem to respond any differently to the testimony of the disciples than the disciples did to Mary. Remember, Mary was sent to the disciples first with her testimony of the resurrected Christ, and yet, they are locked up in a house. They, too, required further evidence before they could see and believe—just like Thomas. Here’s the important part: Every one of them received exactly what they needed in order to believe.
In the garden, Mary received what she needed to see and believe.
The disciples—locked away in their cave—received what they needed to see and believe.
Even Thomas—the man who missed the memo—receives exactly what he proclaimed he would need in order to see and believe. It’s a week later, to be sure, and everyone is once again locked up in the house but receives the words the Christ speaks to Thomas…
“Peace be with you.”
“Stretch out your hand. Touch…experience.”
“Do not be unbelieving. See and believe.”
Can we see what John is doing to Plato’s Cave? John’s chapter 20 Gospel account of the resurrection of the Christ—the light of the world—begins in a cave. It continues by finding disciples still locked away in a cave of their own making. And it concludes with the Christ and the newly freed disciples once again returning to the cave of a locked house in order to free Thomas.
Plato’s Cave is reclaimed, recast, and retold in the light of Jesus the Christ.
Get the next installment in real time & receive Darrell's blog directly to your email by subscribing below:
Great Gift for Friends & Family
Consider buying Faith Lies as gift this year for family and friends in your life who are asking questions about their faith or deserving of the hope that comes from a liberated faith.
Fresh Bible Study for the New Year Grab in bulk and build community around finding freedom in our faith apart from the fear that traps us.
Faith Lies: 7 Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them is for people noticing the cracks in the foundation of their faith as well as those who feel they have been hurt or discarded by a God or a faith that just does not make sense. See what it's all about. Let's dive in together.