John’s Gospel and Plato’s Cave


Tomorrow I’m teaching a group of A-level students who are doing philosophy and religious studies. My brief is to talk to them about Christian ethics – the how and why of our moral epistemology. In preparation I was doing a bit of swatting up on the kinds of things they’ve already covered. One idea they should be familiar with is that of Plato’s cave – essentially Plato’s allegory of how clever people find out truth about stuff. It goes a little bit like this…

Imagine humans living in an under-ground cave/den which has a mouth open towards the light. These humans have been there since their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move – they can only look ahead and can’t see the light behind. Also behind is a blazing fire which throws the shadows of the action onto the wall of the cave in front of the prisoners. They think what they see is reality – they have no other point of reference – but in fact all they see is the shadows.

Now imagine that one prisoner is released and over time makes his way toward the light. He begins to see and perceive in the light the true nature of things. His eyes will be dazzled but as he ascends he will see the realities of things and not just shadows. When the now free man returns to the darkness to tell the captives the true nature of things he is likely to be captured and put to death.

For Plato, the philosopher is like the liberated man, ascending toward the light, to tell the imprisoned, who only perceive shadows, the true nature of things. Often they meet with opposition, but they are nonetheless more enlightened.

Mmm…interesting Plato – people within the den need to get themselves free and ascend toward the light to find true illumination. Of course all this presupposes that the newly freed man sees things rightly even with his new found freedom. And what if another freed man perceives things differently? While this certainly bigs up Plato’s own conception of himself I’m not sure it solves the epistemological problem at root.

Now compare all this with what John says in the opening chapter of his gospel…

“In him [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it…[John] came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”

And a little later in John 3 … “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

For Plato the aim of life was to drag oneself up into the light; For John, Jesus (the true light) descended into the cave.