Let me tell you an old story: Prisoners sit chained in a cave, bound head and foot so they cannot see around them – only look straight ahead at a large, stone wall. Behind and above them is a fire. Objects pass in front of the fire and cast large shadows on the stone wall. The prisoners stare up at the wall, entranced by what they see. Shadow images of people and animals dance in the flickering light, but the prisoners are unaware of what’s passing behind them. Sounds enter the cave as unintelligible, distant echoes. One day, a prisoner is released from the cave and dragged up into the light. Outside, the true light of the sun blinds him, but soon his weak eyes adjust. In amazement, he sees that reality is much more than the images and echoes to which he had become accustomed and attached. Overcome, he runs back into the cave to share the news, but his fellow prisoners do not understand. They see his large shadow and are not accustomed to his voice. He appears to them as everything has, a dark image.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a wonderfully crafted metaphor and a profound concept. I don’t think the apostle John was ignorant of this when, 400 years later, he was inspired to write this about John the baptist and Jesus:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:4-12
Both the allegory and the scripture are statements about how the reality of our natural state confines us in darkness. The light of a liberating ultimate reality not only exists, but we are beckoned by it and compelled to share it once we find it (or we are dragged into it). Plato told this story to his students about 400 years before Jesus came. Some say this is evidence that the gospels borrow themes from much older philosophies. An alternative is that “much older” philosophies carry shades of truth as divine imprints. They are all pointing to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of truth sent “in the fullness of time.”
We shadow-gazers lack imagination. Apart from the light of Christ, we are constrained to a reality, satisfied with dancing shadows. We often substitute temporary, shifting, poor substitutes for the real and divine in the name of comfort, familiarity, tradition and because of an underdeveloped imagination. When we are satisfied with what’s in front of us, we can’t imagine the need for anything else. The possibility of anything else becomes irrelevant. The Bible calls this (among other things) idolatry. There is a wonderfully sarcastic metaphor of idolatry in Isaiah 44 when a man cuts down a tree, uses it to build a fire to warm himself and cook his food. He is satisfied. With the leftover wood, he makes an idol and bows down to worship it.
The wooden-idol worshipper is the personification of shallow materialism. He is fixated on the immediate and visible, the resource and not the source, the shadow and not the reality. Like him, we often worship what’s in front of us, what makes us feel good, and what’s easy to believe. When I say worship, I’m not talking about strumming a harp or sitting slack-jawed in front of an overhead projector on Sunday morning babbling familiar words. Worship is what you live for, and misplaced worship leads to all kinds of personal and, by extension, social problems.True worship is acknowledging our creator while whole-heartedly living our purpose.
There is light, but not our own. Jesus is the true light. There are other false lights, like the fire that projects the shadow. These draw our attention to people, things, ideas that allow us to craft our own identity, to build ourselves in our desired image. But, that’s an upside down way to live. In Matthew 6:23 Jesus says, “And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!” Plato and Socrates and many before and after have prized the pursuit of knowledge above all else. For them, to possess true knowledge meant to be connected with the oneness, the logos, the power behind the universe. It’s a noble virtue that appeals to the seeker in all of us. It is not unlike the hope offered by ritual religions and secular humanism, but it does not offer the same hope as the Gospel.
Because we have been created for a purpose, true freedom lies with our creator, divorced from our present, constrained reality. To borrow a truth from Lloyd-Jones, Plato’s allegory is good advice, John’s gospel is good news. Good advice says: “I’m a former prisoner. You’re chained in a dark cave, break free, follow the steps, find the light, discover reality.” Good news says: “You were chained in a dark cave. I am your creator. I have freed you.I am the true light. Follow me. You have a purpose. This is reality.” That’s the message of Jesus.