Neoplatonism is a modern term used to describe a particular line of Greek philosophy, which was most prevalent in the third through sixth centuries. Through philosophers such as Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus, the general ideas of Plato were applied in an effort to respond to the strength and success of Christianity. Neoplatonism contains elements similar to Gnosticism, though most Neoplatonist writers rejected the Gnostic approach.
The central idea of Neoplatonism is that of a hierarchy of “emanations,” which are somewhat like mental shadows or metaphysical reflections. Each layer of emanations represents a further step away from the fundamental substance of reality. In this way, Neoplatonism would be considered a form of philosophical idealism, holding that existence is defined by thought and intellect, not matter.
Per Neoplatonic thought, the sequence of emanations starts with “The One,” the ultimate source of all other things. This source is so basic that it is “beyond” being and is not properly called by any name or associated with any personality or mind. According to Neoplatonism, “The One” emanates a single being: pure Intellect, which is identical in image to The One, but is not the same entity. This emanated reality, also called the nous, is Neoplatonism’s closest corresponding entity to the biblical God. Intellect—the nous—is the standard and the source of everything material.
Neoplatonism continues this chain of emanation with the “world-soul,” which is the collective spiritual energy or force behind all matter and especially of living things. This is similar to Eastern concepts such as Chi or Qi and related to pantheistic philosophies such as those of Spinoza. After the world-soul comes the material world. Matter, according to this approach, is neither good nor evil in and of itself.
Human beings, per Neoplatonism, are ultimately emanations of The One, or “The Source,” and this is where our life-force returns upon death. This implies both that souls pre-exist life on earth, in a sense, and that they will experience some kind of life after death. In Neoplatonism, this is a form of reincarnation. Souls that lived in better harmony with the world-soul will return to a higher level of the emanation; those that did not will descend back into the material. Sufficiently harmonized souls fully merge with The One and are no longer reincarnated.
Over time, Neoplatonists added a substantial level of detail to this sequence, including a great number of intermediate spiritual beings.
Neoplatonism is false in that it does not agree with the truth revealed in Scripture. According to the Neoplatonist, the ultimate source of reality is not God, but some unknowable, impersonal force; Scripture says that God is the origin of all that is (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3). The idea of pre-existent souls, even in the Neoplatonic sense, is contrary to the Bible’s depiction of our creation (Zechariah 12:1). The idea of reincarnation or being reabsorbed back into some ultimate source is also incompatible with Scripture’s explanation of what happens after a person dies (Hebrews 9:27).
Neoplatonism shares many similarities with Gnosticism but bears a few critical differences. The most important of these relate to the Demiurge and the role of the material world. According to Gnosticism, the Demiurge—the semi-personal part of reality responsible for creation—is flawed and, therefore, all things material are inherently evil. Neoplatonism rejects this idea, holding that corporeal things are morally neutral, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. Neoplatonism also holds a much higher esteem for this Demiurge than does Gnosticism. Neoplatonic writers such as Plotinus directly condemned Gnostic philosophy.
Neoplatonism did have an impact on Christian history and philosophy, albeit indirectly. Among the greatest early minds of the Christian church was Augustine, who converted to Christianity from Manichaeism. Upon rejecting Manichaeism, Augustine adopted many Neoplatonic ideas, which countered the dualism and Gnosticism of his prior faith. Eventually, Augustine moved away from Neoplatonic beliefs entirely, fully embracing Christian ideas. Unsurprisingly, however, his writings still carried a “flavor” of Neoplatonism. The use of Greek philosophical terms and ideas to express Christian beliefs continued in the work of later philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas.