New Creation and its Discontents

In December 1945, as Allied forces were making their way through Germany arresting war criminals, two Egyptian brothers were going about their farm work near the upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.

The day started out like any other day for twenty-six year-old, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Abu al-Majd. On that particular day the brothers were riding on camels in search of a special soft soil that served as a fertilizer for crops.

Coming to a large boulder, they decided this looked like a good place to dig for the nitrogenous fertilizer. No sooner had the brothers begun digging when they hit the top of a red earthenware jar. This jar, which turned out to be almost a meter high, was sealed on the top with a bowl.

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Confessions of a Recovering Gnostic

Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.

My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective that deemphasized the importance of the physical world. In some of my earliest writings I argued that during the Old Covenant the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world, whereas in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (read: non-physical). Accordingly, what happens in the material world is unimportant to God. The best we can hope to do, I thought, is prepare for the next life. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.

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Gnosticism Within the Evangelical Church

I used to teach history at a private Christian school. Like many schools in the classical education movement, we couldn’t afford our own building and had to rent from a church. One day as I was walking to my classroom, I stumbled over a piece of paper in the hallway. Stooping to pick it up, I saw that it was a hand-out from one of the church’s Sunday school classes, titled “Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible.”

I found myself intrigued. I knew that the church had Gnostic leanings, so I was curious to see how they would handle the doctrine of bodily resurrection. However, as I scanned the Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible I soon discovered that the doctrine had not made it onto the list.

Well, I thought, maybe resurrection is mentioned under something else, like salvation. Reading the section on salvation, I saw these words: “Salvation deals with the afterlife, heaven, hell, and whether or not it is safe to die.”

After that I decided to try the doctrine of “Future Things.” Maybe resurrection would make an appearance here. However, echoing the section on salvation, the paper said that the doctrine of future things dealt with “the end of the world, and eternity.”

I stood there in the hallway reflecting on the words, as students filed past me into their classes. How sad, I thought, that the entire Christian hope had been collapsed into fire assurance. How strange that salvation was being reduced to escaping to heaven for eternity and that the teachers of this class had not found it necessary to even mention the hope of bodily resurrection.

It would be nice to be able to say that the teachers at this church were an anomaly within the evangelical tradition. However, the truth is that this Sunday School class reflected a widespread move within the evangelical church towards a belief structure that is more Gnostic than Christian.

This realization was one of the factors that led me to start writing a series of articles for the Colson Center on Gnosticism within the evangelical church. In this series I have explored how the matter-spirit dualism of Gnosticism has infected everything from how many Christians view work to changing practices in funeral liturgies. Below are links to some of the articles in this series :

Feminism, Commercialism and the War Against the Female Body

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

A number of writers have recently been alerting evangelicals to ways in which their thinking has become captive to Gnostic-type ideas about the body. Instead of treating the body as something good, which is in the process of being redeemed (Rom 8:23), it is easy for Christians to slip into the trap of talking about the body as if it is a prison from which we must ultimately escape. (See the ongoing series we have been doing on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.)

But it is not only in religious communities that we find these types of pessimistic approaches to embodiment. A theme that keeps reemerging in the wider secular culture of the West is an underlying angst concerning the body. Indeed, if current trends in transhumanism, technohumanism and postgenderism continue, Christians who understand about the goodness of creation may soon represent the last hold-out in affirming the goodness of the body.

Troubled By Embodiment

In her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

Barger illustrated this in a fascinating section of her book where she describes a conversation she had at a Midwest feminist conference, Barger attended some fascinating panel discussions about gender, sexuality and feminine identity. Afterwards, Barger had the opportunity to have coffee with a young lesbian, who had ‘come out’ at fourteen. Barger reflects,

“It was a pretty heavy conversation, I must admit. But the simplest question was the one that seemed to confound us the most. What I asked, and am still asking, was ‘Do our physical actually existing bodies matter in all this?’

…in our search for meaning and a more authentic identity, our bodies have become obstacles to be overcome. But as we seek transcendence, can we radically sever who we are from the body? It appeared that in the panel discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation, sex itself was wholly disembodied. No references to the body were made except as an appendage to the discussion. There was no questioning whether our sexed bodies provide any information regarding the nature of our sexual identity.

I asked the young lesbian whether she had ever considered her body as informing her identity. I wondered whether it said anything about her and how she was to live. She was ready to affirm that her race was important in informing her identity, but she hadn’t thought about her sexed body in quite the same way. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.

Like most people, I have trouble thinking about the body without thinking about the mess of it. It is a complex set of needs, yearnings, and assumptions, overlapping in physical and cultural space, that continually limit our possibilities. In our attempts to transcend our social situation, we do not want our body to define the content of our life whether by race, age, sex, or disability. But to talk about sexual orientation and desire without talking about the bodily field in which they are expressed is to engage in dualistic thinking that will forever keep us from having a coherent understanding of ourselves. As unfashionable as it may be, the reality is the my body informs me every day not only about my place in the world but about what is needful for my life to flourish. How we view the body and our own body ends up directly affecting what type of spirituality we will embrace and how we see our relationship to the Divine. The current formulation of how the body, specifically a woman’s body, is related to spirituality has set us up for disembodied spirituality.

In fairness, the type of feminism described above is only one type, yet it is gaining traction and is a powerful influence on young women. At best, it teaches them that the body is irrelevant to personal identity; at worst, it teaches that the body is an enemy to true fulfilment that must be overcome.

 A Body, a tomb

In hundreds of different ways, women today are pressured to see their bodies as a barrier to the liberation of their true self. Echoing Plato’s statement from the Gorgias (“soma sema” – “a body, a tomb”), they have come to look upon the material body as a prison house from which we must escape. This finds expression in feminists who see biological realities like pregnancy as the last frontier for feminism to conquer.

Even in more subtle forms, however, feminism has left women feeling like strangers to themselves. This state of affairs was articulated by Susan Bordo in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo writes that “What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self…and as undermining the best efforts of the self.”

Commercialism and the War against Women

Feminism isn’t the only culprit to blame. Commercialism has also played an enormous role. Commercialism dehumanizes us through industries and technologies that democratize our concept of beauty. In the process, beauty becomes unattainable to the vast majority of women; if it were attainable, all women would be squeezed into a homogeneous mold since there is an increasingly limited range of options we are told can count as true beauty. In this way, the idolatrous claims of commercialism turn out to be a cheat: while promising to release our individuality and fulfil our self, these idolatries actually do just the opposite, removing our individuality and homogenizing us.

In Geoffrey Jones’ book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones shows that the emergence of the beauty industry led to unprecedented homogenization of beauty ideals throughout the world. The industry thrives on sudden shifts in fashion and fads, which create new markets by disrupting incumbent positions on what is and is not beautiful. Entrepreneurs build brands and markets which define the aesthetic and ethnic boundaries of human beauty. These boundaries are reinforced by Hollywood.

The type of commercialist ethic that Jones describes in his book has led to the commoditization of the body. This commoditization implicates a subtle dualism in which the body is separated from the self. This Gnostic-type dualism turns my body into my natural enemy.

The crypto-Gnosticism of our age has done enormous harm to women, for it comes with a false, yet appealing, narrative of fall and redemption. If our ‘fall’ is represented by those aspects of our body with which we would rather change, then redemption is found in our release from the body’s limitations through products and services that promise to transcend our limitations.

Powerful commercial forces have an economic incentive to continue and perpetuate these false redemption motifs and the ongoing ‘cold war’ against the body that naturally results. The assumption behind these products is that if the body can be released from the constraints of creaturely embodiment, then the true self within can be saved. True individuality is thus seen as the ability to construct our identity for ourselves, to be completely autonomous, unconstrained by the fixities of outside reality, including the reality of the body.

Just think about it: if a girl doesn’t like the color of her hair, there are products that can fix that; if a girl doesn’t like the size of her breasts, there are processes that can change that; if a girl doesn’t like the size that she naturally is with a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are products that promise to fix that and make her unnaturally thin; if a girl doesn’t like her face, there are products and processes that can change that; if an elderly woman doesn’t like her age, there are products that promise to make her look young again. In short, the body becomes infinitely malleable under the dominion of raw will. The net result is that women are predispose to find their embodiment in time, space and flesh a hindrance rather than a gift.

Mass Produced Beauty

The problem with the commercialist ethic is not simply that it holds out unattainable goal posts regarding the quantity of beauty it is possible for real people to exhibit; it also offers a wrong qualitative understanding of beauty. Much of what falls under the stereotype of ‘the beautiful woman’ is a decontextualized, mass-produced idea of beauty that is disengaged from other aspects of personhood that have historically always been understood to play a part in contributing to a woman’s beauty.

Feminism and commercialism are not the only factors at blame in encouraging women to see their body as the enemy. All too often men have behaved in ways that implicitly linked physical appearance to moral worth. When this is combined with unrealistic ideals of female beauty, women are left deeply troubled about accepting the goodness of their own bodies. In the modern world this is finding expression in a growing number of women who do not even want their husbands to see them without any clothes on.

The Goodness of Creation

This state of affairs is lamentable, but it provides an exciting opportunity for the church. Building on passages such as Genesis 1:31 and Romans 8:23, Christians are able to whole-heartedly affirm the goodness of creation. And that includes our bodies. Indeed, the body and all that it involves—hands, eyes, legs, brains, bottoms and breasts—is genuinely good.

Christ could have been resurrected as a ghost, but he wasn’t (Luke 24:37-39). Christ’s physical body was renewed and transformed. Those of us who are united to Christ can expect that our physical body will also be renewed and transformed, not something to be cast off as a hindrance to true liberation.

 

Building for God’s Kingdom (Gnosticism & Evangelicalism Part 4)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Earlier in the year I wrote three articles in which I alerted readers to the creeping influence of Gnosticism within the evangelical community. These articles can be read at the following links:

In the first of the above articles I defined Gnosticism and suggested a number of areas where the tentacles of this ancient heresy reach down to us today. In the second article I focused on the Gnostic tendency to denigrate the created order and to detach spirituality from our experience as embodied beings. The third article took a closer look at the Bible’s teaching on bodily resurrection and how this challenges some of our Gnostic assumptions.

This article will seek to build on the discussion of resurrection by asking, “So what? If we reject Gnostic assumptions about the body and assert hope in a future resurrection, what difference does this make to our lives now?”

Abounding in the work of the Lord
One of the interesting things about Saint Paul’s great defense of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is that his tightly reasoned argument ends with a practical exhortation: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The key word here is the “therefore.” Paul realized that what we think about the future effects (or ought to effect) how we live in the present. This is why, following his lengthy discussion of the Christian hope, Paul basically says, “Therefore get on with your job.”

Working for new creation
It’s easy to slip into the Gnostic assumption that our spiritual work is purely personal and private, or that it relates merely to securing a heavenly future for ourselves and others. Now personal salvation is crucially important, and that is why we should never neglect the work of evangelism. However, the Christian hope involves more than simply the renewal of individuals: God is also working to renew the earth itself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Just as belief in our own personal resurrection should spur us to righteous living in the present (1 Corinthians 15:29-34), so belief in the future renewal of the whole earth (Revelation 21:1) should act as a catalyst for us to work to make the world a better place in the present. The doctrine of new creation therefore has cultural, economic, ecological and political consequences. As Wim Rietkerk points out in his now out-of-print little book The Future Great Planet Earth:

“…at his return, the Lord will ask us, ‘What did you do with my creation to renew it?’ Then he will multiply our finite achievements into the promised total renewal. To use Paul’s image of changing clothes in 1 Corinthians 15, He will take the tiny and weak threads and weave them into new garments with which He will clothe the world. There is a reason why the Holy Spirit is called the firstfruit of the new creation (Romans 8:23).

So there is a challenging and important relationship between the works we are called to do now in order to save nature—to purify the water, to preserve the ozone layer, to plant trees instead of cutting them, to care about safe forms of energy—and the future renewal of the earth. God does not need our works to accomplish that; He could do it without us. But He will use our work and He will certainly rebuke us if we have not produced the work he expected. He will ask for them and He will make them the core of a renewed world.”

Continuity or discontinuity?
At this point the following question often arises: if God is planning to create a new heavens and a new earth, then what’s the point of laboring for new creation now? After all, I wouldn’t give my Ford an oil change today if I’m planning to take it to the junk yard tomorrow and buy a Dodge? So what’s the point of planting trees or working to clean up pollution, not to mention our cultural endeavors, if God is just going to start over?

The problem with this question is that it assumes the work we do in the present age is not going to last for eternity. But Saint Paul describes our work as enduring (1 Corinthians 3:14) and he says it is “not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15.58) Moreover, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that there is an organic continuity between what happens in this age, on the one hand, and the age to come, on the other. Thus, the relationship between the present age and the age to come is not like the relationship between a Ford and a Dodge; it’s more like an old beaten up Ford compared to the same car after it’s been renovated and renewed.

Because of this, we shouldn’t think of the new heavens and the new earth as being completely new. C.S. Lewis gets it right in The Last Battle when he describes the heavenly Narnia being built on the template of the original Narnia. The “new earth” described in Revelation 21 will be new only in the sense that we say a lady is “a new woman” when she has had her hair made over and put on a new dress.

This is a point that my friend Dr. David Field has done an excellent job emphasizing. (I strongly recommend his excellent discussion of New Creation or his Not the Least Lash Lost.) One of the things Dr. Field frequently points out is that just as Christ’s resurrected body had continuity with the body He possessed prior to being resurrected (after all, those who saw him still recognized him, and He still bore the marks of the cross on his hands), so we should expect there to be continuity between the work that we do now, on the one hand, and the new earth that God is in the process of making, on the other hand.

God’s scaffolding
Some Bible scholars have used the analogy of scaffolding to make this same point. What we do now as ambassadors of reconciliation is like the scaffolding God will use to construct the new (renewed) earth. As Dr. W. Van Brugeen put it, “It is dangerous to identify our cultural achievements with the kingdom of God, but we should say that the kingdom of God is present in the signs that precede it. They are the milestones, bricks, ingredients, the scaffolding of the coming empire, real foreshadowings as demonstrations of the things to come.” N. T. Wright makes a similar point in his excellent booklet New Heavens, New Earth:

“…the Christian hope…gives us a view of creation which emphasizes the goodness of God’s world, and God’s intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possible incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God’s creation and for justice within God’s creation. Not that we are building the kingdom by our own efforts. Let us not lapse into that. Rather, what we are doing here and now is building for God’s kingdom. It is what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: there is continuity between our present work and God’s future kingdom, even though the former will have to pass through fire to attain the latter. It is also clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15:58: the conclusion of Paul’s enormous exposition of the resurrection is not an outburst of joy at the glorious life to come, but a sober exhortation to work for the kingdom in the present, because we know that our work here and now is not in vain in the Lord. In other words, belief in the resurrection, the other side, if need be, of a period of disembodied life in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), validates and so encourages present Christian life, work and witness.”

(Some other books which make similar arguments are Plowing in Hope: Towards a Biblical Theology of Culture, by David Bruce Hegeman, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright and Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changes Everything, by Adrian Warnock.)

The goodness of creation
Christians living in the first and second century understood these important truths often better than we do today. One of the Church’s earliest theologians, Saint Irenaeus (c. 130–202), constantly emphasized the connection between creation and redemption. Unlike the Gnostics, who argued that God the Creator is different from God the Redeemer, Irenaeus taught that the God who made the world is also the God who has been carefully overseeing it, bringing His plan to fruition through everything that happens. That plan, Irenaeus proclaimed, culminated in the redemptive work of Christ and will be consummated when God renews the earth.

In my recent book Saints and Scoundrels, I show that the confidence Saint Irenaeus and other second century Christians had in God’s new creation gave them a public vision. I show how this public vision is precisely what brought the early church into collision with the political authorities of their day.

At the heart of their vision was the understanding that the God who declared that everything He made was very good (Genesis 1:31) is the same God who promises to complete the work of creation. The early Christians understood this, but they also understood that God does not work alone, but uses His Church as the primary vehicle for bringing new creation to the earth. By contrast, the Gnostics had no hope that God is renewing the world, and thus they had very little incentive to labor to make the world a better place.

Since the world was made by a good God, not a lesser demi-god as Gnosticism claims, and since this God promises to one day put the world to rights, we have hope. This hope assured us that nothing we do for Christ’s kingdom will ever be wasted, even when we cannot see any visible fruit in this life. Unlike unbelievers who can only judge their success by their results, we know we are building for God’s Kingdom whether we see anything or not.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

Next Steps

What opportunities for “redeeming the creation” will be available to you this week? How might you prepare for these? Can you enlist any Christian friends to help you in this effort?

Gnostic Trends in the Local Church

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jude 3-4

Dr. Michael Philliber opens his recent book Gnostic Trends in the Local Church by recounting how the Christian section of his local bookstore recently became bloated with books by pro-Gnostic authors like Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer. Around this same time, Philliber found that he was bumping into people whose idea of mature spirituality echoed the impulses of ancient Gnosticism. For example, it was becoming increasingly common for people to say to him, “I consider myself a very spiritual person, but I’m not into organized religion.”

These experiences prompted Dr. Philliber, who is a PCA minister and a good personal friend, to do a controlled survey on just how pervasive Gnostic trends have become within the contemporary church. He chose three churches in his area that were dissimilar in size, racial makeup and theology, although they all professed to be orthodox. One of the participating churches was his own reformed Presbyterian congregation.

Philliber approached members of all three congregations with survey questions ranging everywhere from what people thought of the bogus history in The Da Vinci Code to whether they considered the body to be the soul’s prison house.

Among Philliber’s primary concerns was to discover how much of a foothold what he calls “anticosmic dualism” had made within the church. “Anticosmic dualism” refers to the Gnostic belief that the material world is a cosmic blunder, and the corollary antithesis between the physical and the spiritual realms.  Although few Christians would agree that the material universe is a cosmic mistake, it is customary to find believers de-emphasizing the physical dimensions of the faith (i.e., history and the sacraments), or to accept an itinerary of salvation that ends, not with resurrection, but with eternal disembodiment.

I am excited to see Gnostic Trends in print since I had the opportunity, not only to read Dr. Philliber’s excellent PhD thesis on which his book is based, but to help connect him with a publisher. But I was also interested in the book since it confirms many of the observations I have been making in my ongoing series of Perspective articles. (See Salvation as Escape from the Body and Resurrection and the Sanctification of Matter and Raised a Spiritual Body: Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.) But whereas my articles have drawn primarily on books I’ve been reading, Philliber actually got his hands dirty talking to hundreds of lay people while conducting his surveys. His work is valuable at analyzing Gnostic trends on ground level.

Reflecting over the survey as a whole, Philliber wrote:

“The outcome showed that whether the church was Anglican, Independent, or Presbyterian, modern aspects of Gnosticism were cropping up in definitely harmful ways… When I began this study, I had conflicted assumptions. On the one hand, it appeared to me that the congregation I pastor was thoroughly unmovable in regard to the Jesus of history who is the Christ of faith. I was also confident that they would be able to intelligently resist any challenges to Jesus’ deity, or to the historical authenticity and authority of the canonical Gospels. Yet, on the other hand, as Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, became increasingly popular, I was sensing areas of doubt or confusion that might disable some folk’s ability to ‘give a defense to everyone who asks [them] a reason for the hope that is in [them].”

As this study unfolded, and I broadened my research into other churches, it became clear that many Christians do have a solid grip on the essential aspects of the Christian faith and on who Jesus Christ really is. But it also became obvious that there were spots that needed to be strengthened. The most outstanding [deficient] subjects, across denominational and congregational lines, were (1) the singularly significant historical events in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) the uniqueness of the divinity of Jesus, (3) the authenticity of the canonical Gospels, (4) the pro-creation ramifications of Christ’s redemptive vocation, and (5) how to respond successfully to Gnostic opposition to both the uniqueness of ‘our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’ and the genuinely authoritative place of the canonical Gospels.”

What is valuable about Philliber’s Gnostic Trends is that it does not merely identify these Gnostic tendencies, but uses Biblical exegesis to show where they are wanting and how we, as believers, can combat these falsehoods with the truth of scripture.

 

 

Raised a Spiritual Body (Gnosticism & Evangelicalism 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:44

 

I used to teach history at a private Christian school. Like many schools in the classical education movement, we couldn’t afford our own building and had to rent from a church. One day as I was walking to my classroom, I stumbled over a piece of paper in the hallway. Stooping to pick it up, I saw that it was a hand-out from one of the church’s Sunday school classes, titled “Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible.”

I found myself intrigued. I knew that the church had Gnostic leanings, so I was curious to see how they would handle the doctrine of bodily resurrection. However, as I scanned the Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible I soon discovered that the doctrine had not made it onto the list.

Well, I thought, maybe resurrection is mentioned under something else, like salvation. Reading the section on salvation, I saw these words: “Salvation deals with the afterlife, heaven, hell, and whether or not it is safe to die.”

After that I decided to try the doctrine of “Future Things.” Maybe resurrection would make an appearance here. However, echoing the section on salvation, the paper said that the doctrine of future things dealt with “the end of the world, and eternity.”

I stood there in the hallway reflecting on the words, as students filed past me into their classes. How sad, I thought, that the entire Christian hope had been collapsed into fire assurance. How strange that salvation was being reduced to escaping to heaven for eternity and that the teachers of this class had not found it necessary to even mention the hope of bodily resurrection.

It would be nice to be able to say that the teachers at this church were an anomaly within the evangelical tradition. However, the truth is that this Sunday School class reflected a widespread move within the evangelical church towards a belief structure that is more Gnostic than Christian.

No Physical Bodies?

I began this series on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism by sharing a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll which found that among those who consider themselves to be ‘born again’, only 59% answered yes to the question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” Reflecting on the pole, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, commented, “I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations.”

Mohler is not alone. Many pastors find that their congregations are completely illiterate when it comes to the doctrine of our future bodily resurrection. Although Christ’s physical resurrection is affirmed and celebrated every Easter, when it comes to our own resurrection it is often assumed that this is simply shorthand for salvation – a salvation that does not culminate in the renewal of the body, but involves some sort of eternal disembodiment. This is implicit in the section ‘What is Death?’ from McGuffey’s New Fourth Eclectic Reader of 1868.

“How beautiful will brother be
When God shall give him wings,
Above this dying world to flee,
And live with heavenly things!

The idea here – and which can also be found in countless 19th century hymns – is that the goal of salvation is to flee from this world, and those things associated with it (including, of course, materiality). For example, in his 1974 publication, Where on Earth is Heaven?, Arthur Travis stated, “The fact is, we shall not live in physical bodies after death. …we shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven.” Travis was followed by Leon Morris who wrote in his commentary on Revelation, “…we must not understand that the heavenly city will be as material as present earthly cities.”

Radio broadcaster Tony Alamo made this explicit in his article ‘The Art of Spiritual Communication,’ when he wrote, “The way we communicate with the material world is with our bodies. The way we communicate with the spiritual world is with our spirit.”

These ideas derive more from Gnosticism and Platonism than orthodox Christianity. Plato, like many other Greek thinkers, saw the body as a tomb or a prison-house. In an excellent article titled ‘Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?’, Oscar Cullmann contrasted this Greek and Gnostic notion of the body with that of the Christian and Jewish understanding:

If we want to understand the Christian faith in the Resurrection, we must completely disregard the Greek thought that the material, the bodily, the corporeal is bad and must be destroyed, so that the death of the body would not be in any sense a destruction of the true life. For Christian (and Jewish) thinking the death of the body is also destruction of God-created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the Resurrection…. The Greek doctrine of immortality and the Christian hope in the resurrection differ so radically because Greek thought has such an entirely different interpretation of creation. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of creation excludes the whole Greek dualism of body and soul. For indeed the visible, the corporeal, is just as truly God’s creation as the visible. God is the maker of the body. The body is not the soul’s prison, but rather a temple, as Paul says (I Corinthians 6:19): the temple of the Holy Spirit! The basic distinction lies here. Body and soul are not opposites. God finds the corporeal ‘good’ after He has created it.

Confusing Orthodoxy with Innovation

So ingrained have these Gnostic ideas become that orthodox theology now strikes many as strange and innovative. Although we may still consider Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to be the only canonical gospels, our theology often more resembles the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

When N.T. Wright offered his magisterial defence of the resurrection in his 2003 publication, The Resurrection of the Son of God, I remember reading of one pastor who was inspired by the book to preach a sermon on the future hope that God would one day raise the bodies of all believers. Afterward the sermon someone came up to him and asked what this new-fangled teaching was all about, as if the doctrine of resurrection was an innovation to the Christian tradition.

In 2008 when N.T. Wright published another book, Surprised by Hope, setting forth the historic Christian hope of physical resurrection and popularizing some of the ideas he had covered in The Resurrection of the Son of God, ABC news ran a curious report on it. They referred to Wright’s idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” as “a radical departure from traditional belief.” Think about how extraordinary this statement is. Though the Apostles’ Creed professes belief in “the resurrection of the body”, and though the Nicene Creed contains the statement, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”, this doctrine is now assumed to be not just a departure from traditional Christian belief, but a radical departure from it.

As this suggests, the secular community now routinely assumes that a Platonic doctrine of disembodiment is the traditional Christian hope. To give another example, in the book Death and the Afterlife, biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”

The secular community can perhaps be excused for failing to understand Christian orthodoxy. What is really scandalous is the way Platonic ideas about the body have infected the church.

The “Spiritual Body” Will be Physical

Part of the problem hinges on a misunderstanding of St. Paul’s words in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul opened chapter 15 with a defence of our blessed Lord’s resurrection against those who were denying it (1 Cor. 15:1-19; 29-34). But Paul’s mind moved naturally from Christ’s resurrection to the resurrection of all believers (15:20-28; 50-58). Thus, the chapter ends with the famous promise that we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet (15:52).

In the middle of this discussion about resurrection, the apostle applied himself to a question that some people had apparently been asking, namely what will the resurrection body be like? His answer to this question occupies the middle section of the chapter from verses 35-49. The tricky words occur in verse 44 when Paul is contrasting our present bodies with our future resurrection bodies. Paul writes, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”

Given the associations we have with the term ‘spiritual’, it has been easy for many people to assume that the antithesis Paul is talking about here is between a physical body and a non-physical body. For example, in their book Heaven: A History, McDannel and Lang contend that

The resurrected bodies of Pauline thought are not material but “spiritual.” The bodies of those Christians who happen to be alive at the time of the resurrection will be changed “in a twinkling of an eye” into spiritual beings that are immortal….The physical body (in contrast to the resurrected body) may be compared to a tent or garment where the ego, the soul, lives. According to Paul, God will prepare another home or garment for the soul after the death of the body.

Many of our translations of 1 Corinthians 15 do make it seem that Paul is contrasting a natural physical body with an incorporeal spiritual body. For example, the Revised Standard Version even makes this assumption explicit when it translates verse 44 to read: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” However, this is to completely misunderstand the Greek. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright explains this passage from the original Greek:

“He speaks of two sorts of body, the present one and the future one. He uses two key adjectives to describe these two bodies. Unfortunately, many translations get him radically wrong at this point, leading to the widespread supposition that for Paul the new body would be a spiritual body in the sense of a nonmaterial body, a body that in Jesus’s case wouldn’t have left an empty tomb behind it…. The contrast he is making is not between what we would mean by a present physical body and what we would mean by a future spiritual one, but between a present body animated by the normal human soul and a future body animated by God’s spirit…. Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble post-mortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death….

The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like ‘physical’ in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul’s day, the psyché, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body.

But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the different between asking, on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?” (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, “Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?” (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyché (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.

This is why, in a further phrase that became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s Kingdom.” He doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. “Flesh and blood” is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we can nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.

The early church, which spoke Greek as its native tongue, understood these distinctions. In fact, the distinction between physical resurrection and a purely ‘spiritual’ nonphysical resurrection was absolutely central in dividing the true Christians from heretics like the ancient Gnostics. It was the early Christian’s understanding of physical resurrection which, perhaps more than any other doctrine, served to polarize the church of the canonical tradition from the anti-creational orientation of the Gnostics.

Not only Irenaeus, but Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the writers of the Didache, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and many other early Christian writers went to great lengths to make clear that the bodies of departed Christians will be raised in a way comparative to the resurrection of our Blessed Lord. This doctrine found expression in the Nicene Creed and was reaffirmed in frequent Christian polemics against the Gnostics.

Far from matter and spirit being in competition with one another, the Christian doctrine of resurrection points towards the grand consecration of creation. It points to a time when our physical bodies will be taken up and transformed by God’s spirit to be everything they were meant to be (and more) before sin entered the picture. While the resurrection body will be many things that we cannot even now imagine (1 Cor. 2:9), we can be sure of this: it will be physical.

Two Rival Theological Understandings

Because the doctrine of bodily resurrection has so often been sidestepped for a Platonic doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and because it is often assumed that we will enjoy immortality in a disembodied state, Christian thinkers have often assumed that there is something unspiritual about our material existence. Instead of seeing the great antithesis between the spiritual and the material, we fall into the error of seeing the great metaphysical divide being between the spiritual and the material.

This false dualism, which Randy Alcorn calls ‘Christoplatonism’ in his excellent book Heaven, has had a huge impact on our understanding of death. The notion that the dead are in heaven waiting for their resurrection bodies has largely been eclipsed by the false idea that going to heaven is itself the primary Christian hope. This has had a major impact on Christian funeral liturgies.

In his 2009 publication The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long explored some of the subtle theological shifts that have occurred in Christian funeral rites. He wrote that a “disembodied, quasi-gnostic cluster of customs and ceremonies” now surround the Christian funeral. This network of ‘quasi-gnostic’ customs exists in tension to the more traditional elements which also pervade funeral liturgy. To quote from Long,

“Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint ‘traveling on’ to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more ‘spiritualized,’ perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is ‘just a shell,’ and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the ‘real person’ is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is traveling, but the mourners, on an intrapsychic journey from sorrow to stability.”

Should we be concerned that these unbiblical ideas have been influencing the evangelical community? I think so. One of the reasons for this is that getting resurrection right has enormous practical ramifications in our day to day lives. But that will be the topic of a future article.

 

 

Resurrection and the Sanctification of Matter (Gnosticism & Evangelicalism, 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst.” Acts 17:32-33

In 2003, Dan Brown’s publishing phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code, hit the world with a splash. The book popularized the ideas of Gnosticism, in addition to quite a few of Brown’s own ideas packaged in a pseudo-historical gloss.

I never read the book, but my wife and I did watch the film so I could write a review of it. Around the same time that we watched the film, I read in the papers that the National Geographic Society was announcing the publication of a new Gnostic document, the so called, Gospel of Judas.

Suddenly it was no longer merely historians and academics who were interested in Gnosticism. Everyone from the dentist to my neighbour seemed to be talking about issues of Christian origins and the historical Jesus.

Were the four gospels written to supress the truth of the real Jesus, who may never have even claimed to be divine? Might the historical Jesus have actually been an esoteric Gnostic sage whose true career was subsequently covered up by the church? Were the ancient Gnostics the true followers of Christ? These were the types of questions that I kept hearing people ask, prompting me to take an interest in this ancient heresy.

But there was another reason that Gnosticism captured my interest. Around this same time, an evangelical Christian writer and former mentor began publishing some magazine articles in which he suggested that maybe the church had got it wrong about Jesus and the four gospels. He speculated that maybe it was only because the church of the 4th century had colluded with political power that books like Matthew, Mark, Look and John came to take precedence over non-canonical works like The Gospel of Thomas.

A Fifth Gospel?

In the previous article of this series, ‘Salvation as Escape from the Body’, I explained that The Gospel of Thomas was among the discoveries made at Nag Hammadi in the mid 40s. Since its publication, scholars and lay persons alike have excitedly suggested that this fifth gospel offers a legitimate portrait of the historical Jesus quite distinct to the Christ of the canonical tradition.

They are right that the portrait of Jesus in Thomas is distinct from the Jesus of the Bible, but wrong that this helps us to understand the historical Jesus. There are actually good textual critical grounds for dating Thomas sometime in the 2nd century, which strongly suggests that the work is dependent upon the canonical tradition. (See the article at CARM, “Does the Gospel of Thomas belong in the New Testament?”)

But while Thomas is useless as a piece of evidence about the historical Jesus, it is extremely valuable in shedding light on some of the key themes of Gnosticism both in the 2nd century and, unfortunately, in our day.

Denigration of Matter

The Gospel of Thomas adopts a view of the material world that is deeply Platonic. But what do I mean by that?

We get a glimpse into the Platonic worldview in Acts 17 when we read about the reaction to the sermon Saint Paul preached at the Areopagus. The apostle expounded many truths at which an audience of Athenian philosophers might be expected to have taken offence at: God’s sovereignty, the need for universal repentance, the folly of idolatry and God’s coming judgement. Significantly, however, Luke records that it was the doctrine of the resurrection that incited particular mockery from Paul’s philosopher audience. (Acts 17:32)

This is not surprising. The bodily resurrection of Jesus challenged the deeply dualistic philosophy that many of the ancient Greeks held in common with Gnosticism. Echoing Plato’s statement “Soma sema” (“a body, a tomb”), many of the Greeks looked upon the material body as a prison house. Perhaps the clearest expression of this comes from Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates explains:

“We are convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. . . . If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be isolated and independent of the body. It seems that so long as we are alive, we shall keep as close as possible to knowledge if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body…”

It should come as no surprise to find an assortment of 2nd and 3rd century writers, especially those associated with either the Greek or the Gnostic tradition, trying to fit the doctrine of resurrection into categories consistent with the metaphysics of a Platonic philosophy. We see this in the Gnostic idea that the goal of salvation is not the resurrection of the physical body but disembodiment in an eternal realm of pure spirit.

By allegorizing the Biblical references to the resurrection of believers and making them an approximation for either a religious experience in this life or disembodiment in the next, the ‘Christian’ Gnostics were able to deny the literality (and hence the physicality) of resurrection.

This is exactly what the Gnostic writer/s of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas did. The work even employed some of the same symbolism for resurrection as the canonical writers but reversed the images. “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it” says the Jesus of Thomas, in a likely allusion to the removal of His physical body.

Elsewhere Thomas echoes the imagery of 2 Corinthians 5:3 where clothing is used as a metaphor for physical resurrection. But while Paul assured his readers that “by putting [our heavenly dwelling] on we may not be found naked”, the Jesus of Thomas tells his disciples “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and treat on them, then [you will see] the Son of the Living One…” The clothes, it has been suggested by some scholars of Gnosticism, represent the physical body that one should seek to be released from, trampling it underfoot as something abhorrent.

The idea here is that there exists a complete antithesis between the soul and the flesh, as if the world of the spirit and the world of material stuff exists in competition to each other. No one has better summarized this idea than the Jesus character in The Gospel of Thomas, who is cited as saying, “Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.” In this context, ‘flesh’ does not refer to the sinful nature that wars against our spirit, but to our physicality.

This same idea runs like a thread through many of the other Nag Hammadi texts, which present the lower physical flesh as being in competition with the higher spiritual soul. In The Apocalypse of Peter we read, “But what they released was my incorporeal body. But I [Jesus] am the intellectual Spirit filled with radiant light.”

Similarly, in The Exegesis of the Soul (another Gnostic document found in the Nag Hammadi collection), we read, “Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she receive the divine nature from the Father for her rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection from the dead.” Notice here how ‘resurrection’ is re-described in non-physical terms.

The Acts of John describes how Christ left no footprints, and the character of John reports: “I will tell you another glory, brethren; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if it did not exist at all.”

The Divorce of Spirit and Matter

Economists use the language of a ‘zero-sum game’ to describe a transaction in which one person’s gain is directly tied to another person’s loss. The outcome will always be zero, with one side coming out in the negative and the other side coming out in the positive, unless both sides come out at zero. By contrast, a non-zero-sum situation is that in which the aggregate gains and losses of the interacting parties can be more than zero.

The ancient Gnostics didn’t know about game theory, but they tended to treat God’s glory as if it was a zero-sum contest between God and creation. The glory of God, they seemed to think, could only be maintained by denigrating the created order, or at least denying that anything of spiritual value could be derived from creation. Spiritual growth was thus directly correlated to being disencumbered with the trappings of materiality, so that final salvation for the Gnostics involved eternal release from the physical body.

Or we might compare the Gnostic way of relating spirit and matter to a billiard ball. If the Eight Ball occupies a certain part of the billiard table then, given the limitations of space and time, it is impossible for the White Ball to simultaneously occupy that same spot. If the Eight Ball moves away, then the spot is vacated for the White Ball to fill it, and visa versa.

Those whose thinking has been tinctured with Gnosticism tend to treat spirit and matter like two balls competing for the same important space on the billiard table. In order to really do justice to the spiritual, they think, one has to denigrate or minimize the physical. It was this type of thinking that compelled the Gnostics to abandon the physicality of the resurrection (both Christ’s resurrection and our future resurrection) for various forms of Docetism. Docetism is the view which denies that Christ had a corporeal body.

The Gospel of Judas gives an interesting twist to this. This papyrus manuscript portrays Judas as having betrayed Jesus in order to help his Master get rid of His physical flesh. The crucifixion enabled Jesus’ true spiritual self to be liberated. The cross is therefore important not because it enables the redemption of the world, but because the cross is the means to escape from this world.

Gnosticism Today

Sadly, much of the church today is polluted with this very same dualism between the spiritual and the material, as I hope to show during the course of this series of articles. But one of the clearest examples is in the common notion that salvation is about escaping from this world rather than the world’s redemption.

Or again, we see it in the perennial temptation for evangelicals to retreat into an insular ‘personal’ faith that, in the name of being ‘spiritual’, refuses to engage with the reality of what is occurring in the material world. Believing that the material world is beyond hope, many Christians think there is little point to confront and challenge corporate ungodliness and institutionalised evil. Instead, we should focus on ‘spiritual’ things and leave the physical world to its own devices.

Evangelicals who take this approach are probably not aware of it, but in many respects they are echoing the same vision that we find in The Gospel of Thomas. The Gnostic gospel gives esoteric insight into the spiritual realm, but fails to offer either vision or hope for the present world. Whereas the canonical gospels carefully chart Jesus’ ministry within the context of Israel’s story line, showing how Christ brings the narrative of Israel to its climactic fulfilment, Thomas completely neglects this larger narrative of redemption history.

The absence of a redemptive-historical narrative in Thomas is not surprising. For the Gnostics, there is no redemption history of the world because salvation is not about what happens in this world. Rather, redemption is about escaping from the world.

The Marriage of Spirit and Matter

By contrast, in the Biblical understanding, although spirit and matter are not the same thing (that is, they are distinguishable like males and females), they are not utterly divisible and come together as one under certain circumstances, even as men and women come together in the marriage union.

We see this principle operative in ancient Hebrew theology. The temple was the place where Heaven and Earth intersect, where the spiritual and the material merge together and become one. We find this notion implicit in passages like Exod. 15:17 and 1 Kings 8:27-30, as well as the various Psalms which speak of God literally dwelling in the temple in a way that God, though omnipresent, does not dwell in other places. The temple foreshadows the intersection of heaven and earth in the God-man and later in the church, both of which anticipate the final Eschaton when Heaven and earth are finally reconnected together in fulfilment of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:10).

In these passages we are confronted with the notion that the ordinary materiality of our world can, under certain conditions, be taken up and transformed into something higher. We find this same reality operative in certain objects that the scriptures treat as sacred, such as the Ark of the Covenant, Elisha’s relics (2 Kings 13:20-21) the garments of the apostles (Acts 19:12), or the transfiguration event (Mark 9:2-28), to name only a few. The point is that while all of the material world is good (Genesis 1:25) and in some sense spiritually-infused, certain sacred spaces can become conduits of spiritual power that set them apart from ordinary material things.

Resurrection is, of course, the supreme example of this marriage between the spiritual and the material. In the resurrected body of our Blessed Lord, spirit and matter were integrally joined in anticipation of our own resurrection one day.

But the implications of Christ’s resurrection go even further. When Jesus died and rose again, He reconciled the entire world to Himself (1 Jn. 2:2). This means that the material world does not belong to Satan, but to the God-man (Mt. 28:18). As ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19), the church’s vocation is to proclaim the Lordship of Christ into every area, from our Congress to our opera houses, from our hospitals to our schools, from our farms to our kitchens, and everywhere in between. Indeed, as Abraham Kuyper reminds us, we are called to declare publicly that Christ’s Lordship extends over every inch of the material world. Christ’s resurrection gives us hope in this project, since it points forward to a time when the entire physical cosmos will likewise be resurrected and renewed.

This is the vision that is missed by the Gnostic gospels. As Tom Wright once put it in a sermon,

‘The whole scripture, and with it all mainline Jewish and Christian thought, it based on the belief that there is one God who made the world, who made it good, and who will put it to rights at the last. Gnosticism declares, very explicitly in the ‘gospel of Judas,’ that the world was made by a lesser, low-grade divinity, and that the thing to do is to find the way to escape… …it cuts the nerve of working for God’s kingdom in the real world.’

 

 

Salvation as Escape from the Body (Gnosticism and Evangelicalism, part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

 

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:12

Resurrection or disembodiment?

In his book Heaven is Not My Home: Learning to Live in God’s Creation, Paul Marshall quotes a Time Magazine report from the close of last century. Time had reported that two thirds of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of the dead do not believe they will have bodies after the resurrection.

More recently, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll interviewed 1,007 American adults and discovered that only 36% of them said “yes” to the question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” Yet most of these same Americans also acknowledged being believers and going to church.

The Christians who were polled reflect the increasingly common notion that the culmination of salvation is to live in heaven for eternity as disembodied spirits rather than to have our physical body raised from the dead. The Time Magazine poll suggests that this is now often what people assume the word ‘resurrection’ means.

Many who rightly consider it a sign of theological liberalism to spiritualize Christ’s resurrection into something non-physical are quite comfortable doing just that when it comes to their own. This stands in contrast to both the Bible (particularly 1st Corinthians 15) and ancient Christian creeds (particularly the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed), which taught that the resurrection of the physical body is the culmination of salvation.

The physical against the spiritual?
Although the Christians who were polled did not realize it, their thinking had been deeply tinctured by the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a movement that developed in the second and third century based, among other things, on a radical separation of the physical and spiritual realms. The doctrine of resurrection (both Christ’s resurrection and our future bodily resurrection) was deeply troubling for the Gnostics, given that they understood the material realm (including physical bodies) to be inherently unspiritual.

Tinctured with Gnosticism
The doctrine of resurrection is not the only area that the contemporary Christian community has been infected with Gnostic assumptions.

Have you ever run into the pietistic idea that the Biblical worldview is primarily about what happens in our heart, rather than something that applies to all of culture and the world?

Have you ever heard someone say that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, where the person who says this is wishing to de-emphasizes the corporate and structural connotations that come with the term ‘religion’?

Have you ever come across the idea that there is a complete discontinuity between what happens in this world and what will happen in the age to come?

Have you ever come across the notion that institutional religion and/or religious rituals are at odds with genuine heart-felt faith, and that whatever we give to the former is less we have left over for the latter?

Have you ever heard someone argue that Christians shouldn’t raise their hands in worship or make the sign of the cross on themselves since worship is more spiritual if it doesn’t involve the body?

Have you ever encountered the notion that God isn’t concerned with issues of ecology and how we treat the created world?

Have you ever heard someone say that rock music is evil because the rhythms appeal to our body rather than to our spirit or soul?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then there is a high probability that you have been exposed to some form of Gnosticism or its derivations. In fact, you may even have some Gnostic ideas yourself without realizing it. The fact is that Gnosticism tends to be so pervasive that it tinctures our thinking in so many areas, even influencing how we read the Bible.

This year at the Chuck Colson Center, I will be using the Perspectives column to present an ongoing series in which I will consider the impact that Gnostic assumptions have had on the contemporary church. I hope to disentangle many of the Gnostic concepts we take for granted from what the Bible actually teaches. However, before we are in a position to do that, we need to have a little history lesson about who the Gnostics were and what they actually believed.

The Nag Hammadi discoveries
Although it is probable that certain parts of the New Testament (perhaps 1 Timothy 1:4 and 1 John) were written to combat the early genesis of a Gnosticized Christianity, and while many of the church fathers regarded the sorcerer Simon Magus of Acts 8:9-24 as being the founder of the movement, it was not until the second century that there is any evidence of Gnosticism fully formed.

Until the second half of the 20th century, our knowledge of Gnosticism was primarily limited to the writings of men who had opposed it, such as Saint Irenaeus. However, in 1945, thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. This has greatly expanded our understanding of the movement, in addition to raising some uncomfortable questions concerning the parallels between ancient Gnosticism and contemporary Christianity, particularly evangelicalism.

What the Nag Hammadi discoveries made clear is that Classical Gnosticism included to a broad network of religious movements which developed independently of Christianity in the second century, possibly earlier, but which quickly morphed to take on a Christian hue. Being fundamentally syncretistic, the various Gnostic systems absorbed different aspects of Judaism, Hellenic philosophy and Christianity, using the categories familiar to these religions but subtlety altering them.

The origins of Gnosticism
Since the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, many scholars have speculated about the origins of Gnosticism. In his book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, Tom Wright suggests that the first Gnostics may have been deeply discontented Jews who wanted to preserve the basic storyline of the Jewish religion while interpreting it in radically subversive ways.

There is a certain plausibility to Wright’s suggestion. Imagine being a faithful Jew who had lived to see the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In 132 you pin all your hopes on Bar Kokhba, a would be Jewish Messiah who promised to rebuild the temple. You join tens of thousands of other faithful Jews in announcing that the redemption of Israel has finally arrived. In fact, you and the other revolutionaries are so excited that you even commemorate the occasion by the minting new coins inscribed with the year 1. Then in 135, following a two-year war, the Romans bitterly crushed your movement, doing to Bar Kokhba what they always did to Jewish Messianic figures.

If you had been a thinking Jew who had lived through the hope and disappointment of that period, there aren’t a lot of options. Either you can go on hoping that someone else will arise to be the real Messiah of Israel. Or secondly, you could abandon Judaism completely. If you chose the latter course, you could embrace Christianity with its teaching that the Messiah of Israel had already arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, but that the redemption He brought looked very different to the revolutionary agendas of Bar-Kokhba and other would-be Messiahs. Or thirdly, you might be tempted to retain some remnants of Judaism but to start reading your Old Testament upside down in which the God of Israel is now the bad guy.

As Jews who took this third option began reading the scriptures backwards, they began to realize that the world is a corrupt and low-grade realm precisely because it was created by a corrupt and low-grade god, himself the offspring of a higher deity of which we occasionally catch a glimpse. Known sometimes as “father”, the God behind the bad creator god offers us redemption, but not the physical redemption that Israel had always hoped for; rather, salvation is now seen in terms of salvation from the space-time universe. Salvation is a chance for certain enlightened individuals to escape from the world that the bad god of Genesis 1 erroneously proclaimed to be good.

Strange as this retelling of the Jewish story sounds, the discoveries of the last century suggest that the genesis of Gnosticism may indeed lay in the frustrated conjectures of tired and highly cynical Jews who had lived through the crushed hopes of the 130’s.

Other scholars have suggested that the Gnostic dialectic emerged from the intersection of Middle Eastern dualism, Jewish theism and Hellenistic astrology in the Post Alexander the Great world. Whatever its origins, one thing is certain: Gnosticism became highly attractive to cynics who had lost hope in the goodness of creation. Against mainline Jewish and early Christian thought, the texts of the Nag Hammadi collection are characterized by what Marvin Meyer and James Robinson have called “an estrangement from the mass of humanity, an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it, and…a withdrawal from involvement in the contamination that destroys clarity of vision.”

The Gnostic doctrine of salvation
At its most basic level, the Gnostics taught that salvation could be achieved through the attainment of hidden, esoteric knowledge (‘Gnosis’ in Greek). Significantly, this was not salvation from sin; rather, it was salvation from the inherently bad material world. Indeed, the pursuit of a spirituality independent of the trappings of time and matter was the goal toward which Gnostic soteriology strived. Only those who were willing to reject the trappings of space, time and matter could find deliverance in the realm of pure spiritual bliss.

Jesus, they suggested, is not to be identified with the evil creator of the world; rather, He is the redeemer who shows us how to escape from the universe. He comes from the realms beyond (the upper spiritual realm undiluted by matter) to show the chosen few that they have within themselves a divine spark. By listening to this divine spark instead of the pressing influences of the material world around them, the elect can achieve enlightenment in this life and immortality in the next.

While there were a variety of reasons the Gnostics thought that the physical world is bad, the most basic reason is because they believed the universe to be the product of an inferior deity. As Philip Lee put it in his book Against the Protestant Gnostics:

“the material world itself is the result of a cosmic faux pas, a temporary disorder within the pleroma. The ancient gnostic, looking at the world through despairing eyes, saw matter in terms of decay, place in terms of limitation, time in terms of death. In light of this tragic vision, the logical conclusion seemed to be that the cosmos itself – matter, place, time, change, body and everything seen, heard, touched or smelled – must have been a colossal error.”

While many Gnostics had different theories concerning the origins of the world, they did all share the same basic soteriology: the pathway to salvation lies in escaping from the material world to a realm of pure spirit. Jesus played an important role in this process since offered the gnosis necessary for the liberation of our spirits. But unlike the salvation offered by the Christ of the canonical tradition, which was publicly available to all, the Jesus of Gnosticism offered salvation only to an elite. The opaque and cryptic remarks attributed to Jesus by the various Gnostic texts (most notably, The Gospel of Thomas), together with an appeal to a secret oral tradition transmitted through the apostles, helped to keep salvation the preserve of an enlightened elite and separate from the mass of humanity. The Gnostics thus took a very negative view of the visible church.

Summary of Gnostic theology
We can summarize the main tenants of Gnosticism as follows:

  • Doctrine of Creation: The created world is corrupt precisely because it is material. That which is physical is inherently non-spiritual.
  • Doctrine of the Fall: Man’s fundamental problem is not that he is a sinner but that he is material.
  • Doctrine of Christ: Jesus merely appeared to have a material body (Docetism). The human and physical element in the person of Christ is a deceptive appearance. As church historian J.N.D. Kelly put it in Early Christian Doctrines, “Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostic (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.” In some versions of Gnosticism, such as the one reflected in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus did have a physical body but He wished to escape from it.
  • Doctrine of Salvation: Salvation lies in escaping from the material world to a realm of pure spirit. This is attained through private gnosis/knowledge offered by Jesus – a gnosis that awakens a divine spark within the individual.
  • Doctrine of the Church: The people of God are the enlightened elite who have obtained the gnosis necessary for salvation. This stood in sharp contrast to the institutional or visible church.
  • Doctrine of the World: What happens in the world is of little to no importance.
  • Doctrine of Revelation: True revelation comes through a secret oral tradition handed down by the apostles, in contrast to the open, public tradition of the universal church embedded in the sacred writings.

When the tenants of Gnosticism are distilled like this, it is hard to see any point of contact with evangelical Christianity. However, like a species struggling for evolutionary survival, Gnosticism has always had a curious knack of being able to blend into its contemporary environment, shedding certain characteristics and taking on others to the degree necessary for its own perpetuation. As such, Gnosticism should not be seen as a fixed ideology like Epicureanism or Platonism, but as a living, organic principle that constantly mutates to meet the demands of its environment.

Despite all its placidity, complexity and ambiguity, however, Gnosticism can be reduced to two primary narratives: the quest for hidden ‘gnosis’, on the one hand, and a hostility towards the material world, on the other. Although the two of these are usually related (indeed, the function of ‘gnosis’ was to enable the subject to escape from the material realm), we will see that it is the latter narrative that yields insight into the psychology of much contemporary evangelicalism, not least in its frequent denials of bodily resurrection.

Implicit theology
Finally, it is important to understand that when I talk about Gnostic influences on evangelicalism, I am not referring to specific causal links between a second- and third-century Mediterranean movement and what Christians today espouse. Rather, I have in mind a correlation of ideas which exist on the level of implicit theology.

I am using the term “idea” here in the broad sense that Tom Wright articulated when he wrote about worldviews in The New Testament and the People of God or that Charles Taylor has described as the “social imaginary” in A Secular Age or that James Davison Hunter talked about with the language of “pre-reflective frameworks” in To Change the World or that James K.A. Smith articulated as being the ‘adaptive unconscious’ in Desiring the Kingdom. What these and other authors have tried to focus our attention on is not ideas that exist as disengaged concepts in a person’s head, nor ideas that can be reduced to a set of propositions on paper; rather, they are all urging us to give attention to ideas that exist as unstated understandings that make up the ‘background’ to how a people make sense of their world.

Such “ideas” exist as implicit understandings and may or may not ever be explicitly articulated or cognitively recognized. They are, as Taylor describes it, the largely unfocussed background which gives cohesiveness to group experience, “something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode.” It is on this deeper level that I suggest evangelicalism bears the Gnostic imprint in many ways. Indeed, questions about evangelical crypto-Gnosticism need to be addressed at this more operational and implicit level, since we are dealing more with concepts embedded in the adaptive unconscious than doctrines expounded from the pulpit or lectern. We are dealing with a network of inchoate practices, assumptions and conventions which implicitly ‘carry’ certain Gnostic notions, even while the doctrinal formulations may not explicitly affirm them.

Next steps

Review this first article in Robin’s series. Then, complete the following sentence: “You might be a Gnostic if…” Next, evaluate your own faith in Jesus Christ. Can you see any areas where Gnosticism is trying to undermine your faith in the Lord?