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.
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.’