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?

Further Reading