Christian Heresies: Gnostic Spirituality.

In my Systematic Theology class we have begun to study creation. Mangina recently noted (briefly) that there are three important heresies with respect to the doctrine of creation. Two of these in particular are pretty rampant in the church, practically if not theoretically. The first of these is Gnosticism.

In my experience amongst Western Evangelicalism Gnosticism is essentially a pillar of the faith (I know I’m generalizing here and not everyone will have the same experience, nevertheless, I’m sure you can identify what I’m talking about in your own experience).

Now I won’t delve too deeply into Gnosticism here. To totally oversimplify (and to serve our purposes here), that Gnosticism has infiltrated the Church is evident in that many Christians believe the material world to be evil. Creation is a problem (in some ways creation is the Fall). So, for these Christians salvation = escape from the material world. For these Christians, our hope is in being raptured out of this world to be with Christ in Heaven. The earth is merely a temporary home. Our real home is “in Heaven”. If you don’t believe that this sort of Gnostic belief is rampant in the Church then walk into most any Evangelical church in Canada and ask a few folks what happens to us when we die. Undoubtedly the top answer will be something along the lines of “going to Heaven”. Yet this is a concept that is totally foreign to the Scriptures. No where in the Old or New Testament is there talk of “going to Heaven when you die”. “But what about the thief on the cross?” someone will ask. Jesus said nothing to him about joining him in Heaven but being with him in “paradise”. In light of the Biblical witness we would be mistaken to think that paradise = heaven.

Now, to be sure, I believe that when we die we are “present with the Lord.” However, I would qualify this by saying that this is not our final “resting state” if you will. Creation is necessarily material. Being human is *necessarily* a material reality. If you die and live in some sort of immaterial bliss for eternity then you’re no longer human, yet, God created you to be human. God created you to be material. In the Incarnation the material creation is affirmed and in the BODILY resurrection of Christ Jesus from the grave the material creation is redeemed and set right. Our hope is not that one day we’ll get the hell out of here and meet Jesus in the sky (which by the way is not at all attractive to me personally). No, our hope is that one day God’s kingdom will finally break through INTO THIS WORLD in all of its fullness and wonder. It is significant that the Bible does not come to a close with humanity going up to heaven but with heaven coming down to be wed to earth (Revelation 21).

One might ask, “does it really matter what we believe about creation?” to which I would respond, “hell yes it does!” What you believe about creation has massive implications for how you will live your life right now. I won’t get into this here but perhaps it’s a conversation worth exploring in the comments section if anyone feels so led.

What might be the practical implications of believing that our hope is that we will one day get out of here to be with Jesus vs. our hope being that one day the Kingdom will finally and fully break into this world and all things will finally be made new?

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10 comments
  1. David Thomas said:

    Right on! Christian Gnosticism leaves many evangelicals detached from the world, makes them cynical about healing, creates an esoterical theology that has little impact, and warps the way church is done in very profound ways.

  2. jt* said:

    Thanks David. I think you’re bang on when you say that this sort of spirituality “warps the way church is done in very profound ways.”

    For example, within Evangelicalism evangelism and salvation have to do, primarily, with getting folks to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior so they’ll go to Heaven. However, if Heaven is not somewhere we “go” then this utterly changes how we understand evangelism which is something that greatly interests me. If salvation is not about “going to heaven when you die” then, practically speaking, how might evangelism look/happen differently? If evangelism is not about getting people to accept Jesus so they’ll go to heaven when they die then what is the telos or end of evanglism?

    Thanks for chiming in! Where do you hail from?

  3. Joshua Martin said:

    I’ve always attributed this hate of the material world to Platonic philosophy rather than gnosticism. A simple reason for this is because it came first and was likely the reason for gnostic interpretations of Scripture and understanding Christ. It’s a serious problem either way, though, for all of the reasons that you’ve outlined. This sort of thing has been on my mind a lot, especially notion of “evangelism,” because I became a Christian in the first place in order to go to heaven!

    • jt* said:

      Josh,

      I agree with you that it certainly has hints of Platonism as well and you’re right to note that Platonic dualism influenced Gnosticism. However, in this regard I see a subtle difference between Platonism and Gnosticism insofar as there seems to be a greater dislike for the material in the Gnostic. Gnosticism views the material as essentially evil and thus there is a longing to leave the material behind. Whereas from my limited knowledge of Plato I don’t see this same distaste for the material (although there is an obvious acknowledging that it’s merely a shadow of the real).

      So while you’re right that Platonism has vast influence on Christianity it is this distaste for the material and an eagerness to depart from it that I think leans more towards Gnosticism.

      I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on evangelism as a consequence of what we’re talking about here. I too became a Christian for fear of going to hell! Now, obviously, I see this as insufficient and it leaves me wondering about how we can better understand evangelism in light of this.

  4. Lacy said:

    I wonder how that will be possible.
    Many people don’t believe in God and all the bad things of this world are one argument against his existence. Why doesn’t God do something to fix all the problems and evil of the earth? The answer, I think, is that we have free will and that means sin and that means bad things happening. Right? So how will heaven on earth work? Or anywhere else for that matter?

    • JT said:

      Hi Lacy,

      I’m not entirely clear what you’re asking, can you clarify it for me? For now I’ll try and take a stab at what I think you’re saying, but if I’m off-base just let me know.

      It sounds like you’re asking how it’s possible, given our sinful state/reality, that heaven might be manifest here on earth? The way I see it this line of thought is rooted in 3 major biblical themes.

      1) Creation. God made all things. There is nothing that was made that He did not make. Everything that exists that is not God exists solely because of His gracious creative act and for His good purposes. In the Creation narrative in Genesis 1 we see that God proclaims all things “very good”. This is important, God *actually* created all things for a certain purpose and all things were created very good.

      2) The Incarnation. The Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, takes on flesh and becomes the Son of Man. Jesus of Nazareth is Immanuel, God with us. Why did God take on *created flesh*? Surely this had to be so. In order for God to redeem creation from captivity He had to take on creaturelyness Himself and be born of a woman. So in the Incarnation something important happens, namely, God *reaffirms* His creation.
      2.1) In his life and ministry Jesus proclaimed a certain message, namely, that the kingdom of God has arrived. People then wondered the same thing as you wonder now: “How can this be? Look around!” Surely we have not arrived at our destination yet. We are still on the road. However, there’s something paradoxical about the kingdom: Yes, it’s true that the kingdom of God has not fully arrived, BUT, IT IS ALREADY HERE. In the person of Jesus the kingdom of God, God’s future kingdom, bursts forth into the *present*. And, because Jesus didn’t stay dead but rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of his Father, sending his Spirit to be with us, we can trust that God’s kingdom is STILL here, bursting through even now.

      3) New Creation. The Bible doesn’t end with the Fall of human creatures in Genesis 3. Heck, the Bible doesn’t even end with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. No, the Bible ends with Revelation 21 & 22, with Heaven coming down, “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband,” (Rev. 21:2). The Bible ends not with humans flying up to heaven for eternity, but with heaven coming down and being wed to earth and God’s good creation finally being restored.

      Did that address some of your questions?

      I totally understand where you’re coming from. All you have to do is watch the news and you’ll see that it’s pretty hard to see the kingdom of God (heck, forget the news, all you have to do is examine your own life!). But this is our great hope: That even though our world is marred by sin and lives outside of our covenant relation with God, God is faithful and will restore His creation which He called into existence in the first place as an outpouring of His magnificent love. Indeed, God will does this but the message of Jesus is that THIS WORK HAS ALREADY BEGUN! Perhaps you can see this in your own life? You probably know what it’s like to have God’s Spirit at work in you, forming you into the sort of person that God created you to be. The kingdom has already begun to break into your own life. Now, it’s not fully there yet, but it is indeed THERE! This is similar to all of creation.

      One more note on the nature of God’s *physical* creation. Because God made all things, redeemed all things and is restoring all things it doesn’t make much sense to say that in the end we all take off to heaven and live as spirits for eternity, does it? God made you to be a human, and part of being human is having a fleshly, physical body. Praise God for that.

      Sorry, that was really long winded. Anyways, let me know if this addressed your questions.

      Peace.

  5. Lacy said:

    Well, that was interesting to read, but no, did not answer my question. I was actually wondering how everything will be perfect, paradise, all good, everyone being part of God’s kingdom, all things restored, no sin, etc. That is the idea of what heaven will be like (either here or in the sky), right? What I was wondering was how will that be possible? Will that mean the end of free will? Or what? So, not really related to your post so much, just a thought that was triggered by the post.

  6. jt* said:

    How will that be possible? Well ultimately it will be God’s doing, not ours. That’s not to say that humans, as God’s covenant partners, have no role to play. It’s just to acknowledge that, well, without God, we have *no* role to play. It’s His doing, and He will indeed do it.

    Will it mean the end of free will? No, not at all, in fact, it will mean the fulfillment of free will. Free will is an often misunderstood notion and I can’t go into it in much detail here. But a few points on free will:

    – Free will is not, as commonly understood, undirected power. We often think of free will as the ability to make choices without any sort of impediments. This is not the biblical picture that is painted of human beings as free agents.
    – All created things were created for a purpose. Human creatures have an end/goal for which they were made. We are only truly free when we are heading in this direction. Therefore, to be truly free agents we must actually be directed.
    – Humans were created for communion with God. This is the end/goal of our free agency.

    All of that to say this: when God has finally set all things right we will be living in communion with him as we were meant to be and we will be doing so as truly free agents, choosing to love God in return.

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  8. source said:

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