The earliest heresy afflicting Christianity was Gnosticism. The followers of our Lord, committed to the Bible, believed that God created a good world but that man’s sin had corrupted it, and yet God sent his Son in human flesh to die on the Cross for man’s sins and rise again to redeem man and all creation. We celebrate these latter momentous events this Holy Week.
The Gnostics had an entirely different worldview. They believed that the Evil God of the Old Testament (the Demiurge), the God of law and cruelty and capriciousness, was countered by the good God of the New Testament, the God who sent Jesus Christ to deliver a fallen humanity from the Evil God and his evil world. Obviously, the Jesus of the Gnostics was (and is) not the Jesus of the Bible and of the Christians, and the Fall recorded the Bible is not the Fall as interpreted by the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed that the Fall was from spirit and secret knowledge (“gnosis”) into matter and the material world. Salvation is by knowledge by means of which man escapes the material world. Jesus, therefore, only appeared to be human, and his sufferings on the Cross were not physical sufferings. Man’s real problem is creation, and his body, not sin. Jesus brought the secret knowledge of liberation from the enslaving created order. The specific knowledge by which man is delivered is the knowledge of the true, inner person: the Gnostics “believed that if they could look into the best side of themselves, they [could] discover the nature of God and of existence.” The Gnostics were the world’s first champions of “authenticity.” Therefore, Jesus came to lead people to salvation by showing them their true selves, which are obscured by creation and by the human body.
Unlike other heresies, Gnosticism was not about this particular false doctrine or that. It was an entirely alien worldview. In fighting Gnosticism, Irenaeus and other early church fathers were preserving the Christian worldview against a false interpretation of reality. Had Gnosticism won, Western culture would have been radically different from what it has been. Christian culture would never have developed.
The Gnostic heresy is at root an Easter heresy. If humanity’s great problem is creation and the body, then the central tenet of the Christian Faith, our Lord’s resurrection, is a farce. If creation is inherently evil, it does not need to be redeemed; it needs to be rejected and transcended. This is precisely what Gnostics believed. Gnostics must constantly war on Easter, and Easter must constantly war on Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is alive and well in today’s culture. It is a chief plank of the Leftist ideology, which sees material reality as a barrier to autonomous human imagination: “Nothing actual can be authentic” was the sentiment of Marxist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leftists’ inner dreams of the perfect world intentionally bypass God’s created reality to impose their inner “authenticity” on it. A chief example is the entitlement of offspring for a same-sex “marriage.” Creation itself must bow before the dictates of the Gnostic dream of equality. Same-sex unions are just as entitled to children as opposite-sex ( = natural, God-created) unions. Since nature ( = creation) does not afford this possibility, technology must engineer the fulfillment of the Gnostic dream. Michael Hanby writes:
[W]e must first understand that the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding. Just as feminism has as its practical outworking, if not its theoretical core, the technological conquest of the female body — “biology is not destiny,” so the saying goes — so too same-sex marriage has as its condition of possibility the technological mastery of procreation, without which it would have remained permanently unimaginable.
Pop culture is rife with the Gnostic dream of overcoming creation. The current movie Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, is about a woman whose body was saved from a horrific terrorist attack and whose brain is inserted in a hyper-upgraded cybernetic body for the purpose of serving in an anti-terrorism squad. Humanity must be reengineered to effectively combat terrorism.
In the 2014 movie Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, a brilliant technologist died but his surviving consciousness is uploaded to a computer and eventually allowed to impact the world and even create a utopian society via the Internet. The human body is disposable and man transcends creation to recreate himself and humanity. This is the ancient Gnostic dream adapted to technological culture. Creational reality is the enemy of human freedom.
In addition, Gnosticism afflicts today’s church. Note this quote by openly gay United Church of Christ (Norman, Oklahoma) pastor Dwight Welch:
I used to say no, I didn’t believe in the resurrection. And I still don’t believe that the laws of biology can be suspended in our favor, that a dead body can be physically resuscitated. I don’t believe religious faith can be the suspension of our critical faculties nor a requirement to believe things we know aren’t so. That is credulity, a form of magic, not an expression of faith.
But my answer has changed now. Today I do believe in resurrection. It is a kind of resurrection that happens when there is a transformation of our lives such that our old self dies and a new self, a more authentic and real self emerges….
When I consider my own coming out story, when I hear the coming out stories of others, the process is a kind of resurrection, an affirmation of life, one that struggled to be born against the odds, against the death dealing ways of our communities and those still in the grips of fear and prejudice.
This apostate clergy denies that God can sovereignly overrule his natural laws to raise his Son and his people from the dead, but he embraces resurrection (redefined) as a dream of ethical reengineering: God cannot govern man’s biology, but man may transform his divinely given biology and fulfill his inner dreams of escape from God’s external ethical standards: “[The] old self [this is, the God-given self] dies and a new self, a more authentic and real self emerges….” In short, God’s creation imposes limitations, but these limitations render man “inauthentic.” To be his authentic, “real self,” man must transcend the God-imposed limitations. He then is resurrected as the New Man, the Authentic Man, on whom nature, creation and God have no claim. One reason that even conservative Christians have been impotent to combat this heresy is that they, like the Gnostics themselves, have tended to separate creation from redemption.
Easter Yesterday, Today, and Forever
In radical contrast, Easter glories in creation. Creation fell under God’s curse because of man’s sin, but creation is not inherently evil. It is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Our Lord died and rose to redeem not just man, but all of creation (Romans 8:33). Whatever sin polluted, Jesus Christ redeems. Creation is not and never has been a barrier to man’s salvation. It is the resplendent arena of man’s salvation.
Despite what many Christians, tinged with Gnosticism, seem to believe, Jesus did not die to save us from creation. He died to restore man and man’s body and all of the rest of creation to its proper, God-honoring status. The popular idea that Jesus died to “take us to heaven” is more Gnostic than biblical. It is true that those who’ve trusted in Jesus Christ will be forever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17), but we will be forever with him on a resurrected earth, an Easter earth, we could say, as the heavens descend and the Triune God lives eternally with his people (Revelation 21:1–4). We do not die and “go up to heaven.” God comes down to Earth to dwell with man and his creation.
All attempts to transcend or bypass creation constitute a war on the created order, a war on God himself. Creation is already inherently very good, and to attempt to transcend creation is to try to overthrow God. Gnostics, both ancient and contemporary, are not satisfied with God’s created order. They’re convinced that their inner imaginative dreams are superior to creation. But this is a self-frustrating notion. If anybody knows about “human flourishing,” it is God. Since he is man’s Creator, he knows precisely the conditions under which man flourishes. He created those conditions. Man is most full of joy and peace and hope, indeed, holy revelry, when he conforms to God’s creational purposes in the Bible. The redemptive work of Jesus Christ is designed incrementally to restore man to those purposes.
This Easter, in celebrating our Lord’s bodily resurrection, we are not celebrating that we will go to heaven when we die. We are celebrating, in Michael Reeves’ memorable phrase, “a pinchable reality.” It is true that we will forever be with the Lord and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31–39). We are, however, celebrating the life-bestowing, creation-renewing, world-affirming redemption accomplished by the Father in the Son 2000 years ago just outside Jerusalem. We are celebrating the fact that God’s verdict over the Fall is No!, and his verdict over creation is Yes!
We’re celebrating at Easter that in creation and in human life and in the future, Satan does not get the last laugh. God gets the last laugh.