It seems like every Easter some journalist takes a swipe at Christianity by stirring up some “new” controversy about Jesus and the Church: Did you know that there are “other” gospels the Church doesn’t want you to know about? Did you know that there were early Christian sects who believed in very different ideas – until they were suppressed by Church authorities?
As French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr said in 1849, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
As my longtime friends know, if you really want to see me fired up, just start talking about Gnosticism! Maybe it’s because I was ordained a priest on June 28, the feast day of Irenaeus of Lyons. His Against Heresies (written in A.D. 185) offer an in-depth refutation of the Gnostic sects of his day. Maybe it’s because – like Irenaeus – I truly and passionately believe in the dying and rising of Jesus. And I look to that Paschal Mystery for the answers to all our ultimate human questions.
For Gnostics, the answers are found, not in a relationship with Jesus Christ, but in esoteric insight. “Gnostic” comes from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge.” We find ourselves stuck in this corrupted cosmos, unable to escape. Jesus is the logos – “the Word” – but in a different sense. He comes from heavenly realms to bring secret passwords, with which we can escape this dimension and enter the pleroma – the spiritual fullness from which we are cut off.
For the Gnostics, Jesus was a spiritual being who only pretended to be human. He didn’t really take on human flesh; he didn’t really die; and he didn’t really rise. So much for Christmas and Easter! There is a reason why the early Church rejected Gnosticism so strongly, and rejected Gnostic gospels as not of God. Gnostic beliefs strike at the very heart of Christian faith: the dying and rising of Jesus as a real historical event that really transforms and restores us.
Gnosticism also distorts the original goodness of God’s creation, including our human bodies. For Gnostics, fleshly existence is a burden, a prison, or an illusion to be escaped. Such views were common in some of the other philosophies or religions of the ancient world. They are common today. Most people I know look on their own bodies with some level of shame and contempt.
By contrast, in the Book of Genesis, Jews and Christians believe that God created us humans as bodily beings, male and female in his own image. He looks with delight upon what he has created and declares our bodies to be “very good.”
We are spiritual bodies (or embodied spirits – take your pick). To be non-bodily is to be less than human. God’s plan is to divinize our bodies – not just to cancel our sins, but to cause us to share in his eternal glory, in our very flesh.
For early Gnostics, one way or another, human flesh was “less than” or corrupt. They could take that one of two ways. Some sects pursued extreme asceticism, shunning all fleshly pleasures (including sexuality and procreation) as a trap. Others were highly permissive of hedonistic indulgence because – after all – what you do with your body doesn’t matter; you are a spiritual being at your core and will one day be rid of your body.
Can you see how these early heresies are finding new life today?
Then and now there is a tendency to look upon our bodies and our sexuality with shame and contempt. Then and now there is a tendency to avoid accountability about what we do with our bodies. Genuine accountability is radically different from shaming (which plenty of Christian families and churches are good at!). Accountability means I am willing to look honestly and truthfully about how kind my choices are toward myself and others. It means I care about my relationships and am willing to repent and repair if I see that I have caused harm. It means claiming the inherent goodness of my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. It means (like Romans 7 and 8 describe) hoping for redemption and resurrection even when bodily existence in this fallen world feels futile.
Gnosticism shows up at funerals: in the obituaries, in the eulogies, in the burial practices, and on the tombstones. A walk through a cemetery can be quite telling. Where once you found crosses and Scriptures reminding you of God’s promise of resurrection, you now find fishing poles and Green Bay Packers Helmets. Where once Christian prayer ritually remembered the story of the dying and rising of Jesus (and connected it to the baptismal faith of the deceased), there is now only a backward looking celebration of life.
Mind you, it is a blessing to celebrate with gratitude the earthly life of our loved ones. AND we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Or we used to. I find that few people actually, truly believe those two truths anymore.
The resurrected body of Jesus was the same body, yet new and different. So will it be with us. This very body – or what is left of it – will be raised from the grave (John 5:29). We will see God as he is and become like Jesus – he who is ascended and glorified in human flesh.
Gnosticism is so tempting because it avoids the pain of Hope. It is easier, in the end, to find a solution that gives up on the redemption of our bodies, and gives up on truly being transformed to be all-holy in Christ. It is easier to answer our deepest religious questions in a way that doesn’t have to enter into a relationship with the living God – and therefore doesn’t risk him disappointing us. It is easier to condemn our bodies in shame.
Disciples like Paul refuse to bypass Hope. If you read Romans 7, you see that he is a sinner like you and me – the good that he desires he doesn’t do; instead he does the evil that he hates. Then in Romans 8, Paul expresses the agony of Hope, using words like futility, labor pains, and groaning. Living a bodily existence this side of paradise often feels that way! But Paul refuses to give up on seeking his answers in the promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus will resurrect this lowly body of ours; he will redeem and restore us, causing us to be fully at peace in his Father’s presence. Where he has gone, we surely will follow – if we dare to Hope.