Christendom has faced many challenges to historic Christian truth claims and doctrine through the centuries. The deepest challenges consist of heresies that are such serious departures from Christian doctrine that—if accepted—they would change the very nature of Christianity. Accordingly, church historian Ryan Reeves describes a heresy as: “Purposeful or willful attempt to change things.”1 Heresies, then, are doctrinal challenges that orthodox Christianity must respond to effectively.
Let’s look briefly at a heresy that deeply challenged historic Christianity. It’s sobering to note that though church theologians and apologists effectively responded to that heresy, it never died and remains evident today.
Beginnings of Ancient Gnosticism
“Gnostic-like” ideas were evident even in apostolic times. In his first epistle, the apostle John warned his readers about a Christological teaching called Docetism (from the Greek: doceo “to seem”). Docetism taught that Jesus only seemed to have a body, but when he walked along the shore of Galilee he left no footprints, for he was a phantom. In the ancient world it was inconceivable to many that God would appear in flesh. Many people viewed matter, which includes the human body, as lowly and even evil.
John was aware of the heresy of Docetism and responded accordingly:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you will know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and which is already in the world at this time (1 John 4:1–3).
So an early part of what would become a collection of Gnostic beliefs or tendencies was the idea that matter is evil and spirit is good.
Distinctive Gnostic Beliefs
Gnosticism was never a systematically defined religion with a single set of official beliefs that all Gnostics had to affirm.2 In fact, there is debate about whether these Gnostic tendencies emerged initially from interacting with Christianity or whether this movement was a reaction to Judaism or paganism.3 Gnosticism consisted of a loose connection of mash-up ideas that came from the ancient philosophical and religious world. Thus, we might think of the beliefs described below as an amalgam of Gnostic trends or impulses rather than exact beliefs.
Secret Knowledge and Community: Gnosticism was especially prominent during the late second and third century AD and takes its name from the Greek word gnosis or gnostikos, which for the ancient Gnostics meant a secret or esoteric intuitive knowledge. This knowledge was believed to be hidden from most people. So the Gnostics viewed themselves as the spiritual or enlightened elites who received Christ’s true message through reflection and self-denial. This “discovery” of gnosis had uncovered the truth of salvation via intuition rather than through the normal Christian practice of preaching the gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Cosmos: Gnostics embraced a dualism that considered matter—including both the physical cosmos and human bodies—to be less real and even evil. Spirit, in contrast, was considered to be good. Thus, the material world was to be shunned and ultimately escaped, which defines salvation in a Gnostic context. Gnostics even reasoned that the bad and capricious God had created the material cosmos.
God: There are a number of major and minor deities within Gnosticism. First, the true and supreme God (the Monad: the Father) is a purely spiritual being who is completely transcendent and has no connection to the evil creation. Second, there is an inferior, unenlightened, and evil creator of the world called the Demiurge, who is sometimes referred to as Jehovah.
Human Beings: Gnostics as the spiritual elites reflect “sparks of spirit” of the same substance as the supreme God. Yet these spirits—through the fall of humanity—have somehow become trapped in physical bodies, which subjected them to sin and disorientation and from which they long for release.
Salvation: Salvation is attained through gaining spiritual secret knowledge and the spiritual essence by which the immortal soul is released from the dungeon of a material body and rejoins the true spiritual God the Father.
Christ: The Christ was a heavenly messenger sent from the Father to enlighten only the spiritual ones. As a purely spiritual being, he did not possess a body and thus did not suffer crucifixion nor experience bodily resurrection.
Gospels: There were many Gnostic gospels (Gospels of Judas, Philip, Mary, Thomas, etc.) that revealed spiritual truth and were seen as superior to the four canonical Christian Gospels. The discovery of the Gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi library4 in Egypt in 1945, which contained forty new Gnostic documents from the late fourth century, led to a revival of Gnosticism within both scholarly and popular circles in the modern world.
An Orthodox Christian Response
Having gained a brief understanding of the bare convictions of ancient Gnosticism, let’s consider a brief historic Christian response to this challenging alternative belief system.5 Some of these points were made by the second-century church father Irenaeus, who studied various Gnostic teachers and offered a biblical and theological critique in his work Against Heresies.6
A Public Universal Community: Historic Christianity isn’t made up of spiritual elites with secret knowledge. Rather, the public Christian message is open to all people who are sinners by nature and need God’s gracious gift of salvation. The church is a public community of people living throughout the world (it’s catholic, meaning universal or whole).
Cosmos: God created the universe good and there is no moral duality between matter and spirit. Human bodies, though affected by sin, are nevertheless real and good and the essence of a person is found in the unity of body and soul.
God: There is only one true God. The Triune God is one in essence but three in personhood. God has revealed himself in the created order, the human conscience, in the history of Israel, and in the historic material-physical incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Human Beings: Humanity is uniquely made in the image of God and possesses inherent dignity and moral worth. Yet, human beings are fallen and they need redemption.
Salvation: Salvation is found by believing that Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection saves a person from their sins.
Christ: Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior, the God-man, who suffered for the sins of humanity and was raised in immortal, incorruptible flesh. His resurrection assures believers of their own resurrection to eternal life.
Gospels: The four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were written by apostles or close associates of apostles. But orthodox Christianity rejected the Gnostic gospels for four basic reasons:7
(1) They couldn’t be connected to the apostles.
(2) They didn’t emerge from the apostolic era.
(3) They contradicted apostolic doctrine (denying creation and the Incarnation).
(4) They didn’t gain church acceptance (because of reasons 1–3).
Gnostic-like ideas can be found in today’s religions and culture.8 In this sense, Gnosticism is a heresy that seemingly will never die. Maybe its enduring appeal is that it offers a dualistic explanation for good and evil.
Gnosticism is a heresy that, if adopted, would change the very nature of Christianity. If matter is evil then such doctrines as creation, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection would be nullified.
Reflections: Your Turn
An extremely popular movie series reflects Gnostic-like ideas. Anything come to mind?
- For a general introduction to Gnosticism, see Gnosticism.
- For a Christian summation of Gnosticism, see Theopedia’s article on Gnosticism.
- For a Christian evaluation of ancient Gnosticism and its leaders, see Justin S. Holcolmb, Know the Heretics.
1. See Ryan Reeves’s YouTube video, “Gnosticism and the Early Church.”
2. My article is influenced by D. Jeffrey Bingham’s online article, “Gnosticism Unmasked,” Christianity Today (2007), accessed February 3, 2023.
3. See Justin S. Holcolmb, Know the Heretics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 33.
4. See the Nag Hammadi library.
5. Bingham, “Gnosticism Unmasked.”
6. See an introduction to Irenaeus, which includes a brief summary of his response to Gnosticism, in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press), chapter 1. Against Heresies is available online.
7. See Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis’s critique of the Gnostic Gospels in “The Gnostic Gospels: Are They Authentic?“, Christian Research Journal online, updated September 23, 2022.
8. For both popular and scholarly presentations and defenses of Gnostic ideas, see Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), and Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1989). For religions connected to Gnosticism, see List of Gnostic sects.