Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The End of My Gnostic Faith

Image source.

I recently read this post: Sunday Billy Sunday, about the gnostic Christianity preached by Billy Sunday. Here's an excerpt:
The purpose of gnostic Christianity is to die and go to heaven. There is no heaven on earth. There is no hell on earth. Earth - and the body and everything physical - is a mere ladder, a resting place, a waiting room, an station where we expectantly twiddle out thumbs anticipating the Glory Train. The rest of the world can burn, and will. Just try to save as many people by bludgeoning them with scary words about their eternal damnation while you can.

That's gnostic Christianity in a nutshell. And it prioritizes individual over social, the powers-that-be over the oppressed, the here-and-now over sustainability. It expects heaven. It doesn't participate in bringing heaven to earth. For heaven is for the Christians only, according to gnostic Christianity. And if we brought it here, what's the purpose of an afterlife?
Go read the whole thing.

First, let's take a second and define "gnosticism." According to Wikipedia, gnosticism is the belief that the physical and spiritual world are totally separate, and the physical world is evil and should be avoided. (By the way, this definition of "gnosticism" is different than the concept of gnostic vs agnostic belief. Don't get confused. I'm totally not talking about that.) And the writer of the above-quoted blog post, Jasdye, connects gnosticism to the teaching common in evangelical Christianity that heaven and hell are all that matters.

You know, I've heard of gnosticism before. I heard it was a heresy that the apostle John argued against in the book of 1 John, in the bible. I heard that the gnostics of that time were claiming that since the physical world was evil, God did not really become human and die. Which is, you know, kind of an important part of Christianity. And that since the physical world was separate from the spiritual world, the physical world didn't matter- so you can sin if you want, it doesn't matter. And that gnosticism also emphasized having special secret knowledge, but John wrote that the knowledge about Jesus is freely available, not meant to be kept secret. Gnosticism was incompatible with Christianity, according to the apostle John.

But wow, the idea of the body and spirit being separate, and the spiritual world being all that matters- dude... that is exactly what I was taught about Christianity. (Even the idea of the body being evil, umm, purity culture much?) Maybe it wasn't taught in those exact terms, but if heaven and hell are real, and everyone is going to get an eternal infinite reward or eternal infinite punishment based on their beliefs, then why the hell would anything else matter besides spreading that message? This is infinity we're talking about. Physical suffering experienced in one's lifetime on earth is negligible compared to an eternity of torture in hell. So don't waste your time trying to help people- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving to the poor... NONE OF THAT MATTERS! We've got to save them from HELL!

I remember wondering about how Christians should respond to humanitarian crises in the world- do we send them food or bibles? And I thought, well, people have physical needs and spiritual needs, but the spiritual needs are more important. Still, sending bibles is useless if you don't also send food- no one's going to listen to your message if you don't help them with what they think they need. So caring for the physical needs of our fellow humans is a means to an end- the goal is to get them to trust us enough to listen to our message about their spiritual needs.

And yeah, I don't believe that anymore.

In a post last week, I explained how I now understand the gospel, the central message of Christianity. I used to think it was "Even though you are a sinner, Jesus' death and resurrection make it possible to be freed from sin and reconciled to God." The end. That's it. That is all that Christianity's about. (I mean, sure we're supposed to love others, but that's just tacked on to the end, sort of an unrelated extra credit assignment.)  

But now I believe the gospel is so much more. It's about Jesus and his upside-down kingdom, where "the first will be last and the last will be first" and there is healing and justice for the weak, the victims, those who are marginalized and oppressed by society. And being a Christian is all about working with Jesus to bring that kingdom to the world. Sure, it starts with God's forgiveness toward me, and healing in my own heart- the narrow view I had before- but it goes so much farther than that.

And I thought I was being rebellious and controversial, saying the gospel was something other than that narrow, spiritualized forgiveness-of-my-own-individual-sin-against-God concept. But wow, maybe that's gnosticism, a heresy. Maybe making 2 categories- physical needs and spiritual needs- is wrong, and the question of which is more important is the wrong question to be asking.

And actually, this calls heaven and hell into question. If everyone in heaven gets the same infinite eternal awesomeness, and everyone in hell gets the same infinite eternal torture, and it's based on what you believe about Jesus, I don't see how you can NOT come to the conclusion that this world does not matter. That helping those in need does not matter, and all that matters is getting people to change their beliefs and get into heaven. So, yeah. That can't be right. That can't be what heaven and hell are. Let's question that.

Because I don't believe that a God who thinks life on earth only matters to the extent that it puts you in the "heaven" or "hell" category would come to earth as a human and waste his time healing and teaching "blessed are the poor in spirit" and suffering as a servant. Jesus' own behavior indicates that heaven is not what I thought it was or hell is not what I thought it was or maybe Jesus was just bad at time-management.

No, it can't be true that the physical world doesn't matter. And I'm glad I'm not the first Christian to think so.


  1. Angels surround you and saints greet you this day!
    You're not the first Christian to think so; and I'm glad for it, too. Because while I've been developing along similar lines, this is the first time I've ever seen someone write about it so succinctly. Thank you for this post.

  2. I'm guessing that conservative christians would avoid charges of gnosticism by saying that this world matters because it's where you decide whether or not to believe in Jesus, thus determining your eternal fate.

    That being said, it kind of confuses me why christians are so worried about being associated with heresy. Why close off a line of though just because it lost a show of hands at some church council 1500 years ago?

  3. What we believe shapes how we act, either explicitly (Quaker nonviolence) or, more often, implicitly (how we think about atonement relates to how we think about criminal justice, for instance.)

    That's why we care about heresy: because what we believe matters, and even in purely secular terms we have a vested interest in making sure we believe well. About the time your theology starts distinctly deviating from the very broadly-defined consensus of Christian tradition, it starts having horrible consequences too. Every. Single. Time.

    Often because it follows the same lines of thought that were condemned by those church councils 1500 years ago.

  4. Thanks for the reply, Edo. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm an atheist from a family of irreligious jews, so with these sorts of debates between christians, I'm very much on the outside looking in. I have a lot to say in response, but a lot of it goes off topic from heresy towards more general conundrums within christian theology. I'll try and stick with the heresy parts. First, I definitely agree with you that proper beliefs are important because beliefs lead to action, but my question has more to do with how christians choose those beliefs, and why they seem almost afraid to incorporate certain strains of christian thought into their theology.

    On the subject of heresy in general, a lot of them seem to be totally harmless. Does it really matter if Jesus is made of similar but slightly different substance as god, instead of the same substance? Or if Jesus has only one nature instead of two? Even liberal Christians seem quite rigid in adhering to the creeds opposed to these doctrines, like the nicene creed, and I always saw liberal christians as the ones willing to get more adventurous with their theology. But christian theology in general seems quite wedded to these ideas

    And why are church councils a good way of arriving at the truth? Why turn to them instead of scripture, or philosophy, or personal revelation? From what I can tell, these are all acceptable methods of inquiry within christianity, and offer a key advantage over councils: Reality is not determined by consensus. And if god is working through the members of the council, why don't they reach unanimous agreement? Even when the winning doctrines were backed by imperial might, they had serious trouble suppressing the heresies. Arius wasn't undone like Sauron after Nicaea, he just went out and converted the Germans.

    That being said, I have a very serious problem with any philosophy that puts thoughts ahead of actions like gnosticism does, although pauline christianity suffers from similar flaws. After all, "if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." And "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son."

    On the topic of gnosticism, though, what I find strange is that pauline christians seem to dismiss the entire gnostic worldview out of hand not because it is unreasonable, or unsupported, or even immoral, but simply because it isn't pauline christianity. Even in this article, the main argument against the truth of gnosticism is that gnosticism is incompatible with the new testament. Sure it disagrees with the canonical new testament, but the gnostics had their own scriptures. It could be that the gnostics were right, and secret knowledge is the key. Just because it disagrees with pauline doctrine doesn't mean it's untrue. It's oddly closed to a diverging world view. Yes, proper belief is more important than proper action within gnosticism, and this is dangerous, but to dismiss it on that fact alone is an argument from adverse consequences.

    Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that christians seem somewhat unwilling to explore their theology, instead boxing themselves in with creeds and confessions, and are strangely reluctant to reexamine those creeds to see if they really had the right idea. I'm not sure why this is. Sorry if this is all off topic or rambling, the parts of the post about gnosticism combined with the election of the new pope got me thinking. I also hope this doesn't come across as rude, or concern trolling. I'm trying to be polite as possible, but a lot can get lost in text.

  5. Thanks for the really long comments, Edo and Marcion. It kind of goes over my head in terms of church history stuff. To clarify, it matters to me that gnosticism is historically thought to be heresy not because "oh no I'm not allowed to think anything that's heresy!" (if you read some of my other blog posts, I like to ask questions about things that people in church don't like you asking questions about) but because it means what I used to think about Christianity is actually opposed to what Christians have historically believed. So I'm not coming up with this crazy new thing- I'm actually rejecting an extremist belief (about how the physical world doesn't matter) that Christians rejected long ago.