Neo-Gnosticism in the Church
Sorry guys for my lack of posting the last few days, but the weekends never provide a good opportunity to post since it is my busiest time of the week. Plus, this particular weekend I was out of town, so, apologies.
I have just finished reading Oskar Skarsaune's In the Shadow of the Temple. Since it occured to me the other day that I probably give too many reviews on the books I read, I'm not going to give a review here except to say that overall the book is an entertaining read and deals with the persistence of Jewish influences on Christianity into the third century. My main criticism of Skarsaune's work is that he is way too uncritical of his sources such as Josephus, Eusebius, and others.
But when I was reading Skarsaune's section on Gnosticism and Marcion it dawned on me that many lay believers and pastors, especially those of an evangelical mode, are practicing a form of gnosticism today. Now, obviously, Christians today do not hold to the nonsense of these Gnostic systems such as an obsession with the various aeons, the notion of a pleroma, the belief that the god of the OT is an evil creator god, that Jesus did not really come in the flesh, etc. However, what is interesting is that many do, whether they realize it or not practice many other tenets of gnosticism. There are at least three things many believers today hold in common with Gnosticism:
1.) An understanding of the material world as evil and its corollary that all things spiritual are good. Thus radically spiritualizing many aspects of the gospel message.
2.) The belief that Jesus' purpose in coming to earth was to save their "soul" (divine spark) so that when they die, that "soul" (spark) can ascend to heaven to be with Jesus forever. (in other words, the divine spark ascends back to the pleroma)
3.) As a result of point number two, denying (unconciously and mostly ignorantly) the future resurrection of the dead, since it is the saving of the "soul" that is the main concern.
The following is a typical conversation that I've had with many Christians:
Me: "What is the gospel?"
Them: "That Jesus came to earth, died on the cross for my sins and that if I accept him as my Saviour I'll be saved."
Me: "What do you mean by saved? Exactly what does this salvation entail?"
Them: "Well, Jesus died for my sins so that I can go to heaven when I die?"
Me: "Go to heaven? What do you mean?"
Them: "Jesus' death on the cross provides the salvation for my soul so that my soul can go to heaven when I die."
Me: "Is that it? So that your soul can go to heaven? This is how your're saved?"
Them: "Well, yes. Isn't that what you believe?"
It's at this point that I try to explain that they have misunderstood the Christian hope, that they have collapsed the intermediate phase into the final phase of salvation. They've replaced the final hope of "resurrection" with the intermediate dwelling of the "soul." I then proceed to read and interpret 1 Corinthians 15 to them. It is amazing that many of these people that I encounter do not even know that this chapter exists in the Bible . Am I the only one that keeps running into this false soteriology and eschatology?
They are in effect doing precisely what the Gnostics did, denying the future resurrection of the dead. As Skarsaune observes (p. 256), this was a serious matter for the early Christians. To deny the resurrection of the dead was to deny the Creator God.
Now this is obviously a matter more of ignorance than it is of deliberate heresy. Yet, this is still problematic. What is happening is that most believers are not getting proper teaching from their church leaders. And apparently just reading your Bible as many of these believers assert they do doesn't help since everytime I'm told this I promptly proceed to inquire about the doctrine of salvation and almost always get that watered down verision of the gospel being: Jesus died for my sins so that I can go to heaven when I die.
In my opinion this is incomplete Christianity, yet this is the kind of Christianity practiced by the average believer. Now I do not think this is due to stupidity but rather to many of our church leaders not exercising the effort to teach properly. The doctrine of the future resurrection is not something hidden to only scholars. But the result of not teaching this to the lay believer has led to a kind of Neo-Gnosticism among many evangelical churches today.