Some of modern Christianity's most "progressive" ideas are rooted in heresies taught by false teachers who opposed Christ's gospel. Gnosticism is not just an ancient false philosophy—it is a force that has corrupted true Christianity almost from its beginning, and may affect the religion you practice today!
Today nearly two billion people profess a belief in Jesus Christ. The Christian religion that began in Jerusalem now girdles the globe and encompasses one-third of mankind. This seems like a remarkable accomplishment—but there is a hitch! Jesus warned that "many will come in My name [claiming to be Christian teachers]... and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:5, 11, 24). The Apostle Paul marveled that converts in Galatia (modern Turkey) were turning to a "different gospel" built on a perverted understanding of the truth (Galatians 1:6-9). The Apostle John recorded a prophecy that Satan would deceive the whole world (Revelation 12:9). Could this include you and the church you attend?
Surprising as it may seem, the Christianity embraced by millions today is not the same "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). From the beginning, numerous false teachers opposed the gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles. It is common knowledge among historians that the original faith did not remain uncorrupted (see The Story of Civilization, Durant, 1972, vol. 3, p. 595). That is why some churches acknowledge that their beliefs are based on the Bible and tradition—which often runs counter to Scripture!
One of the prime opponents of early Apostolic Christianity was Gnosticism—a radical belief system that mixed pagan ideas, Greek philosophy, mysticism and human reasoning with twisted explanations of Scripture. Although Gnosticism faded from view after the 2nd century, many of its subversive and heretical ideas were absorbed into mainstream Christianity. Even more remarkable is that numerous scholars acknowledge that Gnostic ideas are alive and growing inside Christian churches and seminaries today. New Testament Professor Peter Jones documents the "striking parallels between the ancient heresy of Gnosticism and the spirituality of New Age thinking and the post-modern worldview" (Spirit Wars, 1997, p. vii). The dangerously deceptive doctrines battled by Paul, Peter, John and other early Apostolic leaders are being revived today with a vengeance—yet the average person is largely unaware of the real source of ideas promoted under the guise of progressive Christianity! This article will take a brief look at early church history, and will reveal some eye-opening and sobering facts!
Gnosticism "developed in the same places as dawning Christianity and the Judaic religions: Palestine, Syria, Samaria and Anatolia [Asia Minor]" (The Gnostics, Lacarriere, 1989, p. 43). Gnostic teachers claimed to have secret knowledge about the creation of the world and the purpose of life and competed with the Apostles on the same ground. British historian Paul Johnson describes Gnosticism as "a spiritual parasite which used other religions as a carrier... Gnostic groups seized on bits of Christianity, but tended to cut it off from its historical source" (A History of Christianity, 1976, p. 45).
Gnostic teaching was a particular threat to Christianity because Gnosticism created "the illusion it was a Christian doctrine" by referring to the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, while twisting and perverting the original meaning (Lacarriere, p. 44). Many Gnostics also claimed to be Christians. Historian Johnson notes the Apostle Paul "fought hard against Gnosticism, recognizing that it might cannibalize Christianity and destroy it" (p. 45). Johnson also comments "the most dangerous Gnostics were those who had, intellectually, thought their way quite inside Christianity, and then produced a variation which wrecked the system" (Ibid.).
One of the earliest Gnostic teachers was Simon Magus. He is thought to be the Simon (mentioned in Acts 8) who used sorcery to deceive people in Samaria. Simon was attracted by the miracles performed by Philip. Although Simon claimed to be a Christian after displaying a superficial conversion, Peter and John rejected him for being "poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity" (Acts 8:23). Other translations of this verse describe Simon as "a bitter poison and a pack of evil" (Moffatt), and "a bitter weed and a bundle of crookedness" (Williams). Although Simon continued to follow the Apostles around (Acts 8:13), he and his disciples (Marcion, Valentinus and Basilides) promoted a message that was "subversive" and "radically different from the Apostolic teaching" (Lacarriere, p. 46).
The radical and subversive nature of Gnosticism can best be appreciated when contrasted with the teachings of Scripture. The Bible reveals that an all-powerful God created the earth and the universe (Genesis 1:1). This magnificent creation was produced according to a well-thought-out plan (Psalm 139:14; Proverbs 8:22-31; Job 38). Everything God made was very good (Genesis 1:10, 18, 21). God created human beings in His own image (Genesis 1:27). Male and female were created as separate genders for the purpose of marrying and reproducing in a family context (Genesis 1:28, 2:22-25). Satan, in the form of a serpent (Ezekiel 28:13), deceived the first human beings by insinuating that God was a liar and was withholding valuable information from them (Genesis 3). Adam and Eve were banished from the garden paradise for disobedience. Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind, making it possible to be reconciled to God, receive the Holy Spirit, gain eternal life and participate in the future kingdom of God (John 3:16-17; Acts 2:38; Mark 1:14-15).
Gnostic teaching totally reverses nearly every detail of these biblical accounts! Gnostics taught that the real God is unknowable and incomprehensible. This world "is a stupendous mistake, created by a foolish or vicious creator-god" (Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, Godwin, 1981, p. 84). Humans are merely "fragments of the universe... sediment from a lost heaven" (Lacarriere, pp. 16, 19). This evil, incompetent god was self-conceived by Sophia (goddess of wisdom) and later seduced Eve, who then gave birth to Cain and Abel. The serpent was actually sent by the true God to teach wisdom to Adam and Eve before they were unmercifully expelled from the garden. This wicked god, the Jehovah of the Hebrew Scriptures, tricked people into worshiping him as the true God, and the Old Testament "is the story of his tyranny and egotism" (Ibid., p. 85). The villains of the Bible (Cain, Esau, the Sodomites, etc.) are regarded as heroes by Gnostics for standing up to this evil god!
In Gnostic belief, salvation is obtained not by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins and changing our life, but by learning secret knowledge. For Gnostics, knowledge comes from within oneself—not from revealed Scripture, yet the Bible says just the opposite (Proverbs 3:5; John 17:17)! For Gnostics, this world is evil; the body is the evil—a corrupt prison for the soul—from which one must seek to escape. Marriage and procreational sex are also seen as evils dreamed up by the wicked creator-god. The real hope, to Gnostics, is not to see the future kingdom of God, but to regain an imagined past, freed from the fetters of this world (spirit from matter, light from darkness) in a timeless and incorporeal Kingdom of Light. It is not hard to see why the ideas of Simon and his followers "flew in the face of the whole Apostolic doctrine and the teaching of Jesus" (Lacarriere, p. 47). Gnostics literally turn the Bible upside down!
Gnosticism is anti-Scripture, anti-God, anti-Law and anti-Christ—yet its proponents often claim to be the true Christians! Marcion, a highly intelligent man—and originally a member of a Christian community—wrote and traveled widely in the 2nd century promoting deceptive Gnostic ideas. His major work entitled Antithesis contains many ideas that subvert and reverse the meaning of Scripture. Marcion even produced a canon—a list of books that he felt should constitute the real Bible! Marcion, however, eliminated the whole Old Testament because he felt it was a record of Jehovah's "crimes against humanity" (Godwin, p. 85). He rejected three gospels (Matthew, Mark and John) because he felt they had been corrupted by Jewish influences and leaned too heavily on the Old Testament. He discarded six of Paul's epistles for the same reasons. Marcion apparently felt he was a better judge of Scripture than the Apostles and Jesus Christ!
Some of the most controversial teachings of the Gnostics had to do with the lifestyle they advocated. Marriage and procreational sex were scorned as the distractions of a wicked god. This led to drastic extremes! Certain teachers, such as Marcion and Valentinus, advocated asceticism (self-denial). They forbade marriage and taught that Gnostics should remain celibate. Initiates already married were told to abstain from sexual relations for life (After Jesus, Reader's Digest, 1992, p. 132). Since some Gnostics taught that Adam was created without gender, the ideal state one should aspire to is androgyny—where sexual identity is suppressed or eliminated. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas states, "when you make the male and female into one, so that the male is not male and the female is not female... then you shall enter the kingdom" (Unearthing the Lost Words of Jesus, Dart and Riegert, 1998, p. 54). Celibate asceticism—denying one's sexuality and abhorring marriage—was a way of achieving this androgynous ideal and becoming like the true God.
However, other Gnostic teachers advocated just the opposite! Simon Magus appears to have rejected marriage and promoted free love! Gnostics saw laws given by an evil creator-god as restrictive and inhibiting. They taught the "practice of free love must be the means of bursting out of the social straight jacket specifically invented to stifle its [love's] liberating spontaneity... in the promiscuity of men and women lies the true communion" (Lacarriere, p. 51). Some Gnostic sects participated in orgiastic rites of almost indescribable perversion. The idea was that to extirpate evil, it must be practiced until it is exhausted! This stood in marked contrast to the biblical admonitions to "flee sexual immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18-20) and avoid all forms of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
One might expect that such extreme ideas would have vanished from the Christian community, especially after being labeled as heresy by the early Church. Yet, despite considerable opposition by Church leaders, "this unusual religion was to have a lasting impact on Christianity" ("After Jesus," p. 131). Gnosticism was the bridge over which pagan ascetic practices such as celibacy crossed into Christianity. The Gnostic idea that faith needed to be supplemented by philosophy (The Early Church, Chadwick, 1993, p. 74) appears in church doctrines based upon the Bible and tradition! The idea that the kingdom of God is "within you," instead of being a definite future event, is a Gnostic twist of Scripture that still influences the belief of many Christians today (compare Luke 17:21; Acts 1:6; Matthew 19:28).
Gnosticism taught that the true God is unknown, unknowable and non-corporeal (without a body). This contrasts sharply with the God of Scripture (see Jones, pp. 168-169, also Exodus 33:17-23; Revelation 1:13-17; 4:1-3). These ideas about God, which originate from Greek philosophy, have influenced Christian thinkers from Augustine (a former Gnostic) and Aquinas to many modern theologians (see The Openness of God, Pinnock, 1994, chap. 2). The ultimate goal of Gnosticism—to be freed from the fetters of this world (spirit from matter, light from darkness) and to return to a Kingdom of Light—is remarkably similar to the belief about going to heaven to behold the beatific vision (look on God) for all eternity. This differs dramatically from biblical promises that the saints will rule with Christ when the kingdom of God is restored to this earth (Daniel 2:44; 7:27; Revelation 5:10; 11:15-18).
Scholars now recognize that when Marcion eliminated entire books of Scripture based on his own reasoning, he was "using historical and critical methods basically similar to those of modern scriptural scholars" (Johnson, p. 46). Marcion's attempt to call into question the inspiration of Scripture by listing supposed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments finds ready listeners today—even among professing Christians! For Gnostics, Bible prophecy was myth or allegory without literal historical meaning—a view that also finds supporters in modern mainstream Christianity (see Chadwick, p. 37).
The parallels between ancient Gnostic ideas and modern Christian theology are not accidental. Today we are witnessing "an orchestrated attempt in Christian liberal circles" to present Gnostic writings "as a valid, alternate, even superior expression of early Christianity" (Jones, p. viii). Modern radical scholars are attempting to rehabilitate Gnostic texts and are even suggesting that such writings—clearly labeled as heretical in the early centuries of the Church—be added to the New Testament canon! But why is there such an interest in Gnosticism on the part of liberal theologians?
The reason is simply that ideas promoted by the Gnostics in the first and second centuries are very popular today! Gnosticism was a theology of liberation—promoting unlimited human freedom! Gnostic teachers wanted an "adult Christianity" that was "liberated from the everlasting references to Genesis and the Mosaic commandments" (Lacarreire, p. 103). Their goal was to break the "mooring ropes" that tied human conduct to the Bible. Sound familiar? For many Gnostics, "total insubordination was lauded as the road to liberation" (Ibid., p. 74). Their practice of communal sex, attempts to gain a state of spiritual ecstasy, refusal to work, desiring to live as philosophical vagabonds, would blend easily with the hippies of the 1960s. Former rock star John Lennon once commented "It seems to me that the only true Christians were the Gnostics" (Jones, p. ix).
But that is not all! Gnostic texts "are employed [by liberals] to justify women's ordination, the goddess character of the Holy Spirit, the moral appropriateness of abortion, the feminist re-interpretation of culture, and much more" (Jones, p. 90). These common interests reveal why New Testament scholar Peter Jones asserts, "Gnosticism was the earliest expression of 'Christian' liberalism" and that "modern liberals only imitate their long-lost cousins, the Gnostics" (p. 64).
Many professing Christians do not seem to realize that their progressive ideas are rooted in this ancient heresy!
As the 21st century dawns, several powerful social movements are reviving Gnostic ideas. Peter Jones states "feminist thinkers have discovered the revolutionary character of Gnosticism as it applies to gender and patriarchal civilization" and that "an egalitarian, non-patriarchal vision constitutes the agenda of cutting-edge theology, sociology, and global politics in the West. Gnosticism and feminism are a match made in heaven" (Jones, p. 162). He quotes a feminist who states, "Gnosticism is becoming a powerful influence in feminist research into the overthrow of the male in the divine" (Ibid.).
Feminists want to change Western society, and they realize that "to change the civilization built on the Bible, you must change the Bible" (Jones, p. 81). This is why liberals and radical feminist theologians want to include Gnostic texts as an authentic view of early Christian teaching—equal with the Bible! Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether asserts, "Feminist theology must create a new textual base, a new canon... Feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible" (Ibid., p. 82). Asian feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung has stated, "feminists are free to use the ancient Gnostic texts, originally rejected as heretical, because the Christian canon was created by men" and that "women are not obliged to accept a book... they had no part in framing" (Ibid., p. 88). Feminists view the orthodox Bible as a tool "for social control through the patriarchal suppression of women" (Ibid.). They like the Gnostic Gospel of Mary because it places Mary Magdalene at the foundation of Christ's church, rather than the Apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:19-20; Matthew 16:18; Galatians 1:17-19). Women took unprecedented leadership roles in many early Gnostic sects (After Jesus, p. 131).
Today's radical feminist theologians have developed what they call a "ritual of exorcism" to expunge Bible verses that describe different roles for men and women, such as Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 (Jones, p. 82). Like the Gnostics, they use verses they like, and discard verses with which they disagree! Feminists create an androgynous deity by their support of sexually inclusive terms in new biblical translations. To understand the Bible, feminist theologians assert, "new rules will require feminist interpreters to assume that Scripture is not the word of God... is not a container of revelation" and to "correct as we read" (Ibid., p. 120). In other words, everything in the Bible "must be re-interpreted by feminist interpreters" which is just what the Gnostics did (Ibid.).
Many Christians today simply do not grasp the real intent of feminist theology. Radical feminist Naomi Goldberg has stated, "the feminist movement in Western culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Jehovah. Yet very few of the women and men now working for sexual equality within Christianity and Judaism realize the extent of their heresy" (Ibid., p. 195). She blames "God the Father of Judeo-Christian Scripture as the architect of the patriarchal society" and states that "like patriarchy, this God will have to go" (Ibid., p. 180). Patriarchy refers to the authority of the father. In her words, "We women are going to bring an end to God" (Ibid.). This would include rejecting His laws found in the Bible—which was also the Gnostic mission! Goldberg has predicted, "when feminists succeed in changing the position of women in Christianity and Judaism, they will shake these religions at their roots" (Ibid., p. 181). Remarkably, very few theologians acknowledge that Bible prophecy reveals women will push to dominate society as the end of the age nears (Isaiah 3:12).
In light of such brazen comments, Peter Jones observes, "Christians must realize that the religious feminist movement carries with it a frontal assault on the normativity of creational heterosexuality and, beyond that, on God Himself as the Creator" (Ibid., p. 196). This, in essence, was also the Gnostic agenda—to denigrate the creation, its laws and its Creator! Catholic educator Leon Podles senses the significance of this assault when he writes, "feminism may be as much of a challenge to Christianity as was Gnosticism (to which it bears a strong resemblance) (The Church Impotent—The Feminization of Christianity, 1999, p. 139).
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has an even larger radical agenda! Spong made headlines a decade ago when he ordained a homosexual priest. The radical bishop has asserted, "Feminism and homosexuality lie at the heart and soul of what the Gospel is all about" (Jones, p. 192). Spong feels "the church should bless and encourage same sex marriages" (The Arizona Daily Star, Sept. 25, 1999). Spong would agree with radical feminist theologians—and Gnostics—that "the Bible is full of rhetoric and concepts we do not and can not believe" (Ibid.) such as guidelines for sex role differentiation and prohibitions against homosexuality. He also echoes sentiments of early Gnostics who wanted an adult Christianity when he asserts, "I'm anxious to open Christianity so it can be everything it can be... a more enlightened Christianity" (Ibid.). Spong is simply advocating the same goal as the Gnostics—the destruction of biblical Christianity!
Today the Christian view of sex and gender roles is under attack. Liberals say biblical guidelines limit human freedom—but the real reason for this attack goes much deeper. Jones quotes a common lesbian assertion that "compulsory [biblical] heterosexuality is the very backbone that holds patriarchy together," that homosexuality will break that backbone and that "lesbian, bisexual and gay issues... are wedges driven into the superstructure of the heteropatriarchal system" (Ibid., p. 179). The real goal of homosexuals, radical feminists and liberal progressives is to change the way Western society operates by eliminating its biblical foundation! Their tool is the Gnostic tool of sexual liberation!
The modern return of Gnosticism—a belief system that rejects both God and His laws—is no coincidence. It was actually prophesied! The Bible warns that the end of the age would be marked by lawlessness (Matthew 24:11-12) and that it would be related to a movement that was "already at work" in the days of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8). The early Gnostics were major antagonists of the Apostles and, just as liberals today, they preached a very deceptive message. This is why Paul warned the Galatians against believing a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), and why he instructed Timothy to "guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge [gnosis]" (1 Timothy 6:20).
Gnostic ideas are the product of intelligent yet profoundly misguided minds. Gnosticism—ancient or modern—is a dangerous deception. Social movements built on these perverted ideas will lead to disaster. Societies that reject moral guidelines in favor of unfettered human desires are headed for trouble! The God of the Bible thunders: "Because you have rejected [My] knowledge, I also will reject you... Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children" (Hosea 4:6). The revival and embrace of Gnostic ideas by liberal professing Christians is a case of history repeating itself. To remain ignorant of the past is to risk being deceived by a different gospel. Do not be deceived! Open your eyes! Believe the real word of God and the message of true Apostolic Christianity!