Article ID: DG040-1 | By: Douglas Groothuis
The following is an excerpt from article DG040-1 of the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.
Gnostic Jesus- JESUS AND GNOSIS
Unlike the canonical gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are not narrated and neither do any of the hundred and fourteen sayings in the Gospel of Thomas directly refer to these events. Thomas’s Jesus is a dispenser of wisdom, not the crucified and resurrected Lord. Jesus speaks of the kingdom: “The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”12 Other Gnostic documents center on the same theme. In the Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus speaks “secret words” concerning self-knowledge: “For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge of the depth of the all.”13 Pagels observes that many of the Gnostics “shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques.”14 This includes the premises that, first, many people are unconscious of their true condition and, second, “that the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction.”15 Gilles Quispel notes that for Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher of the second century, Christ is “the Paraclete from the Unknown who reveals…the discovery of the Self — the divine spark within you.”16 The heart of the human problem for the Gnostic is ignorance, sometimes called “sleep,” “intoxication,” or “blindness.” But Jesus redeems man from such ignorance. Stephan Hoeller says that in the Valentinian system “there is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a need for a blind belief in vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus.”17 Rather, Jesus is savior in the sense of being a “spiritual maker of wholeness” who cures us of our sickness of ignorance.18
Gnostic Jesus- Gnosticism on Crucifixion and Resurrection
Those Gnostic texts that discuss Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection display a variety of views that, nevertheless, reveal some common themes. James is consoled by Jesus in the First Apocalypse of James: “Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm.”19 In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says, “I did not die in reality, but in appearance.” Those “in error and blindness….saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all….And I was laughing at their ignorance.”20 John Dart has discerned that the Gnostic stories of Jesus mocking his executors reverse the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where the soldiers and chief priests (Mark 15:20) mock Jesus.21 In the biblical Gospels, Jesus does not deride or mock His tormentors; on the contrary, while suffering from the cross, He asks the Father to forgive those who nailed Him there. In the teaching of Valentinus and followers, the death of Jesus is movingly recounted, yet without the New Testament significance. Although the Gospel of Truth says that “his death is life for many,” it views this life-giving in terms of imparting the gnosis, not removing sin.22 Pagels says that rather than viewing Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering to atone for guilt and sin, the Gospel of Truth “sees the crucifixion as the occasion for discovering the divine self within.”23 A resurrection is enthusiastically affirmed in the Treatise on the Resurrection: “Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion rather than the resurrection.”24 Yet, the nature of the post-resurrection appearances differs from the biblical accounts. Jesus is disclosed through spiritual visions rather than physical circumstances. The resurrected Jesus for the Gnostics is the spiritual Revealer who imparts secret wisdom to the selected few. The tone and content of Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances is a great distance from Gnostic accounts: “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). By now it should be apparent that the biblical Jesus has little in common with the Gnostic Jesus. He is viewed as a Redeemer in both cases, yet his nature as a Redeemer and the way of redemption diverge at crucial points. We shall now examine some of these points.
Gnostic Jesus- DID CHRIST REALLY SUFFER AND DIE?
As in much modern New Age teaching, the Gnostics tended to divide Jesus from the Christ. For Valentinus, Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and left before his death on the cross. Much of the burden of the treatise Against Heresies, written by the early Christian theologian Irenaeus, was to affirm that Jesus was, is, and always will be, the Christ. He says: “The Gospel…knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again.”25 Irenaeus goes on to quote John’s affirmation that “Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31) against the notion that Jesus and Christ were “formed of two different substances,” as the Gnostics taught.26 In dealing with the idea that Christ did not suffer on the cross for sin, Irenaeus argues that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact was not to suffer on it Himself, but fly away from it.27 For Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John), the suffering of Jesus the Christ was paramount. It was indispensable to the apostolic “rule of faith” that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross to bring salvation to His people. In Irenaeus’s mind, there was no divine spark in the human heart to rekindle; self-knowledge was not equal to God-knowledge. Rather, humans were stuck in sin and required a radical rescue operation. Because “it was not possible that the man…who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself,” the Son brought salvation by “descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation.”28 This harmonizes with the words of Polycarp: “Let us then continually persevere in our hope and the earnest of our righteousness, which Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree” [1 Pet. 2:24], “who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” [1 Pet. 2:22], but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him.”29 Polycarp’s mentor, the apostle John, said: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16); and “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10). The Gnostic Jesus is predominantly a dispenser of cosmic wisdom who discourses on abstruse themes like the spirit’s fall into matter. Jesus Christ certainly taught theology, but he dealt with the problem of pain and suffering in a far different way. He suffered for us, rather than escaping the cross or lecturing on the vanity of the body.
Gnostic Jesus- THE MATTER OF THE RESURRECTION
For Gnosticism, the inherent problem of humanity derives from the misuse of power by the ignorant creator and the resulting entrapment of souls in matter. The Gnostic Jesus alerts us to this and helps rekindle the divine spark within. In the biblical teaching, the problem is ethical; humans have sinned against a good Creator and are guilty before the throne of the universe. For Gnosticism, the world is bad, but the soul — when freed from its entrapments — is good. For Christianity, the world was created good (Gen. 1), but humans have fallen from innocence and purity through disobedience (Gen. 3; Rom. 3). Yet, the message of the gospel is that the One who can rightly prosecute His creatures as guilty and worthy of punishment has deigned to visit them in the person of His only Son — not just to write up a firsthand damage report, but to rectify the situation through the Cross and the Resurrection. In light of these differences, the significance of Jesus’ literal and physical resurrection should be clear. For the Gnostic who abhors matter and seeks release from its grim grip, the physical resurrection of Jesus would be anticlimactic, if not absurd. A material resurrection would be counterproductive and only recapitulate the original problem. Jesus displays a positive attitude toward the Creation throughout the Gospels. In telling His followers not to worry He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt. 2:26). And, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Matt. 10:29). These and many other examples presuppose the goodness of the material world and declare care by a benevolent Creator. Gnostic dualism is precluded. If Jesus recommends fasting and physical self-denial on occasion, it is not because matter is unworthy of attention or an incorrigible roadblock to spiritual growth, but because moral and spiritual resolve may be strengthened through periodic abstinence (Matt. 6:16-18; 9:14-15). Jesus fasts in the desert and feasts with His disciples. The created world is good, but the human heart is corrupt and inclines to selfishly misuse a good creation. Therefore, it is sometimes wise to deny what is good without in order to inspect and mortify what is bad within. If Jesus is the Christ who comes to restore God’s creation, He must come as one of its own, a bona fide man. Although Gnostic teachings show some diversity on this subject, they tend toward docetism — the doctrine that the descent of the Christ was spiritual and not material, despite any appearance of materiality. It was even claimed that Jesus left no footprints behind him when he walked on the sand. From a biblical view, materiality is not the problem, but disharmony with the Maker. Adam and Eve were both material and in harmony with their good Maker before they succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation. Yet, in biblical reasoning, if Jesus is to conquer sin and death for humanity, He must rise from the dead in a physical body, albeit a transformed one. A mere spiritual apparition would mean an abdication of material responsibility. As Norman Geisler has noted, “Humans sin and die in material bodies and they must be redeemed in the same physical bodies. Any other kind of deliverance would be an admission of defeat….If redemption does not restore God’s physical creation, including our material bodies, then God’s original purpose in creating a material world would be frustrated.”30 For this reason, at Pentecost the apostle Peter preached Jesus of Nazareth as “a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22) who, though put to death by being nailed to the cross, “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (v. 24). Peter then quotes Psalm 16:10 which speaks of God not letting His “Holy One see decay” (v. 27). Peter says of David, the psalm’s author, “Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God raised Jesus to life” (vv. 31, 32). The apostle Paul confesses that if the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact, Christianity is a vanity of vanities (1 Cor. 15:14-19). And, while he speaks of Jesus’ (and the believers’) resurrected condition as a “spiritual body,” this does not mean nonphysical or ethereal; rather, it refers to a body totally free from the results of sin and the Fall. It is a spirit-driven body, untouched by any of the entropies of evil. Because Jesus was resurrected bodily, those who know Him as Lord can anticipate their own resurrected bodies.
Gnostic Jesus- JESUS, JUDAISM, AND GNOSIS
The Gnostic Jesus is also divided from the Jesus of the Gospels over his relationship to Judaism. For Gnostics, the God of the Old Testament is somewhat of a cosmic clown, neither ultimate nor good. In fact, many Gnostic documents invert the meaning of Old Testament stories in order to ridicule him. For instance, the serpent and Eve are heroic figures who oppose the dull deity in the Hypostasis of the Archons (the Reality of the Rulers) and in On the Origin of the World.31 In the Apocryphon of John, Jesus says he encouraged Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,32 thus putting Jesus diametrically at odds with the meaning of the Genesis account where this action is seen as the essence of sin (Gen. 3). The same anti-Jewish element is found in the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas where the disciples say to Jesus, “Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of them spoke in you.” To which Jesus replies, “You have omitted the one living in your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead.”33 Jesus thus dismisses all the prophets as merely “dead.” For the Gnostics, the Creator must be separated from the Redeemer. The Jesus found in the New Testament quotes the prophets, claims to fulfill their prophecies, and consistently argues according to the Old Testament revelation, despite the fact that He exudes an authority equal to it. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). He corrects the Sadducees’ misunderstanding of the afterlife by saying, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures…” (Mark 12:24). To other critics He again appeals to the Old Testament: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). When Jesus appeared after His death and burial to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He commented on their slowness of heart “to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” He asked, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter into glory?” Luke then records, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). For both Jesus and the Old Testament, the supreme Creator is the Father of all living. They are one and the same.
This article is an excerpt from article DG040-1 from the Christian Research Journal. To view the full article, please click here.