When Gnostics go to church
This was originally posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship. Gnosticism was at the heart of much of the New Testament writers’ objections. At its root, Gnosticism argued that the material world was bad, and the spiritual world, or realm, was good. The majority of Gnostics, then, practiced a mix of asceticism and even philanthropy as they tried to divest themselves of material goods in an attempt to pursue knowledge through the spiritual world. The New Testament writers wrote in detail about the danger of Gnosticism, and we consistently affirm their objections, but when it comes to the underlying theology in Gnostic thought, I wonder if the church isn’t guilty of embracing its premise?
Since I was a small child, I have been taught that our time here on earth was limited. All of history points to the return of Jesus Christ when he would call his children home to his eternal kingdom. Earth, then, is a temporary holding place—a place for us to live in such a way so we honor God, but a temporary home, none-the-less. Popular songs have been written for decades now celebrating this truth. The chorus of the old Southern Gospel song, “The Old Gospel Ship” seems to embrace that philosophy.
I'm a gonna take a trip In the good old gospel ship I'm goin' far beyond the sky I'm a gonna shout and sing Until all the Heavens ring When I bid this old world goodbye
I’m not trying to pick on music and musicians, but the church has been celebrating both the badness of this world and the goodness of some other, better, world for a long time now. We like the spiritual world off in the distance, and we diminish, or even discredit, this world - this physical world. Fundamentally, though, when I look at scripture I see a couple of things pointing to this being a thoroughly Gnostic—and thoroughly non-Christian—approach.
First, any theology viewing this world as bad and abandoned by God, conflicts with Scripture’s testimony that the world was created before the existence of sin. God declared of his created world, “It is good.” The created world is God’s good plan intended for our good and his glory. When we dismiss this world as temporary, we do violence to the biblical text. Scripture teaches God’s plan involved this good creation from the beginning.
Secondly, viewing the world as inherently bad and soon to be destroyed or abandoned is to ignore Romans 8 and its thoughts about God’s future plans for his creation.
Romans 8:19-21, For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children.
Note creation itself is groaning for Christ’s return because it will be set free into the same kind of freedom that God’s children will experience. The point of the text is God moves toward the resurrection/restoration of his creation, in the same way he moves towards the resurrection/restoration of his children. When we treat this world as if it’s temporary we treat it in a way God himself doesn’t treat it.
I hear one primary objection to this. Some might say that scripture indicates God will “burn up” the earth, as some translations describe it (see 2 Peter 3:10). However, seeing this text in context, we understand this burning not as destructive, but cleansing. 2 Peter 3:6 tells us that this burning was foreshadowed in the flood of Noah, so indicates God’s use of fire to purify his creation—ultimately leading to its resurrection/restoration.
In light of all this, what are we to make of it, and why does it matter?
First, in light of God’s work to restore this world, we would do well to treat it as if it’s not just our temporary home. God is working to resurrect not only his people, but all of his created order. Secret agents that sneak into a country, accomplish their mission, and then get snatched up by a black helicopter to take them home makes for a great action movie, but for a bad gospel story. Let’s embrace the world around us as part of God’s good plan for his people.
Second, our behavior in this world, in this life, should model and foreshadow God’s work of ultimate resurrection/restoration. As current residents of the kingdom of God, whose allegiance lies with King Jesus, we are called to live now as we will live then—when his kingdom has been fully culminated. We are called to work in such a way so we model his work of restoration. This is why, for instance, creation care is a deeply biblical concept.
Finally, let’s be cautious of embracing any theology that encourages us to escape the world, rather than embrace it, love it, and work to see God’s order restored in and among it. As God reminded the Jewish exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, our call is seek the good of our culture, not to isolate ourselves from it, or try to escape what’s around us. Instead, let’s recognize God has placed us here, in this place and at this time, to declare and display his gospel, working to bring his blessing—his shalom—to the places we call home, modeling in this time and place the ultimate restoration he will fully bring about in the day of his return.