Christian Gnosticism

Before I can discuss DBT, therapy, or even making any sort of forward progress in a healing environment, I feel it’s very important to stop and discuss something that can get in the way of our ability to recovery–Gnosticism.  What is Gnosticism?

“Gnosticism (from gnostikos, “learned”, from Ancient Greek: γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) is an ancient religion that holds that the material world created by the demiurge should be shunned and the spiritual world should be embraced. Gnostic ideas influenced many ancient religions[1] which teach that gnosis (variously interpreted as knowledge, enlightenmentsalvationemancipation or‘oneness with God’) may be reached by practicing philanthropy to the point of personal povertysexual abstinence (as far as possible for hearers, completely for initiates) and diligently searching for wisdom by helping others.[2] However, practices varied among those who were Gnostic.

In Gnosticism, the world of the demiurge is represented by the lower world which is associated with matter, flesh, time and more particularly an imperfect, ephemeral world. The world of God is represented by the upper world, and is associated with the soul and perfection. The world of God is eternal and not part of the physical. It is impalpable, and time doesn’t exist there. To rise to God, the Gnostic must reach the “knowledge” which mixes philosophymetaphysics, curiosity, culture, knowledge, and the secrets of history and the universe.” (online source)

How has Christianity defined Gnosticism? Within the contexts of Gnostic teaching arose Docetism.  Docetism is broadly defined as “the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his physical body was a phantasm.” (online source)  In other words, a dualism, which promoted a clear separation between the material and spiritual world, was founded upon Greek philosophy (Gnosticism) that taught that matter was evil and the Spirit was good.  The Gnostics supposedly had knowledge of God that was exclusive. They considered themselves superior to the average Christian. The Gnostics prior to Christianity taught that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit. The body and the soul are man’s earthly existence and were considered evil. Enclosed in man’s soul is the spirit, a divine substance of man. This “spirit” was asleep, ignorant, and needed to be awakened. It could only be liberated by this special knowledge that would be called by the modern term “illumination”.  This teaching is also found in Kabbalah.  (online source)

What does Gnosticism and Docetism have to to do with us? Everything.  The sacred/secular dichotomy that possesses the modern Church today comes directly from Neo-Platonic Hellenistic philosophy and Gnosticism.  What does this look like?

I.  Lifestyle judgments

Because Gnosticism and, hence, Docetism have permeated the modern Church so fully there is a common view today that to grow in personal holiness one must stay on the correct side of the sacred/secular dichotomy.  According to Gnostic teaching, the spiritual or sacred realm is what is valued and, therefore, to please God one must dedicate one’s time to serving in this arena.  Spending time in the physical or secular realm is of less value because, according to Gnostic teaching, the secular realm is of little value.  If we consider Docetism, the secular or physical realm is even evil and should be shunned altogether.  This is where the view that being a missionary or a church leader is more pleasing to God than being a teacher, an interior designer, or a construction worker.  Cooking dinner for your family or your boyfriend is okay, but cooking dinner for your congregation for a Lenten supper is far superior and valuable in God’s eyes because you are able to cultivate holiness.  One activity or job is viewed as secular.  One is viewed as sacred.  This is the source of questions like: Do you listen to secular music? Do you watch R-rated movies? Do you attend secular events like the Renaissance Festival? People are judging lifestyle choices through a sacred/secular filter that is entirely based in Gnosticism.  They believe that this is biblical, but it is far from it.  Jesus was a carpenter.  How could He have been the embodiment of the living God and yet a blue-collar worker at the same time?

II.  Shunning Sinners

Many well-meaning Christians believe that it is pleasing to God to shun “sinners” and solely befriend other Christians because it is more spiritual to do so simply because their personal holiness is determined by their proximity to “sinners”.  Once again, we see the sacred/secular dichotomy at work here except that it is the act of judging people to determine who fits the bill.  Who can we judge as more spiritual and worthy of being called “holy”, and who can we judge as secular, thus, diminishing our own personal holiness? We need to look at Jesus here.  He did not shun “sinners”.  He was known for spending a great deal of time with tax collectors, prostitutes, alcoholics, and the like.  Clearly, his personal holiness was not in any way diminished by the company he kept. (online source)

III.  Fear of and Withdrawal from Society

When people believe that something is inherently inferior and even possibly evil, the natural response to it will be fear and disdain.  The next response will be to want to avoid it.  Fear of the modern world is not, however, a biblical view.  Withdrawing from society is certainly not an option for Christians.  We need what society has to offer us, and society needs us.  We are supposed to be representing the most powerful Being in the universe.  We are the bearers of His image and favor.  Actually, since we are supposed to be in a dynamic, personal relationship with this loving, merciful, compassionate, omnipotent Being, I would think that Christians would be the most cheerful people on the planet! There’s a reason Jesus attracted so many hopeless and downtrodden people.  Can you imagine what He must have been like? When a person asks a Christian what Jesus is like, our response should be: “Like me.  Only a thousand times better.”  That’s our standard.  We ought to radiate positivity, kindness, love, empathy, strength, fortitude, humility, and clear thinking.  Judgment, negativity, wrath, rage, anger, frustration, cynicism, and despair have no place in us; but if we are caught up in Gnostic thought, then it’s very hard to give up feeling double-minded about ourselves and God.

This Hellenistic philosophy has been with the Church since New Testament times.  “Writers of the New Testament (the apostles) condemned the Gnostic teachings. There are numerous epistles that address this ancient heresy that is now having a revival. Paul emphasized a wisdom and knowledge that comes from God and does not concern itself with idle speculations, angelic visitations, fables, and an amoral lifestyle (Col. 2:8-23; 1 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; Titus 1:10-16). Paul addresses the Gnostic influences in portions of Colossians as a direct threat to Christ being our salvation and His being sufficient in all things. To overcome the indulgences of the flesh (the “Colossian Heresy” ) the Gnostics taught a false philosophy, which denied the all-sufficiency and pre-eminence of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:8). When he wrote that “in him dwells All the fullness of the deity bodily” it was a rebuttal against the Gnostics.” (online source)

How does this relate to DBT, therapy, and recovery? For many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, there is a fear of dealing with mental health issues.  For agnostics and atheists, this fear may be due to the prevalent social stigma that is still attached to mental health issues.  I was watching “Law and Order:SVU” just last night, and a character with Bipolar Disorder was called “crazy”.  He needed treatment in the form of inpatient admission at a hospital for medication adjustment, and the characters on the show described his situation as being sent to “the nut house”.  This language is judgmental and stigmatizing, and it’s everywhere.  For people who suffer with diagnosed mental health issues, it’s alienating, hurtful, and degrading.  Believe it or not, it’s all based in Gnostic belief.


When there is a belief that the spirit is superior and the body is inferior and potentially evil, what do you suppose people will believe about others with mental illness? Translating this to post-modern terms after the Enlightenment brought forth rationalism and, thus, intellectualism, how do you think people will view those who cannot think clearly when the mind and intellectual acuity are viewed as superior? There is a stigma.  Those with any kind of mental instability or illness no matter how temporary are almost always alienated and judged.  The underlying judgment within intellectual circles tends to be less harsh if the suffering person can still produce intellectual property.  Consider John Nash.  How many mentally ill individuals are producing magnificent work in the academy but are being labeled “eccentric” instead simply because they produce?

Within Christian circles, however, the trend is to believe that one’s spiritual holiness is compromised if one’s physical body is ill particularly if there is mental illness present.  When there is mental illness present, there is often a paralyzing fear to seek professional help.  Why? Social stigma aside, seeking professional help means that one is now in close proximity with the secular world, thus, compromising one’s personal holiness.  Oftentimes, Christians will go to Christian counselors many of whom can be good but not properly trained for deep trauma and psychiatric problems that require pharmaceutical supports–even if it’s triage care.  This belief in the sinfulness or evil in seeking “secular” care can be so far-reaching that people will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it.  I was once told that I was sinning against God for having a surgery that would prevent me from hemorrhaging.  I was told to pray and fast, and if God wanted to save my life, then He would.  It was sinful for me to seek the help of doctors.  That is Gnosticism in action.  That is NOT, NOT, NOT biblical.

What does Gnosticism look like today?

  • “You’re having a bad day? Crying all the time? Can’t get out of bed? Aaaw, well, you just need to worship more.”
  • “What do you mean your son’s pediatrician thinks he has Autism.  I think that maybe we should all just pray more for him.  He doesn’t need Early Intervention.”
  • “Don’t go to a psychiatrist.  They’re all quacks.  You don’t need medications! Just eat more fish.  Oh, and I just read a great Christian book on things we can do to be more pleasing to God.  You know, I really think that depression is about not being faithful.  Come to our Bible study, and we’ll pray for you.  I’ve read studies on antidepressants.  Don’t they make you want to kill yourself?”
  • “We are all going to pray for your daughter’s schizophrenia.  God will heal her, and she’ll never need any medication again! I really think she got schizophrenia because you just don’t have enough faith.  I think you need to try to believe more.”
  • “We don’t believe in doctors.  If God wanted us to be healed, then He would heal us.”
  • “Your mania is just a product of not taking your thoughts captive to Christ.  You have not been reading your Bible.  Take every thought captive, and you will be freed of your mania.”
  • “Sex is an inferior form of worship.  It is only intended for procreation.  We need to ignore the impulses of the flesh.  The body is only our shell, and our spirit is what we must focus on.  Sex is sinful and it comes from a sin nature.”
  • “To be holy is to be set apart.  You cannot please God unless you are holy.  How do you want to be found upon the return of the Christ? In a movie theatre watching films belonging to our modern-day Babylon? Bowling and playing games next to sinners? Drinking and having sex? At your job, working to earn money that really belongs to the world system marked by The Beast? Or here, in church, with other holy people? Be holy and please God.”

I don’t know if it’s possible to eradicate from society the stigma attached to mental health issues completely, but who do you think should be at the helm of this movement? Who should be proclaiming the opposite message of Gnosticism? Humans are holistic creatures.  Our minds, souls, spirits, and bodies are interconnected.  There is nothing evil about one part of us.  If that were the case, then Jesus would have had no reason to resurrect.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead? Why heal anyone? Why would God even go to the trouble of making a physical world at all if the entirety of the physical universe is evil? Why redeem it through the work of Jesus if the cosmos and all of humanity is inferior? In Genesis 1:31, it is written, “Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.”  The Hebrew word “כֹּל” is used to designate “all”, and it means “everything” as in every single thing, through and through, in a progressive sense, as in the act of continual creation over time.  There is nothing intrinsically evil or bad about any part of a person.  Our bodies are not inferior to our spirits.  There is no such thing as a sacred pursuit vs. a secular pursuit.  God created time.  How can anything be secular? This is Hellenistic philosophy, and anyone is free to believe that there is a sacred/secular dichotomy.  Except Christians.

Christians are to reframe everything.  Going to the movies with friends is sacred.  Going to work is sacred.  Making dinner, mowing your lawn, getting a haircut, making love, doing your taxes, picking your teeth, reading a book, serving the homeless, singing songs at the top of your lungs in your car, seeing a doctor about your headaches, visiting your therapist, talking to your fishmonger, doing DBT, and even going to the bathroom are all sacred activities.  Why? “May the LORD bless you and keep you.  May He make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.  May He lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24)  This is one of the many biblical blessings that we live under.  We are good according to God through and through, and we are blessed to live under the gracious keeping of God wherever we go.  Our time and space in the world is kept and redeemed and smiled upon, therefore, it is sacred.

We are, therefore, free to pursue that which will benefit us and those around us, and the scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs that benefit humanity at large are all a part of living under the blessings and favor of God.  Because, according to John 3:17, the world is reconciled, everyone lives under this favor and blessing.  We need never fear again to be among anyone.  Our personal holiness was determined by Jesus and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension; never our performance.  Gnosticism must be recognized, renounced, and eradicated so that all of us are finally free to pursue health, wholeness, and peace knowing that this very purpose is part of our God-given destiny and in line with Jesus’ declaration:

“The Spirit of the Lord is with me. He has anointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce forgiveness to the prisoners of sin and the restoring of sight to the blind, to forgive those who have been shattered by sin, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4:18-19


2 Comments on “Christian Gnosticism

  1. Pingback: Distress Tolerance and Radical Acceptance | Out of the Mire

  2. Pingback: The Religious Spirit | Out of the Mire

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