I’m a secret gnostic.
Gnosticism is one of the earliest heresies in Christendom, so I do not confess this lightly (delight in puns notwithstanding). However, here are the two main tennets of Gnosticism that I find the most tempting: 1) that there is a physical/spiritual divide; and 2) the supposed secret knowledge gained from valuing the spiritual above the physical. As is the case with besetting sins, the more that Gnosticism haunts me, the louder I preach the importance of rejecting it, of instead embracing our embodied Christ, as a people who love the Lord our God with all our “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30). Sometimes I am adamant about rejecting Gnosticism because I am ignoring the log in my own eye to point out the speck in others’ eyes. But at my healthiest, I find that I am most often preaching to myself so as to ensure that I will listen.
Though it has ancient roots, Gnosticism—and the secular/sacred divide that flows from it—must be addressed today; its early and continual appearance proves the urgency for each generation of believers to wrestle with gnostic ideals slipping into our thinking. Gnosticism is damaging to our modern-day faith, perhaps all the more because of its ability to hide in plain sight. We know that God is spirit and (to our feeble eyes) invisible. There is indeed a difference between that which is physical and that which is spiritual. Yet Satan cleverly distorts this neutral truth from a description of what merely is to a lie of what he says should be. In a day and age when we can heal and sanitize (and thus distance) much of our bodies, we tend to hope in a disembodied future, whether we realize it or not. We often reject the glorious truth that God created us, body and soul.
And when we accept the false notion that we are mere ethereal beings, we lose sight of the gospel truth that Christ was fully human and fully divine. In so doing, we attempt to divorce that which cannot be torn asunder: God himself, revealed to us in the indivisible person of Jesus. The sacrificial lamb had to be a physical sacrifice on an earthly altar to be able to fulfill our spiritual obligations of the heavenly temple. And He is the Son, “very God of very God,”1 who sits even now at the right hand of the Father. He exists in time and space and ever intercedes for us. Yet we tend to assume that the spiritual reality is the less weighty one, that it is a mere vapor compared to the reality we see around us—not so! In Colossians 2:17, it relates how the things of this earth are a “shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.”2 The embodied, risen Christ is our hope, not because he is floating in the air somewhere, but because he showcases the promise of our future resurrected bodies. Honoring the “one person, two natures” reality of the Christ, leads to embracing the inextricable reality of the loving Holy Trinity—he is Transcendent Father, incarnate Son and indwelling Spirit. In contrast to the powerful unity of the Triune God, Gnosticism is an unholy triad of aloofness, secrecy, and impotence. These lies lead to much damage, both within and without the church.
Lest I be ironically gnostic in my assessment of the dangers of Gnosticism, the dangers of a secular/sacred divide exist not in mere mental spaces and heady theological debates. There is a real, physical cost when we allow ourselves to over-spiritualize everything. Gnosticism allows us to be lazy in our efforts to love our neighbors as ourselves. Luke relates in the tenth chapter of his gospel that the summation of the law is indeed that we love God “with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul and with all [our] strength and with all [our] mind, and [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (emphasis added). Loving God is the work of our body and mind together, and it is also not separate from loving those around us. The incarnate Christ is the very opposite of aloofness, condescending to dwell with us on this earthly plane. He affected real change as he walked the earth, and he will return in glory to make all things new.
Yes, Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 6 that we wrestle against “spiritual forces of evil,” not “flesh and blood,” but this does not mean that the spiritual battle has no connection to the physical world. Rather, these spiritual realities have an impact on us. Why else would Paul, at the beginning of chapter six, exhort children to honor their parents that they might “live long in the land?” Why would Paul insist that bondservants obey their earthly masters? If the spiritual is irrelevant to the physical, why would he ask for prayer for himself and the saints? Those of us in Christ are already in possession of our spiritual inheritance—namely, Jesus himself in the presence of the Holy Spirit. But as we continue to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling,”3 we continue to also have real, physical needs. Romans 12 does not say that we should offer our minds or souls “as a living sacrifice;” instead Paul calls for us to offer up our bodies, which then is our “spiritual worship.” The physical and the spiritual are inherently tied together for us created beings, and they both are important.
In our aloofness, we are so quick to take Biblical commands to care for embodied humans as a mere spiritual suggestion. We miss the image-bearing bodies in front of us as we scramble for secret, impressive, “spiritual” knowledge, which we assume exempts us from getting our hands dirty. We fancy ourselves a cut above the rest, worthy only of mental exercises which do not involve us in any messiness. And meanwhile, people—body and soul together—are wasting away. We like this gnostic secrecy because we can hide behind it, rhetorically asking, “What human can say what is truly going on in another’s head?” When we limit the Kingdom to the world of the spiritual, our supposed faithfulness can be showcased in mere words. We can wither in secret, but have the mirage of thriving, when we narrow the idea of health to a mental or spiritual one. But the answer to the previous question of someone’s inner state is answered, not with secret knowledge, but by physical reality. It is true that only God can ever really know the minds and hearts of humans, but the Bible explicitly shows the connection between what is seen and what is unseen.
In the next article of this two-part series, I will continue to discuss the connection between the seen and unseen, and I will go into more detail about how the external actions of our physical worlds should communicate the internal reality of who we are spiritually.