What if I was to tell you that many of the most popular atonement theories developed over the last two-thousand years of church history (especially those following the third century AD/CE), have been deeply influenced by a storyline that is foreign to the pages of the Bible? We might say that the real Story of Scripture has been hijacked, hidden and replaced. In other words, the story you may have learned in church is not even present within the books of the Bible.
Instead, we have been taught a “Biblical Story” that is a variation of Middle Platonism and early Christian Gnosticism with a semi-Christian twist. The storyline is this: God’s plan of salvation has to do with saving humanity from the material world and taking us far away to a spirit world called heaven where only immaterial life matters.
The lasting influence of Middle Platonism and 2nd century Christian Gnosticism in today’s Christian church in America and the west is profoundly deep. It’s been around for a while within the Christianity we’ve come to know and believe—even though its origins were outside of ancient Judaism and the early Jesus’ movement of first century Israel-Palestine. So, what do Middle Platonism and Christian Gnosticism have in common? —a preoccupation with escaping the material world, including the human body. 2nd Century Christian Gnosticism is really a later expression of Middle Platonism within the world of the Christian faith.
Second Century Christian Gnosticism
According to second century Christian Gnosticism, the entire material world is evil. The material world is of course the physical world, so it includes anything we can touch, see, hear, feel or taste. For Christian Gnostics, the material world is corrupted so badly that it is irredeemable and will ultimately be destroyed by God. The only things in life that are truly good are immaterial things (in other words, anything we can’t touch, see, hear, feel or taste). Immaterial things include God, angelic beings, heaven and human souls, or spirits. Material things like human bodies, nature, animals, the ocean, the land, our planet, the universe will ultimately be destroyed and done away with because they are corrupted badly and tainted by evil. The goal of humans (according to the Gnostics) is to escape the corruption of the flesh and material world through gnosis, which was a mystical or esoteric knowledge. Once a person accesses gnosis, they are enlightened. Be careful not to confuse the Gnostic teaching on enlightenment with the 17th century American and European movement of Enlightenment or even the modern definition of enlightenment—both of which engage with and value the material world. In contrast, gnostics’ goals were to escape the material world through gnosis.
What did Christian Gnostics believe about Jesus? There were variations in belief about Jesus. Some gnostics believed he was an incarnate human being who came to lead others into gnosis. Others believed he was merely a human being who accessed gnosis which led to his own enlightenment and, because of this, he was an example to follow. In terms of the atonement, they believed that Jesus did not experience death in the usual sense. Since he had accessed gnosis and attained enlightenment, Jesus could not suffer or experience death; rather, he ascended to God during his crucifixion. In this sense, Jesus’ death did not play a critical role in saving humanity from sin. It was his life and teaching rather that modeled and lived how to access gnosis and gain enlightenment. It was his teaching about gnosis that saves us from the corruption of this evil material world. If one experiences gnosis, their souls too will escape the material world and enter a spirit place following death (in other words, an immaterial place). Again, the material world is evil and unholy in this view; the immaterial world is good and holy. The New Testament idea of death does not hold any weight in Gnostic teaching because ultimately those who are enlightened will escape death through gnosis.
Are you beginning to see some significant similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modern Christian articulations of the gospel and the Christian faith? Let’s restate this philosophy in a way that we might hear in our churches: Jesus Christ died so that we can go to heaven when we die. Yes, that often-used statement over the last few hundred years by well-meaning Protestants and Catholics is the handiwork of early Christian Gnosticism’s lasting influence on the Christian faith today.
Background to Early Christian Gnosticism
When did Gnosticism begin to made headway into Christian communities? It’s hard to pin an exact date, but we could roughly estimate that sometime between 90 AD/CE and 150 AD/CE Gnosticism had already begun having some effect within Christian churches. But before Gnosticism took root in Jewish and Gentile Christian communities, it may have taken an expression within Jewish communities of faith who practiced first century Judaism at the latter half of the first century AD/CE before it had taken a Jewish Christian expression.
Side note: Jewish Christians who were part of the early Jesus’ movement of the Christian faith believed that accepting Jesus as Messiah and following him was a fulfillment and expression of historic Judaism, not a separate religion. On the other hand, those within the Jewish community and nation who did not accept Jesus as Messiah we’re inclined to believe their brothers and sisters in the faith were deceived and were following a false Christ/Messiah in the person of Jesus. I share this as a point of clarification for those reading this post who may be unfamiliar with 1st century Judaism and early Christianity and may be tempted to draw unnecessary distinctions between the two groups. End of side note.
The sequential order I’m suggesting for when Gnosticism was likely formed is not (in any way) a racially motivated dig toward 1st century Jews who practiced Judaism nor is it a further dig toward 21st century Jewish people who practice Judaism today (whether Orthodox or Reformed). I have a deep seated respect and appreciation for the Jewish community, both then and now. It is simply to state that a sequential transition happened in ancient Judaism and the early Christian faith, and it happened for specific reasons. Much of what I’m about to present has been largely influenced by the scholarship of New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright, though he may disagree with parts of my analysis (For a deeper dive, see Wright’s treatment of the development of early Jewish and early Christian forms of Gnosticism at the latter end of the first century and throughout the second century in his books New Testament and the People of God and Judas and the Gospel of Jesus).
Within the broader Jewish community of Israel-Palestine, at least for the last few hundred years prior to the time of Jesus, many people in the Jewish community believed Yahweh would send a Messiah (a Jewish king) who would lead a military effort against Roman occupation in the land, and after defeating Rome, he would reestablish Israel’s monarchy and national political and religious identity.
About two-hundred years prior to the time of Jesus and a hundred years after saw some would-be Jewish Messiahs come to power and popularity who led military efforts against Rome’s occupation. Each time, the Jewish leader was killed and humiliated by Rome’s military and emperor (see chapter 9, “The Kingdom Present and Future” in NT. Wright’s book Simply Jesus for a detailed account of this). Following Rome’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE/AD (just forty years after Jesus’ time)—which was aimed at putting a complete end to a large scale revolt by Jewish militia groups (who were broadly called the Zealots)—many Jews were killed by Roman armies within Jerusalem’s city limits. This no doubt crushed the spirit of the Jewish people. When it became abundantly clear that every potential Messiah had failed, it began to raise the question as to whether their Messiah would ever come. This, in combination with the sack of Rome in 70 AD/CE, forced a national and religious reckoning. Rome had been the last in a long line of world empires who took control of Israel for the last five hundred years. And once again, the empires of the world appeared to win out against them.
It cannot be overstated that the defeat of the Jewish people in the greatest city of the Land of their forefathers during the Jewish-Roman wars of the 60s and 70s AD/CE would have been incredibly crushing to their spirit as a people. This disappointment would create the collective space and opportunity for exploring other explanations and understandings of their Jewish national and religious identity. This would include how they understood their future as a people with a divine destiny and how to understand and live in the Land of their forefathers previously promised to them by Yahweh.
A shift also began to take root among some followers of Jesus and some Christian churches by the second century. Three or four generations into the Jesus’ movement, after suffering persecution by the Roman Emperor Nero as well as experiencing persecution by some of their own fellow Jews in Israel-Palestine, there began to exist a movement (or series of movements) within Christianity who were sympathetic to gnostic teaching and mixed their newly found Christian faith with gnostic teaching. During the second century, Gnosticism was still considered a fringe phenomenon within the Christian faith and not consistent with the teaching of Jesus and his early followers (though some modern historians debate this point of contention). Several Christian church fathers in the second century, like Irenaeus, began to speak out against Christian Gnosticism’s negative influence on the faith.
But sometime in the early Middle Ages (around the third or fourth century), a quasi-expression of Gnosticism seemed to be more accepted within broader Christianity. In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine began to identify as a Christian. After his conversion, he made Christianity the state religion. Why? Constantine claimed he had a vision in which he saw a cross of light in the night sky and the words, “In this sign, conquer.” For the first time in the history of the Christian faith, faith in Jesus took on an imperialistic nature. This deadly combination of empire and faith allowed for the normalization of violence in the name of Jesus as a viable option for Christians. For the first few hundred years, followers of Jesus had been known for their non-violent stance. The stories within the book of Acts in the New Testament, the stories of Christian martyrs over the first three centuries of Christianity and the writings of the early church fathers is proof of the widespread belief and practice of non-violence. So as the Christian faith began to sanction and normalize violence during Emperor Constantine’s reign, Christians would kill their enemies even in Jesus’ name. The so called Just War Theory among Christian philosophers and theologians of the 4th century (as with St. Augustine of Hippo) moved from the fringes of the Christian faith and made incredible inroads into European Christianity and the psyche of Christian Medieval Europe. This acceptance of violence seemed to coincide with a broader acceptance of quasi-gnostic teaching that began making inroads into the Christian faith as well. It wasn’t outright Christian Gnosticism as we know it. It was quasi-gnostic. Since human life was now expendable due to a (now all-too-common) Christian justification of war, this allowed for a lower view of other aspects of the material world (which is why I say quasi) and an exaltation of the human soul. That’s a lot to claim and deserves several articles by itself, but time does not allow. Consider checking out the resources I mentioned above for further reading and study.
In the following article, I will look at some of the biggest and most meaningful themes of Scripture (I get this is somewhat subjective) in order to help us reengage with the overarching Story of Scripture and recognize where second century Christian Gnosticism has come up short.
Updated article on July 4th, 2022
Here’s the Atonement Series Title Line-Up from start to finish
- My evolving understanding of Jesus’ death
- FaithRethink Series on the Atonement Returns
- 7 atonement theories from church history
- Hijacking the Biblical Story of the Atonement (page you’re on now)
- Reengaging with the Bible’s Biggest Themes
- 7 Bible Stories you think you know but don’t
- Cruciform atonement theory: How Jesus’ death on a Roman cross changes everything
- Questions and answers about the atonement