Getting Jesus Right
How Heresy Seduces the Sincere
by David Mills
Protected by 2,000 years of Christian thinking, we moderns tend to think of the ancient heresies as if their advocates were like the shabbily dressed men in public parks who hold up badly hand-lettered signs and scream out warnings about alien invasions, and to wonder how so many people could have been taken in by ideas that were so obviously wrong. Most of us do not feel the danger of heresy, because we do not realize how attractive the great heresies were—which means that we do not realize how attractive they are.
You will not understand the early Christians, nor the need to keep to their doctrine today, until you understand how seductive were the imitation Jesuses they offered, and how easy it was to meet a fake Jesus and think he was the real one. The heretic was usually a rather charismatic man whose teachings were much more like the urban legends that even normally skeptical people believe because they seem so obviously true. He was almost always on to something that Christians had neglected or forgotten, and his faith therefore seemed deeper and wiser than theirs.
But only the Christians presented in their doctrines the real Jesus, and only the real Jesus could save you from hell and bring you to heaven. That in itself was obviously reason enough to drive out the people who were introducing their victims to a fake Jesus. The more believable was the picture, the more important it was to expose it as a fraud.
Take the Christianized versions of Gnosticism that flourished in the first two or three centuries of the Church. Gnostics of all sorts believed that the real God could not have made a material world, because matter was evil. To say that God created matter would be grossly irreverent. Therefore a sort of lesser god must have created this world.
If men trapped in matter were to have any hope of knowing the real God, he had to have some connection with this world, and so the Gnostics argued that he was related to it by layers and layers and layers of beings, rather like companies whose chairman is insulated from the employees by executive vice-presidents and senior vice-presidents and plain vice-presidents and assistant vice-presidents and assistants to the assistant vice-presidents. Many of the Gnostic teachers had an elaborate mythology describing these beings that I find extraordinarily confusing.
As a religion, Gnosticism offered an elaborate system of rituals and ideas, and a special path to salvation offered only through a secret knowledge given only to the insiders. (The term Gnosticism, as you may know, comes from the Greek word for “knowledge.” The Gnostic was the one who knows.) Gnosticism, as one scholar has put it, is “the sense that the divine is to be discovered by some kind of interior search, and not simply by a savior who is outside you.” You can see why it alarmed the early Christians.
According to the Gnostics, the human race fell not into sin but into bodies. We fell from the world of spirit to the world of the senses. To be saved, we must learn the Gnostic truths that will save us from our degradation. We are saved, those of us who can be, by escaping the world and ascending to the real God and the purely spiritual world, which is accomplished through an interior search, by being initiated into the Gnostic secrets, and living by the Gnostic rules.
In most Gnostic systems—there were lots—only some men had in them the spark of the real God that let them escape the world. Others were condemned to stay in the bestial material world and disappear at death.
It is hard to know exactly what the Gnostics thought the life of those who ascended back to the real God would be like. They would escape the body and the world of the senses, so we do know the life of the spirit would be a life stripped of much that makes you different from everyone else.
As you would expect, many people tried to Christianize Gnosticism or gnosticize Christianity by working Jesus into their system. To do this they had to claim that Scripture—the parts they liked, anyway—was really a Gnostic document. Then they had to explain the inconsistencies between Scripture and Gnostic teachings by claiming to have a secret knowledge that Christ had passed down through the Gnostic brotherhood.
The Scriptures, they would note, described Jesus teaching privately to the disciples the truths he veiled in parables when speaking to the people (Mark 4:34). St. Paul had spoken of truths he shared only with the “mature,” which the “natural man” could not understand and in fact thought foolish (1 Cor. 2:6,14–16). This was the knowledge the Gnostics claimed to have.
This secret knowledge, they said, gave the true interpretation of Scripture and revealed its true Gnostic meaning. This gave them an argument almost impossible to argue with. What do you say to people who tell you that they see truths you—poor worldling that you are—don’t see? They always get that superior, patronizing smile that tells you fruitful discussion is now impossible.
The Christianized Gnostics usually made Christ some sort of emissary from the real God who came to bring us a spark of that divine life, so that we could ascend to the real God after him. He appeared in the man Jesus but was not what the ordinary unenlightened Christians crudely thought of as incarnate. He was the Savior, but one not burdened with a body that bound him to his fallen world.
Even among the Christianized Gnostics, only those who were truly “spiritual” could be saved by ascending to the realm of spirit and knowledge. Some of them thought, however, that those who weren’t truly spiritual—by which they meant ordinary Christians—could work their way to an inferior sort of salvation. (This was nice of them.)
Gnosticism had, by the way, two very different effects upon morality. If the body was a bad thing to have, you could either try to drive it into submission or you could use it for all the pleasure it could give you, as long as you were careful not to have children and bring more matter into the world. (I won’t draw the obvious modern parallel.)
The first seems to be the logical choice for a Gnostic. If the body is a bad thing to have, you should try to use it as little as possible and refrain from enjoying it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t make more bodies.
Many of them believed, as one Gnostic writer declared flatly, that “marriage and procreation are from Satan.” For the Gnostic, to marry was to jump into the traps and illusions of the material world from which you would have trouble freeing yourself. It was rather like taking your first shot of heroin.
However, the second moral position was just as logical a choice for the Gnostic. The Gnostic party animal could justify almost anything he wanted to do by saying that whatever he was doing with his body, his spirit was still free. In fact, that he could use his body for pleasure showed how free of it he was.
If he thought himself a Christian, he could quote St. Paul’s “to the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). One Christian writer reported that the typical Gnostic would use this idea as a pick-up line to seduce women away from their husbands.
However it is that we should balance our subduing of the body with our enjoyment of it, the Gnostic clearly fell off one side or the other. Gnosticism’s two moral tendencies would have warned the early Christians against it. The Gnostic gaunt from fasting who refused to marry and thought children an evil, and the drunken Gnostic crawling from brothel to brothel, were alike signs that the religion had made a big mistake at its beginning.
The early Christians were often tempted in the first direction, which helps explain why some liked Gnosticism. It seemed not only common sense, but also spiritually sensitive when compared with the (to them) gross materialism of mainstream Christianity.
For one thing, they tended to share the dominant culture’s dislike of the body and its assumption that salvation was purely spiritual. For another, this Gnostic fear of the body’s lures seemed to be apostolic. St. Paul had said that “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9), and Jesus had announced that in heaven there would be no marriage (Matt. 22:30). The apostolic writers were always warning their readers against the dangers of the flesh and the world.
But the apostolic writings also affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures that told them God had created the world and called it good, and that he had in effect celebrated the first marriage when he made Eve for Adam. The gospel told them that his Son had performed his first miracle at a wedding (John 2:1–11). The Apostle Paul had used marriage as a symbol of the Church in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus (Eph. 5:25–31). And they had that central scene of a baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:16).
Because the Christians believed all this, they could not think that matter was bad and marriage evil. They may have felt it, but they could not think it. (Unless they rejected the teaching they had been given, thinking they knew better than Jesus and the apostles what the body was really like, which of course some did.)
Because the Christian believed that a good God created the body, and had taken a body himself, the Christian could accept what the Gnostic saw rightly—the power of the flesh to control the mind and spirit—and apply the insight safely and wisely. The Christian could teach caution and self-discipline without giving up the pleasures God has given.
The Gnostic impulse could be channeled into a style of Christian life, which knew the reality of the fall without giving up the joys of creation. Some would be celibate and others married. Some would live in the deserts half-naked and surviving on crusts of bread; others would live in homes surrounded by their children. Both would subdue their bodies, but in different ways and for different fruit.
Now, before you laugh at the Gnostic teachings, remember that this all made sense to many people at the time, including Christians. St. John’s Gospel spoke of salvation as knowing Christ (John 17:3). St. Clement of Alexandria and his brilliant student Origen, two of the formative minds of early Christian history, used Gnostic ideas and language while claiming them for the Church. (Whether or not this was a good idea is something Christians still argue about.)
The Gnostic system built upon certain assumptions that most people held—for example, that God is too great and spiritual to be a baby with a messy bottom—so that the unwary person who came across their teaching said, “Aha!” and felt he’d found the truth. If the gospel was a scandal to the Greeks, Gnosticism was not.
Gnosticism tried to answer a real philosophical problem: how a God who is perfect and changeless and eternal could have anything to do with a world so flawed and changing as ours. It tried to treat God with reverence when so many religions treated their gods like shopkeepers who were supposed to give them what they wanted in exchange for being worshiped. If the Gnostics put God as far away from man as possible, they did so because they knew that God was very different from us.
Gnosticism offered the hope of salvation and perfection to people who wanted to be saved from their obviously unsatisfactory condition and made perfect. It gave them a way back to God. It also gave a satisfying cosmology—a view of everything—to people who wanted to understand their world, and who hated its religious confusion. It helped them control their bodies, to whose passions they knew they were enslaved.
All this may seem quite strange to us, because our world has erred in the opposite way. Few of us believe that we need to be saved from anything, except perhaps from disappointment that life hasn’t turned out the way we expected. Most of us have to do something truly despicable before we feel that sense of inner pollution the sensitive people of the ancient world felt almost all the time.
We have little reverence for God. We aren’t tempted to put him very, very far away because we don’t think about him very much, and a god close enough to be used when we need him is a lot better than one out of hearing. He is like the waiter we want to be standing at the side of the room, where he won’t bother us or overhear our conversation but will be over in a second when we summon him.
I am sure many people joined the Gnostics for bad reasons as well. It would have appealed as much to the lusts of the flesh as to the idealism of the heart, and the idealism would have been a good cover for indulging the lusts of the flesh. Think of the hormonally driven teenagers who insist they have to go to bed with each other because they are in love. Most people are teenagers where God is concerned.
The Gnostic rites in themselves—mysticism with pageantry—must have attracted people, and the desire to be on the inside and to know things your neighbors don’t know is an eternal human temptation. (Both, by the way, help explain why today Mormon and Masonic buildings do not have windows.)
And of course the Gnostic system must have appealed greatly to basic human pride, since it taught that your escape from this world to God was your own doing. Irenaeus described one group of Gnostics who believed that they had souls like Christ’s and had powers like his. They were so proud of themselves that some of them thought they were better than Jesus because they despised the things in this world more than he did.
But still, in a world that didn’t know about the real Jesus, Gnosticism was a religion for the seriously religious. If it seems silly to us, it seems silly for two reasons: We aren’t as seriously religious as they were, and we live in a world still formed, even after centuries of secularization, by the belief that God once became man.
The Gnostic Mistake
As we have seen, Gnosticism began with a mistake about creation, but when Christianized, it required a new Jesus. In the Christianized versions of Gnosticism, he couldn’t possibly be the Son of God made man, because God would never do such a thing as take a human body. He might put on one as a costume, but only as long as he needed it to share his message with people who were trapped in bodies themselves. He wouldn’t be born of a virgin, nor die on a cross, nor rise again in the body.
In the teaching of the Gnostic Cerinthus, for example, Christ entered an extraordinarily good man named Jesus and then left again before he died. Cerinthus flourished about the year 100, and St. Irenaeus thought the Apostle John had written his gospel against his teaching.
According to Irenaeus, Cerinthus taught that the world was created by a power not only far from the real God but ignorant of him as well. Jesus had not been born of a virgin but was the biological son of Mary and Joseph. He was, however, “more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men” and at his baptism “Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.” (Impassible means incapable of suffering.)
This sort of thing, the Christianized Gnostics insisted, was what the Bible was really about. You just had to read it with the right key to realize that its language about creation, incarnation, and resurrection was symbolic and metaphorical. You had to have the key to know what parts to believe, because some of it was simply mistaken. The writers couldn’t rise to the spiritual insights needed to see what they should say.
This idea would have attracted some Christians, even if they ought to have known better. It promised them that delicious sense of being on the inside—and as Christians, of being on the inside of the inside. (A good rule for Christians is: Beware a religion with snob appeal.)
More importantly, it made sense to them. The average convert from the religions of the day must have felt some discomfort with that picture of God being a baby, and a Jewish baby, too. A Gnosticized Christianity would, he might easily have thought, let him keep the Lord he had met and the deep religious sense he had already without the disgusting idea that God could have a body.
The convert had already gained a superior knowledge and a new insight into Scripture when he joined the Church. He had come to see the world and himself in a radically different way—he had “switched paradigms,” as we would say today. It wouldn’t be hard to switch one more time, moving in what he thought was the same direction.
The Gnostic Bible
But what, you may ask, about Scripture? How did the Christianized Gnostics explain, or explain away, the biblical teaching that seemed so clearly to contradict them? This was not nearly as hard to do as you might think. The Gnostics simply invented a new way of reading the Bible that fit the world’s assumptions, and other people believed it, because it made sense to them.
You may, for example, read the four Gospels and think that the Word St. John talks about at the beginning of his Gospel—the Word that was with God and that was God (John 1:1)—was that baby in Bethlehem who grew up in Nazareth, gathered a small group of followers, taught for a while, performed miracles, was killed by jealous religious leaders and a cynical government, and then to almost everyone’s surprise rose again. It all seems fairly obvious.
But then a Gnostic teacher comes along and tells you that these four Gospels, to the extent you can trust them at all, are really a kind of code or allegory. They don’t mean what they seem to mean. You’ve had a few literature courses and know that stories can mean a lot more than they seem to, and that you only find out the real meaning when you learn which details symbolize what. You remember that poem that bored you to tears until the teacher told you what the flea stood for.
The Gnostic teacher tells you that the Gospels are full of symbols you’ll misunderstand or miss completely until you listen to him. This isn’t as suspicious a claim as it may appear, put this way.
You have heard enough orthodox teachers find meanings in the text that you hadn’t even suspected were there, and sometimes they told you the text meant something that seemed to you the opposite of what it meant. And you have heard orthodox teachers go to some lengths to explain passages like Lot’s incest with his daughters by treating them as being symbols or “types” of lessons we need to learn. For that matter, Jesus had to explain some of his parables even to his disciples (see Mark 4:10–20, for example).
The Gnostic teacher tells you that the creator is not the God you want to meet, and that Christ was actually a kind of emissary from the real God. He only looked like a human being because looking like a human being was the only way to get people’s attention.
Needless to say, not being a real human being, he didn’t die on the cross. He left the body he’d borrowed—the one belonging to that good man Jesus—before it died. When Jesus said, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” (see Matt. 27:46), that was really the borrowed body crying out after Christ had left him to return to the real God.
Now that, you think, is something I’ve always wondered about: how the Son could be abandoned by the Father. And here is a perfectly simple explanation. Suddenly Gnosticism begins to look a lot more believable. You have begun to break the code. Scripture seems to be opening its riches to you in a new way.
I think, by the way, that the reason we don’t feel the attraction of the alternative ways of reading Scriptures as strongly as did the early Christians is not that we know better than they did, but that we don’t know Scripture as well as they did. We don’t know enough to know that understanding Scripture presents us with some difficult problems.
Seeing the Code
Now that you begin to see the code, other Gnostic readings begin to make sense too. Some are pretty wild, of course, like the idea that the Gospel of Mark really teaches that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in Jesus’ place. But others seem almost common sense, once you understand how the code works and the lessons it is trying to teach.
Having convinced you that the Gnostic interpretation made a lot of sense, the Gnostic teacher might then add that the writers of the Gospel stories wrote them to confuse their readers, so that only the truly spiritual reader would see the real meaning. Would a truly spiritual person really believe that God would take a human body? your teacher would ask with astonishment. A body that ate and drank and got dirty and, well, had to digest its food? You pass the test for membership if you know this must be wrong. If you like “Silent Night,” the Gnostic will not let you in. You feel a little embarrassed that you hadn’t seen this before.
In fact, your teacher might continue, who would be so foolish as to believe spiritual truths would be that obvious? (At this point you recall some fairly coarse people in your church. They certainly don’t deserve to know all this, you think.) And after all, Jesus himself said that narrow is the way that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).
If you are vulnerable to ridicule (and most of us are), he may add a few criticisms of the Scriptures themselves. He might suggest that the witnesses were not reliable or that they saw what they wanted to see. The teacher might ask you, as did the Gnostic Celsus, if you believed that all the ancient stories of rising gods were myths yet actually believed that your story of a rising god was true. Put like that, the story of the Resurrection does seem doubtful.
And he might go on to ask, as Celsus did, why you would think a man who couldn’t help himself when he was alive could rise again when dead? On top of this, who actually saw him risen? It is hard to take seriously the testimony of (in Celsus’s words)
Everything that Celsus said has been said in heavily footnoted books by learned professors in universities all over the world. They know ten languages and have read everything written between 300 B.C. and A.D. 600. Who are you to argue with them?
Now this makes sense. That’s the problem. Few heretics are ever stupid enough to say something obviously wrong. Christianized Gnostics will take the Bible apart and put it back together again in a way that really does make sense of the evidence, and often give more impressive explanations than most Christian teachers ever think of.
These teachings are usually complete in a way the Christian teaching never quite manages to be. The believer, the early Christians said, sometimes has to believe what he cannot prove. The Christian, for example, does not have a compelling answer to questions like “Why does a good God let little children die of leukemia?”
The Christian answer asks you to believe that a good and all-powerful God would allow evil to flourish, and this is hard to do. It is what Christians call a mystery but other people call a fudge, or even a con.
Yet a Gnostic often does offer what seems to be a compelling solution to such problems. That evil flourishes simply isn’t God’s fault. There is no implausible mystery to be accepted. That a system such as Gnosticism explains so much is a good part of its appeal. It claims to replace faith—and a delusionary faith at that—with knowledge.
The Gnostic’s teaching seems to answer all the questions. It drops into place like the last pieces of a puzzle. Anyone who then comes along and says that the puzzle has the wrong design must overcome the pride of the person who has put it together—it was hard to do, after all—and his dislike of taking it apart and starting again.
You see, I hope, that the Christian and the Gnostic imitation Christian fought over very important matters. Gnostic Christianity drew men and women away from the real Jesus. It offered a picture of Jesus that looked enough like him to fool people who didn’t know him well enough and might follow the fake Jesus, who would lead them a long way from salvation. It was dangerous, not least because it was clever and seductive.
You see what sort of salvation the Gnostics offered you: peace after the trials of life, through an escape from being trapped in matter into an immaterial and impersonal existence—in effect, the extinction of you as you. You were not redeemed by a God who had taken your place, through your repenting of sins and growing in goodness. You escaped this world by learning the secrets, if you were one of the spiritual elite. If you weren’t, you died in the trap.
The Christian Gnostic followed this fake Jesus right out of the world of the body and the senses. Gone for the Gnostic would be hymns such as “Silent Night” and “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded” and “Up From the Grave He Arose,” which could be sung only by people who (the Gnostic would say) didn’t know who Jesus really was.
Some people will find this very attractive. I don’t, but many, many people do. New Age movements today, and the many forms of westernized Buddhism popular in cities on both coasts and college towns across the country, promise the same sort of thing. The truly spiritual person rises above the affairs of this tawdry, messy world to be merged at last with all other beings in the impersonal spiritual unity of the cosmos.
It is peace, but at the cost of personality. I find much more compelling a salvation in which I remain me, but become the perfect me, in fellowship with all others—family, friends, neighbors, and millions and millions of others drawn from every race and tribe and nation who are (to adapt a phrase from Will Rogers) family I haven’t met. In the truly Christian Christ, all of these human beings become perfectly—delightfully, beautifully, compellingly—themselves. They become more themselves the closer they grow to God.
This salvation is available to everyone who opens his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. God plays no favorites. I much enjoy the fact that a country priest who kept botching his Latin like the Cure D’Ars, and a simple, sickly young woman like St. Therese of Lisieux, and a cantankerous hermit like St. Jerome can all be saints, on the same terms as cardinals and reverend professors of divinity.
Of course, it doesn’t matter whether or not you like the Gnostic idea of salvation. Christianity tells you it isn’t on offer. You have a body and you have to keep it. You cannot escape your body, though you can be redeemed in the body.
Gnosticism promises a sort of extinction. Picture to yourself what the Christian promise of salvation means. It means that heaven can include Uncle Charlie with his joy but without his lust and gluttony, and Aunt Betty with her compassion but without her fear and anxiety, and your friend Mark with his wit but without his cruelty and condescension.
And you as well, without all those ingrown sins that have made you and others unhappy (most of which you don’t know about) but with your gifts (most of which you don’t know about either) fully developed. It means that you will no longer be a prime example of St. Paul’s saying that the good he wants to do he doesn’t do, and the evil he doesn’t want to do, he does anyway (Rom. 7:15). It means that you will be like Christ.
The heaven the real Jesus promises will be a lot more fun than the absorption into the purely spiritual realm that Gnosticism promised. He points us to the Creator and to the goodness of creation, and promises a future that is not escape but redemption.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven was like a party (Matt. 22:1–14). His enemies thought that he was unspiritual—they accused him of being a heavy drinker (Luke 7:34) and the like—but he meant something like this: When God redeems his creatures, they have the fellowship in joy and praise that the laughter and cheer of a human party point to.
Gnosticism leads to the loss of personality as you are absorbed into the spiritual world. Christianity gives you more personality than you knew you had. The saints, as Dante saw, grew into mountains.
Gnosticism leads to the silence of eternity. Christianity leads to an eternal pleasure and joy and celebration for which the best human party is only the weakest of metaphors.
This begins to explain, I hope, why the early Christians cared so much to get the doctrine right. It explains why they labeled certain ideas heretical, and expelled from the Church those who insisted on teaching them. They wanted everyone to know who Jesus is, and did not want them to be fooled by the frauds and fakes, some of whom were extraordinarily good frauds and fakes. If Jesus is the only way that we come to the Father and find eternal happiness, if he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we need to know exactly who he is. What we say about Jesus has vast and everlasting effects on human happiness.
“Getting Jesus Right” is adapted from the author’s Knowing the Real Jesus, published by Charis Books/Servant Publications.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Getting Jesus Right” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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