Friday, June 18, 2010

Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology

Someone left an interesting comment on my post about Gnosticism, saying "I so often feel like an outsider with my hope not resting in the so-called immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection from the grave. This being a belief that few hold where pastors constantly rail against it and deride any who hold such a belief."

That comment caught me at a good time, because I have recently been doing some writing and reading around this issue as part of the process of preparing a research proposal for  postgraduate study. It is indeed a sad indictment on the state of the evangelical church that much of its unofficial theology now functionally denies the doctrine of bodily resurrection and has been replaced by ideas more akin to Gnosticism and Greek philosophy than Christianity.

Let's talk about Greek philosophy first.

When Paul preached his famous sermon at Mars' hill, he mentioned many things that the Athenian philosophers might have taken offence at: God’s sovereignty, the need for universal repentance, the folly of idolatry and God’s coming judgement. Significantly, however, Luke records that it was the doctrine of the resurrection that incited particular mockery from Paul’s audience (Acts 17: 32). This is not surprising, as the bodily resurrection of Jesus challenged the deeply dualistic philosophy common in much of ancient Greece. Echoing Plato’s statement “Soma sema” (“a body, a tomb”), many of the Greeks looked upon the material body as a prison house. As Plato has Socrates explain in Phaedo:
We are convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. . . . If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be isolated and independent of the body. It seems that so long as we are alive, we shall keep as close as possible to knowledge if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body...
There is not space to develop the point, but when the early church announced the doctrine of Christ’s physical resurrection, and the corollary doctrine that God’s people would be raised from the dead at the end of the present age, they were proclaiming an idea that was without president, not only in the world of Greek philosophy, but in the entire pagan tradition. (See N.T. Wright’s monumental survey of ancient Jewish and pagan beliefs about life after death in The Resurrection of the Son of God)

It should come as no surprise to find an assortment of 2nd and 3rd century writers, especially those associated with the Gnostic tradition, trying to fit the doctrine of resurrection into categories consistent with Greek philosophy. For many of the Gnostics, the goal of salvation was not the resurrection of the physical body but disembodiment in an eternal realm of pure spirit. By allegorizing the Biblical references to resurrection and making them an approximation for either a religious experience in this life or a disembodied afterlife, they were able to deny the literality (and hence the physicality) of the event.
The writer/s of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas even employ some of the same symbolism for resurrection as the canonical writers but reverse the images. “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it” says the Jesus of Thomas, in a likely allusion to the removal of His physical body.  Elsewhere Thomas echoes the imagery of 2 Corinthians 5:3 where clothing is used as a metaphor for physical resurrection. But while Paul assures his readers that “being clothed we shall not be found naked”, the Jesus of Thomas tells his disciples that they will “disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feel like little children and tread on them...” The clothes clearly represent the physical body that one should seek to be released from, trampling it underfoot as something abhorrent.

This same idea runs like a thread through many of the Nag Hammadi texts, which present the lower physical flesh as being in competition with the higher spiritual soul:
“But what they released was my incorporeal body. But I [Jesus] am the intellectual Spirit filled with radiant light.” (The Apocalypse of Peter)

“Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she receive the divine nature from the Father for her rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection from the dead.” (The Exegesis of the Soul)
“Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.” (The Gospel of Thomas)
It was the early Christian’s understanding of physical resurrection, perhaps more than any other doctrine, that served to polarize the church of the canonical tradition from the anti-creational orientation of the Gnostics. The early Christian writers Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the writers of the Didache, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus, and many others make clear that the bodies of the dead will be raised in the same way that Christ’s physical body was raised from the dead. In this they were merely following in the steps of  the theology articulated by Paul in his various resurrection discourses, most notably  his discussions in the Corinthian correspondence. This doctrine found expression in the Nicene Creed and was reaffirmed in numerous councils.

Curiously, although the doctrine of bodily resurrection remains the official dogma in all the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and creedal Protestant churches, the Protestant tradition has recently seen the growth of an “implicit theology” which corresponds more with ancient Gnosticism than historic Christianity. By “implicit theology” I mean a system of beliefs that becomes popularly accepted by a community even while the churches in that community officially teach something else in their dogmatic formulations.

Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus has never been stronger within conservative Protestant churches. Indeed, in North America the tendency to spiritualize Jesus’ resurrection is one of the doctrines that is often used as a signpost to identify “liberal” Christians. Yet the same self-styled “conservative” Christians have no problem accepting an implicit theology that spiritualizes the resurrection of believers. Indeed, there is a growing and pervasive tendency, rarely examined with any scrutiny since it is implicit, that New Testament language about the resurrection of believers is just a shorthand way of referring to the immortality of the soul.
Time Magazine reported two thirds of Americans who say they believe in a resurrection of the dead do not believe they will have bodies after the resurrection.  (Just how they think their bodies can be resurrected without them having bodies afterwards remained unexplained.)

Or consider the latent crypto-Gnosticism in the following statements, all made by prominent church spokespeople in the 20th century:
“When the material world perishes, we shall find ourselves in the spiritual world; when the dream of life ends, we shall awake in the world of reality; when our connection with this world comes to a close, we shall find ourselves in our eternal spirit home.” James M Campbell,  Heaven Opened (New York: Revell, 1924). P. 114-115
“...we must not understand that the heavenly city will be as material as present earthly cities.”Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987)

“We shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven.”Arthur E Travis, Where on Earth is Heaven? (Nashville: Broadman, 1974), p. 16

An endless array of other examples might be adduced. Nor should it be overlooked that the secular community now routinely assumes that the Gnostic heresy of eternal disembodiment is the orthodox Christian hope. In his “compendium of everything you ever wanted to know about death”, Biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”

In 2008 after N.T. Wright published his popular book Surprised by Hope, setting forth the historic Christian position on resurrection, ABC news referred to the idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” as “a radical departure from traditional belief.”

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