No one ever says that they are gnostic. Nonetheless, gnosticism has been a problem largely from the beginning of Christianity and has remained a problem throughout, largely because gnosticism is Satan’s classic tool for combating the (difficult) truths of Christianity. Today I would like to examine the appeal of gnosticism for different groups of people to see why it remains so enduringly popular and why the truth of Christianity, springing from the full biblical record, is so comparatively unpopular.
Even though no one claims to be a gnostic, gnosticism as a collection of belief systems is fairly recognizable. Some elements of gnosticism are very widespread—the substitution of the biblical Sabbath for the “eighth day,” while other aspects of gnosticism are less obvious (such as its denigration of the flesh and its hostility to the material creation). In this brief tour of the different appeals of gnosticism I will try to touch on as many as possible of the various ways in which gnosticism appeals to a great many people who would never, under any circumstances, consider themselves gnostics. We must remember that gnosticism appeals to many people who would consider themselves Christians and for whom the appeal of gnosticism is very different.
For example, gnosticism is extremely popular among a certain type of intellectual. This type of intellectual wants to harmonize Athens and Jerusalem, to cast aside the “tribal” rules and regulations of what seems like a jealous deity, and cast his lot with “universal” principles, especially those that appeal to human intellectualism, such as those found in the Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Such a person may even be passionately interested in God’s law, but not as a standard for his own behavior, but rather as an avenue for intellectual interests which include “legalism,” in the reasoning away of inconvenient laws and the (very strict) enforcement of laws that are convenient or that bolster his position as a student of jurisprudence, or the combination of political partisanship with a divine fire of self-righteousness. In this case there is often selective enforcement of biblical law—property rights might be defended, and the Bible might be assumed to be a document of lassiez-faire capitalism, but laws like the Jubilee that defend the interests of the poor will assumed to have been fulfilled (like the sacrificial law) in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Alternatively, a gnostic may be a person who genuinely feels a love of Christ, but who struggles with a particular sin, so much so that it frequently overwhelms her, and so she says that her own struggle with a sin (such as alcoholism or promiscuity) is unimportant compared to her own deeper personal spirituality. Her conscience becomes seared as she ceases to recognize that what she is doing is wrong, and she rationalizes her sins by pointing to her sincerity of feeling and the statement that as God is love, that there will be no judgment, because God understands our weaknesses and has freed us from the burden of obedience to His demanding law. The fact that such special pleading is fallacious does not keep it from being sincere. After all, Jesus Christ is a sympathetic advocate for us, but conversion allows us help from God to develop His righteous character within us, not a repudiation of those biblical standards which, when practiced, develop godly and true Christian spirituality within us in all walks of our life, even our weaknesses.
A different type of gnostic may be someone for whom the physical world is a burden, with unceasing physical (and perhaps mental and emotional) ailments. Such a person lives every day as a struggle, and is tempted to state that there is something defective and lacking in the physical creation itself. Such a belief is heretical. For the physical creation, before sin, was good (see Genesis 1:31), even though it was physical and not spiritual. There is nothing wrong with physical bodies or the physical creation for God—it was good enough for Jesus Christ to live His life in, and good enough for God to create in order to raise up His own offspring (see Acts 17:28). Nor is there anything defective about being created as human beings, for we are created in the image and likeness of God Himself (see Hebrews 1:1-4). If this world has been corrupted by sin, we deal with that corruption not by disparaging the image of God within us, but by overcoming the effects of sin in our own lives.
Additionally, gnosticism appeals to an entirely different audience. For this person, there are tremendous insecurities about salvation. Sensitive to sin, and struggling to live in a very legalistic and ritual-oriented belief system, there is the longing from freedom from guilt and anxiety over imperfections, combined with the realization that no one else, including those who are criticizing him, are perfect either. So, instead of doing the hard and necessary work on his own character, he lashes out at those who critique him for their hypocrisy, knowing their sins, rather than judging God’s standard as just. In the end, frustrated at what he sees as unfair punishment, he decides to be his own judge of what is right and wrong for himself, rejecting all authority that would seek to judge him, or anyone who might point out his own flaws, but rather he becomes a harsh judge of others for their imperfections while blinding himself to his own.
All of these people, and many others, even though they may not be aware of it, are gnostics. And so, probably, are many of us in our worse moments. Gnosticism consists of a variety of (sometimes contradictory) responses to the problem of Christian spirituality. Sometimes Gnosticism means the rejection of spiritual authority and the enshrining of one’s “inner light” of personal truth in its place. Sometimes it means the enshrining of hierarchies who sit in Moses’ seat and who have the authority to change God’s laws because they have the keys of the kingdom. Sometimes it means indulging in one’s personal vices—be they sexual or chemical or some other kind. Sometimes it means punishing or disparaging the flesh as worthless and useless, as an ascetic who believes that punishing the flesh is necessary to glorify the spirit. Sometimes gnosticism means supporting human standards of spirituality, and sometimes it means liscensing one’s own sinful behaviors by whatever means possible. Whatever form it takes, the Bible speaks consistently harshly about it.
But in recognizing the Bible’s harsh treatment of gnosticism, we must remember that gnosticism is enduringly popular because it touches sincere and genuine human needs and insecurities. Where enforcement of God’s laws seems (or is) arbitrary and unjust, the natural human response is to rebel, and when we rebel against injustice, we do not stop to think that our enemies (like ourselves) are partly right and partly wrong. Instead we overreact in the opposite direction. And so it happens that both we and our enemies are often gnostics, defending different (human) sources of authority, different ideas on the flesh, and spirituality, and security, and “love,” but similar in that they are human standards and not God’s standard. And to decide what is good and evil for ourselves is to take the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and to join Adam and Even in their sins. If we wish to take of the Tree of Life, we must follow God at His word. This is not easy to do by any means, but to do otherwise is to defy God and make ourselves rebels against His authority, and confederates with Satan and his host of rebellious demons. We know their fate—we ought to desire to avoid it. And if we see ourselves falling into it, we ought to immediately repent and seek God’s mercy, and strength and wisdom to avoid repeating the error in the future.