Clearly Christian, Part 4: Our Modern Gnosticism

By Ricky Beckett, GUG Contributor

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

This is part four of Ricky Beckett’s Clearly Christian series. Be sure to check out part one, part two, and part three as well!

A man stands on the beach with arms out during sunset.
Jesus never said spiritual things are more important than material things.

Another confusion about Christianity is that Christians are only concerned with the spiritual rather than the material – that they, “believe that God works exclusively in spiritual ways that are mystically perceived rather than touched, tasted, or seen” (Sutton, 49). These beliefs often manifest themselves in the “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNR) crowd, most of whom still identify as “Christian.” Religion, they believe, is bad because religious tenets always lead to bad physical outcomes (e.g., religious wars, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, etc.), and they don’t believe in “organized” or “institutional” religion (i.e., church bodies are bad; “therefore, I don’t need to gather with other physical Christians to do church, I can just do it at home by myself or watch it on a screen”). 

Christianity, they think, is merely about “spiritual” things. The SBNR crowd seeks spiritual development through their own practices (which for some may mean incorporating Buddhist, Hindu, or other religious practices into their faith, whether they realize it or not). Being “Christian,” they think, is not about doing religious things (even though Jesus, a deeply religious man, did very religious things), but rather is about having the right spiritual mindset.

Does Christianity have spiritual concerns? Absolutely. We might label them as the forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life, sanctification, and other terms. Does Christianity have material concerns? Once again, absolutely yes. Some of these include caring for the poor, the frugal use of money, not getting drunk, eating well, and so forth. An easy way to consider Christianity’s spiritual and material concerns is to think through the Ten Commandments. If we divide them up into “two tables,” Commandments 1-3 concern spiritual things, whereas Commandments 4-10 concern material things. Here are the two tables of the Ten Commandments in the Lutheran order, which is based on Exodus 20:3-17:

  1. You shall have no other gods (Exodus 20:3).
  2. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God (v. 7).
  3. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy (vv. 8-11).
  4. Honor your father and mother (v. 12).
  5. You shall not murder (v. 13).
  6. You shall not commit adultery (v. 14).
  7. You shall not steal (v. 15).
  8. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (v. 16).
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house (v. 17).
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (v. 17).

Jesus never said spiritual things are more important than material things. The ancient philosopher Plato did. Plato taught the spiritual world is superior to the material world, which he explains in his writing called The Republic through a story called the “allegory of the cave.” 

Imagine people living in a cave. They have never ventured outside because they were chained to the walls. All they can see are shadows cast on the cave wall as things pass in front of a fire behind them. They eventually give names to these shadows and assume they’re the full experience of reality. If it were possible for them to be released from the chains, they would quickly realize that what they understood as reality was nothing more than shadows. 

Plato’s story illustrates how people wrongfully assume the material world is reality when it is merely a shadow. For example, in the spiritual realm, there exist only perfect circles, whereas in the material realm, every circle is just an imperfect shadow of the ideal circle. Therefore, what is material is inferior to what is spiritual. 

As the ancient heresy of Gnosticism developed in the 2nd century AD, the Gnostic Christians adopted Plato’s philosophy. The Gnostics varied in belief, but the common denominator among them all is they believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being in the spiritual realm. Only through esoteric knowledge (γνῶσις [gnosis]) can the human spirit be truly redeemed to leave behind the evil, material body (the “cave”).

How does this make the SBNR crowd, and others, Gnostic? They see anything that’s remotely a religiously corporate (physical) gathering as bad. To them, true spirituality is finding God your own way — the abandonment of corporate religious gatherings and perhaps the adoption of eastern meditations and other spiritual practices, or anything you make up yourself. After all, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), right?

A cross stands among some rocks.
The crucifixion “is a powerful example of God’s engagement with the physical realm. Real wood composed the cross on which Jesus was crucified” (Sutton, 53).

Body & Soul, Spiritual & Physical

Christianity is both a spiritual and material religion. We see this especially in the incarnation: Jesus is God in human flesh. He was a baby in His mother’s womb. He has blood, muscle, and sinew. He got His hands dirty. He ate food, drank wine, and walked on the earth. Jesus taught how important the material realm is, especially in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). He discusses important earthly matters like anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retribution, and earthly enemies. He taught His disciples how to pray — a spiritual endeavor through physical mouths. As the crux of the matter, the crucifixion “is a powerful example of God’s engagement with the physical realm. Real wood composed the cross on which Jesus was crucified” (Sutton, 53).

Flesh, bone, and muscle were ripped from Jesus’ body as He was scourged. Physical nails pierced His material body to a cross made of material wood. Joseph of Arimathea put His body in a tomb. Jesus rose from the dead not spiritually, but bodily. This point was made especially clear to Thomas, who touched the physical wounds of the risen Jesus.

Through the Scriptures, we see that to be human is not to be a soul that inhabits a body, or a soul imprisoned by human flesh, but that to be human is to be both body and soul. This is what the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) denotes. Typically translated as “life,” it more literally means “body-soul.” Furthermore, this is why death is so tragic: because in death, our body dies and our souls either go to Jesus or to judgment (Hebrews 9:27-28). Dead Christians await the bodily resurrection where their souls will be reunited with their bodies perfect and glorified (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

Therefore, the Christian hope is not dying and going to Heaven. “Death is not the joyful release of the soul from the body” (Sutton, 55). Death is a curse, indeed, the curse (Genesis 3:19). It’s terrible and tragic (Psalm 55:4). Our hope, rather, is in the bodily resurrection. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, “and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”; and in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in… the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

In Christian worship, both the material and the spiritual are expressed. In the Lutheran liturgy, we call our worship Gottesdienst, which is German for “Divine Service.” We call it that because it is God who is doing His divine service to us, just as Christ said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Although we offer Him our worship and praise, it is God doing the serving. What takes place is certainly spiritual — it is divine. But in what way does God divinely serve us? In physical/material ways. This is easily seen in the order of Lutheran worship.

For example, in Divine Setting III, we begin with the Invocation where the pastor invokes the name of the Holy Trinity who becomes spiritually present, and then we do Confession & Absolution where the congregants receive the spiritual forgiveness of sins through the pastor’s physical mouth and into their physical ears, which he does in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ (e.g., John 20:21-23). We then sing praises with our physical mouths. When there’s a Baptism, the spiritual (divine) Word of God is in the physical waters and cleanses the person of their sins. In the Lord’s Supper, they receive the true body and blood of Christ in the physical bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

When we speak of sanctification, this is also both spiritual and material. Sanctification means the process by which the Holy Spirit makes you holy, which is no doubt a spiritual matter. But sanctification is also the Holy Spirit working in you in tangible ways. So, in what physical ways are you holy? Sanctification materially manifests itself as we turn away from sins (which we do with our physical bodies) and trust in the mercy of Christ, who was tangibly crucified for you and is tangibly risen for you.

A small plant grows out of bark.
Christians are called to care for the earth.

One final way in which we know Christianity is not just spiritual but also material is Christians are called to care for the earth. Christians are often accused of not caring about environmental issues, but this is far from the truth. Let’s briefly consider the creation account. “And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ …And God blessed them [mankind]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:22, 28).

The command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” is given to both animals and humans. So, (1) we should safeguard the existence of animal species (even the ones we despise most), and (2) we should make babies. But within what means? Marriage between a man and a woman, nothing else. “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

What does it mean for a man to have “dominion” over the earth, and to subdue it? Does it mean to be a tyrant? No. Rather, we are stewards. What does it mean to be a steward? It means to care for something that is not your own. Does this mean we shouldn’t kill or eat animals? No. In a sinful world, sometimes it is necessary to kill animals for the sake of our human neighbor, who is also part of creation and therefore our dominion, and who are created in God’s image (animals are not). This could be because of an overpopulation of animals or a genuine threat. We also know it is not sinful to eat animals because God gave man permission to eat them in Genesis 9:2-3. We therefore also provide for our human neighbors when we give them meat to eat.

With this definition of dominion, how can you exercise your dominion over the earth? It’s quite simple, really: not littering, going on nature walks and picking up litter, having babies if/when you get married (if you can’t, perhaps adopt), hunting, butchering in the marketplace, etc.

Before I end, it is important to reiterate just how vital the incarnation of Jesus Christ is. God, who is spirit, took on human flesh. He physically died for you, and He physically rose for you, into whose death and resurrection you were baptized so you might experience a resurrection just like His (Romans 6:3-5). As St. Paul also expertly says:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Bibliography

Sutton, A. Trevor. Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in This Age of Confusion. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.

About the Author

Rev. Garrick Sinclair Beckett, also known as Pastor Ricky, is Associate Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and is also campus pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Chapel located on the Central Michigan University campus. He is a graduate of Concordia Seminary (M.Div.) and received his bachelor’s degree from Concordia University-Ann Arbor in Christian Thought and Theological Languages. He served three years in the Army prior to seminary and is married to his wife, Emilia, who emigrated from Finland. What makes Pastor Ricky a “geek” is his affinity for video games, literature, and anime. 

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

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