Gnosticism: Shadow of Orthodox Christianity

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

One of the opponents of orthodox Christianity is Gnosticism. Saint Irenaeus, who is considered to be the first Church Father or the first great patristic, believed Gnosticism to be a threat to orthodox Christianity. Why was that?

Image showing tombstones at the Ancient Bogomil Cemetery
According to Gnosticism, the true human essence is an innocent speck of purity inside a cage of flesh. (Image: DeStefano/Shutterstock)

What Is Gnosticism?

Gnosticism is a powerful and complicated school of thought. It was a kind of pseudo-philosophical movement that was very popular, especially among the elites in the ancient Mediterranean world. It argued, in important ways, that the materiality of the world is the source of evil and that humans in their true essence are inner spirits that need to be unlocked from their cages of flesh and allowed to escape.

It suggests that the true human essence is an innocent speck of purity inside a cage of flesh. The materiality that surrounds humans—that is, evil—is in some ways hurting them. According to Gnosticism, the true essence of humans is not to be a wicked person or an evildoer, but in some sense to be victims. It also suggests that the solution to this problem is to escape materiality, and certain radical Gnostics simply became what were called ‘enlightened people’ and starved themselves to death.

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The Gnostics’ Interpretation of Christianity

Irenaeus was one of the earliest and the most profound of the realist Christians to argue that Gnosticism was, in fact, a profoundly mistaken way of being a human. As the 1st and 2nd centuries moved on, Christianity became more of a life option for people in the Mediterranean.

Image of the Holy Bible.
There has always been an argument between the Orthodox Christians and Gnostics about evil and people’s reaction to it. (Image: Janaka Dharmasena/Shuttershock)

This led the Gnostics to say, “Our interpretation of Christianity is the right one; Christianity is actually a kind of Gnosticism.” The Gnostics could do that only on one important condition: that Christianity had to be understood as not a continuation of the Jewish story but as a radical renunciation of it in several different ways.

Firstly, the God of Genesis clearly says that creation is good. Hence, the Gnostics had to say that was not a real God; that was, in fact, Satan masquerading as a God. Secondly, the Gnostics have to say that Jesus did not, in fact, suffer and die on the cross; Jesus in some sense faked his own death. One could say that the Gnostics were the first kind of conspirator theorists who stated that Jesus had faked his death.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

The Threat of the Gnostics

For traditionalists such as Irenaeus, the threat of the Gnostics is profound in several different ways. Firstly, it is profound in how it threatens the Christians’ vision of how they should live in the world. Secondly, it threatens the Christians’ vision of who their ancestors were and who their rivals are in this world now.

Irenaeus and the mainstream of orthodox theology in the Christian world basically said, “We are part of the story of the people Israel; we may offer a new version of that story.”

Irenaeus can be fairly accused of a bit of ‘supersessionism’ that says that the Christians are proper inheritors of God’s favor because the Jews have rejected Jesus. Irenaeus was more fundamentally Philo-Judaic, which means he was fundamentally trying to identify himself and his traditions with the history of the people of Israel. Thus, according to him, the Old Testament is, in fact, an authentic story of God’s dealing with humanity.

Evil and the Development of Humans

Irenaeus, in general, hypothesized a picture of evil as an inevitable and necessary component of the development of humans. He explains this by offering one of the first theological interpretations of scripture by telling the story of humanity as the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale as an allegory for the human fall.

Just as Jonah had to be swallowed by the whale, so must humanity succumb to sin, fall into sin, and receive its punishment, namely suffering and death. Then God will raise the dead, and having passed through this evil journey, humanity will have learned by experience what evil truly is, how horrible it is, and how mercifully and blessedly God has acted in redeeming humanity from it. To be blessed, Irenaeus suggests, one must know what it is to be damned.

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Irenaeus’s Picture of People’s Transformation

Image showing an interpretation of Adam giving the Forbidden Fruit to Eve.
According to Irenaeus, Adam and Eve were wrong to think they could like God simply by eating material things. (Image: Taylan Secil/Shutterstock)

In a theoretical manner, Irenaeus’s picture of people’s journey toward redemption is relatively simple. Firstly, in Eden, Adam and Eve were not fully mature beings. God initially created them as immature, childlike in their innocence.

The human needs, over time, to grow and mature, not only over their individual lives but over the course of human history, in order to become fit for the destiny that God intends—which is union with the divine, communion with God, and growth into the “perfect likeness” of God. This is a matter of complicated ways of transforming people’s desires from immediate material desires for the base, natural ends to a desire for genuine union and communion with God.

That transformation, Irenaeus says that one would eat and feast in paradise, but it would be spiritual pleasures that are central to one’s lives. What happens is that humanity’s rebellion against God and descent into sin and evil turn out to be crucial for the fulfillment of this destiny.

One can learn what it means to be transformed by experiencing the pains one inflicts upon themselves by trying to be sated and happy wholly with the goods of this world. That was what Adam and Eve effectively did. They were not wrong in thinking they could be like God, but they thought they could be like God simply by eating material things; that was their mistake.

Common Questions About Gnosticism

Q: What is the true human essence according to Gnosticism?

According to Gnosticism, true human essence is an innocent speck of purity inside a cage of flesh.

Q: What was Irenaeus’s opinion of Gnosticism?

Irenaeus, who was one of the earliest and the most profound of the realist Christians, argued that Gnosticism was a profoundly mistaken way of being a human.

Q: How does Irenaeus explain evil as being an inevitable and necessary component for the development of humans?

Irenaeus offered one of the first theological interpretations of scripture by telling the story of humanity as the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale as an allegory for the human fall.

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