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It Would Be Easier to Be a Gnostic

Submitted by on September 26, 2012 – 9:00 am11 Comments

If my long-term memory serves me, I first read in C. S. Lewis the notion that Christians believe what they believe, and hold fast what they hold fast not necessarily because it makes their lives better or easier or anything like that. Rather, we believe what we believe because it’s true. This is why I am not a gnostic. Because in some ways at least, it would be a lot easier.

I’m thinking about death, and about death’s chief assistants, sickness and aging. Yes, this is autobiographical, and yes, my wife and I are in the middle of trying to live lovingly and wisely as we assist my aging parents. It hasn’t gotten as bad yet as it’s going to; unless the Lord Jesus returns in glory fairly soon, my parents will grow weaker, become less able, and further sicken. And then, finally, they will die. It’s going to get worse.

And if I were a gnostic, I could simply look forward to that. Oh, to be sure, I would experience personal sorrow, personal loss. But if I were a gnostic as I thought about my father and mother, I could be simply and purely happy for them. Because finally, they could be at their spiritual goal. At long last, they could have achieved perfect peace. Full salvation would be theirs. Their immortal souls, washed clean by Christ, would have finally been released from imprisonment in their dungeon, this vale of tears, and they would be free. That would be nice. It would easier to be a gnostic.

Gnostics, whether ancient or modern, radically separate “body” and “soul,” “physical” and “spiritual.” Bodies and the physical world are evil, souls and the ethereal world are good. For a gnostic there can be “good death” (euthanasia) because one is released from the physical into the pure spiritual realm. In extreme cases, there is no need to care for others, because what good does it do to meet “only” physical needs? Why not just let people die?

But it’s not true.

Now, let me clarify: Yes, yes, yes (three “yesses” because I have often been misunderstood). If a Christian dies before the coming of the Lord, YES there is a separation of body and soul. It’s not God’s deepest desire, it goes against God’s original plan, and one day that enemy-separation-death will be swallowed up in victory for us all, even as it has been swallowed up for and in Jesus already. Risen, indeed. But yes. When we die, the body and soul are separated, and the body in death sleeps (and slowly rots) in the ground, and the soul in death is at peaceful, conscious rest with the Lord. Yes, Luke 23, Phil 1. If you want to call that “going to heaven,” that’s fine. Yes.

But that’s not the goal. That state of disembodied but blessed rest is not “eternal life.” Eternal life begins here and now, in baptism, for the whole person, for us as body-and-soul people. Eternal life is fully manifested and received when “He will raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers eternal life.” Eternal life is physical—it was accomplished physically by the Incarnate One, and it is mediated physically through Sacraments (and the spoken Gospel, of course), and it will consummate in a transformed and renewed physical new creation. I’m not a gnostic. Death is an enemy. Its power is mitigated, to be sure, and neither death nor anything else can separate us believers from God’s love in Christ Jesus. But it’s an enemy, and as I see death approaching for my parents, and as I see that approach weaken and frustrate and sadden them and make their life increasingly difficult—I grieve. I’m angry. I’d rather not have to deal with the truth. It would be nice to pretend that death is a friend that’s coming. It would be easier to be a gnostic. But it’s not true. So I pray, and I live, and I try to love them. And I look for the Day of final, physical, full salvation for my believing parents, and for me and all Christians.

And that’s just on the personal level, a tiny little microcosm. What about the deep rumblings and groanings and gaspings in the world? What about the cries of injustice and unbelief and cruelty and abortion? What about the cacophony of lies and insults and half-truths and prejudice in the media . . . in this election year? For a gnostic, it’s all just proof that the world is evil, dark, unredeemable and a lost cause. So let’s just turn our backs, hunker down, take care of our own and maybe try to snatch a few more out of the abyss. And we’ll get out of here as soon as we can; as soon as we die.

But it’s not true. Genesis 1 and 2 are true. This world is a place of wonder and beauty, and although the world’s shalom is now pervasively and deeply marred almost beyond all recognition, even now the creation is a place of wonder for which God bids us care and pray. And injustice and hatred will not always abound, for the Day is coming . . . even though we don’t know when and all we can do is wait.

But wait. There’s more that we can do. No, no, no. We can’t “make the world a better place.” But we can “live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” We can live by Baptism and Eucharist, the promise and foretaste of the new creation in Jesus. We can love and forgive each other as signs and symptoms of the new creation in Christ of which we are part. We can speak truth to the world, at one time or another enraging all political persuasions because we hold only to the Lordship of Jesus; only Jesus is Lord. We can offer our bodies, and our time, and our lives in service to one another as members of one body . . . and we can do tangible, physical, bodily good to all people as God gives us opportunity. Because he created their bodies, too.

It would be easier to be a gnostic. But it’s not true. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. On the third day he rose again from the dead. From the right hand of the Almighty Father, he will come again to judge the living and the dead. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

Editor’s Note: A five part, video-based Bible Study on 1 Corinthians 15 and Christian Hope, featuring Dr. Jeff Gibbs, Dr. Jeff Kloha, and Rev. Gary Ellul is available at no cost from this site; A DVD version is available for a nominal fee from the Concordia Seminary Store.

11 Comments »

  • Mark Squire says:

    Wonderful. Thank you so much for this. Blessings to you and your family as you struggle with the enemy and eagerly await the second coming and resurrection.

  • Ryan Fouts says:

    Thanks Dr. Gibbs —

    You’re right, on a number of levels. That said, the implications of “splitting” up the human creature into various faculties, or parts, has implications that are more far reaching that we might guess.

    Gnosticism, perhaps, kicked off this habit of dividing man up into parts, though the Scholastics of pre-Reformation fame also divided man into “higher” and “lower” faculties, privileging the mind and intellect over body, emotion, feelings, etc. Luther did much to combat this (see my upcoming dissertation). Similarly, Descartes split man up into parts much like the Gnostics and Scholastics — though for Descartes, as opposed to the Gnostics, the “lower” faculties, or the “body” isn’t morally evil — it’s simply morally irrelevant. In some ways that’s worse, because the body ceases to have any moral or ethical value at all. “It’s my body, and I can do with it whatever I want” is the rally cry in an age that embraces Caretesian dualism. It is this, I would say, that more accurately describes the American “dualism” — more Cartesian than Gnostic. We don’t despise the body, so much as we find it irrelevant. It’s like a pound of flesh that the “real” us (the soul, mind, etc.) has to put up with.

    I would contend any of the above manifestations have implications on our theological worldview from start to finish. How can we understand the article of Creation if we don’t understand what it means to be created, in the flesh, in God’s image and declared originally “good”? How can we understand the fall and the brokenness of both both man and all of creation without understanding the physical, created nature of all that God has made that has henceforth fallen? How do we understand the Incarnation of Christ, as the Word is made flesh, without a firm grasp on the importance of the body for our faith? (It’s no surprise that as Gnosticism infiltrated Christendom in the first few Centuries that we also faced a Christological crisis in coming to grips with what the Incarnation really means). How about justification? It’s no wonder that the significance of the Incarnation for our justification is marginalized today because we’ve lost the profundity of what it means for the in-fleshed Lord (and why He had to be so) to be crucified and similarly, why it’s important that Jesus was raised in the flesh (eating fish and such to make sure we get that point). Then, how about the resurrection? Now, how do we live in our bodies — both with fallen flesh, but bearing the “new” flesh in the image of God as restored in us through Christ — both with respect to caring for neighbor (bodily needs) and also caring for our own flesh and blood?

    To put it bluntly… What does my body have to do with my faith? It has everything to do with my faith. A theology of the body runs through all three articles of the Creed — how we have so frequently missed it is, frankly, baffling!

    • Jeff gibbs says:

      Ryan,

      I pretty much agree with EVERYTHING you’ve written. Truth (that is to say, theology) is interconnected. And anthropology is this way; a faulty anthropology can “leach out” and diminish (or twist) other teaching as well. I something think that the doctrine of man is the one teaching that we take for granted, and yet that we need to be most conscious of.

      Jeff

  • Ryan Tinetti says:

    This is why I’ve thought that Jesus pronounces those who mourn blessed: it would be so much simpler not to mourn, but merely to “go with the flow.” (I think St. Peter calls it the “flood of dissipation,” and its flow is rapid indeed.) Blessed are those who mourn, because they own up to the fact that things are not as they’re supposed to be.

    “It would be nice to pretend that death is a friend that’s coming. It would be easier to be a gnostic. But it’s not true.” Yes. This calls to mind a recent David Bentley Hart essay I think you’d appreciate: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/05/death-the-stranger

    • Jeff gibbs says:

      Ryan,

      Thanks for your post. You’re right–there has to be a blessedness attached to resisting the present evil age’s on-going power (aka, “mourning”).

      Thanks for the link to the Hart essay; I had not seen that. I like how it ends: “. . . we mortals can never forge a true friendship with the eternal stranger.”

      Peace be with you, brother.

  • Dan Suelzle says:

    Thanks, Dr. Gibbs, for your words. I have found such a comfort in “reclaiming” our tangible Christian hope, especially as it pertains to preaching funerals. What an incredible and powerful privilege to proclaim true, lasting, physical victory over death, even as it is staring us in the face. We have so much more to say than trite and empty sentimentality which, at the end of the day, gives no hope at all. Thank you for that reminder to which I say, “Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

    • Jeff gibbs says:

      Dan,
      God’s plans and God’s gifts are always larger than we might have imagined, or than we dared to hope. The Spirit is the One who gives faith to grasp the gifts, and live accourding to them. Blessings on your proclamation!
      Jeff

  • Eric Estes says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    This is a wonderful postlude to your study on 1 Corinthians 15 mentioned above. Concordia Theology ought to have this link on the study’s page as well. It could be printed and shared with a class. Your words here wrap the gist of the study up as an application to real suffering and apply the true hope of Christ. Fantastic job on the resurrection study by the way. The saints and I at Redeemer Columbus, GA thoroughly enjoyed it and it facilitated lively discussion on our Christian hope.

    Peace,
    Eric

    • Jeff gibbs says:

      Dear Eric,
      The best thing of all happens when some of my / our efforts here at sem are supportive of your (and others’) ministry; for this I’m glad. As Paul Raabe said to me one time, “The solution for death is resurrection!” Or, as I also heard, “Death is not a ‘part’ of life because it’s the opposite of life.”

      All the best,

      Jeff G.

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