It Would Be Easier to Be a Gnostic
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.