The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The statements regarding the nature of Christ in the New Testament were so vague that any attempt at reasoning and elaboration would lead inevitably to differences of opinions. The first attempt at an elaboration on the nature of Christ was Gnosticism. [1]

Gnosticism came into prominence around the second century AD. While there were many schools within Gnosticism [a], all of them share the central tenet of gnosis. To them, the acquisition of gnosis, roughly translated as knowledge, is the sign of the special initiate. The mature believer has a direct line of revelation, or gnosis, from the divine spirit. This gnosis is denied to those outside the inner circle.

The Gnostics developed an elaborate system of pseudo-philosophical theology. They believed that matter is inherently evil and that the god which created this world, the god of the Old Testament, is evil and imperfect. The Supreme Divine Being is a purely spiritual entity for only thus, free of any attachment to matter, could it be good. The function of Jesus Christ was to convey the gnosis from this Divine Being. As matter is evil, the Gnostics believed that Jesus, who was an emanation from the divine being, could not have been truly human; for then he would have been a part of the evil material world. They believed that either Jesus took over a human form and it was only after his resurrection that he showed his true spiritual form to his disciples; or that he only appeared to be human during his life on earth. [3]

Three prominent Gnostic theologians were Valentinus, Basilides and Marcion, all of them living in the second century AD. [4] Their theologies are highly complicated and (to us) highly speculative.

Valentinus, an Egyptian theologian, taught that the god of the Old Testament, emanated from a fallen spirit. The Spirit Christ united itself with the man Jesus, during his conception or baptism, to bring man the saving knowledge or gnosis. [5] Valentinus' cosmology is as involved as his teaching on the person of Jesus. All things, he taught, had its origins from "the depth", from this "depth" arose Mind and Truth, and from these the Logos (Word) and Life. It was from the Logos that man was brought into being. [6]

Basilides, another Egyptian theologian, taught that there are three hundred and sixty five levels in heaven. The first level has the Unbegotten from which comes the Mind who resides in the second level. The Mind, in its turn, produces the Logos in the third level. This stratified emanations is continued all the way down to the three hundred and sixty fifth level. [7]

Perhaps the most well known of all the Gnostic teachers is Marcion. [b] A native of Sinope in Asia Minor, Marcion travelled to Rome to publicize his teachings. He was excommunicated in AD144. He taught that the Christian gospel was a gospel of love to the total exclusion of the law. The law was created by the god of the Old Testament, who had nothing in common with the divine being revealed by Jesus. According to Marcion, only Paul understood this fully. The apostles and the evangelists were so tied up with the law that they were blind to the truth proclaimed by Jesus. Marcion considered the Divine Being as the Good, the god creator of the world (the god of the Old Testament) as the Just and Satan as the Evil. The only true followers of the Good God are Christians, who received this truth through the teachings of Christ. The christology of Marcion is a variation of Gnosticism called Docetism. [8] Docetists believed that the humanity of Jesus (and his subsequent suffering) is only apparent and not real. According to this teaching, it was Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene who was crucified on the cross instead of Jesus. [9] The Gnosticism of Marcion managed to survive in some form until the eighth century AD. [10]

The Gnostics, of course, were denounced by people we now call the church fathers, the orthodox party. Irenaeus (c130-c200) accused the Gnostics of claiming to be wiser than the apostles:

They consider themselves "mature", so that no one can be compared with them in the greatness of their gnosis, not even if you mention Peter or Paul or any of the other apostles...They imagine that they themselves have discovered more than the apostles, and that the apostles preached the gospel still under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are wiser and more intelligent than the apostles. [11]

Another church father, Tertullian (c160-c225), abhors the fact they continuously modify their beliefs:

every one of them, just as it suits his own temperament, modify the traditions he has received, just as one who handed them down modified them, when he shaped them according to his will. [12]

These church fathers considered Gnosticism to be an innovation which formed no part of the original teaching of Jesus and his disciples. Yet we find hints in the canonical writings [c] that Jesus may have taught some kind of secret gnosis to his closest disciples. [13] We find, for instance, the following sayings of Jesus in the gospel of Mark and Matthew:

Mark 4:11
"To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables."

Matthew 13:11
"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given."

Even Paul speaks of a special kind of wisdom open only to the mature:

I Corinthians 2:6-7
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.

Whatever one may feel about the passages above, it must be admitted that a Gnostic interpretation is possible.

And, like the Gnostics, Paul seemed to believe that the resurrection was a spiritual and not a physical one:

I Corinthians 15:50
I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Yet, Tertullian asserted that anyone who denied the resurrection of the flesh is a heretic, not a Christian. [14] It is thus impossible to charge the Gnostics as any more guilty of innovation than the church fathers were.

The Gnostics also claimed to have secret writings given to them alone. In 1948 fifty two papyrus texts were discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts consists of Gnostic writings. Many of these texts date to the very beginnings of the Christian era. One of these texts, called The Gospel of Thomas is considered by some scholars to have been written as early as AD140; making it a contemporary of the canonical gospel of John. Some academics have also suggested the traditions on which the gospel of Thomas was based actually predates the four canonical gospels. [15] It seems that truth may not necessarily be older than error!

The above considerations show that Gnosticism was not an innovation opposed to Christianity. It represented an alternative development of the religion. Some scholars had suggested that the different forms of early Christianity were simply regional variations of the religion. For example, W. Bauer in his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity (1971) suggested that it was possible that:

certain manifestations of Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as "heresies" originally had not been such at all, but at least here and there, were the only forms of the new religion; that is, for those regions, they were simply "Christianity". The possibility also exists that their adherents...look with hatred and scorn on the orthodox, who for them were the false believers. [16]

Gnosticism was ultimately wiped out as a heretical sect. The internal structure of the Gnostic sect seemed to doom itself to failure. The church fathers admit anybody, the educated and illiterate, the cultured and the philistines, into the church who would pronounce the few simple creeds and go through the rituals such as baptism and communion. The Gnostic, sect on the other hand, demanded the utmost devotion and discipline; something which most potential converts simply do not have. The hierarchical system of the church set up by the early church fathers also helped keep the "orthodox" sect intact. [17] Without a similar system of organization, [18] the Gnostics lacked a mechanism that could effectively hold the body of believers together. Thus Gnosticism died out for social and political reasons: it did not have simple and undemanding creeds and rituals for people to follow and it did not have an organized hierarchy.

But Gnosticism left its mark on early Christianity. We have seen Gnostic interpolations in the synoptics. The gospel of John was very much influenced by these ideas and actually used Gnostic terminologies (such as the Logos). Marcion forced the early church to define the boundaries of the canonical writings. The movement, as a whole left its mark more on the philosophically minded leaders of the early church. Thus Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215) an orthodox church father was always eager to prove himself "a good Gnostic". [19]

In the field of Christology, Gnosticism may be thought of as the first, tentative steps towards the deification of Jesus. Back to the top


a.So many in fact, that the church father Irenaeus (c130-c200) complained that there were as many Gnostic systems or teachings as there were Gnostic teachers. [2]
b.We have already met Marcion earlier, in our discussion on the canon of the New Testament.
c.Which, it must be kept in mind, were selected by the anti-Gnostic orthodoxy


1.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p67
2.Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p133
3.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p215
Hordern, Guide to Protestant Theology: p12
4.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p215
5.Ibid: p215
6.Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels: p140
Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p69
7.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p68
8.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p156
Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p72
9.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p156
10.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p72
11.Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels: p50
12.Ibid: p51
13.Ibid: p44
14.Ibid: p36-37
15.Ibid: p16
16.quoted in Ibid: p28
17.Ibid: p128,146
18.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p70
19.Ibid: p70,72

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