Posted in missions & evangelism, reflections

Is Evangelicalism Platonic and Gnostic?

blakecrIt’s a classic entry from The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Aged 37 3/4:

Sunday December 22nd

Guest speaker at church today, dressed in a monk’s habit. He said that God is nice and he likes us. Everyone looked at Edwin to see if we agreed. Difficult to tell as he was grinning like a happy little boy. Speaker kept quoting Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is, of course, a Roman Catholic!

Afterwards, Richard Cook whispered to us, ‘Ah yes, but is she saved?’

Gerald whispered back, ‘Ah yes, but how many filthy beggars have you washed this week, Richard?’

Get the book. Read it all — it’s a hoot, and has kept our family laughing at times we’d rather cry.

Like all good comedians, Plass knows how to have us laughing and thinking at the same time. For lying just under the surface of a farcical scene is an important point: What is the relationship of things spiritual and things bodily? Is our job just to get people “saved” (ready to meet God) or does this whole Christianity business also involve rolling up our sleeves and pitching in?

It’s funny how our view of reality may have an unintended effect upon how we answer that question. It’s an old discussion, one that came up in the earliest centuries of the Church. The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Some claimed that salvation was attained through special knowledge. It was an esoteric system that included a pure God far removed from Creation, with “eons” (or emanations) radiating from Him, and only the “demi-urge” (a far removed from God, intermediate being) indirectly bringing the universe into existence. God was spirit and pure, whereas matter was evil.

Importantly, Gnosticism contained a strong element of escapism. The Catholic Encyclopedia explained:

“This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if only we knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.”

Gnosticism was shaped by many religions, so It is debated how much Gnosticsm was influenced by Plato’s thought, but some influence is accepted. Plato had taught that the soul is immortal and would outlive the temporal body. In this sense, priority was placed upon what was eternal (“Ideas” or “Forms”) vs. what was only an earthly shadow.

Whatever the degree of Plato’s influence upon Gnostic belief, Gnosticism has had an influence upon Christian theology and practice. Monasticism grew up in early centuries of the Church, some forms of which treated the body harshly. Others reacted differently to the mix of Platonism and Gnosticism, believing that the soul (being pure) could not be negatively affected by bodily behavior. Hedonism was the result.

Past ideas can echo down to the present. Evangelicalism is the brand of Christianity that became prominent in North America (and to some extent, in the United Kingdom) in the mid twentieth century. Billy Graham was its most notable leader, emphasizing people “making a decision for Christ.” The most important thing in life was to be “born again,” to be “saved.” (Thank the Lord for the many thousands who found hope in Christ through Dr Graham!)

Much broader than Graham himself, in most Evangelical preaching, the emphasis was placed upon heaven as the place where our “never dying soul” would go to be at death, but only if we had “accepted Christ.” Those who presented the Gospel (Good News) in this way were called “soul winners.” In my own denomination, there was the mid-20th century “Crusade for Souls.” Long-time Nazarene Theological Seminary Professor of Evangelism Charles (Chic) Shaver taught a modified form of the “Kennedy Plan,” which begins with the question:

Have you reached the place in your life where you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?

Note where the emphasis lies. The concern is for the next life, not this one. Underneath the little word “you” is the dualistic assumption, that the real “you” is the one that leaves when you die. The word “soul” is not explicit, but it’s there nonetheless.

We must ask: For all of its positive fruit, to what degree was this understanding of the Gospel influenced by Plato, or perhaps Gnostic-like ideas? By 1987 when I took “Personal Evangelism,”  some students at NTS had begun questioning Dr Shaver. It was difficult, after all, to be learning about Gnosticism from Dr Paul Bassett in Church History I and not see shades of Gnosticism in the “soul winning” language used down the hall. To his credit, Shaver recognized the problem, but kept the language, explaining that he could “spend the next 50 years on that cause” and be distracted from the task God had given him, which was introducing people to Christ — fair enough. To this day, I appreciate Dr Shaver and the way he made us concerned not just about “souls,” but about people. Still, the “soul” language can be problematic.

A second question relates to the moral ramifications of Gnostic teaching. Earlier, we saw that one possible reaction to the “soul matters more than body” idea was monasticism. Twentieth century Evangelicalism built no monasteries, but I wonder if a monastic spirit isn’t behind some of the more legalistic expressions of the movement? If what matters is eternal souls being one day in heaven with God, then necessarily everything else that is “earthly” pales in comparison, especially if what is earthly is by definition corrupt. And what’s more, if there’s any question whatsoever that such pursuits could keep the soul “missing heaven” (as evangelists used to say), then those things must be eschewed as “worldly.”

Finally, Gnostic pessimism shines through in some versions of the End Times. The Left Behind series of books and films encourages disengagement from the world, presenting a dystopic vision. Only the “rapture” (and later, the Second Coming of Jesus) will bring bliss for those who escape the Great Tribulation and the claws of the Anti-Christ to go to be with Jesus in a better place. This is the default view of most Evangelicals, yet the escapism it shares with Gnosticism is real.

So what do you think? Realizing the overall good that has been done by emphasizing evangelism, have we sometimes been Platonic or even Gnostic in how we speak about our Christian faith?


Photo credit: Sullivan County



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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