Christianity and Gnosticism are mutually exclusive systems of belief. The principles of Gnosticism contradict several essential doctrines of Christianity. Therefore, while some forms of Gnosticism may claim to be Christian, they are in fact decidedly non-Christian.
Although a variety of beliefs may be traced to the different sects under the umbrella of Gnosticism, the prominent doctrines of the “Great Gnostic” sects, in variant forms, presented the following basic ideas:
- A transcendent (above and beyond human experience) and ineffable (inexpressible and unutterable) deity who is pure spirit.
- A dualism between spirit and matter, which necessitated a chain of emanated beings (each a little lower in supremacy) in order to link the deity with matter.
- A split within the chain of emanated beings, which resulted in the creation of material things and man by a Demiurge (a supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the “supreme being” and sometimes regarded as the originator of evil).
- A spark of the divine implanted in man at his creation.
- The redemption and release of this divine spark by means of illumination through increased knowledge, resulting in self-awareness and a high level of insight, which is attained by a select and privileged few.
- A Christ who redeems by being the Revelator or Illuminator rather than the suffering Savior.
- Salvation by knowledge, essentially self-knowledge.
Gnosticism was perhaps the most dangerous heresy that threatened the early church during the first three centuries. There is debate whether or not this is a Christian heresy or simply an independent development which predated the life of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the Gnostics laid claim to Jesus as a great teacher of theirs and drew much attention from the early Christian church. It is very possible that 1 John was written against some of the errors that Gnosticism promoted.
At the time John was writing, a false sect had arisen which became known as Gnosticism (Gk. “gnosis” = knowledge). These Gnostics professed to be Christians but claimed to have “additional knowledge,” superior to what the apostles taught. They claimed that a person could not be completely fulfilled until he had been initiated into their deeper “truths.” Some taught that matter was evil, and that therefore the Man Jesus could not be God. They made a distinction between Jesus and the Christ. “The Christ” was divine emanation which came upon Jesus at His baptism and left before His death, perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to them, Jesus “did” die, but the Christ did “not” die. They insisted, as Michael Green put it, that “the heavenly Christ was too holy and spiritual to be soiled by permanent contact with human flesh.” In short, they denied the Incarnation, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Jesus Christ is both God and Man.
Coupled with the denial of the Incarnation and deity of Christ, the Gnostics denied the substitutional death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary. To the Gnostics, not only could Christ not have taken on evil human flesh, but as a divine being, He could not have taken on sin for any purpose. Therefore the Gnostic denied that God through Christ paid the penalty-price for the sin of man by means of His spiritual death on the cross of Calvary; rather, they held Christ up as a divine teacher and it was through His teachings and revelations that man was to evolve intellectually into a higher state of self-awareness, which was man’s salvation. Such views destroy not only the true humanity of Jesus, but also the atonement, for Jesus must not only have been fully God, but also fully man who actually suffered and died upon the cross in order to be the acceptable substitutionary sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 2:14-17). The biblical view of Jesus affirms His complete humanity as well as His full deity.
On the matter of salvation, Gnosticism teaches that salvation is gained through the acquisition of divine knowledge which frees one from the illusions of darkness. Although they claim to follow Jesus Christ and His original teachings, Gnostics contradict Him at every turn. Jesus said nothing about salvation through knowledge, but by faith in Him as Savior from sin. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, the salvation Christ offers is free and available to everyone (John 3:16), not just a select few who have acquired a special revelation.
Christianity asserts that there is one source of Truth and that is the Bible, the inspired Word of the living God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). It is God’s written revelation to mankind and is never superseded by man’s thoughts, ideas, writings, or visions. The Gnostics, on the other hand, use a variety of early heretical writings known as the Gnostic gospels, a collection of forgeries claiming to be “lost books of the Bible.” Thankfully, the early church fathers were nearly unanimous in recognizing these Gnostic scrolls as fraudulent forgeries that espouse false doctrines about Jesus Christ, salvation, God, and every other crucial Christian truth. There are countless contradictions between the Gnostic “gospels” and the Bible. Even when the so-called Christian Gnostics quote from the Bible, they rewrite verses and parts of verses to harmonize with their philosophy, a practice that is strictly forbidden and warned against by Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6;Revelation 22:18-19).
Let us follow the Apostle Paul who said to “test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and this we do by comparing everything to the Word of God, the only Truth.