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The New Gnostics

by Steve Gregg
Last year I came across a documentary on Netflix about a group of folks who insist the earth is flat. Yes, in 2020, there are folks that think all of the photos taken of Earth from space are fake, that the earth is in fact flat and a vast conspiracy is keeping the world in the dark.

Since then I have noticed a number of conspiracy theories that are gaining a hearing. This is bad enough but even more concerning to me as a pastor is the traction that some of these conspiracy theories seem to be gaining in the evangelical church at large. These range from the troubling QAnon conspiracy (the belief that president Trump is waging a secret battle with a cabal of satanic pedophiles that covertly run the country), to troubling prophetic visions urging christians to arm themselves for the coming apocalypse/race war/civil unrest/fill in the blank to the more mundane but still troubling reality that some pastors are urging christians to ignore public health officials because COVID-19 is just a ruse to persecute Christians, there seems to be a growing openness to consider theories that just a few years ago would have been considered fringe at best.

As I’ve thought about it, I think it is in some ways a modern version of something that is really quite ancient. Something in fact that the early church struggled with which is called gnosticism. At its simplest, gnosticism was a philosophy that taught there was secret knowledge to be learned about unseen spiritual forces in the world. It typically involved a hidden hierarchy of spiritual powers that were shaping events in the world. The gnostic teachers were claiming they were the only ones with this secret, hidden knowledge so to find out what this might be you had to come to them for this hidden wisdom. This led some Christians to abandon their churches for these more informed and enlightened sages, while others stayed but tried to merge this new secret “knowledge” with biblical teaching. Some New Testament scholars believe that when  Paul wrote to the church in Colossae it was because they were dealing with something very similar to that. Whatever the specific heresy was that Paul was addressing, it is instructive for us to see that Paul did not spend his time in the the letter tracking down or refuting the validity of these secret claims but instead urged the church to focus on Jesus, the One who created all there is and who is therefore sovereign over all that is out there, real or imagined.

I think that can be very helpful for us to remember when we might be tempted to start looking into conspiracy theories to make sense of our times. There have been and always will be people trying to add something to the Gospel message. There have been and always will be people trying to know the unknowable. As christians, we seem to have a history of being especially vulnerable to these theories when it comes to dealing with theodicy (understanding the presence and prevalence of evil) and eschatology (end times). The better and more productive questions to ask ourselves might be, “why are these so attractive to us?” In other words, what itch are they scratching or need are they meeting? If we’re honest, we have to admit that at least some of the time it’s the outgrowth of cynicism and anger at the chaos around us and an attempt to make some sense of the incomprehensible. At other times these conspiracy theories seem to be a search for moral high ground from which to distinguish ourselves from others. In other words, they feed our pride. Whatever the reason, I want to caution us about going down the rabbit hole, however intriguing it might be. We worship Jesus and he was crucified for all of the world to see, he rose again to be seen by his disciples and hundreds of others at that time. Our faith and trust does not rest or depend on obtaining a secret cascading hierarchy of knowledge but in the open work of Christ on the cross and His good news preached to the world. His final instructions to his disciples were not to figure out the time of his return but to be faithful until he did.

As one of your pastors, if you find that these things are capturing your attention, I urge you to go and spend time in Paul’s letter to the churches (Colossians, Philippians and Ephesians) and see what sort of things are worth capturing our time and thoughts. It will be medicine to your souls and a blessing to those around you. When we spend time with our brother Paul, we will see that the mystery that Paul (and through him, the Holy Spirit) prays for us to come to understand at a deeper and deeper level is the mystery of the inexhaustible love of God.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might  that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.