If you pay attention to many religious programmes on the radio and TV nowadays you will often pick up the idea that there was some kind of conspiracy in the early church to suppress teachings which are claimed to be of Jesus but are not found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. They are found in the writings generally known as the Gnostic Gospels. The view is put forward that these writings were suppressed by the early church for political purposes and that their inclusion in the thought life of modern Christians would help to make the Gospel message more attractive to the modern mind set.
Actually there was a good reason why the early church rejected these writings. The fact that they may be attractive to the modern mindset simply means that the same errors, which are contained in the Gnostic writings, are now becoming the mainstream religious idea in our culture.
Gnosticism was a philosophy, which stressed the acquisition of Gnosis or inner knowledge. The knowledge sought is not strictly intellectual, but mystical, the inner knowledge of the ultimate reality. Generally this was a pantheistic idea that God is in everything and that within each one of us is the spark of divinity which has been obscured by ignorance or conventional religion. This is in fact the same idea as is to be found in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and in mystical teachings of other religions like the Kabbalah in Judaism.
It is also basic to the New Age philosophy, which is now the dominant one in western society. If you doubt this, pick up any popular newspaper of magazine and find the section in it which deals with spiritual matters. Almost inevitably it will speak of the benefits of yoga, eastern meditation techniques and therapies or magic or even witchcraft. Forms of Christianity which teach that all religions are the same are OK, but Biblical Christianity calling for repentance from sin and faith in the one way of salvation through Jesus Christ, if it is mentioned at all, will be held up to ridicule.
In this environment of spiritual confusion it is not surprising that there is an interest in the Gnostic Gospels. The pioneers of the New Age movement pushed for their inclusion in the mainstream culture. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, a constant source of inspiration for the New Age, did much to introduce Gnosticism to the modern world. He contended that Christianity and Western culture have suffered grievously because of the suppression of the Gnostic approach to religion and it was his hope that this approach would be reincorporated in our culture. Madame Helena Blatavsky, who founded Theosophy in 1875, viewed the Gnostics as the precursors of modern occult movements and hailed them for preserving an inner teaching lost to Christian orthodoxy.
D.R. Groothuis in his book Revealing the New Age Jesus lists 7 related views which permeate the Gnostic view of Jesus and are common in the New Age view being propagated today.
- Jesus is revered as a highly spiritually evolved being who serves as an example for further evolution. His miracles are accepted as manifestations of his mastery of divine energy or his tapping into the Christ power.
- The individual, personal, historical Jesus is separated form the universal, impersonal, eternal Christ or Christ consciousness. Jesus is a Christ, but not the Christ.
- The orthodox understanding of Jesus as the final and supreme revelation of God is dismissed as illegitimate. We all have the potential to become Christs.
- Jesus death on the cross is not accepted as having any ethical significance for salvation.
- Jesus resurrection from the dead is not viewed as a physical fact demonstrating his victory over sin, death and Satan but as a spiritual triumph not unique to Jesus. There are many other Ascended Masters.
- Jesus second coming is not a literal, physical and visible return in the clouds at the end of the age but is rather a stage in the evolution of the race. One New Age teacher tells his clients, You are god, you are each and every one, part of the second coming.
- Exotic extra-biblical documents are regarded as sources for authentic material about the life of Jesus not available from the Scriptures.
The quest for extra-biblical documents received a great boost in December 1945 with the discovery of 13 leather bound papyrus books dating from around 350AD near Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt. These books were not made available in English until 1977, but since then they have become a source for the New Age view of Jesus. They present the Gnostic view of Jesus, which was condemned as heresy by the early church. Those who champion these writings like Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels claim that Gnosticism should be considered as legitimate as orthodox Christianity, because the heresy was simply a strain of competing Christianity.
Briefly the Gnostic view is as follows. The present universe is not good, nor was it created by an all good God. A lesser god, or demiurge as he is sometimes called, fashioned the world in ignorance. The result was a material cosmos soaked with ignorance, pain, decay and death, a botched job if you like. Nevertheless this deity despotically demands worship and even pretentiously proclaims his supremacy as the one true God.
This creator god is not the ultimate reality but rather a degeneration of the unknown and unknowable fullness of Being. However some human beings have the potential to break out of the bondage of this imperfect creation because this creator accidentally placed the spark of divinity within their being. The spiritual quest is to discover the good spiritual part of ourselves and to escape from the evil of the material world. Into this situation Jesus comes, not as the Saviour from sin, but as one who has descended from higher levels of intermediary beings (called aeons), coming from this exalted level to ignite the knowledge (Gnosis) within.
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say: ‘He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am and I shall be as he. The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realise that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty. It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.’
The Gnostic texts that discuss Jesus crucifixion and resurrection reveal some common themes, which totally conflict with the New Testament account. In the Apocalypse of Peter there is a vision of two Jesuses on the cross one being impaled and one laughing. He whom you saw on the tree glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is the fleshly part which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says, ‘I did not die in reality but in appearance … Those in error and blindness saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all. And I was laughing at their ignorance.’ Interestingly the Koran has a similar idea to this, that Jesus did not really die on the cross, but one like him was put on the cross. This is evidence that some of the inspiration for the Koran came from false forms of Christianity and the Gnostic Gospels.
This should be enough to show why these texts were not included in the New Testament. It was not some kind of sinister conspiracy, but simply the fact that they are depicting another Jesus who is not the Messiah of history at all, but a figment of the corrupted imagination of the writers (who incidentally had nothing to do with the Apostles Thomas and Peter).
The Biblical view is radically different from the one depicted above. God is a good God who created a perfect world, which was corrupted by Adam and Eves sin in giving way to the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden. Since that time sin has ruled over the human race, but God has had a witness, firstly through the Hebrew scriptures, which give us his Law and promise the coming of the Messiah who will deliver us from sin and enable us to come to know the Lord. The New Testament scriptures reveal the identity of this Messiah and the manner by which He has redeemed us and show us how we can be saved from sin. This is not by discovering divinity within us – in fact when we look within we discover only our sinful human nature – but by repentance and faith in the unique sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for the sins of humanity and by inviting Him to come into our lives from the outside. As Jesus says in Revelation 3.20, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him and he with me.’
The early church rejected the Gnostic writings and the reason is given in the New Testament itself. They went out from us but they were not of us; for if they had been of us they would have continued with us; but they went out that it might be made manifest that none of them were of us. I John 2.18. In other words they left authentic Apostolic Christianity to form a new movement of their own. Who is a liar but he who denies the Father and the Son? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. I John 2.22. The Gnostics denied both the goodness of the Father God and the uniqueness of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man and the one mediator between God and humanity, which is the clear teaching of the New Testament. Therefore they are of the spirit of antichrist.
But there were false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them. 2 Peter 2.1. The spirit of antichrist behind the Gnostic writings means that they deny the uniqueness of Jesus death and resurrection and the power of his blood through which he redeemed us from sin. The quotations above about the cross are a powerful manifestation of the hatred Satan has for the deliverance from evil, which Jesus won for all believers at the cross.
There is much evidence that the early church accepted the writings we now know as the New Testament from early in the Christian era even if they were not formally defined as the canon of the 27 New Testament books until the fourth century of the Christian era. By AD 180 Irenaeus, who was taught by Polycarp, the disciple of John, could write in his treatise Against Heresies that the idea of a fourfold Gospel had become so much the accepted norm of Christianity that it could be referred to as an established fact as obvious as the four cardinal points of the compass or the four winds.
One can see in the Gnostic Gospels the source of distortions of Christianity that have followed, including Islam (the Muslim view of what happened at the cross is very similar to the one quoted above in the Gnostic Gospels quoted above), Jehovah’s Witnesses and the New Age Movement, as well as distortions of the authentic message of the Gospel within the professing Christian Church. It is no accident that the modern world rejecting the authentic message of the Gospel, looks for an alternative in the Gnostic Gospels. Satan has no new ideas; he simply recycles the same old poison in different bottles.
Gnosticism dressed up as New Age presents no moral challenge to repentance and faith as authentic Christianity does. Therefore it can fit in well with the permissive immoral life style adopted by our age and ceaselessly propagated by the mass media. That is why it is championed by progressive thinkers who dominate TV and use that powerful medium to corrupt and destroy the morals of our nation. The real conspiracy is their suppression of the evidence for Biblical Christianity and of the Gospel message as the answer to the appalling state of our society. For this they will one day have to give account to Almighty God.