Impact of Gnosticism on Christianity

Dr. Ray Dykes and the Personal Faith Program

"Gnosis" means knowledge. In the Greek world, knowledge was prized above all else. A "gnostic" is "one who knows." An "agnostic" is "one who doesn't know."

Gnosticism had its roots in Persia, in the religious/philosophical crucible known as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. In these religions, Ahura Mazda was the good god, Angra Mainyu was the bad god. Mithras was the "heavenly light," and a Satan-like being was the tempter and accuser. There were lots of angels and demons.

The battle between good and evil was being waged continually. Zoroaster was the prophet/teacher who founded this movement. Through the interaction with the empire of Alexander the Great (which succeeded the Persian Empire) and the Seleucid rulers who followed Alexander, the basic ideas behind Gnosticism were communicated to the Graeco-Roman world, including Palestine. Mithraism was Christianity's biggest competitor for the first 200 years.

In Hebrew thought, the chief virtue was in oneness, wholeness, "shalom." There is one God, Yahweh. There is one world consisting of the heavens, the earth, and Sheol under the earth, and all creation is good. Each human being is wonderfully made as one cohesive unit. Salvation is found in living life in covenant relationship with Yahweh, and salvation is experienced in immediate time, as well as in the future.

In Gnostic thought, dualism is the dominant theme. Following the Persian religions, there is usually one main good god and one main bad god battling it out for the souls of humans. There are two worlds: one inhabited by the gods and the other is the home of humans. The world where humans live is a garbage dump.

Each human being has a "soul," which contains a divine spark, which yearns to return to the "pleroma" (the house of the gods with many rooms) as soon as it can free itself from the prison of the "flesh." "Right living" is not nearly as important as "right thinking." Salvation is accomplished by learning the magic words which allow the soul to ascend through the seven heavens to the pleroma.

In Hebrew thought, the Messiah is a human being, raised up from the people, chosen by God and anointed to serve and cause redemption to come to the people Israel. In Gnostic thought, the Savior is a god, sent down from the pleroma to Earth by the main good god to teach all who will listen the magic words, for the salvation of their souls.

Gnosticism had a definite influence on the New Testament. Almost all the people of the New Testament era and area perceived reality in Gnostic terms. Christianity also added a few strokes to Gnostic thought. Early Christian teachings were in tension and dialogue with Gnosticism, sometimes trying to refute some Gnostic teachings and teachers. Had the New Testament writers not used Gnostic ideas, Christianity would have been rejected outright. The question is: Must Christianity Be Gnostic Still?

For further information, contact Dr. Ray Dykes, 800-728-2844 or e-mail