For 15 years my old theology professor, author, and friend Michael Wittmer has been saying that evangelicals are Gnostic and don’t even know it, as evidenced by some of the songs we sing. Songs like I’ll Fly Away.

Who among us hasn’t sung that old hymn with gusto? I’m particularly fond of letting the harmonies rip on the chorus. Though seemingly innocent, consider the second verse: When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away; Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.

This world is a prison from which we must escape?

Sorry to break it to you, but elements in this hymn reflect the heresy of Gnosticism, an early church false teaching that still bears influence upon today’s church.

Which is why Justin Holcomb‘s new book Know the Heretics is so important. In it he describes 14 major heresies in a way that’s accessible and informative so we can avoid them in our own faith and life.

I agree with Wittmer that Gnosticism has subtly influenced the American church, and not only in its cosmology. Thus it is important to understand some of the beliefs of this heresy in order to guard against its potential impact of the contemporary church. The Gnostic belief system has the potential to impact contemporary Christian beliefs in three major ways: How we view creation, God, and salvation.

What is Gnosticism?

Though Gnosticism is often hard to define. Gnostics differ widely in beliefs, the origin of Gnosticism is still unclear, and it wasn’t a specific heretical movement but a collection of religious beliefs that influenced the the Church.

This non-Christian spiritual movement contains elements of paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. Holcomb notes Everett Ferguson argues Gnosticism grew up concurrently with Christianity in the first century before separating in the second. (34)

At root in this movement is the Greek word for “knowledge,” gnosis. “Gnostics claimed to have a special kind of knowledge that was hidden from most people.” (33) They believed this hidden enlightenment was the source of personal salvation.

Gnosticism and Creation

As illustrated in the above hymn, Gnostics have a low view of creation. Gnostics believe “The universe, having been created by an inferior and ignorant power, is a dark prison in which human souls are held captive.” (35)

The ideas that matter is evil and the spirit is pure goodness largely characterize this aberrant philosophy. Consequently, human nature itself is viewed through this dichotomous prism: “A human being is a divine spark that originated in the transcendent divine world…The human body, on the other hand, is part of the cosmic prison from which the spirit must be released.” (35)

One can find vestiges of such teachings not only in Christian songs but in Christian books that teach this world and everything in it is bad; life is just dress rehearsal for the next life; this world isn’t our home, we’re just passing through. This is one of the most common ways evangelicals are Gnostic in their beliefs.

Gnosticism and God

Another strong element within Gnosticism is a denigration of the Hebrew Scriptures, evidenced in the Gnostic view of god(s). At the top of the pyramid of universal beings stands a supreme transcendent god and usually a divine mother. Below are a series of lesser gods, or Aeons, and evil gods, Archons.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is considered one such Archon, an arrogant, evil creator god known as Yaldabaoth. Gnostics were fond of contrasting the God of the Old Testament with the loving Father proclaimed by Jesus.

An astute observer will note similarities to Marcionism. While not exactly adopting Gnosticism, Marcion was influenced by its dualism. “According to Marcion,” Holcomb notes, “the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, vengeful deity…while Christ was sent by the real supreme God to reintroduce the old religion of love and peace.” (45)

This false dualism shows up in the contemporary Church when people try to reconcile the seeming disconnect between the Old and New Testaments. In such attempts Yahweh is viewed as less-than-Jesus.

Gnosticism and Salvation

The key to Gnostic salvation is self-knowledge rather than divine intervention: “the means of redemption in Gnostic thought was not Christ’s work. The Gnostics were quite clear that the orthodox interpretation of the cross had no place in their writings…” (38)

Because secret knowledge was regarded by Gnostics as the primary way of salvation, the person and work of Christ was reinterpreted. Thus, Jesus was important in so far as he provided a better, more enlightened way of living and the cross was the culmination of that good, enlightened life.

“Because they thought Jesus was an example rather than a savior,” Holcomb notes, “the Gnostics could become enlightened with him.” (37)

>We find such a view of Jesus and his work in liberal theology, which values Jesus for His teachings and the cross for its loving example. Like Gnostics, it values Jesus not for his historical redemption but for His deep, cryptic teachings. Many evangelicals are now also emphasizing this loving example at the expense of his atoning sacrifice.

While we shouldn’t be surprised that history repeats itself, we should be concerned when heresies do. Holcomb and his book seek to guard us from these errors, even when embedded in innocent sounding, historic hymns of the faith.

Teachers would be wise to engage Holcomb’s guide to major heresies so they may act on Jude’s exhortation: “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”