Enter the Matrix: Is Adventism Gnostic?
by Stephen Ferguson | 16 January 2019 |
Ever noticed a commonality between Nazi “Deutsche Christianity,” Catholic monasticism and Scientology? And what do these religious movements have in common with the Hollywood productions The Matrix, Blade Runner and Westworld? These disparate movements and productions, for all their differences, share a common inspiration found in Christianity’s first major heresy: gnosticism.
As I will explain, gnosticism basically took the original Hebrew ideas of biblical Christianity and melded them with Greco-Roman philosophy, creating a new syncretized religious movement that turned the Bible on its head. It is the true source of the eschatological “boogie-man” we consider spiritual “Babylon.”
In this article I argue that Adventism should be the most anti-gnostic movement in Christianity today. This is basically what our Three Angels’ Message is all about. It ties in with previous thoughts of mine as to why Adventism is not merely “orthodox” but arguably the most “ultra-orthodox” Christian denomination. However, it worries me greatly then when I see individuals and groups within Adventism adopt gnostic beliefs and practices.
Who are the Ancient Gnostics?
The ancient gnostics are the most important group in Christian history you’ve probably never heard of. Even the Bible we all use owes its very existence to the gnostics. As for a definition, the gnostics were:
“a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin. gnostic doctrine taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge.”
gnosticism mixed the Bible with Hellenized (Greco-Roman) philosophy, especially the teachings of Plato (428-348 BC). As theologian Adolf von Harnack explained it, gnosticism was the “radical Hellenization of Christianity.”
Basically, the gnostics read the scriptures backwards. They viewed the Creator of Genesis as an evil lesser god, with creation a flawed mistake. The Garden of Eden was not paradise but a prison, a false lesser world designed to prevent Adam and Eve from realizing their true god-like potential.
The Lucifer-serpent figure is therefore not evil because “the serpent is the ‘goody’ in the story, the embodiment of the spiritual principle of wisdom, who brings to humanity knowledge of good and evil.” And Christ is not the enemy but ally of Lucifer, come to free humanity from the Creator’s invisible chains.
Ggnosticism in the New Testament Period
While gnosticism had its greatest impact during the 2nd century CE, gnostic-like groups were already present during the Apostolic Age. The word gnostic comes from the Greek word for “knowledge,” but the New Testament identifies it as a false type (1 Tim. 6:20). This so-called knowledge was often secret, discernible only to an elite few, and often derived from various conspiracies, numerologies and other supposed secret teachings (1 Tim 1:3,4; 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:4).
As they saw the Creator as evil, gnostics in turn viewed all created matter negatively—especially the human body. This led some to extreme liberal-libertinism (also known as “nicolaitanism”), where Christians engaged in behavior such as visiting prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:12-20 and Rev. 2:14-16).
Ironically, other gnostics went to the other extreme and embraced an early form of conservative-asceticism, such as mandatory celibacy and fasting (1 Tim. 4:1-3; Col. 2:16-20; Rom. 14:1-3). If the created world was the flawed work of a lesser god, even the pleasures of marriage, eating and drinking are “evils of the flesh” to be avoided.
Finally, the gnostics taught Jesus had only come in spirit-form—known as the heresy of “docetism.” This so worried John, who was himself prone to more mystical teachings, that he drew a theological line and threatened anyone who denied Jesus had come in the flesh as an “antichrist” (1John 4:1-3; 2 John 1:7).
In other words, these gnostics were the first antichrists!
What do Scientologists, Monks and The Matrix All Have in Common?
The ancient gnostics were ultimately defeated. However, apart from being the original antiChrists, they remain relevant because:
“Orthodox Christianity clashed with gnosticism and the church fathers read gnostic texts in order to refute them. This led indirectly to Christianity absorbing a certain amount of influence from gnosticism.”
Gnosticism essentially represented the overt Westernization of what was originally a Middle Eastern religion. As prominent scholar and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright admits:
“The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies.”
As a result, gnosticism represents a broad undercurrent that runs throughout Western culture. It never died out but simply reinvented itself into new religious, philosophical and cultural movements. For example, the movie website IMDb points to some seventy-two gnostic-inspired Hollywood movies on record.
Many ancient and modern religious movements seem to be inspired by gnosticism, from the Church of Scientology, to Christian Scientists, Sufi Muslims, the Medieval Cathars, the Knights Templars, the Mandaens and Freemasons. However, probably the greatest and most widespread religious impact on Western culture and religion was in Catholic Monasticism, which Oxford Professor Diarmard MacCulloch says was lucky to survive given it represented a “silent threat” of “possibly gnostic origins.”
The most extreme manifestation of gnosticism in modern times was the “Deutsche Christian” movement of Nazi Germany. Because the Old Testament Creator-God wasn’t the true God, but the lesser Demiurge, the gnostics often viewed Jews negatively, given Jews openly worshipped this Creator and claimed to be His chosen people. As Lutheran scholar Oscar Cullmann admits, Nazi-Christianity was not new but really “that modern version of Marcionism [the ancient founder of gnosticism] which regards the law as a disastrous misconception on the part of religious men which Jesus desired to set us free.”
Is Adventism gnostic or anti-gnostic?
Apart from some historic oddity, why bring up gnosticism? What is its relevance to 21st-century Seventh-day Adventists?
As far as I can tell, Adventism is a restorationist movement that aims to return Christianity to its more primitive Hebrew-inspired roots. This is none other than our supposed raison d’etre message: to “come out of Babylon” (Rev. 18:4), where Babylon itself was biblical code-word for both false religion (Gen. 11:1) and Greco-Roman influence (1 Pet. 5:13). And gnosticism’s influence of Christian history, as German theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, is “the degree to which Christianity cut itself off from its Hebrew roots and acquired Hellenistic and Roman form.”
Within this context, I think it arguable that the Adventist Church is the largest, least gnostic group in Christendom today. Consider the following:
- In direct opposition to gnosticism’s bleak view our God and matter, we Adventists affirm the Genesis account of a good Creator making a very good creation.
- In direct opposition to gnosticism’s secret elitism, we Adventists strive (quite successfully) to promote an open message to the entire world—now being one of the largest, ethnically diverse and most world-inclusive groups on earth.
- In our views about the state of the dead, we Adventists affirm the human body was made in the very the image of God Himself, and not simply some immortal essence that has been trapped in crude matter.
- In our health message, we Adventists don’t see flesh as intrinsically evil but rather as temples for the Holy Spirit, to be cared for lovingly in a holistic way.
- In our acknowledgment of the weekly Sabbath, we Adventists affirm both the goodness of the Creator-God, and the goodness of His creatures which need physical, emotional and spiritual rest.
- In our end-time beliefs, we Adventists don’t seek a ghostlike escape for immortal souls from this world but believe in a physical resurrection, a physical Second Coming, a final destruction of the wicked and a physical recreated New Earth—a salvation of the world and not merely our salvation from it, with nature itself groaning to be saved.
- While not trying to be Jews, in direct opposition to the Hellenization of Christianity, we Adventists embrace a more original, Hebrew-inspired version of the faith as originally practiced by Jesus and His disciples.
In opposition to gnosticism, rooted in pagan Greco-Roman philosophy and its emphasis on a secret reality for an escaping immortal soul, Adventism is sometimes said to embrace the idea of “Wholism.” Nevertheless, it worries me greatly that many Adventists seem to embrace gnostic-like ideas and practices. Consider the following:
- Some Adventists deny the full divinity of Christ, seeing Him indeed akin to some sort of lesser Demiurge-Creator.
- Some Adventists treat salvation as something attained by knowledge, putting maximum emphasis on “the truth” above all else.
- Some Adventists see this truth as belonging only to a select elite, seeing a remnant of only a literal 144,000 people.
- Some Adventists see this truth as being discernible only through esoteric understandings, often involving various conspiracies, charts and numerological calculations.
- Some Adventists adopt an aesthetic and puritanical approach to the material world, adopting extreme and negative views about food, drink, dress, sex and recreation.
- Some Adventists often treat the Sabbath as a burden, making it the hardest day with which to live, like some sort of monastic period of fasting, rather than a blessing bringing physical and spiritual rest.
- Some Adventists treat our hope in the next world as a way to denigrate the current one, as if the current state of the environment and the creatures that live in it are irrelevant, because they are all going to burn anyway—salvation as an escape from this world.
- Some Adventists embrace an imperialist westernization of Christianity, enforcing western cultural norms concerning dress, music, worship and gender as if these were biblical rather than cultural concepts; the fact many of these ideas now come from the Developing World is an irony that should be lost on no one.
So what are you—wholistic or gnostic?
The thing about the first gnostics is they were not in fact a separate religion. For quite a few centuries at least, gnostics were a select group within the wider Christian community. This of course is why they were so influential in helping foment the rest of Christianity.
I likewise suspect Adventism can be influenced by both ideas, depending on the individual or sub-group. Maybe it has been that way since its very beginning? But as a personal question, what are you—Wholistic or gnostic? Who are the ones who truly need to come out of Babylon?
 See <https://atoday.org/are-adventists-the-ultra-orthodox-hasidim-of-mainstream-christianity/>
 Our canon of scripture was not formed during the NT period. Rather, it was formed in opposition to gnostic-leader Marcion of Sinope (c.85-160 CE). As discussed further in the article, viewing the Hebrew Creator as evil, he produced his own version of the Bible without an OT, an edited version of Paul’s letters and only a heavily edited version of Luke: D. Dunn, The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, 4th Ed. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 57, 557.
 Oxford Online Dictionary.
 Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, English translation 1894, Vol. I, 226; cited in Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991), 17.
 John Arendzen, “gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), retrieved 31 Jul. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm>.
 Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991), 20.
 E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2006), 176, 244.
 Andrew Smith, gnostic Writings on the Soul (Woodstock VT: Sky Light Pub., 2007), xvii.
 Cited in David Van Biema, “Christians Wrong About Heaven, Bishop Says,” Time Magazine (07 Feb 08),
<http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html>, retrieved 21 Jul 14.
 And yes, I am citing a movie website. I think that emphasizes how ubiquitous gnostic ideas pervade popular culture and not merely the thoughts of academia:
 And thus to avoid all doubt I am not suggesting Catholicism as a whole is gnostic. Quite the contrary, I am suggesting Catholicism has long had an internal struggle between gnostic and anti-gnostic forces, just as Adventism has: Diarmard MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2009), 201-202.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (New York: Fortress Press, 2015, Kindle Ed.), Lc. 1425 at 14%; 1646 at 16%. Fellow Lutheran scholar Martin Hengel admitted something similar, that the Holocaust was not some modern aberration but had “some of its roots deep within western Christian culture.” Other evidence can be seen in the speech of Deutsche Christen leaders such as Reinhold Krause, who in 1933 gave a famous speech at the Berlin Sportsplatz and directly drew upon gnostic themes.
 J. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (London: SCM Press, 1992), 89.
 In other words Adventism “rejects the neo-Platonic dualism that would value the disembodied soul more highly than the body, seeing in Scripture a wholism of body and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1), and a goodness of the physical creation. We believe we will ultimately inhabit not a Platonic heaven but a new earth, a bodily pleasurable existence (Isa. 65:17–25). We believe Christ came to bring life abundant, beginning in the here and now. We feel called to honor God in our bodies. We believe that we are saved due to what God did in a body—living, shedding blood, resurrecting in a glorious body similar to the one we will be given (Phil. 3:21). Our health institutions care for bodies, male and female, as Jesus did.” Grenville Kent, “The Church Judas Built,” Spectrum Magazine, 5 Mar 2008.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.