What is the Christian view of the body? Do we need to be freed from the physical world in order to be truly spiritual? Today, Barry Cooper talks about an ancient philosophy that still leads many people to have wrong ideas about our physical bodies.
Without meaning to get too personal, how do you feel about your body?
I ask this question because many of us go to extremes where the body is concerned. On the one extreme, there are those who effectively worship it: we celebrate physical beauty as if it were a moral virtue, and the gym becomes our church. On the other extreme, there are those who think of the body as an obstacle to true spirituality. That view of the body is what we might call “gnostic.”
Gnosticism was a prominent movement that grew up around the church in the second century, although it was partly of pre-Christian origin. It was a cocktail of Persian, Egyptian, Jewish, and Christian ideas, with some Greek philosophy thrown in.
The word gnōsis itself is Greek and means “knowing” or “having knowledge.” “Having knowledge” is a significant part of Gnosticism. To say you were a Gnostic was to say: “I know something you don’t. I’m in on the secret. I’ve been enlightened. I’ve woken up. I’m spiritually on a higher level.” You get a hint of that in the way Simon Magus is described in the book of Acts. He’s been called the first Gnostic, and according to Acts chapter 8, “he amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great.”
As well as thinking you’re kind of a big deal spiritually, Gnostics also have a thing about “the body.” Gnostics say that spirit is good, and matter, including the physical body, is evil.
Gnostics believe that we need to be delivered from the physical world in order to go to the spiritual world. So, many of them believed that in Jesus, God was taking the form of man in order to give people the gnōsis, the knowledge they needed in order to be rescued from this physical world.
Of course, Gnostics can’t believe that the Son of God actually took on human flesh forever in the incarnation—that wouldn’t do at all, because all matter is evil. So as a result, many of them argued that Jesus merely took on human form temporarily, rather like putting on a moldy smelling old coat that you can’t wait to take off as soon as you put it on. The problem with this, of course, is that Jesus’ atonement for human sin requires that He be both truly God and truly human. Merely appearing to be human means that any atonement can only appear to be effective. As it says in 2 John chapter 7, “Anyone who denies that Jesus came in the flesh is not a believer.”
Scripture nowhere says that matter is intrinsically evil. On the contrary, as it says in Genesis chapter 1, God made everything “good.” It’s true that as we look at the physical world, we can clearly see the corruption in it. There’s dysfunction and suffering and evil. But those problems are caused by sin, not by physicality. And God’s redemption will end the former, not the latter. He has no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So Christians, unlike Gnostics, believe in feasting and joy. We don’t view physical things with disapproval. The senses we have—taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing—and the body itself are not in themselves things that the triune God is embarrassed by or wants us to somehow grow out of. He made these things and He promises to redeem them.
I wonder if many of us can sometimes be functionally Gnostic. We imagine a holy person as being rather like Ben Kenobi after he dies: mostly disembodied, or effectively translucent, so holy they’re almost invisible. But that view of spirituality is thrown out of the window when we consider Christ. Here is the second person of the Trinity, the most holy person who ever lived. And yet even after His death and resurrection He is defiantly physical. He even has an appetite, and of all things, He eats broiled fish. “Touch me, and see,” He says, “for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
That is the Christian view of the body. And that is the future we have to look forward to: actual flesh and bone bodies, fully and finally delivered—not from physicality but from sin.