There are two generically different views about Jesus, and they are rooted in
two generically different views about God and the world.
J. Gresham Machen (1930)1
Ecce homo: “Behold the man.” These were Pilate’s famous words, spoken at the trial of Jesus. Pilate’s fascination with this helpless prisoner jumps off the page, and ever since that time, people have been looking at Jesus with a similar fascination. Western history has often considered him to be the most significant human being of all time. You can tell Jesus made an impression on Pilate because, almost in the same breath, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Quid est veritas? (Now you know five Latin words—with no extra charge!) Pilate linked Jesus’ identity to the definition of truth. The question, Who is Jesus? still raises the fundamental question of truth. Whoever defines Jesus defines ultimate religious truth. But to define Jesus (as the above quote by Machen so eloquently shows) we must identify the God Jesus served. If Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,”2 it is also true that the God of Jesus will tell you everything about Jesus—and will provide answers to Pilate’s question of truth. This is a critical time to raise these questions concerning Jesus and Jesus’ God, for in our day there are essentially two coherent answers—the Gnostic and the biblical.
If you want to know lots about “God,” the Gnostic texts have many answers for you. Much of the content of the Gnostic scrolls is dedicated to the nature of the “unknowable” God. Gnostics wanted to know who God is in his ultimate being. Jesus is their favorite, though not their exclusive, revealer of God. The Gnostic texts also define God by clearly identifying the false God.
THE TRUE GOD OF GNOSTICISM
The Gnostics call God “the Father of the Entities,” or “the Father of the All.” In their texts, Jesus declared that the true believer must believe in the oneness of “the All,”3 and he said about himself, “It is I who am the All.”4 This statement sounds something like what Jesus said in the gospel of John: “I and the Father are one,” but the Gnostic version is much more complicated. Gnosticism affirms that it is easy to know “the Creator of all creatures,” but it is impossible to know the true God.5 The Creator is an impostor. The true God stands behind the false, clothed in mystery. Such is the mystery of God that the Gnostics end up saying only what he is not. “He is neither divinity nor blessedness nor perfection.” He is better than that. “He is neither boundless nor is he bounded by another. Rather, he is something better.”6 In order to express the mystery of God, Gnostic speculation about God deliberately chooses nonsense statements like, “He has nonbeing existence,” or “He is limitless and powerless and nonexistent.”7
The God of this Jesus, often revealed in female form as Sophia, makes similarly bewildering statements. God is the “First Father,” unengendered. He is either male or female or both. As the Goddess, he/she states, “I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and] Father since [I copulate] with myself.”8 This juxtaposition of contradictory notions also seeks to express the divine mystery. In another text, Sophia says:
I am the prostitute and the venerable one … I am the wife and the virgin … the barren one and many are her sons … the bride and the bridegroom … knowledge and ignorance … war and peace … compassionate and cruel … senseless and … wise … I myself am godless and it is I whose God is manifold, I am the immutable essence and the one who has no immutable essence … I am without mind and I am mindless.9
This unknowable God, who is everything and nothing, is the ultimate life source. Everything emanates from him.10 “Emanate” is a crucial verb. “God” does not create anything, and there is a reason for it. True existence cannot be created; it always is. If it is true life, it has always existed. So God shares his life with everything. God is only the source from which everything emanates and to which everything returns. Everything, including God, shares the same nature.
The Gnostics use various images to keep God as high above or as far away as possible from what we immediately perceive in the illusion of our “created” reality. He is separated from the created world by various levels of personal spirit beings and/or worlds, sometimes as many as 365. It can get very complicated and virtually impossible to decipher. The following example indicates the level of speculation to which Gnostic writers were willing to go:
This is the five-aeon [world] of the Father which is the first Man, the image of the invisible Spirit; it is the Pronoia which is Barbelo, the thought and the foreknowledge and the indestructibility and the eternal life and the truth. This is the androgynous five-aeon, which is the ten-aeon, which is the Father.11
The Gnostic texts are full of passages like this. This God, wrapped in silence and mystery, denouncing the created structures, is still in every part of the universe.
Such a view of God is called either pantheism or monism. Pantheism means, “God is in everything” or “everything is God.” According to monism, since everything shares the same divine nature, everything is ultimately “one” (the meaning of mono). Together these two terms capture the Gnostic view of God. Some texts make this clear. The female manifestation of the ultimate God states, “I move in every creature … I am the life of … every power … and every soul.” In the most well-known of the Gnostic texts, The Gospel of Thomas, which is also considered the most “Christian,” Jesus makes a clearly pantheistic statement: “It is I who am the All. From me did the All come forth.… Cleave a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up a stone and I will be there.”12 Amodern Gnostic “believer” gives expression to this pantheism:
This Father, uncreated, does not create … [he] is everywhere.… All living beings are part of the Totality—trees, branches, and fruit—but he is the root that draws up the water of life from the unfathomable depths.13
Pantheism is not just an interesting theological option. It is the essence of religious paganism. “Paganism” is not a term of insult. It means the worship of nature, and the forces of nature, as divine. (Paganus is a Latin term meaning “of the earth.”) If the Gnostic God is everything, then the God of the Gnostic Jesus is the god of paganism, a time-honored form of human spirituality. The church father Hippolytus (AD 170–236) made that connection long ago. He documented that the Gnostics of his day sought “the wisdom of the pagans.”14 He noted that “Christian” Gnostics attended the ceremonies of the Isis-worshipping mystery cults in order to understand “the universal mystery.”15 One of the original, recently found Gnostic texts confirms the testimony of Hippolytus. Sophia declares, “[I] am the one whose image is great in Egypt.”16 Isis, the pagan Egyptian Goddess of Wisdom and Magic is the one “whose likeness is great in Egypt.”17
Who is Isis? According to her worshippers, she is “the still point of the turning world”18 who proclaims, “I am Nature, the Universal Mother … single manifestation of all gods and goddesses am I.”19 An expert in the study of Isis claims that when the Egyptians called her “great in magical power,” they believed that she gave them “insight into the mystery of life and death.”20 The “universal Mother” revealing “the mystery of life and death” is almost word for word what Hippolytus says about the Gnostics he knew: They worshipped the Goddess to understand the “universal mystery.” The statement of Sophia and the testimony of Hippolytus that Gnosticism was a “Christianized” form of paganism are confirmed by a contemporary pagan priestess of Isis who notes, “Gnosticism serves most admirably as a bridge for paganism to infiltrate Christianity.”21
In principle, all the Gnostic texts hold to this view of God. One text goes as far as to call God Abraxas.22 In the subsequent history of Gnosticism, Abraxas, the supreme Gnostic deity, is represented by the image of a man with the head of a cock and with feet made of serpents, holding a shield and whip. Some mythologists also placed Abraxas among the Egyptian gods. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who was fascinated by Gnosticism and practiced occult spirituality,23 wore a ring bearing the image of Abraxas and described him as:
Truly the terrible one … the sun and also the eternally gaping abyss of emptiness … magnificent even as the lion at the very moment when he strikes his prey down. His beauty is like the beauty of a spring morn.… He is the monster of the underworld. … He is the bright light of day and the deepest night of madness.… He is the mightiest manifest being, and in him creation becomes frightened of itself.24
This esoteric view of God is only a logical extension of the many texts that identify the voice of the true God with the words spoken by the serpent of Genesis. The “Female Spiritual Principle,” the heavenly Eve, who has the true knowledge of God, enters the snake, called the “Teacher,”25 and teaches Adam and Eve the true way of salvation. The snake is the true prophet, the revealer of divine truth. He is “the one who is wiser than all of them.”26 It obviously follows that Jesus, the final teacher of Gnostic wisdom, brings the same kind of revelation as that brought by the serpent.
THE FALSE GOD OF GNOSTICISM
Consistently, in all the Gnostic texts, the false God who leads believers astray is the Creator God of the Bible.27 Because he created the physical world, the God of the Bible is consistently called a fool. He thinks that, as Creator, he is the true and living God, but he is not.28 He is rather a cosmic fool. Thus he is called Samael, the “blind one.” He does not know that Sophia is the “Mother of the Universe.”29 Thus Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas reveals the real truth: “My [physical] mother [gave me falsehood], but [My] true [Mother] gave me life.”30 The physical world is illusion, as the Hindus and Buddhists believe. In the Gnostic texts, the God of the Bible is “ignorant, arrogant,31 conceited, disdainful, stupid, mad,32 assassin … a perfect object for Gnostic hatred and contempt.”33 He is a joke, because he makes the statement, “I am the LORD and there is no other,”34 not knowing that the Father of the All is above him. More than that, he is a demon who creates fellow diabolical beings, one of which is Belias “who is over the abyss of Hades.”35 He even looks like the Devil himself, “a lion-faced serpent with glittering eyes of fire.”36 Finally, Gnosticism affirms that the Old Testament God is the Devil himself. He is the great demon who rules over the lowest part of the underworld.37
Yahweh got what any devil deserves—hell. The feminine goddess, Zoe, Sophia’s daughter, reprimanded him for his blind arrogance in thinking that he is the one true God. “She breathed upon his face, and her breath became an angel of fire and that very angel shackled [him] and threw him down into Hell, under the abyss.”38
One would imagine these ancient myths to have passed into the black hole of abandoned primitive lore. But this ancient view of God continues today, with different terminology. A Presbyterian scholar, Lloyd Geering, declares, “The time for glorifying the Almighty God who supposedly rules from on high is now over.”39 A Jewish feminist, Naomi Goldenburg, in 1979 made the bold prophecy, “We women are going to bring an end to God.”40 She describes religious feminism as “engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Yahweh.”41 Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Spong confesses that “life has taught us that theism is dead.”42 Finally, a Lutheran scholar dismisses the Creator God of the Bible as “insane,”43 “pathologically violent,”44 and suffering from “multiple personality disorder,”45 conditions that resulted from “an archaic first-century understanding of God as a theistic being living in the sky.”46 Until recently, hardly anyone in America questioned the reality of the Bible’s view of God. Now, we see a poster in a San Diego gay pride parade aimed at the Christian view of God: “He’s your God; they’re your rules; you go to Hell.”
These modern rejections of the God of the Bible demonstrate the resilience of the old Gnostic views. One has to admire the deep consistency with which these ancient radical thinkers developed their religious understanding of existence, which may partially explain why Gnosticism is still a live option for intelligent people as we begin to structure the religious thinking of the third millennium.
We enter a different world when we open the pages of the biblical Gospels. The birds are singing, happy that the heavenly Father is feeding them. The yellow and purple lilies of the field catch our eye, more resplendent than well-dressed kings. Bread and wine, children and families, marriage and health are all celebrated. Gone is the polemic against the Creator. Everywhere is an appreciation for the astonishing beauty of his work. In one very real sense, to quote an old English hymn, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” I’m not trying to paint a cockeyed, optimistic Disney version of yesteryear, with Jesus in the starring role, birds flying around his head, and laughing children at his feet. But the biblical Jesus clearly accepts the physical world as a good place to be, made by God, the good Creator who causes the blessings of sun and rain to be given to all people, deserving or not.47 According to Jesus, the gift of physical life is itself a wonderful thing, to be enjoyed by everyone. Frankly, for a man who ended his short life the victim of unspeakable human cruelty, reduced to fleshy pulp before dying in excruciating pain on a Roman torture machine, such optimism is breathtaking. What kind of worldview can explain this enigma?
Jesus’ God is the God of Old Testament Judaism. According to the well-known New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright:
The Jews believed their god, YHWH [Yahweh], was the only god, and that all others (including the “one god” of Stoics and other pantheists) were idols. … Jesus shared the belief that Israel’s god was the only true god.48
According to the biblical Gospels, as a young boy, Jesus amazed the teachers of Scripture by his knowledge of God’s Word.49 Arriving at adulthood, Jesus based his life’s goal on an Old Testament text about the God of Scripture. He was called to “prepare the way of the Lord.”50 At the end of that “way” as he arrived in Jerusalem, “he came in the name of the Lord.”51 Jesus revealed the essential principle of his life, based on “the great and first commandment,” namely, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”52
Who is the God Jesus serves and worships?
The Bible begins, not with an abstract speculation about the unfathomable inner nature of the unknown God or even with the reassuring promise that Jesus is our Savior, but with a programmatic declaration of God as Creator of the universe. The Bible talks about where we come from before it tells us how to be saved from the mess we have produced. In the ancient pagan world, people worshipped nature or the forces of nature as “god.” That is why they made idols of natural things. Through Moses came the ringing counteraffirmation, unique in that world: No! “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The heavens and the earth did not create themselves, or always exist. They are the product of a free and determined act of God. They are in their good and rightful place as mere creatures; only God is divine. The Bible’s opening salvo says it all. In a certain sense, after the first verse of the Bible, everything else is commentary.
The God of Jesus is the Creator of heaven and earth. For instance, the biblical Jesus understood historical, human time as beginning with God’s act of creation. To situate an event in history, he used the words, “from the beginning of the creation that God created until now.”53 When asked about the goodness of marriage, Jesus immediately defered to the early chapters of Genesis: “Have you not read,” he asked his questioners, “that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?”54
As we have seen, no Gnostic text would honor the God of the biblical Jesus. Interestingly, present-day Hollywood never, with a few exceptions, begins a film with “In the beginning God …” In Star Wars, “the Force” is the Buddhist notion of spiritual energy. In Pocahontas, the spirit of nature inhabits all things. In The Lion King, God is the impersonal spirit joining everything together—stars, earth, animals living and dead. In The Matrix, physical life is an illusion. How different is the God of the Bible! So different that the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC must have had a sneak preview of The Lion King, for he says, “He [God] sits above the circle of the earth.”55 To be sure, God is lovingly concerned with his creatures, but in his essence, God is not part of the circle of life. He is transcendent above it as its Creator, as Jesus says, “heaven … is the throne of God … earth … is his footstool.”56
Such is the God of Jesus. Forty-three times in the gospel of Matthew Jesus referred to God as Father. At one point, Jesus prayed, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”57 Here, “Father” clearly means “Creator” or generator. But in the mouth of Jesus, the God of the Old Testament had never been made more personal. In the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s “firstborn son” when she comes out of Egypt,58 and once in a while God is called “Father,”59 but these references are few. Jesus, however, moved our understanding of God to a new level. There is nothing more intimate than the deep relationship revealed in the Gospels between the Father and the Son. Just before his death, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Father [literally, ‘Daddy’], all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”60 Yet in spite of this intimacy, twenty-two of Jesus’ references to the Father place that Father as the one “who is in heaven.” Why did Jesus emphasize this so much?
He is teaching and respecting the transcendence of God, that is, the fact that God is different from the creation he made. God is not to be found within creation as some kind of energy, but is distinct from it as a potter is different from clay. God’s transcendence does not make him a deadbeat or absent dad. On the contrary, Jesus asked, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”61 In this very text, where Jesus taught the close presence of God in his care for his creatures, he also said that anyone who wishes to be associated with him as his disciple must know and acknowledge “my Father who is in heaven.”62
Jesus’ teaching on prayer made the same point, as we shall examine in more depth. He did not encourage people to seek “the god within” in order to “pray like the pagans,” but to address the personal Father-Creator who is in heaven.63 When Peter declared who Jesus is, Jesus made it clear that the truth comes to Peter not by some deep intuition or inner search. “Flesh and blood,” said Jesus, “has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”64 In other words, Jesus made the point that this revelation concerning his true nature did not originate from the created order, but from the God who created it.
On earth, the disciples of Jesus did good works to give glory to the Father in heaven.65 What Jesus demanded of his disciples he practiced himself. “When the crowd … saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing … they glorified the God of Israel.”66 Earth or nature is not worshipped as divine, but serves to glorify its Creator. Earth is the God-given place where we are to serve him. The temptation is always present to find in nature all that we need. This, said Jesus, is the great spiritual struggle. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”67
Who are these two masters? Jesus gave the answer: God and earthly things.68 Thus Jesus answered the Tempter with an unambiguous statement from the Old Testament: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”69
Paul, one of the apostles whom the risen Jesus appointed, speaks of only two ways to be religious. Each involves worshipping and serving. Paul saw the spiritual struggle, and defined it in a manner similar to that used by Jesus. Writing to the firstcentury church in pagan Rome, Paul described the human condition of rebellion against God the Creator in the following way: “They exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator— who is forever praised. Amen.”70
Notice a number of similarities:
• Paul’s “created things” recalls Jesus’ “earthly things”
• Paul’s “the Creator who is blessed forever” recalls Jesus’ “God”
• Paul’s “the truth and the lie” recalls the immediate teaching of Jesus about “light and darkness”71 and the teaching in the following chapter about “the broad way” and “the narrow way”72
• Paul’s “they worshipped and served” recalls Jesus’ “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”
In other words, both Jesus and Paul associate a certain kind of worship or service with a certain concept of God. In fact, both identify only two. One kind of worship or spirituality is false and leads to destruction. The other is true and leads to life.
Both for the biblical Jesus and for Paul, as for Bob Dylan, “you’ve got to serve somebody.” But how do you choose whom to serve, in a bewildering variety of options? In the early 1990s, my wife and I hosted a lovely woman from Moscow, who spent three weeks with us while doing research in her field of deaf education. The first time she entered a supermarket with us, she stood paralyzed at the sight. “How do you decide what to buy?” she exclaimed. At home, she had two choices: meat was there, or it was not there. Paul and Jesus indicate that the myriad of spiritualities come down to two options: worshipping and serving the Creator of the created order, or the false “god of this world.”
Just as Gnosticism in its purest and clearest form describes the Creator God of the Bible as the Devil, and worships the Serpent, so Christianity dismisses the Serpent as the epitome of evil and worships the Creator as blessed forever. As Jesus faces the Tempter, he declared, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”73 Jesus came to disarm and bind this false claimant to divinity, and one day will cast the Accuser of the brethren, the Dragon, into the great abyss.74
What the Goddess is supposed to do to Yahweh, Christ actually does to Satan. In the end, neither system avoids the ultimate states of heaven (God’s domain) and hell (those who oppose him). They simply differ wildly over the identity and nature of the inhabitants. Such antithetical views of God lead us to expect two equally different accounts of the message Jesus brings about God’s kingdom.