In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
On one occasion while in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus posed this vital question to His disciples: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13) The answers reported were many and varied—and wrong. The question continued to be answered throughout history in various strange and surprising ways.
When we present the true and Biblical identity of Christ in our modern world, we are most often compelled to defend the true divinity of Jesus, the God-man, against skeptical attacks. No one much questions His true humanity. This was not the case in the early church of the ancient world. Nor always in our modern world, as we will see.
The basic belief of docetism (from a Greek word meaning “seem” or “appear,”) is that Jesus seemed truly human, but really wasn’t. The more extreme docetists considered Jesus a mere phantom, without a real body. Others conceded that Jesus had some sort of heavenly, non-natural body. Still others believed that a man (Jesus) was inhabited at his birth or Baptism by a divine spirit being (Christ) and then abandoned just before His passion.
We cannot point with any certainty to a single individual as the originator of these strange notions. No sect took this name or championed this heresy as their distinguishing mark. Rather these ideas were somewhat widely spread, wherever gnosticism arose, or a false piety sought to protect Jesus from what they thought was the contamination of fleshliness. These notions troubled the early church for centuries. This heresy was expressly condemned at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the same council that gave us the Nicene Creed.
Why would the church care about such things? Sure, it’s a weird belief system, but is there any real harm if someone buys into it? Yes, indeed! Deadly harm! One early church father summed it up this way: “[If] Christ’s flesh is now discovered to be a lie, it follows that all things which were done by the flesh of Christ were done untruly.” If Christ did not truly die, there is no real redemption, no actual atonement, no physical resurrection, and “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) John warned that to deny that Jesus has come in the flesh is to have the spirit of antichrist.
Sadly, docetism still has appeal.
Christian Science, the invention of Mary Baker Eddy, teaches that sickness and death are illusions. She said, “Disease is an experience of a so-called mortal mind. It is fear made manifest on the body.” “Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.” “Health is not a condition of matter, but of Mind.” Whatever that means, it denies the material world as we understand it.
New Age practitioners exalt our supposed divinity within at the expense of our material reality. The climax of a bestseller from a while ago, The Celestine Prophecy, has people simply disappearing into a higher reality after altering the material realities of their lives by the power of their mind.
There are mainstream theologians who cheerfully jettison the physical resurrection of Jesus, arguing that this event happened outside of human history. His truly human experience for us and in our place is not seen as vital.
Even the birth of Christ is touched by docetic views when is it believed by some that His was not a natural birth, but that He simply passed through the womb and skin enclosing Him, like a ghost through walls.
We live in a material world, and our Savior fully entered into that world for us. To separate Him from that existence is to deny that He is our Brother. The message of Christmas is then lost, for Jesus is no longer Immanuel, God with us.
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.