Heresies all around us – Docetism & Gnosticism

Heresies all around us – Docetism & Gnosticism

Part 10 – Docetism & Gnosticism

Some would say that the material world is inherently evil. If that is true, God could not have become flesh like we read in John 1. This teaching is also called ‘Docetism’ and it seems to tight in closely with Gnosticism.

Which is Which?

Okay, it might be a good idea to explain the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism first.


Gnosticism emphasizes special knowledge. The word comes from the Greek word gnosis which means ‘knowledge.’ We can find big groups in the first century who could be identified as Gnostics. They believed that all matter is evil and that the spirit is good. Because of this they rejected the idea of Jesus who was God in the flesh. They basically said that, because matter is bad, the human body must be bad and therefore God could not possibly live in a human body.

The Gnostics also believed that they had a special knowledge about God. Because of this knowledge, they believed that they knew precisely how humans had to relate to this evil world.

Gnostics also said that, because God was too perfect to be associated with this world, He created a lesser god to do the job of creating this world in the first place. They said that the lesser god, or the demiurge, was the God of the Old Testament. Gnostics were of the opinion that they were much smarter and better than the ‘normal’ christians.


Basically the Docetists came out of the group of Gnostics. Docetism is a more developed doctrinal position of Gnosticism. They more or less perfected the teachings which held that matter was evil and the spirit good. They also emphasised that salvation was achieved only through esoteric knowledge, or gnosis. Esoteric means that this was a kind of special knowledge which only the most smart people could have. In other words, the knowledge was confined to, and understandable by only an enlightened inner circle.

Not Just one Group

You might have guessed that Docetism isn’t just one group or one movement. The teaching is more coming forth out of several early Christian heresies, each slightly different from the other. It is difficult to pinpoint Docetism to just one idea because it spread among different groups, each with their own take on it.

So, to be more complete I’ll mention briefly two different groups in which this teaching developed.

Samosatene-Arian Docetist

Some peoples who listened to the doctrine of Paul of Samosata—promoted by Arius—were also Docetists. Samosata taught the idea of Monarchianism which I discuss in part 4 of this series. However, these Docetists believed that Jesus Christ was not God in the flesh, but rather a man. They said that Jesus was just a man in whom a divine spirit lived. This spirit prompted and guided Him. But, this spirit left the body when Jesus died. This happened because, so they believed, nothing divine can really die. They said that this was the reason Jesus cried out: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani’ (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?). So, we are back to the overruling principles of many heresies: Jesus was just a man who died on the cross.

I briefly mentioned Arius. Don’t think that all Arians were automatically Docetists. Their Arian view on Christ already gave them headaches as it wasn’t very much appreciated by the early church fathers. Nonetheless, many of higher educated Arians started to hold the Docetist view because it was the logical consequence of Monarchianism.

Gnostic Docetism

As I already pointed out, certain Gnostics believed that Jesus didn’t really have a physical existence. They believed that the disciples had said and taught things which were based on an illusion. Likewise, the whole crucifixion was an illusion as well. They couldn’t believe that God came to earth in the flesh because flesh is matter and matter is evil. Gnostics did believe that Jesus was good. However, nothing good could dwell in matter, so Jesus had to be an illusion.

Modern Versions of Docetism

We see Docetism popping up throughout the centuries, which isn’t strange because it more or less explains how God could become human. What is more, it explains how God could have died on the cross.

The result is that many people don’t really believe the doctrine of incarnation. A famous group is Islam. Islam teaches a form of Docetism in which Jesus wasn’t God Himself because God cannot live in human form. Therefore, they believe Jesus was created and lived a good life. They also reject the idea of death on a cross. Islam will tell you that Jesus was lifted to heaven and that someone else appeared as him and died on the cross.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also deny the doctrine of God being born in the flesh. God cannot become like us, they say. Also, they deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus since the body had to stay in the grave and only the spirit was worthy to be raised up to heaven. They can’t believe that a physical body can sit at the right hand of God.

You see that the Docetist’s answer will always be that God never was human and never actually died.

Fiercely Defending Orthodoxy

Apostle John

When I read the letters of the apostle John, I am almost tempted to think that he already battled the ideas of the Docetists in advance.

1 John 4:2-3

Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

2 John 1:7

For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.

Early Apologists and Teachers

Very early Christian apologists and teachers already wrote against this error. We are talking about people like Ignatius of Antioch (wo died somewhere between 98/117 AD), Irenaeus (115-190 AD), and Hippolytus (170-235 AD).

Council of Chalcedon

In a more official setting the teaching of Docetism was condemned as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

Today’s Resistance

< p class=””>Today we see many orthodox Christians, who consider Docetism to be a very big threat to their beliefs, fiercely rejecting it. Orthodox Christians are not necessarily Christians who come together in, say, the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy comes from Greek from ὀρθός, orthos, meaning ‘correct,’ and δόξα, doxa, meaning ‘opinion’ or ‘glory.’ Literally, then, it means ‘correct worship’ or ‘correct teaching.’

That many reject this doctrine is not without good reason. Docetism denies Christ’s resurrection, which can be considered to be the most important aspect of Christianity. Without the resurrection we might as well stop believing in Christ.

Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19

But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

Whenever we see some form of Docetism popping up, we’ll also see Christians standing up trying to silence and debunk this teaching. Just do a quick search on any video platform, and you’ll find Christian apologists, teachers, and evangelists teaching against the false ideas of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islam.


Docetism, albeit an old heresy, can find its way into modern Christianity. It will probably not be in the ancient form were people actually denied that Jesus was a real bodily person. But how about believers who put a too much emphasis on the spiritual side of Christianity and as a result start to neglect the physical aspects. Some go as far as saying that nothing really matters while we are still walking on this planet because real life only starts in the hereafter.

We also see that not a few Christians tend to explain Scripture based on their feelings. While I don’t mind to experience faith emotionally as well as rationally, it becomes a different ballgame when people twist the passage because they feel the spirit leading them to interpret that passage like that. We cannot, and we should not neglect or ignore the human elements of faith.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this specific heresy is prevalent within modern day Christianity. However, we need to be careful not to underestimate the value of the doctrine in which Jesus is fully human and fully divine. When we overstress one aspect, we are at risk of yielding to ideas such as Docetism or Gnosticism.

Some other Texts

Before we end this video, I would like to point at a few Bible texts which show that Docetism and Gnosticism cannot be right.

After his resurrection, Jesus showed His disciples that he has a body. Thomas was allowed to feel the wounds in his hands and in his side. Did Jesus do this to prevent the story tellers from getting ideas?

John 20:27

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

A little later we come to understand that, after His resurrection, Jesus still eats bread and fish.

John 21:9-10, 12-13

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught […] Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.


As Christians, we look forward to the second coming of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5 we read that we will experience the resurrection of both our body and soul. The Bible isn’t just mentioning this like an afterthought. On the contrary, God created us to be beautifully so that we can say:

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Marvellous are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. – Psalm 139:14

Heresies such as Docetism and Gnosticism often undermine the value of this notion, portraying it as either insignificant or even as something inherently wicked.

Docetism simply doesn’t work because Jesus needed a physical body. Only with a real body Jesus could perform the most remarkable miracle witnessed by the world, His resurrection! Jesus could only be fully human and fully divine with a real physical human body.

Hebrews 4:15

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

Jesus could not have been susceptible to the same temptations that we face if He doesn’t have a body. Finally, without a human body, he would not have been able to truly comprehend the human experience.

Let me Know Your Thoughts

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. Remember! I am mostly active on my Odysee channel. You’ll find a link to that channel in the description of this video or on my website. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to receive a notification every time I upload a new video!

I very much appreciate your prayers and support! Please have a look in the description of this video to find out how you can help me. Also, I’ll place a link there to both the Dutch and English transcripts of this video.

God bless you, thank you for watching, and, Lord willing, we’ll see each other in the next video!

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