Docetism/Gnosticism - Early Christian cults Early Christian Cults

Cults within the Christian Church in the 1st and 2nd century.

Earliest Christian Cults

Christian cults began happening around 60 A.D. - about 30 years after Christ's death and resurrection.  In a world filled with paganism having hundreds of mystical spirits, with claims they are gods, it is understandable how Greek and Roman mythology could enter into Judaism and Christianity.  The Apostle Paul warned Timothy of its impending danger to the Church at Ephesus when he wrote to him in 64 A.D. The Apostle John continued to write the same thing to the churches in Asia Minor.  This cultic metaphysical belief probably infiltrating all of the churches throughout Asia Minor as well as the  church in Jerusalem and the church at Rome as well.  

I Tim 4:1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heeds to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.


As early as 60 A.D. a strange cult crept into the Church at large called Docetism, which formed into the later belief system of Gnosticism, which both brought much destruction to Christianity.  Docetism, having metaphysical beliefs, derived its name from the Greek word “dokeo” which means “to appear or seem,” very much like the metaphysical mystical beliefs of the Roman and Grecian gods.  As an early Christian heresy, Docetism claimed that Christ was not truly human, meaning He did not possess a physical body.  What was seen of Him was only a ghost-like figure.   Even though Christ appeared as a human,  Docetism claimed Jesus was simply a spirit in an imaginary form of a body.  In other words, Jesus came down to earth only as a spirit, having no physical body.  What was seen was a figment of one's imagination.  Again, this belief was metaphysical, having its its roots in pagan Gentile worship of their imaginary gods.

Docetism also claimed that all matter, including the physical body was evil.  Since the human body was evil,  Jesus then could not have come down to earth in a body, but simply as a spirit.  This then extended to the belief that the only thing that mattered was the spirit.  What a person does with his body then made no difference.  So then, if one wanted to indulge the lusts of the flesh, it was fine because it would not affect their spiritual standing with God.  As a result they were turning the grace of God into licentiousness, practicing immorality, believing God would ignore their practice because it involved the flesh, not the spirit.

  • If these beliefs were true, Jesus then did not come in the flesh, shedding His physical blood on Calvary, because He was only a spirit. If then, his physical blood was not shed and He did not physically die, there would be no atonement for the sins of mankind.  Then, if God did not raise Jesus from the dead, there would be no salvation for mankind.  Christianity would, therefore, be completely null and void because salvation only comes through Jesus’ physical life, death, and resurrection. 
  • The grace of God was misinterpreted and abused by the beliefs of Docetism with man continuing in his sin, claiming God did not care about the body - only the spirit. 
  • Both beliefs violated the Word of God, creating beliefs that were contrary to God and His Word; therefore, sinful in the eyes of God. 
  • Docetism then grew into other cultic beliefs within the Church.

Strong warnings to the churches by the Apostles Paul and John

The Apostles Paul and John left strong words of warning with the churches in Ephesus and Colossae regarding the heretical beliefs in Docetism. These heretical beliefs had infiltrating the Church through false teachers, and not only caused division, but was pulling the Church away from the true Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  By doing some background study of the churches in Asia Minor during the 1st century, it becomes apparent why the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to those churches.

The Apostle Paul's words to the Church at Colossae became known as the Colossian Heresy. This heresy had strong roots in Docetism. Throughout his writings (early 60s A.D.), Paul yearned for the people to turn away from this false teaching, which in essence nullified the blood sacrifice of Jesus and exploiting the grace of God regarding sin. 

The same practice was going on in Ephesus with just a little different twist. The Apostle Paul wrote to his beloved followers, with whom he had spent so much time on his mission journeys and gave the simple message of the Gospel, lifting up Jesus and pleading with the people to cast aside any other teachings, but that of Jesus’ shed blood and resurrection. 

The Apostle John, in his last writings (around 90-98 A.D.), warned the churches of Asia Minor against heresies that denied the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Referring to the growing cultic beliefs of Docetism, John wrote the following to the churches:

1 John 4:1-3 “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 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 nowalready is it in the world.” KJV

2 John 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.” KJV


Gnosticism = Hidden knowledge

Gnosticism (silent “G”) infiltrated the Western Empire churches around 140 A.D. through a man named Marcion.  Wanting a platform to spread his heretical beliefs, Marcion offered an enormous sum of money to the Roman Church (headquarters for the Western churches at that time) with the provision that he was given oversight over church congregations. 

  • It was the custom of the Roman Church to only allow those trained in apostolic theology (writings of the original apostles) to have oversight over a church congregation.  Marcion, however, was given an exception, being the son of a bishop of a church by the Black Sea.  Unbeknownst to the Roman Church, he was a prodical and an apostate son, who completely walked away from the faith of his father.  The unknowingly Roman Church allowed Marcion to pastor a church which resulted in him building his heretical empire.
  • During the next four years Marcion spread his Gnostic beliefs throughout the Western churches and Gnosticism became a real threat to the Church at large. When, four years later) the Roman Church discovered his heresy, they returned the money to Marcion and excommunicated Him from the Church. Sadly, Marcion had a large enough following by this time, so he simply started his own movement elsewhere, probably in Asia Minor.
  • By 160 A.D. there were more Gnostic believers in the Church than believers who were following the teachings of the original apostles (Apostolic Christians).
  • Marcion's influence over the Western Church was so strong that he halted the progression of the official New Testament Canon for over 150 years by attempting to alter the writings of the Gospel of Luke and other scriptures that referred to the Old Testament God as a good God.  He then allowed Gnostic writings into the Church in his attempt to develop his own New Testament Canon.

Teachings of the Gnostics

Over time, Gnosticism added or altered to the above claims of Docetism that supported Christ's physical presence was simply His spirit, and that God did not give account for the evil of the body, excusing man's sins.  The known world, therefore, consisted of pagans who believed in the gods (Gentiles), the Jews who supported the teachings of the Old Testament, Gnostic Christians, and Apostolic Christians, who followed the teachings of the original apostles of Jesus. 

Gnosticism altered the basic belief of Docetism by claiming humans are divine souls trapped in the ordinary physical body.  They claimed this world was made by an imperfect spirit.  This imperfect spirit is thought to be the same as the God of Abraham who was considered a tyrannical god.  Jesus, on the other hand, was sent by the Supreme Being to bring gnosis to the earth.  Gnostics alone had "secret knowledge" about God, humanity and the rest of the universe, of which “other Christians and the general population were unaware.”  This Gnosis, then, was the secret to man's salvation.

Gnosticism = Hidden knowledge

  • This Gnostic belief taught that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit, which is scriptural, except that since the body and the soul are part of man’s earthly existence, they were evil. 
  • Their claim was that within man’s soul is the spirit, which is the only divine substance. The spirit within man is asleep and ignorant; therefore, needs to be awakened and liberated by this hidden knowledge.
  • For Gnostics, salvation then can only come through learning this hidden knowledge continuously, moving toward the Omega Point, the Great day (of judgment) when everyone either graduates or fall.
  • The chief goal of the Gnostics was to become free forever from the taint of matter and the shackles of the body, and to return to the heavenly realm as Pure Spirit, totally rejecting any idea of the resurrection of the body.
  • To be set free, Gnostics had to search Scriptures looking for hidden meanings to continuously increase their knowledge. The spirit would be awakened by this knowledge so the inner man could be released from his earthly body and return to the realm of light where the soul would reunite with God.
  • As the soul ascends, however, it needs to penetrate through the cosmic spheres, which was separate from the heavenly destiny.
  • The Gnostic belief taught that the earth was surrounded by seven cosmic spheres that were ruled by archons, or spiritual principalities and powers, which guarded their spheres. Their purpose was to bar the souls who are seeking to ascend from the realm of darkness and captivity to the higher realm of light above.  To ascend through it, one must learn knowledge, and only certain formulas were revealed to the informed. 

Fragments of these same metaphysical teachings can also be found today in the New Age Movement and in Mormonism.

Written by Pastor Joyce A. Erickson

Believers Bible School, Founder