In the second and third centuries, gnosticism was the greatest threat to the Christian faith. The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis which means “knowledge.” Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge about God and the world, but their so-called knowledge was a dangerous distortion of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Gnostic ideas have influenced Christian spirituality across the centuries and may explain some people’s aversion to ever praying with their eyes open. Christian beliefs, however, have led me to sometimes pray and nearly always take communion with my eyes open.
Gnostic vs. Christian Ideas of Salvation
Gnostics were influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato and his dualistic view of the world, which drew a sharp contrast between the spiritual world above and the physical world below. They took Platonism to an extreme, viewing spirit as good and matter/flesh as evil. Marcion, the most famous Gnostic teacher, concluded that the loving father of Jesus could not be the same God as “the God of the Old Testament” who created the material world.
The first article of the Apostles’ Creed is a rejection of Gnosticism: “God the Father Almighty,” the loving father Jesus, is confessed to be the same God who is the “maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creeds deals another blow to Gnosticism when it adds that he is the maker of “all things visible and invisible”—not just the invisible, spiritual world above. But perhaps the most important anti-gnostic line in the early Christian confessions is that we believe “the resurrection of the body.”
Whereas gnostics thought that the goal of a spiritual person was to escape the physical flesh/body so that he could live with God in the purely spiritual realm above, Christians held a radically different view of salvation. The God who created the physical world plans to make it new, beginning with the resurrection of human bodies, with Jesus’s body being the first to be raised—the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest (1 Cor. 15:23). Heaven, God’s dwelling place, will come down to earth. The meek will inherit this earth (Mt. 5:5), cleansed of sin and perfected according to God’s original plan. The church, the new humanity, will walk with God in resurrected bodies on this earth forever.
Because Jesus “rose again on the third day,” our physical bodies will also be raised, and the whole physical world will be resurrected and made new. Salvation is not escape from the physical world; it is the redemption and restoration of creation. In the end, we do not ascend to God; God descends to us and dwells with us here in this visible world.
Unfortunately, gnostic tendencies and ideas have never really gone away in the church. There are many Christians who still believe that we will live up in heaven, not on this physical earth, for the rest of eternity. This dangerous folk theology saturates Southern Gospel music and pokes up its head in our hymns. For example, in the hymn “He Keeps Me Singing”:
Soon He’s coming back to welcome me
far beyond the starry sky;
I shall wing my flight to worlds unknown,
I shall reign with Him on high.
This is more gnostic than Christian. It does not reflect the teaching of Scripture or the beliefs of the Church throughout history.
Implications for Christian Spirituality and Worship
Our view of creation and redemption—whether we think about salvation as something physical and material or merely spiritual and immaterial—has major implications for Christian spirituality and worship.
A gnostic and platonic spirituality tries to escape the limitations of this physical world and ascend to be with the spiritual and invisible God in an esoteric and nebulous world above. The physical world is seen as a barrier to communion with the God who is pure spirit. But Christian spirituality is not like this.
By keeping our eyes open, Christians show that we do not need to detach ourselves from this physical world in order to encounter the Creator.
In the Sunday worship of Christians throughout the centuries, Christians did not just sit around with their eyes closed and pray. They gathered around the Lord’s table with open eyes to receive physical bread and physical wine. They did not just close their eyes to encounter God through contemplation. They ate a meal. They did not seek to encounter God by shutting off their physical, bodily senses. They expected to encounter God primarily through physical means—through the sacrament, where the real spiritual presence of Christ comes to us in ordinary bread. The very idea of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3–4) which is so central to Christian worship is a contradiction to the Gnostic.
While it is appropriate to close our eyes in prayer or worship, it is also appropriate and meaningful to keep our eyes open. I recently discussed this with a like-minded friend and resonated with his experience: “I have found a freedom in praying with my eyes open—in seeing God’s good creation, in seeing the needs around me, and in realizing that I’m not entering some separate portal when I pray.”
By keeping our eyes open, Christians show that we do not need to detach ourselves from this physical world in order to encounter the Creator. Rather, we expect to experience him in and through his creation. In one sense, open-eyed worship assumes a more eschatological posture than closed-eyed worship. The telos, the end or goal, of this created world is to be the temple of God. Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and he has always intended for his dwelling place to be fully united with a dwelling place of man.
Defying Gnostic Spirituality
God is not opposed to matter; God became matter. In the incarnation, the invisible Word was united with physical flesh; the flesh formed in the womb of Mary was the temple of the eternal Son, Immanuel, God with us, uncorrupted by taking a human body to himself. In the new creation, the invisible God will take this physical earth as his everlasting temple.
Christians anticipate this when they eat the physical bread, a symbol of the physical body of Jesus which was broken for us and rose again on the third day as the firstfruits of the new creation. The sacraments are a sign of new creation; a sign that God cares about, uses, and redeems physical matter; a sign that God is interested in more than “our never-dying souls.” Christian do not confess, “I believe a non-physical heaven and the salvation of never-dying souls”; we confess, “I believe the resurrection of the body.”
At the Lord’s Table, we reject any notion that the goal of the Christian life is to acquire a pair of wings and “fly away” to unknown worlds in the sweet by and by, “far beyond the starry sky.”
Coming to the Lord’s Table is an act of defiance against Gnostic spirituality. Keeping our eyes open and engaging all of our senses as we taste, smell, see, and touch the bread—bread which is as real as the physical body of our Lord—we say “No!” to an escapist view of salvation. We reject any notion that the goal of the Christian life is to acquire a pair of wings and “fly away” to unknown worlds in the sweet by and by, “far beyond the starry sky.” The goal of the Christian life is to know and enjoy God, and in the end, we will know and experience him in this physical world as his temple.
So although it is appropriate to close our eyes when we pray, it is also appropriate and perhaps more fitting for us to pray with our eyes open—to go to church or walk through the woods and look around at the beauty of creation as we call upon its Creator with our physical senses engaged. And more important than this is to come to the Lord’s table with eyes open—to engage all of our senses in what is intended to be a profoundly physical and sensory experience, a new creation act. As the members of the “one body” watch one another taking the “one bread” into their physical bodies, they enact their visible unity as the body of Christ and experience Christ’s real presence, enjoying a communion that is foolishness to the Gnostic or new-age spiritualist.
Christians worship a God who is not ashamed of his world; a God who does not intend to deliver us from the physical elements, but who incorporates physical elements into his people’s central acts of worship; a God who deigns to embrace our flesh as his own dwelling place, that he might love, cherish, nourish, heal, restore, and redeem it for his glory and our eternal happiness. Let us worship the Creator with eyes wide open to his creation, the theatre of his glory, his everlasting temple.