Docetism: A Popular Heresy
Docetism is a Greek word (from dokeĩn/dokesis, meaning “to seem” or “to appear”) and is one of the earliest beliefs which attacked and undermined early Christianity. Essentially, it taught that Jesus was not really incarnate in our flesh, like us in every respect, but rather that He merely appeared to be. Those who affirmed such a belief were referred to as Dokētaí, meaning "Illusionists".
For these “illusionists”, the belief that God would humble Himself and take on every aspect of humanity was so offending that they were compelled to reject the fundamental aspects of Christ’s incarnation. Rather, they asserted Jesus was not the Word made flesh (like us), but that He merely appeared to be; He was “like” but such a resemblance was merely an illusion.
The incarnation – that primary issue that offended early Gnostics, stemmed from their Platonic and Aristotelian presuppositions. They had come to see the material world as evil, while the spirit-realm was good. So, to borrow Christ and co-opt Him into their worldview, they asserted that His human body and subsequent suffering, death, resurrection and ascension were really illusions.
In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea unequivocally condemned docetism, but the earliest known reference to the belief can be found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD) to the churches of Asia Minor. Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 AD) also wrote against Docetism, rebuking the docetism of Cassian, who spoke of the body of Jesus as a phantasm. Tertullian (160-220 AD) condemned docestism as representing God as deceptive and points out that Christ bears in His body the scars of His crucifixion.
“For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified? be cradled, or be coffined? be laid in a manger, or in a tomb?” Chapter V. - Tertullian’s refutation of Marcion
Though this article rightly refers to this teaching as heretical, it does so in the sense that docetism has been rightly condemned for undermining the basic beliefs necessary for effectively understanding salvation in Christ. However, it is worth noting this belief arose not from within Christianity via some misunderstanding early Christians had, but rather this teaching came from outside the Church as Gnostics sought to borrow elements from Christianity to further their own religious teaching on the conflict between the spirit and the material.
Thus far we’ve only considered Docetism as it was thoroughly refuted and warned against by the Apostolic Fathers of the early Church, but the Apostles themselves called such beliefs “anti-Christ” (John 1:14, 1 Timothy 3:16, Romans 1:3, Hebrews 2:14, Phillippians 2:6-7, Romans 8:3).
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” 1 John 4:2-3
A Second Chance at Corruption
With it's shrinking popularity it seemed that docetism would have vanished along with Gnosticism if not for another heresy, that of Manichaeism. Mani sought to merge Gnostic beliefs and Iranian dualism with Christian soteriology. Like the Gnostics, this led him to attack the incarnation of Christ.
As we addressed previously in our article The Origins of Original Sin, Augustine of Hippo was a Manichaean before his conversion to Christianity. When he converted, he brought his Manichaean baggage with him; rejecting these beliefs initially he would go on to return to them. Where other elements of docetism would come to be rejected and thus disappear into the annals of history, Augustine would develop his doctrine of Original Sin and in doing so, corrupt Christianity at large.
This doctrine of Original Sin has led many self-described Christians to reject the actual incarnation of Christ, claiming Jesus did not come in our flesh – like us in every respect, but rather He only appeared to be like us; He had "special" flesh or only appeared to be a man but was in fact entirely divine. In doing so, proponents of Original Sin are unknowingly promoting docetism and attacking the very incarnation and work of Christ.
Like those early illusionists were offended by God being a man, proponents of Original Sin assume man and the material world is corrupt. Thus these modern Docetists reject the incarnation of Christ - because a corrupt Messiah is no Messiah at all. So they are left claiming their Redeemer was unlike them and consequently this anti-Christ doctrine means He redeemed no one.
So we see that while Scripture and the early Church spent considerable effort in refuting and anathematizing docetism, the Christian Church today has mostly stopped wrestling with docetism, and instead has openly embraced this heresy – many in fact claim it is a fundamental Christian doctrine.
Now we are left with a choice
Do we believe Scripture and the early Church, embracing the incarnation of Christ - our Redeemer, or do we believe a tradition based upon the opinions of a revered ex-cult member whom God has never affirmed?