Docetism: Know Your Heretics
Docetism was a heresy about Jesus that gained in popularity in the third century among those committed to Greek philosophy. Docetism is a term for a set of beliefs that were found in a number of heresies, including Marcionism and Gnosticism.
“Jesus Felt No Pain”
Unlike many early heresies that denied the divinity of Jesus, Docetism eliminates his humanity. Suggesting that Jesus only appeared to be human though he was in fact not, Docetism derives its name from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem or appear.”
Those holding to Docetism believed that there was one eternal father who was eternally transcendent and therefore unable to experience any sort of human emotion of suffering. The idea that Jesus became human flesh (John 1:14) and experienced life as a human was unthinkable and offensive to this philosophy.
The Gospel of Peter, an apocryphal book, illustrates a Docetic view. It says that during his crucifixion, Jesus “kept silence, as one feeling no pain,” which implied, as church historian J.N.D. Kelly notes, “that His bodily make-up was illusory.”
Jesus Truly Suffered
The orthodox early church was strongly opposed to Docetism.
Irenaeus thought the teaching was so dangerous that he wrote a five-volume work (Against Heresies) against one of Docetism’s prominent teachers, Valentinus (c. 136–c. 165).
Ignatius said that it would have been foolish for him to have been imprisoned for proclaiming one who merely appeared to suffer for his sake:
- Turn a deaf ear therefore when any one speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, the child of Mary, who was truly born, who ate and drank, who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and truly died….But if, as some godless men, that is, unbelievers, say, he suffered in mere appearance (being themselves being mere appearances), why am I in bonds?
Polycarp makes the strongest possible charge against the Docetists by saying that “everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an anti-Christ,” echoing 1 John 4:2-3.
Jesus Came in the Flesh
As theologian Stephen Nichols points out, much contemporary popular theology tends to “view Jesus as sort of floating six inches off the ground as he walked upon the earth.” Downplaying or rejecting the true humanity of Jesus is common today, but it does not fit with the biblical picture of Jesus given to us in the Gospels.
While on earth, Jesus experienced hunger (Matt. 4:2) and thirst (John 19:28), showed compassion (Matt. 9:36), was tired (John 4:6), felt sorrow to the point of weeping (John 11:35), and grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Yet, in all of his humanness, Jesus never sinned (Heb. 4:15).
Like Us in Every Way, Yet Without Sin
Avoiding Docetism is important because, as the author of Hebrews writes, Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
It is because Jesus was tempted as we are that he is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. Put bluntly, the whole of the atonement rests on Docetism being false. On this point, T. F. Torrance writes: “Any docetic view of the humanity of Christ snaps the lifeline between God and man, and destroys the relevance of the divine acts in Jesus for men and women of flesh and blood.”
If Docetism is true and he was so heavenly that he only appeared human, then we no longer can place our confidence in Jesus Christ, who as truly God and truly man serves as the mediator between God and men.