Gnosticism in Old Hymns?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Yesterday I led worship at our local nursing home, and we sang (from their GIGANTIC, HUMONGOUS-print songbook) “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by William Bradbury.  And verse 4 (which is often omitted by contemporary hymnals) struck me funny.  Here’s the curious part, in the second half of verse 4:

This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

Is it just me, or does that sound suspiciously Gnostic?  Now, I assume that Bradbury was a Trinitarian Christian and did not espouse Gnosticism; after all, the guy wrote “He Leadeth Me,” “Just As I Am, without One Plea,” and “The Solid Rock”!  He can’t be too much of a heretic.

Granted: Christian thinking has always acknowledged the temporary nature of this earthly life and the desire to escape the decay of our mortal lives and to be with the Lord.  Paul observed that  “our outer self is wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16 ESV).  During this life, while we “live in this tent we groan” and long “to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2 ESV).  So it makes sense that a Christian would want to shed his or her “robe of flesh” (that is, the aging body of flesh) and rise to “seize the everlasting prize”–which is apparently union with Christ.  In fact, this is rather reassuring, especially to those who suffer in the flesh!

But it also sounds suspiciously like the Gnostic ideal of the divine spark that is imprisoned within each human body being allowed to escape the evil material world and ascend into the higher, spiritual realms.

To me, Bradbury’s error reflects the folk theology that has (and still does) infected American Christianity.  Our ultimate hope–just for the record–is not escaping this mortal body to live in a disembodied state for eternity with God.*  That reality is what theologians have termed the “intermediate state” and what the Bible calls being “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), or even “Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  But this is not our permanent home.

Our ultimate hope is in the resurrection of our bodies.  Period (this is what Tom Wright has called “the life after life after death”).  And that central teaching has been ignored or downplayed for too long.**  Yes, the souls of those who are in Christ will share spiritual union with him in the after life.  But on the appointed Day, every human being will be raised with a new, imperishable body and will face judgment; some (those who are in Christ) will be judged righteous and others will be judged unrighteous.  The righteous will reign with Jesus in the New Jerusalem in the restored Earth, and the evil will be consigned to everlasting punishment (see Revelation 21:1-7).

Jesus himself said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his [i.e., the Son of God] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 ESV).  Those who trust in Christ, who have joined him in his crucifixion, will also join him in his resurrection (Romans 6:5), for “when he appears we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2 ESV).

We rejoice that, despite our physical decline and death, which is inevitable for all of us, we will be at home with the Lord when we die.  But we can rejoice even more that one day, God will raise up all those who trust in Jesus to live in his kingdom for eternity.  That is our true hope!

* Unfortunately, many well-meaning evangelical preachers and theologians have placed this disembodied reality, rather than the resurrection, as the pinnacle of the ordo salutis (“order of salvation”).  Even Rick Warren has written about believers spending billions of years in “heaven” together and the necessity to start practicing getting along together now.

** It’s no accident that the Nicene Creed, the ancient symbol and summary of our faith, concludes with “We look for the resurrection of the dead [that’s us, folks!], and the life of the world to come.”


2 thoughts on “Gnosticism in Old Hymns?

  1. Ray, you are right that it could be gnostic – hard to say for sure but many people just don’t realize our bodies are good and made by God – shame that we call bad what God called good – it’s the sin that’s bad not the creation. You point on the transformation of our bodies is solid too – we won’t be throwing off our robe of flesh, we’ll just get a new one!

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. I really don’t think that Bradbury was consciously being gnostic, but I do think he made a common error. In the churches, we need to be emphasizing the reality of our resurrection (1 Corinthians 15; Romans 6:4-5) over simply “going to heaven,” without sensationalizing the End Times or speculating too much about the details of Christ’s coming.


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