Early Christian History

Heresies: Docetism

Docetism is not really a single heretical movement. It is, rather, a doctrinal point intrinsic to a number of early Christian heresies and even some contemporary Christian (or Christ-related) denominations. I've found it useful, therefore, to explain it in one location, rather than describing it several times over.

The Meaning of Docetism

Docetism is easily explained: It is a belief that Jesus Christ did not actually die, and therefore was never resurrected bodily. A number of Christian theologies have arrived at this conclusion, in different ways, so Docetism comes in a number of forms.

Gnostic Docetism

As I explained in my essay on Gnosticism, one of the tenets of Gnosticism is that Christ had not actually had a physical existence. What the apostles had interacted with, and what had been killed by the Romans, had actually been an illusion. This was necessitated by Gnostic dualism, which posited that matter, or the physical, was evil, and only light was good. Since they believed Christ to have been "good," then logically, the Gnostics were forced to assert that he had not actually had a physical form.

Samosatene/Arian Docetism

Some of the adherents of the Samosatene Doctrine (championed by Arius) were also Docetists, but for different reasons. They believed that Jesus Christ was not actually God, but rather, a man, in whom lived a divine spirit which inspired and guided Him. When Christ died, that spirit fled from Him, since nothing divine can die. (Hence, Jesus's famous dying words, Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?) Thus, according to this model, it was only Jesus-the-man who actually died.

Not all Arians were Docetists. In fact, the majority tried to avoid taking such a stance. After all, simply asserting that Christ was less than fully divine got them in enough trouble, as it was! Many of the more intellectual Arianists, however, could not help but come to this conclusion, based on the logic of the basic Samosatene premise, as well as scriptural support (cited).

Other Appearances of Docetism

Docetism has cropped up in a number of Christian belief systems, and even has some adherents still. The main reason that it keeps coming up, is that, in one form or another, it rationally answers the question, How could God be human? How could God have died? The Docetist answer, of course — whatever the reasoning might be — is that God never was human and never actually died.

More orthodox Christians consider Docetism to be among the most severe threats to their beliefs, since it denies the resurrection, which they consider to be the most important facet of Christianity. Without it, one might as well not believe in Christ at all!

Thus, there will always be some Docetist theology popping up here or there, and there'll always be some orthodox "enforcers" trying to suppress or debunk it.

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