I recently came across a rather interesting quote that I feel like could have provoked quite a whirlwind of critical Christian responses if it had gotten around a bit more. It was even put into a pretty picture to give the reader a good feeling about the quote. Here it is:
Not to toot my own horn, but when I first saw it my gut reaction was pretty negative, but I quickly wised up, found a more loving way to respond, and a civil discussion followed resulting in no hurt feelings. There were a couple different dynamics working at once: if the quote is true, what the quote even means, and where the quote came from. I thought I’d briefly share my thoughts on these in reverse order.
origins of this quote
The Book of St. Thomas, also known as the Gospel of Thomas, is one of those sneaky documents known collectively as the Gnostic Gospels. It was written (most likely) in the 2nd century AD and St. Thomas’ name was slapped on to try to give it credibility. But the opening verse of the book give away its true origins:
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
I’m not pointing to Thomas’ name, here, but to the words “secret sayings.” Gnosticism was all about “secret knowledge” (hence the word gnosis = knowledge) which was supposedly preserved by a secret line initiated by one of the Apostles, to be kept as a sort of elite group within the Church. The Church responded to these heretical movements by contending for the completeness and public nature of the Gospel of Christ – the Apostles had not hidden anything from anyone; the Gospel was clear for all to hear in its entirety, and the documents soon to be known as the New Testament were circulating freely.
As such, the whole book of the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic document, and thus its overall message can not be considered to be legitimately Christian. However, that does not mean that every single thing that it says is wrong. After all, most heresies start with a piece of truth and then blow it out of proportion. That’s why they’re so hard to get rid of – there is truth within them, but the overall message they purport is false.
what the quote means
Most readers today read things at face value. We call it “being literal.” In actuality, “literal” means “according to how it was written.” So if an author is intending to write an allegory, then the “literal meaning” is the allegorical meaning. Many Christians today (especially evangelical protestants) get tripped up by this misunderstanding of the word “literal,” especially when talking to other Christians about the meaning of Genesis 1-3, Old Testament apocalyptic prophecies, and John’s book of Revelation. This issue of literal allegory also applies to the Gospel of Thomas. Note the second sentence in the book:
And He said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.”
Basically, the words in this book need to be interpreted, not simply read at face value. So, looking at the quote in the picture, we should be careful not to think it simply means that the place Christians go when they die is right here in and around us. It’s speaking at a different level and is laden with imagery.
It took me a while to find this quote in the Gospel of Thomas, but I eventually found it; it’s verse 3. The version in the picture is very elaborated from its original form:
Jesus said, “If those who attract you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is under the earth,’ then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. [Those who] become acquainted with [themselves] will find it; [and when you] become acquainted with yourselves, [you will understand that] it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”
With its full context, its meaning is much clearer. Heaven (or more properly, the Kingdom of God) is within us through our being acquainted with it. It’s not a physical location, cos if it were then the birds or the fish would be closer to it than we are, depending upon its location. Rather, the Kingdom of God (in this age) is a spiritual reality that’s breaking into our world by means of its Church – including us individual Christians. Thus, as we grow up more and more into the Body of Christ, we realize the Kingdom more and more within us and we manifest it more and more around us.
whether the quote is true
Well, I think I just answered that question in part. The basic idea of the quote in the picture is true: heaven, understood as the Kingdom, is a constant reality that manifests within us and around us. But if you look at the rest of the verse from which the quote comes, then a very different story starts to emerge. “Becoming acquainted with ourselves” is portrayed as the key to belonging to the Kingdom and being sons of God. While it is true that we must have faith in God to foster a right relationship with Him, it is not our knowledge of Him that saves us. And that’s exactly what this Gnostic document is trying to teach: “if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” Faith is subsumed by gnosis (knowledge) and the saving work of God in Christ is replaced with the human mind. If that isn’t Gnosticism I don’t know what is!
It’s interesting how old heresies like that keep coming back in new forms. Enlightenment thinking certainly shares a similar attitude: the human intellect is (or at least will be) the salvation of the human race. In that framework, the quote in the picture, “heaven is within you and all around you in every passing moment,” eloquently describes the triumph of the human being in creating heaven on earth. Or at least the triumph of the individual to create his own heaven. In that sense this quote is deathly false.
But if we read the quote in the picture from a Christian perspective, we can agree that heaven is within us and around us, because as Christians we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and we belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, which is the physical manifestation of the Kingdom of God breaking into this world today. And that’s great. The only problem is that that’s not what the quote meant in its original context. It’s just using Christian imagery and language to put forth a Gnostic heresy.
I hate to be a killjoy, but as beautiful as the quote is, and even though it can be read in a Christian light, I wouldn’t encourage any Christian to pass it along as a wise saying, especially with the incorrect attribution to Jesus at the bottom. Besides, all our non-Christian friends will read it with a different meaning than us anyway, and thus we’ll just be reinforcing their misunderstandings of God, heaven, and the Gospel.