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Docetism is a belief espoused by the first and second century Christian Gnostics. The essence of the doctrine is that Jesus Christ, being the divine son of the true God, was a purely spiritual being whose physical existence was illusory. That is, in the literal sense, Jesus's body, his bodily death, and his bodily resurrection were illusions and not physical reality. The doctrine was considered heresy by mainstream Christian sects.
Docetism and the Physical World
The background of Docetism is an understanding of a secret reality behind the physical world:
- The world was created not by God but by a lesser, perhaps evil supernatural being associated with the Old Testament God and sometimes considered identical to the devil.
- The physical world is false, necessarily imperfect, maybe even essentially evil.
- Jesus, as a divine, perfect spiritual being would not manifest in the physical realm; therefore, his body must have been an illusion produced to deliver the secret message of the world's true genesis.
Early Christianity and Docetism
Espousing the belief were a number of competing sects during early Christianity. Even at the time, though, the emerging major churches excluded these groups and warned against their false beliefs. The theological conception of divinity underlying this doctrine bears some similarity to pre-Christian pagan conceptions. The Gnostics espousing the view may have been influenced by pagan theology, or may have developed their doctrine of Docetism in an effort to make Christianity more appealing to pagans.