Docetism comes from the Greek word “dokein” which means “seem”. Docetism was a doctrine first promoted by the Gnostics that Jesus Christ wasn’t a real man, he only “seemed” to be a real man. “Docetic Gnosticism held that Jesus was actually a kind of Phantom, and only had the appearance of flesh.”[1] Docetism is a heresy that we read about in the first epistle of John:

Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already [1John 4:2-3]

Docetism is recognized as the first of the Christian heresies.   Ignatius addresses Docetism when he uses the phrase “really, and not an appearance”.[2]  Ignatius uses it several times in the longer version of his epistles:

He was baptized by John, really and not in appearance;… He was crucified in reality, and not in appearance [3]

Now, He suffered all these things for us; and He suffered them really, and not in appearance only, even as also He truly rose again. But not, as some of the unbelievers, who are ashamed of the formation of man, and the cross, and death itself, affirm, that in appearance only, and not in truth[4]

All of the above are in the longer versions of the epistles of Ignatius which are generally treated as adulterated, with additions and textual changes from the originals.  However looking at the shorter version, which is deemed to be genuine, we see that Ignatius was addressing Docetism:

Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.[4]

Harold Brown in his book on heresies says:

“A docetic view of Jesus Christ, which denies that he was truly a real, physical human being is often accompanied by an interest in the occult, in which the ‘spiritual’ activities of necromancy, words and magical gestures, produce a physical effect.  Human beings seem to need to have some aspect of their lives in which the spiritual and physical are seen as directly interrelated, and if this is not done in historic person of Jesus Christ, as it is in the Orthodox Christianity, other substitutes will be sought, as in magical and occult practices.  Despite the rise and apparent overwhelming dominance of the scientific worldview in the second half of the 20th century, there has been a wild proliferation of occult beliefs and practices, most pronounced in those areas where faith is the objective reality of Jesus Christ as the incarnate son of God has declined.”[5]

Docetism occurs and reoccurs throughout the ages. Key concepts to recognize Docetism include explanations where Christ’s life and resurrection are treated as metaphysical events as opposed to actual events, as well as claims that Jesus lived, died and was raised only symbolically or just in spirit.

[1] LECTURES IN SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, Henry C. Theissen, Erdmann’s, Grand Rapids, 1979, p. 206-207
[2]  HERESIES, Heresy and Orthodoxy In The History Of The Church, Harold O. J. Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass 2000, p. 52f
[3] Ignatius Epistle to the Magesians, Chap. X. — The Reality of Christ’s Passion, E-Sword program
[4] Ignatius Epistle to the Smyrnaeans its, Chap. II. — Christ’s True Passion., E-Sword Program
[5] HERESIES, p. 53

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

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