As secularism grows and theological literacy declines, it’s little wonder that ancient heresies are rushing into the void.
Thus, 65% of evangelicals agree with the Arians that Christ is a created being, and the Gnostic repudiation of the physical realm and the significance of the body runs rampant in our postmodern culture.
Today, as our politics grow increasingly polarized and as our society risks being torn apart by ideological conflicts, we need to be on guard against another heresy: Manichaeism.
Founded by a 3rd century Persian teacher named Mani, Manichaeism started off as an independent religion, like Gnosticism, and later insinuated itself into Christianity. Manichaeans believed that reality consists of a continual conflict between two equal and opposite forces: “a good spiritual world of light, and an evil material world of darkness.” In this cosmic dualism, human beings liberate themselves from the material darkness to attain “enlightenment” by a special knowledge.
Heresies generally start with an element of truth. The Arians rightly taught that Jesus Christ is true man, and the Gnostics correctly taught that the spiritual realm is supreme. The Manichaeans rightly recognize a conflict between good and evil, God and the devil, light and darkness.
But evil is not a “force”; rather, it is a transgression of God’s law. The devil is not equal to God; rather, he is a defeatedfallen angel. Christ is the “light of the world” who has overcome Satan’s darkness (John 1:5; 8:12).
The Manichaeans believed that Jesus is God, but they denied that He is man, since the “flesh” is evil. Like other heretics, they believed that Jesus only seemed to have died and to have risen physically from the dead (a position known as “Docetism,” from the Latin word for “seeming”). Jesus merely symbolized the principle of spiritual light. The Manichaeans also rejected the creator God of the Old Testament, teaching that the universe was a byproduct of the cosmic conflict.
Today many people see good and evil as “forces” rather than as manifestations of sin and righteousness. They interpret the world and their lives in terms of conflicts between these forces and care deeply about being on the right side.
Manichaeism’s dualism shows up in the current political scene. The political left emphasizes a dualistic, primal conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed, between economic classes or sexual orientation. Conservatism falls into this temptation sometimes too. For example, conservative Roman Catholic Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò described the 2020 election as a battle between “the children of light and the children of darkness.” This demonizes the opponents, seeing them as monsters rather than pitying them as lost souls.
Such dualistic thinking, a staple of all conspiracy theories, is dehumanizing. It is easier to sin against those you do not view as human beings, even sinful humans, but as expressions of an intrinsically evil “force.”
This is not to say that oppression is not real. Moral issues — such as abortion and racism — are indeed matters of political conflict. But, for Christianity, they are more than just power struggles.
Augustine, who was once a Manichaean but turned to refute this heresy, made the case that everything that God has created is good. Sin perverted God’s good creation.
And so today, power is not always oppressive and thus intrinsically evil. Sinners will misuse their power for their own benefit. But those who cling to Christ’s forgiving and atoning work seek to use their power in the service of justice, to love and serve the neighbor.
Christianity alone offers a constructive way forward. Christ does not offer an uncertain response to evil and wickedness, but having drawn all sin into Himself, He defeated our sin on the cross. In Him and through Him, there is only forgiveness and life. There is not dualism here: there is one God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)