Docetism

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Central to Christianity is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God and lived on earth as a human being. The heresy of Docetism, (pronounced 'dough-SEAT-izm,', IPA: /dəʊ ˈsiːt ɪzm) or 'DOUGH-sit-IZ-m/ˈdəʊ sɪt ˌɪzm//, however, holds that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, and that the events of his life as narrated in the Gospels - e.g., his being baptised by John the Baptist (Matthew 3, 13), his preaching the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5, 1-7, 29), his crucifixion (Matthew 27, 34-61) - must also have been an illusion: they did not really happen but merely seemed to Jesus' 'contemporaries' to happen. (The word 'Docetism' comes from the Greek verb δοκεῖν (dokein), which means 'to seem'.)

The roots of Docetism lie outside Christianity in the belief (held, e.g. by Gnostics) that there is fundamental conflict between the material (or physical) and the immaterial (or spiritual), the former being seen as evil and the latter as good. In view of their conviction that the human body, as material or physical, is evil, it was inconceivable to Docetists that Jesus, the Son of God, could have assumed physical embodiment and lived on earth as a human being with a human body. That he did so must therefore be understood as illusion.

Docetism clearly conflicts with orthodox Christianity in a number of ways:

  • It is incompatible with the Christian view that the physical world, as God's creation, is essentially good.
  • It patently denies Jesus' humanity, i.e., that he lived on earth as a human being.
  • It cannot accept that salvation for the individual lies in the belief that Jesus' died for the sins of the world - since for Docetists the belief that Jesus was crucified and died is false.

Docetist forms of Christianity were not uncommon in the first two centuries of the Christian era and were challenged by many of the Early Church Fathers, e.g., Ignatius of Antioch (c35-c108), Irenaeus (?115-c 202), and Tertullian (?160-?225).