In modern Christianity, it is played out like this: All visible reality is corrupted by sin. The world around us (including your human body and its desires) is distorted, insufficient, and evil. Fortunately, there is a spiritual reality that is good. This alternate good reality includes everything that is unseen (God, Heaven, the human spirit). The goal within this dualistic view of reality is to escape the corrupted physical world and enter the perfect spiritual world. This process begins by God making our spirit alive when we are saved, and it is completed when God destroys the physical reality and takes us to Heaven.
The movie The Matrix describes this dualism brilliantly. In the film, the Matrix is the world that we all experience, but it is not real. “The Matrix is everywhere,” says the character Morpheus. “It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
The Matrix gives a visible portrait of an evil world that is a lie and in continual conflict with the true and good world. One must choose the truth and be given special knowledge of how to travel from the Matrix to the real world.
This idea is classic Gnosticism (it is important to know that Gnostic philosophy has its roots in Plato). The Gnostics believed that the visible world was evil. They believed that achieving a secret knowledge would allow them to achieve gnosis; a superior, spiritual state.
Some of these dualistic ideas that exist in Gnosticism and Platonism also exist in eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism. The interesting thing is that these ideas are not present in historical Judaism or historical, Biblical Christianity, yet elements of these philosophies are present in nearly every modern, Christian ideology.
Even though Christianity has its roots in Judaism, it emerged in a world dominated by Greek philosophy. It is natural that Christian thinking would be influenced by Platonic (and Gnostic) ideas. These ideas were further ingrained into Christian thought by the Enlightenment, which was dominated by a deistic view of God. A deistic understanding of God sees Him as separate and far from earth and humanity.
Ascribing to dualistic Christianity has caused us to find little value in this world (except as a test that gains us entrance to Heaven). Dualism causes us to see beauty as meaningless, to find no value in art, to abandon any need to preserve nature, to see science and discovery as futile, to view any attempt to ease the physical suffering of other humans as empty, to see pleasure as a distraction from our ultimate destination, and to see our personality as something to overcome, rather than something to capitalize on.
Even though some flavor of dualistic Christianity has been embraced by a majority of the church, it has been rejected by scholars and church fathers who have recognized its danger.
Dualism Denies that Creation is Good
“The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.” -N.T. Wright, interview with Time
“There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market. But it has a catch in it.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Dualism Creates a False Dichotomy
“Thinking in terms of two realms understands the paired concepts worldy-Christian, natural-supernatural, profane-sacred, rational-revelations, as ultimate static opposites…and fails to recognize the original unity of these opposites in the Christ-reality.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
Dualism causes us to divide everything into two competing groups and put artificial labels on things, activities, and people. We begin to gauge the value of everything, not on inherent goodness or beauty, but on its ability to point people away from the natural world and toward the supernatural world. We end up giving greater importance to a cheap trinket that contains a Bible verse than a beautiful work of art. We end up giving more value to a church sign that has a goofy saying than a beautifully landscaped property. (For further thoughts about this see the post Noun or Adjective?)
The more insidious problem is when we value people by the level that they contribute to Heaven rather than Earth. Many of us subtly and unconsciously give greater worth to the full-time minister than the person who is a plumber or lawyer. We end up telling people that their worth as a person is found only in what they can produce for the eternal world. The pianists talents are only valuable if she plays Christian concerts or church services. The investment banker only has value if he donates money to missionaries. The housekeeper is only significant if she cleans toilets in the church building.
This rating people on the basis of talent and vocation makes a statement about what we think of the character of God. Does God care for people simply because they are living creatures made in His image, or does He only love those who contribute?
Dualism Reduces the Gospel
“In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, the one not without the other.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
The gospel (good news) according the Jesus is, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
The life offered to us because of the death and resurrection is certainly an important part of the gospel, but the essence of it is the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is not an otherworldly afterlife called Heaven. (See Heaven) When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” He is saying, “It is right here! You can reach out and grab it.”
The Kingdom of God is the fulfillment of all the promises contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Kingdom of God is a world where God rules, there is continual peace, goodness, abundance, and harmony. In the Kingdom of God there is no sickness, no death, no poverty, no discrimination, and no oppression.
And Jesus says that this Kingdom is springing up right here and right now in the middle of this world. In fact, He gives us the responsibility of helping to bring it to reality.
This is certainly not a dualistic message. It is a message of hope and life here and now.
The gospel of Jesus is reduced when it becomes all about escaping this world in order to go to Heaven. The gospel is reduced when Earth becomes Heaven’s waiting room.
Can we embrace an understanding of reality that sees a continual interaction between Heaven and Earth, where our purpose is not to escape Earth for Heaven, but to bring Heaven to earth?
“The old painful duality will go down before a restful unity of life. The knowledge that we are all God’s, that He has received all and rejected nothing, will unify our inner lives and make everything sacred to us. This is not quite all. Long-held habits do not die easily. It will take intelligent thought and a great deal of reverent prayer to escape completely from the sacred-secular psychology.” -A.W. Tozer