Rejecting the Kingdom 2: Too Hedonistic

by Sean Finnegan

According to the Hebrew prophets, one day the God of heaven will set up a kingdom on this world, restoring it back to its original glory. Instead of shucking off the body like a husk so the soul can ascend, the biblical teaching about humanity’s destiny is rather fleshy. God designed humans to live on earth in the beginning, and he will resurrect his people on the last day, healing them of all their ailments and imparting to them immortality. The picture is a beautiful one, with people living in peace, confidently planting and harvesting without fear of intruders. Rather than rampant economic injustice, one will wear out the work of his own hands. This grand age is to begin with a banquet at which the resurrected saints will enjoy fine wine and rich meat, celebrating the victory of God. Although this terrestrial hope coursed through the veins of Jews for centuries, it had reached a fever pitch by the time of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, he based his entire ministry on the proclamation and enactment of the coming of God’s kingdom.

However, as Christianity spread outside the borders of Judea and the Galilee, it encountered people for whom this kingdom idea was quite foreign. As more and more Gentiles came into the faith, suspicions about living in a resurrected body forever manifested in cities like Corinth and Colossae. By the second century, many converts brought their ascetic idealism into the faith and the result was a general disparaging of the body and especially bodily pleasures. Over time, as high powered intellectuals like Origen and Augustine worked to synthesize biblical theology with the philosophy of their own time, the kingdom and resurrection were reimagined along more “spiritual” lines of thought. However, many Christians like Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Lactantius—just to name a few—retained their faith in a this-worldly hope. The battle waged for centuries until finally the old millenarian hope fell by the way side and a heavenly disembodied eschaton took its place.

In what follows I intend to trace this development to some degree. I begin by establishing the biblical teaching about bodily pleasure before showing that many Christians rebuffed the kingdom gospel as hedonistic. In order to better grasp the wild world of ascetic idealism, I briefly survey philosophical thought about the body from Plato to Porphyry. This cultural back drop is important to understand why Christianity took an ascetic turn in the early Christian era. Lastly I show how the anti-pleasure bias of the age resulted in the rejection of the kingdom of God idea before making some concluding remarks about how this all relates to us today.


Garden of Pleasure

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and put the two first humans in a garden. After surveying his creation and declaring it good repeatedly, the first fact that displeased God was that Adam was alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2.18). Once the Lord formed Eve and Adam calls her “woman,” the Genesis narrative states:

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2.25).

God’s mandates in the Garden of Eden (Eden means pleasure, by the way) were not “remain celibate,” “eat only tasteless grains,” and “submit.” Rather, God’s commands were “be fruitful” “eat freely,” and “have dominion.” God so loved his first two humans that he wanted them to reproduce and fill the new world with many more people. The earth was not an exercise in testing people for some other realm, but a home for his own crowning achievements to delight in and rule over. Although he forbade eating from one tree in the garden, the rest of them were for their enjoyment—their pleasure.

The God of Genesis is more an Epicurean than a Stoic. He does not design bodies without pleasure sensors, but instead squeezes onto the human tongue 10,000 taste buds. He does not make reproduction an onerous or bland affair, but loads human genitals with thousands of erotogenic nerve endings. In his extravagant kindness, he engineered eating and intercourse to give us pleasure and then commanded his first two humans to engage in both. It’s no wonder the first two chapters of Genesis declare creation “good” seven times over. The second chapter of the Bible concludes with two humans, in a garden of Pleasure, totally naked, who are commanded to have sex, eat fruit, and rule the world.

Not only does God’s design of the body shout to us that he engineered us to experience pleasure, but the Law he gave Israel on Sinai likewise indicates his penchant for enjoyment. Consider the holy days built into the Law of Moses: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Although the Day of Atonement was a single day of fasting and repentance, the rest of these were multi-day celebrations or festivals. The Feast of Unleavened bread followed on the heels of the Passover meal when families roasted lambs, enjoyed wine, and told stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt. The rule for the rest of the week was no working other than preparing food. The Feast of Weeks commemorated the first fruits of the harvest. According to the Mishnah the festival was “accompanied by a large celebration, in which pilgrims gather in the towns of their district and go as a group with their ripe produce to Jerusalem. There they are greeted by Levitical singing and celebration.”[1] The Law of Moses was for an agrarian society, and built into the rhythm of the farmer’s calendar times of worship that coincided with times of rejoicing. Although sometimes Christian misinterpret the Law as some terrible straightjacket strapped onto the people of God until Christ could free them from it, in reality, it was a way God provided to connect with him by taking time out from the monotony of their toil. In antiquity most people worked every day, but God’s chosen ones worked only six days a week. The seventh day they took off to rest and enjoy the fact that they were no longer slaves in Egypt when they had to labor relentlessly. The Sabbath was a day separated off from the rest of the week to take a break and connect to the Creator.

Beyond the created order and the holy days instituted in the Mosaic Law, the Scriptures contain quite a few statements endorsing pleasure. Although the Bible is sometimes stereotyped as prudish or anti-sex, it does not shy away from the topic, nor does it prohibit physical pleasures. The following texts ably illustrate this point:

Prov. 5:18-19 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Eccl. 9:7-9 7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Eccl. 3:12-13 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Sex, eating, drinking, and work are for our pleasure. Proverbs encourages young married couples to enjoy each other’s bodies. After all, finding a wife is not a curse, but a gift from God (Prov 18.22).   Far from forbidding alcohol, Ecclesiastes flatly affirms the goodness of drinking alcohol and eating food. Furthermore, it shows that even work itself is good: “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Ecc 3.13; see also 8.15). The Law of Moses, once again, bears out these facts when it legislated the rules for military participation. The first year of marriage qualified a soldier for exemption from service, so that he may “be happy with the wife whom he has married” (Deut 24.5). Furthermore, if someone had just planted a vineyard he was likewise excused from duty until he could enjoy its fruit (Deut 20.6). Wealth itself is not seen as inherently evil, but a blessing from God (Ecc 5.18-19). Even in the coming age, Isaiah speaks about a banquet involving fine wine and prime meat (Is 25.6; see also Mat 8.11; 13.29).

Perhaps the best book to look at on the subject of pleasure is the Song of Solomon. This elaborate collection of poems brims with sexual imagery. It does not disparage but extols sexual union and all the attendant buildup leading up to it. The book opens up unapologetically with the words, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (Song 1.2). For the author wine is an obvious good, but the kisses of his lover are better still. By the time we reach the fourth verse we read, “Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers” (Song 1.4).

In one riveting scene, the woman awakes in the middle of the night with an intense desire to find her lover. She gets out of bed and begins searching through the city streets and squares. She encounters the night watchmen and inquires where he might be, but they are no help.

“Scarcely had I left them when I found him whom my soul loves; I held on to him and would not let him go until I had brought him to my mother’s house, and into the room of her who conceived me” (Song 3.4).

Later on we encounter romantic poetic descriptions of Solomon’s lover.

Song 7.7-12
You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly,
gliding over lips and teeth.

I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

Such words as these would never be allowed in a Bible that was at its core against pleasure. Throughout the Bible marriage is the norm. Sure eunuchs and prophets like John the Babptist remained celibate, but these are exceptions not the rule. The Bible celebrates weddings right from creation onwards. When Jesus went to a wedding they ran out of wine. Rather than scolding them for their merriment, Jesus turned 120 gallons of water into wine—not just any wine—quality wine (John 2.1-11). Even so, the Bible does place clear boundaries on bodily pleasures. Sex is limited to the marriage bed; eating is regulated by bodily needs; alcohol is consumed in moderation. Take any of these outside of their boundaries and we fall into adultery, gluttony, and drunkenness. Thus, unlike bacchic hedonism or the lechery of Mardi Gras, God reigns in the pleasures his people should indulge in to safeguard from ruin. Many Scriptures[2] convey the importance of restraining the flesh from its lustful drive, but too often these New Testament texts are taken to the extreme of asceticism. When members of the church at Colossae fell into asceticism, Paul corrected them with the following words:

Col. 2:18-23 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Furthermore, when some Christians in Corinth likewise began advocating celibacy, even within marriage, the apostle addressed them as follows:

1 Cor. 7:1-5 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Paul takes for granted that people are sexual beings who will fall into illicit behaviors if they cannot enjoy sex within marriage.

Now that we have seen some of the biblical evidence for this important subject we turn now to see how some Christians in the first few centuries of Christianity criticized other Christ-followers for holding to a kingdom hope. Interestingly, these verbal assaults found their strength in the claim that kingdom believers were really hedonists in disguise whose wanton fleshly passions determined their eschatology.


Millenarianism Considered Hedonistic

Anti-millenarian writers often attacked their opponents on the charge of hedonism. One of the earliest apologists for a celestial eschatology was the early second century writer Gaius. According to Eusebius, Gaius accused Cerinthus of writing the biblical book of Revelation in order to promote his own crass theology.[3] Gaius was appalled at Cerinthus’ belief “that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be on earth and that again the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will be subject to desires and pleasures” (H.E. 3.28). Note his subtle polemic interlaced with his description of Cerinthus. He chooses “flesh” rather than “body,” and he devalues it by noting how “it will be subject to desires and pleasures.” He goes on to call Cerinthus “an enemy of the Scriptures” for his deceptive belief that “the period of the marriage feast will be a thousand years.” Although Cerinthus remains somewhat of an enigma for patristic scholars, my interest here is not what he believed, but rather how Gaius combatted his apparent millenarianism. For Gaius, the jugular vein of Cerinthus’ eschatology was hedonism.

A century later, Origen likewise took great offense at the idea of experiencing bodily pleasure in the eschaton. “The Christianity of Origen’s time,” Trigg points out, “taught its followers to despise the fundamental cravings for comfort, sex, and the continuation of life itself that tie us to the world.”[4] Origen, himself an ascetic, had no tolerance for pleasure seekers. He wrote the following while describing the nature of eternal life:

Now some men, who reject the labour of thinking and seek after the outward and literal meaning of the law, or rather give way to their own desires and lusts, disciples of the mere letter, consider that the promises of the future are to be looked for in the form of pleasure and bodily luxury. And chiefly on this account they desire after the resurrection to have flesh of such a sort that they will never lack the power to eat and drink and to do all things that pertain to flesh and blood, not following the teaching of the apostle Paul about the resurrection of a ‘spiritual body’. Consequently they go on to say that even after the resurrection there will be engagements to marry and the procreation of children, for they picture to themselves the earthly city of Jerusalem. (Princ. 2.11.1-2).[5]

Origen’s polemic flouted millenarianism because it appeared hedonistic, a notion unworthy of God. In essence he accused those who believed in an earthly embodied eschatology of theological Epicureanism.

A generation later, Origen’s admirer, Bishop Dionysius, also opposed a physical hope. Like Gaius before him, Dionysius attacked Cerinthus on the charge of eschatological hedonism. According to Eusebius, Dionysius criticized Cerinthus for believing:

the kingdom of Christ would be on the earth, and he dreamed that it would be made up of those things which he himself desired—since he was a lover of the body and quite carnal—the full satisfaction of the belly and of things below the belly, that is, feasts and drinking bouts and marriages, and, as a means of providing these under a better name, festivals and sacrifices and slaying of victims. (H.E. 7.25)

Again, whether or not Cerinthus actually believed any of this is not germane to our present inquiry, I am interested in how Dionysius refuted Cerinthus’ millenarianism. He equated desire with loving the body and carnality. As with Gaius and Origen, Dionysius fixated on eating, drinking, and sex as seriously objectionable activities that obviously (at least to him) had no place in the Christian’s final destiny.

Jerome, the early fifth century polemicist par excellence, likewise added his voice in opposition to the millenarians. After noting some of the well-known Christians who held to this perspective including Tertullian, Victorinus, Lactantius, and Irenaeus, he went on to express some concern about how his spiritual interpretation of Revelation would be received since “a great multitude” both of Apolinnarians and Catholics held to a more literal interpretation. Jerome knew that “the anger of many will be aroused” against him and needed to make as strong of a case as possible. After mentioning Dionysius refutation, “mocking the tale of the millennium,” he ridiculed the belief himself by carefully calling attention to unpalatable millenarian elements (Commentary to Isaiah, Prologue to Book 18).[6] He concluded by writing, “I do not envy them, if they love the earth so much, that they desire earthly things in the kingdom of Christ, and if after an abundance of foods and the gluttony of their gullet and belly, they seek that which is below the belly” (ibid.). His polemic ends with his strongest point: millenarians are motivated by hedonism as symbolized by their belly and what is below the belly.

Augustine, who, as I have already mentioned had been a chiliast in his early years, noted in his City of God why their view was objectionable:

But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians (City of God 20.7.1).

Once again, as we have seen repeatedly, the “spiritual” rejected the “carnal” on the basis of hedonism, typically construed of in terms of bodily pleasures like eating and drinking. In this regard, Augustine himself was heir to a long tradition that had already developed this notion considerably.

In order to understand why the millenarian notion of an embodied enjoyment of earthly pleasures so grated on these Christian authors, we must first observe how educated people in antiquity thought about the body in general and bodily pleasures in particular.


Standard Anthropology Privileged Asceticism

As with universe, so with the body, Plato played a massively influential role in setting the intellectual climate for discussions about anthropology in the imperial period. Although he does speak positively about the body in the Timaeus, he does so in a restrained manner owing to the body’s participation in this lower realm of transience. Nevertheless, he calls the stomach, “a creature which, though savage, they must necessarily keep joined to the rest and feed,” though it is “housed as far away as possible from the counseling part, and creating the least possible turmoil and din,” so that the head can “take counsel in peace” (Tim. 70e).[7] Plato’s most devastating critique of the body, however, is in his Phaedo, the account of Socrates last moments before death.[8] At a certain moment Socrates asks if a philosopher ought to care for various pleasures including eating and drinking, costly raiment, and bodily adornments. His interlocutor, Simmias, unequivocally replies in the negative. A true philosopher despises “anything more than nature needs” and should be “entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body” endeavoring as much as possible “to be quit of the body and turn to the soul” (Phaedo 64d-e, henceforth Phd.). One should not fear death, which is merely the separation of the soul from the body, but embrace it since it is the means by which one finally gains freedom (Phd. 64c). The body is imperfect and contaminated since it constantly “provides us with innumerable distractions in the pursuit of its necessary sustenance” (Phd. 66b). It constantly prevents philosophers from accomplishing much meaningful contemplation because it is always “interrupting, disturbing, distracting, and preventing us from getting a glimpse of the truth” (Phd. 66d). Furthermore, it fills with “loves and desires and fears” so that “we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything” (Phd. 66c). He even went so far as to blame the body for armed conflict since wars are undertaken to acquire wealth the only use for which relates to the body. Until the time of death we should “instead of allowing ourselves to become infected with its nature, purify ourselves…by keeping ourselves uncontaminated by the follies of the body” (Phd. 67a). Thus, the true seeker of wisdom should undergo a “purification” by which one isolates the soul, endeavoring to be “freed from the chains of our body” in anticipation of death (Phd. 67c).

Philo likewise disparaged the body, considering it a major impediment to clear thinking. According to him, the human mind “is entangled among and embarrassed by so great a multitude of the external senses” (Laws 4.188).[9] These distractors do not aid contemplation but instead “seduce and deceive it by false opinions.” He called the body a tomb for the soul and compared the stomach to swine (Laws 1.148). In his book, On the Contemplative Life, Philo describes a community of ascetics called the Therapeutae who live simply, spend all day in the training (ἄσκησις) of philosophy, and allegorize Scripture. By observing how Philo portrayed this idealized community we gain insight into his view of the body and bodily pleasure. These ascetic champions remain in isolation for six days of the week and come together for a modest gathering only on the Sabbath. “None of them would touch food or drink before sunset” since such matters belong to the body and are not worthy of daylight (On the Contemplative Life 4.34).[10] Some of them become so transfixed in contemplation that they transcend their corporeal limitations, going up to three days forgetting to eat. When they do eat they consume “only plain bread, with salt as seasoning” and “their drink is spring water” (ibid., 4.37). At their banquets, “wine is not brought in …but only the clearest water” along with “loaves of wheaten bread, seasoned with salt” since “wine is a drug of madness, and costly meat inflames the most insatiable of wild beasts, desire” (ibid., 9.73-74). Philo’s influence on Christianity is well-known, but what is less known is that Eusebius was so impressed by Philo’s Thereapeutae that he wrote a lengthy apology, defending that they were early Christians (H.E. 2.17). His proof was grounded in the fact that they were ascetics, which for Eusebius was incontrovertible evidence that they followed “the customs handed down from the beginning by the apostles” (H.E. 2.17.24).

In the first century, the Cynic Pseudo-Crates advised his disciples, “Practice [ασκέω] needing little, for this is nearest to God…”[11] Pseudo-Diogenes in an epistle urged a follower, “But you, continue in your training [ἄσκησις], just as you began it, and be eager to oppose in equal measure pleasure and toil…”[12] Odysseus, in contrast to Diogenes, “succumbed to sleep as well as food.”[13] Writing in the latter half of the first century, Musonius Rufus (as reported by Lucius) advised training (ἄσκησις) the body and soul to “adapt to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, plain food, a hard bed, abstinence from pleasure, and endurance of strenuous labor.”[14] In so doing the body is hardened and the soul is trained “by abstinence from pleasure toward self-control.”[15]

Second century sensibilities were little different in this regard. For example, Celsus, in his True Doctrine, railed on the Christians, deriding their belief that some “will arise from the earth clothed with the self-same flesh” as a hope “which might be cherished by worms.” Celsus was befuddled by the notion that “a human soul…would still long for a body that had been subject to corruption.” “Dead bodies” he wrote, are “more worthless than dung.” The flesh “is full of those things which it is not even honourable to mention” and so to assert that God would re-embody departed souls is beyond foolish since it blasphemes God by applying an action to him that is “contrary to all reason” and thus “contrary to himself” (Against Celsus 5.14).[16] In addition the Gnostics denigrated the body. According to Layton, they called the body a bond, bondage, a fetter, and a prison of the soul, which it merely wore as a garment. Layton writes, “The realm of matter, to which the body belongs and to which it will return, is ‘shadow,’ a ‘cave,’ a realm of ‘sleep.’”[17]

In the third century, Plotinus, himself not a thoroughgoing ascetic, retained a dubious attitude toward the body. According to his biographer, Porphyry, he was ashamed to be in the flesh and refused to speak about his ancestors, his homeland, or even sit for a painter or sculptor (Life of Plotinus 1). For Plotinus, the soul was “essentially a stranger” to the body that needed to be purified by being alone without looking to external realities. Instead it should turn away from entertaining alien thoughts “towards the exact contrary of earthly things” (En. 3.6.5). The soul is by nature “bound to the flesh by the chains of sensuality and of multiplicity” and must subdue the body (ibid.). In fact, “The understanding of beauty is not given except to a nature scorning the delight of the body” (En. 2.9.15). For Plotinus, the emotion of anger was tied to the body not the soul and resulted from an unbalanced physiology that produced too much bile and blood (En. 4.4.28). Desire causes the person “whether it resists or follows and procures” to be “necessarily thrown out of equilibrium” (En. 4.4.17). This same “disturbance” is likewise caused by “the needs of the body.” The task of reasoning and intellect “is not accomplished by means of the body which in fact is detrimental to any thinking on which it is allowed to intrude” (En. 4.2.19). The virtuous soul should never allow “the passions of the body to affect it” (En. 1.2.3).

Plotinus’ student, Porphyry of Tyre, who lived into the early fourth century, also lauded the ascetic ideal. His desire, according to Anitra Kolenkow, “is to endure events of the day, dissolve the perturbations of the soul, and realize fidelity and constancy of with frugality—no wine, little food, small, hard bed, little sleep…to allow the ascent of the soul.”[18] In commenting on those who make a fuss about what is proper to eat, Porphyry, the vegetarian, retorts, “if it were possible, we should abstain from all food,” but since it is not we should content ourselves, “granting to nature what is necessary, and this of a light quality.” Through strict moderation, eating “more slender food” one will be able to “reject whatever exceeds this, as only contributing to pleasure” (On Abstinence from Animal Food 1.38).[19] Referencing Plato, Porphyry called sense-perception “a nail by which the soul is fastened to bodies, through the agglutination of the passions, and the enjoyment of corporeal delight” (ibid.). In contrast the soul is “pure energy” impeded whose embodiment he called “a thing of a dire nature” (ibid.).

Of course, examples of a general trend towards asceticism could easily be multiplied ad nauseum by looking at the Neo-Pythagoreans, the Stoa, and many other eclectic philosophers that flourished in the Roman empire. Furthermore, “In Greek and Latin Christianity,” Vincent Wimbush points out, “long before the beginnings of communal monasticism in the early fourth century, many held renunciation of sexual relations and abstemiousness in food, drink, and sleep as ideals.”[20] In fact, one early critic of Christianity, Galen the physician, wrote,

For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.[21]

Examples of Christian asceticism are plenteous and generally well-known. Second century documents like, The Proto-Gospel of James and The Acts of Thecla, and The Acts of John are rife with what Bart Ehrman calls, a “[r]azor-sharp…contrast between ascetic virtue and lustful vice.”[22] Furthermore the apologists like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr were quick to point out how many Christian women and men committed themselves to lifelong celibacy.[23]

Another important example is the late second century theologian, Clement of Alexandria, because he appears to be a moderate in that he fought against both hedonism and extreme asceticism.[24] Perhaps his view is best summed up with the words:

“We must aim for moderation in all things…in every thing and every place we should not live for pleasure nor for immorality; neither should we go to the other extreme. We should, instead, choose a course of life in between, well-balanced, temperate, and free from either evil: extravagance or parsimony” (Educator 3.10, henceforth Ed.)[25]

He admires “those who have adopted an austere life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire” (Ed. 2.2). Although he approves sexual intercourse within marriage, he is careful to say, “Pleasure sought for its own sake, even within the marriage bonds, is a sin and contrary both to law and to reason” (Ed. 2.10).[26] In his more esoteric work, Stromateis, Clement says a Christian “tastes not the good things that are in the world, entertaining a noble contempt for all things here” (Stromateis 7.12).[27] He despises all money and dominion and “hates the inordinate affections of the flesh, which possess the powerful spell of pleasure.” One should hold a “noble contempt” for “all that belongs to the creation and nutriment of the flesh” (ibid.)[28]. In short, his view is summarized nicely in the statement, “It is absolutely impossible at the same time to be a man of understanding and not to be ashamed to gratify the body” (Stromateis 3.43).

It is hard to disagree with James Goehring when he says, “The ascetic ideal, to varying degrees, was part of most early Christian theology.”[29] The third and fourth centuries boast many ascetics like Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Jerome just to name a few, not to mention the explosion of desert fathers and mothers like Anthony. My goal here is not to survey the entire patristic period on their view of the body and asceticism, but merely to demonstrate that the body was suspect owing to its susceptibility to desire and therefore was to be controlled and subdued so as to avoid hedonism at all costs. This sentiment was common in the Greco-Roman world and thus was the default mind-set for educated Christians and non-Christians alike. This created a general sense among Christians in the Roman Empire that pleasure should be shunned in favor of asceticism, even if most did not pursue strict asceticism.


Asceticism Resulted in Rejecting the Kingdom

Although Christians tended to have a higher view of the body than their elite pagan contemporaries (owing to their belief in the resurrection), they remained suspicious of bodily pleasure, especially eating, drinking, and sexual relations (even within a monogamous marriage). This all relates to eschatology because the end one hopes for is usually tied to one’s ideals in the present. So Christians like Origen, who limited his sleep, refused to use a bed, endured extreme poverty, walked without shoes, etc., and Jerome who thought the only benefit of marriage was the production of more virgins,[30] found the millenarian hope, which featured a messianic banquet replete with choice pieces of meat and refined wine, singularly unpalatable. No, the ideal instead, was a radically reconfigured resurrection body, completely impervious to fleshly and carnal desires.

Christians took a variety of strategies to deal with what Georges Florovsky called “a flagrant conflict in anthropology between the Christian message and the Greek wisdom.”[31] Although some Christians adamantly insisted on the resurrection of the flesh along the lines of millenarianism others, others like Origen “decarnated” the resurrected body. Origen’s vision of an “exceedingly refined and pure and splendid body” is, Brian Daley notes, “perfectly suited to the environment of a spiritual world.”[32] According to him, the rational being, once free from the flesh grows successively, increasing in mind and intelligence, since it is “no longer hindered by its former carnal senses” but now develops its intellectual power with the end goal of “the pure and gazing ‘face to face’” (Princ. 2.11.7). Trigg notes, “Origen insisted that his teaching on the resurrection of the body upheld the church’s teaching against heretics who denied the resurrection altogether and against simple Christians whose grossly materialistic interpretation exposed the church to ridicule by propagating ideas unworthy of God.”[33] Augustine, along with many others, alleged the resurrection body would be like the angels. He consents that “the flesh will rise again” but then quickly adds that God will transform it into “a celestial and angelic body” (Serm. 264.6). For Augustine, only the wicked will be raised in the same body in “that flesh which was buried, that flesh which dies; that which is seen, which is felt, which needs to eat and drink if it is to continue; which grows ill, which suffers pain” to undergo everlasting punishment. Thus with such interpretations available for understanding the resurrected body, the millenarian anthropology was rejected as base and hedonistic, a vision of the future unworthy of God.



Drawing together the threads of this investigation the following story emerges. The Hebrew background, informed by the Old Testament, held a high view of the body owing to its august origin. The Jews did not disparage bodily pleasures such as eating, drinking, sex, and hard work, but accepted them as God-ordained so long as they remained with his appointed boundaries. The New Testament documents do not challenge or innovate on this basic understanding. In fact, the Gospels portray Jesus as someone who attended dinner parties often, consumed alcohol, and discouraged fasting. That his enemies called him a drunkard and a glutton is unthinkable if he was an ascetic. As Christianity spread beyond the thought-world of Judaism into the Greco-Roman matrix, new converts to Christianity in Colossae and Corinth advocated a much more ascetic attitude towards the body. Paul confronted these issues head on, advocating a balanced perspective that shunned hedonism, on the one hand, and asceticism, on the other. As more and more Gentiles became Christ-followers, the typical dubious attitude towards bodily pleasures spread. By the second and third centuries, key Christian thinkers find themselves embarrassed by the kingdom hope, especially bodily resurrection, since it militated against conventional wisdom. As a result they rejected and mutated the Christian hope of embodied humans living in paradise by imagining a new, less corporeal, resurrection body in a new, less terrestrial, ultimate reality.

Although, Christians today are generally not influenced by the ascetic impulse of the classical age, we often react so strongly against the lasciviousness and lewdness of our own time that we tend to fall back into anti-social restrictions that ultimately besmirch our witness and exclude us from evangelistic opportunities. Rather than promoting Christianity as a holistic, fulfilling, joyous, and satisfying experience, we sell it short by portraying it as a restrictive religion that evacuates fun and enjoyment from the human experience. Christians don’t dance, don’t smoke, and don’t tell jokes. We feel guilty about eating fillet mignon, going on vacation, or living in a nice house. We abstain from sex unless for procreation, alcohol unless for communion, and film unless it supports a Christian agenda. To top it all off we preach a gospel of disembodied heavenly worship, wherein we spend eternity locked in a tractor beam gaze staring at a white glow without sleep, without change, without individuality. Is it any wonder that outsiders take one look at us and run the other way?

This is not to say that biblical Christianity is licentious; we certainly do have boundaries and limitations that hem us in. God has graciously put these in place to protect us and to encourage human flourishing, not stifle it. Imagine a tomato plant in the wild. It can only grow so tall before it bends over on itself. But, if a farmer comes along and steaks it—essentially limiting its direction for growth—the plant flourishes, growing much bigger and producing much more fruit. We have rules, but they are not to suppress us, they are to help us grow.

Although the patristic age fancied the kingdom hedonistic due to their excessive ascetic idealism, our age is just the opposite. Rather than calling the beautiful idea of a world restored to its original glory hedonistic, many people would reject it on the grounds of not being enough “fun.” In a time such as this we are tasked with presenting the gospel to our own generation in a way that is maximally palatable without succumbing to the seductive temptation to reimagine it to make it into a theme park or a debauched soirée.

[1] Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450 B.c.e. to 600 C.e. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 573.

[2] Heb 11.25-26; 2 Th 2.12; 1 Tim 5.5-6; 2 Tim 3.3; James 5.5; 1 Corinthians 7

[3] For a fascinating reconstruction of Cerinthus’ theology, harmonizing both strands of polemic later writers aimed at him (that he was a chiliast Judaizer and that he was a gnostic) see Charles Hill, “Cerinthus, Gnostic or Chiliast? A New Solution to an Old Problem,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 2 (Summer, 2000), 135-172.

[4] Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 72.

[5] In his Commentary on Matthew 17.35 Origen writes, “And even as those who because of the fact that they do not interpret the prophecies allegorically suppose (that) after the resurrection we will eat and drink bodily food and drink, since also the words of the prophetic writings embrace such as these, so also what has been written concerning marriages of both men and women, keeping to the literal and supposing (that) we will take part in intercourse then, on account of which it is not even possible to have time for prayer when being in (a state of) defilement and uncleanness partaking in sexual pleasures.”(E. Klostermann, Origenes Werke, vol. 11 in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller 38.2 (Leipzig: Teubner, 1933)). Furthermore in another place he writes, “We, in our simplicity and fondness for the flesh, say that the same bones, and blood, and flesh, in a word, limbs and features, and the whole bodily structure, rise again at the last day: so that, forsooth, we shall walk with our feet, work with our hands, see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and carry about with us a belly never satisfied, and a stomach which digests our food. Consequently, believing this, we say that we must eat, drink, perform the offices of nature, marry wives, beget children. For what is the use of organs of generation, if there is to be no marriage? For what purpose are teeth, if the food is not to be masticated? What is the good of a belly and of meats, if, according to the Apostle, both it and they are to be destroyed? And the same Apostle again exclaims, ‘Flesh and blood shall not inherit the Kingdom of God, nor shall corruption inherit incorruption.” (Jerome, Against John of Jerusalem 25, trans. W. H. Fremantle, vol. 6 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 436).

[6] Jerome describes his opponents as believing in “the golden and bejeweled earthly Jerusalem, the restoration of the temple, the blood of sacrifices, the idleness of the Sabbath, the injury of circumcision, nuptials, childbirth, child-rearing, the delights of feasting, and the servitude of all nations, and once again wars, armies, and triumphs, and the slaughter of the vanquished, and the death of the hundred-year-old sinner.” (Commentary to Isaiah, Prologue to Book 18, trans. by Hillel I. Newman, “Jerome’s Judaizers,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9, no. 4 (Winter, 2001), 440.)

[7] R. G. Bury, Plato: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1929).

[8] All quotations of Plato’s Phaedo from Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant Plato: The Last Days of Socrates (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

[9] See also Questions in Genesis 2.69. All quotations of Philo’s On the Special Laws from C. D. Yonge, The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855).

[10] All quotations of Philo’s On the Contemplative Life from Vincent Wimbush, Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1990).

[11] Pseudo-Crates, Cynic Epistles 11, Wimbush, 119.

[12] Pseudo-Diogenes, Cynic Epistles 11, Wimbush, 119.

[13] ibid., Cynic Epistles 19, Wimbush, 120.

[14] Musonius Rufus, On Training (προς ἄσκησιν) Discourse 4, Wimbush, 131.

[15] ibid., 132

[16] All quotations of Origen’s Against Celsus trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

[17] Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 18.

[18] Wimbush, 388.

[19] trans. Thomas Taylor (Wiltshire, UK: Prometheus Trust, 1994), 46-7.

[20] Wimbush, 4.

[21] Galen in his lost summary of Plato’s Republic, trans. Richard Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press 1949), p. 15.

[22] Bart D. Ehrman, After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 284. See Acts of Thecla 5; 17; Acts of John 63.

[23] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 33; Justin Martyr, First Apology 15

[24] This is particularly evident in his treatment in Stromateis 3

[25] All quotations of Clement’s Educator from Simon P. Wood, Clement of Alexandria, Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1954)

[26] “Those who from a hatred for the flesh ungratefully long to have nothing to do with the marriage union,” Clement calls, “blockheads and atheists” for exercising “an irrational chastity like the other heathen.” (Stromateis 3.60)

[27] All quotations from Clement’s Stromateis from Henry Chadwick and J.E.L. Oulton, Alexandrian Christianity, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, 1959).

[28]Clement explains that his own “ideal of continence” goes far beyond “that which is set forth by Greek philosopher” since they taught one should “fight desire and not be subservient to it” whereas his ideal “is not to experience desire at all.” Rather than merely combating the desire the Christian should “be continent even respecting desire itself.” (Stromateis 3.7.57)

[29] James Goehring in Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: Second Edition, (New York: Garland Publishing Inc: 1997), vol 1., p. 129, entry “asceticism.”

[30] For Origen, see Eusebius, H.E. 6.3.9-12. Jerome writes, “I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell” (Letter to Eustochium 22.20).

[31] Georges Florovsky, “Eschatology in the Patristic Age: An Introduction,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 2, no. 1 (January 1, 1956), 36.

[32] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louisville: Westminster John Knowx Press, 2004), s.v. “Eschatology,” 95.

[33] Trigg, 114. For Origen, “The soul’s goal is the abandonment of materiality, a goal for which the Platonic dialectic prepared it by enabling it to grasp intellectually the truths of a higher level of reality.” (Trigg, 109).

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