Docetism (from the Greek “dokeo” - meaning “to seem”) is an early Christian heresy that taught that Jesus Christ only seemed to have a body of human flesh, therefore the sufferings He endured were only apparent but not real. According to this false teaching, He did not really rise from the dead, but instead, after His “death”, He appeared before men in a spiritual body, not a physical body.
Docetism was promoted by philosophers who said that matter is inherently evil, that God can not be associated with matter, and that God, being perfect and infinite, cannot suffer. But this philosophy directly challenges God’s Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1, 14)
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” (I John 4:2-3)
“…many deceivers have gone out into the world… who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (II John 7)
Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and Hippolatus all wrote against Docetism in the early part of the second century. The Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451) wonderfully counters this terrible false teaching saying, in part, “…our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man… to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably…”
Today, there are no Docetist denominations per se, however, there are certain religions and cults that promote similar philosophies including Christian Scientists, Islam, Unitarian Universalists, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Any faith, religion or text that:
• rejects the “fully God, fully man” understanding of Jesus’ nature,
• claims that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body,
• claims that Jesus only seemed to have been crucified, or
• claims that Jesus only seemed to have physically died,
can be properly deemed heretical.
Colossians 2:8 gives us clear instructions for dealing with a heresy like Docetism:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…”