As for the charge of “Gnosticism,” this depends on what we mean by the term. Rodney Stark has argued that “Gnosticism” is something of a catch-all term. Quoting the French philosopher Simone Pétrement he says that Gnosticism isn’t “one heresy but a swarming ant-heap of heresies.” What seems to unite them is that they are markedly “anti-Jewish” and predicated on the conviction that “everything on earth was hopelessly corrupt, and ultra-asceticism was the only valid religious option.”
Hart is not “anti-Jewish.” His contention, on the other hand, that wealth is intrinsically evil does bear more than a passing resemblance to Stark’s characterization of Gnosticism. Unlike Gnosticism, however, Hart tends toward a more universalist view of salvation. In his reading of the New Testament, “formulations that seem to imply universal salvation outnumber those that appear to threaten an ultimate damnation for the wicked.”
It is here, in his soteriology, that Hart’s argument begins to fray. His assertion that wealth is “intrinsically evil” does not sit well with his contention that in the end, all will (very likely) be saved. It is hard to square Hart’s admittedly universalist tendencies with comments like those he writes in response to the stern words the Apostle James has for the wealthy:
James even warns his readers against the presumptuousness of planning to gain profits from business ventures in the city (4:13–14). And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above [5:1-6], which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad – any more than Christ did.
Let’s entertain a thought experiment.
What if Hart is correct? What if Christians and others of goodwill were to embrace his contention that wealth creation and acquisition are intrinsically evil? This is not, I hasten to add, a theological question but a practical question. Hart would have us dismiss the former without ever addressing the latter. This is a significant lacuna for a scholar of his caliber.
What would happen if, as he suggests, we were to do away with private property in favor of the (purely theoretical, non-Marxist, non-materialistic, Hartian) communism he says Christians are called to live? What would happen if accepted the practical implications of Hart’s theological theory? What would happen is that people would die, and die horribly.
If Hart is correct that wealth is “intrinsically evil” – and so must not be created or maintained – we all will die horribly as humanity’s accrued wealth evaporates and poverty spreads. Hart’s “voluntary” poverty would become involuntary as resources are consumed but not replaced. Economic and technological development will grind to a halt. We would starve as crop yields fell for lack of modern farming techniques and equipment. We would no longer have adequate medical supplies, air conditioning, or heat. Civil society and the Church would struggle to care for those suffering from the increasing material deprivation within, and the marked increase of violence from without.