Thursday, July 7, 2022

The logic of Gnosticism and where it leads

Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is that spirit of Antichrist.
-- 1 John 4:2-3

That's a somewhat surprising litmus test, isn't it? The belief that separates those who are of God from those who are of Antichrist is not that Jesus is God, but that Jesus is a Man -- a real, physical Man, "come in the flesh." Today, with the exception of a few atheist cranks (a bit cranky even by atheist standards), just about everyone accepts that there was a real flesh-and-blood man named Jesus. The author of the epistle wasn't thinking of atheist cranks, though; his test was designed to exclude the Gnostics.

I think of the Gnostics as kindred spirits, not because I believe many Gnostic ideas but because of their method: Start with an assumption you feel confident about and unflinchingly work out its ramifications. I've tried to do that in such posts as "The Supergod delusion," "From the Resurrection to Kolob," and "On the origin of agents by means of -- agency." In the case of the Gnostics, the starting assumption is simple: Spirit is good, and matter is bad.


It's not an obviously ridiculous position, and one can find apparent support for it even in such mainstream Christian texts as Paul's Epistle to the Galatians.

This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. 5:16-24).

Taken at face value, this says that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the body and the spirit; that everything that comes from the body is bad, and everything that comes from the spirit is good; and that the Christian way is to "crucify the flesh" -- that is, to reject the body as utterly and mercilessly as the Roman occupiers rejected a condemned criminal.


Let's go Gnostic and carry this evaluation to its logical conclusion.

Paul's specific allusion is of course to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, held up here as a symbol of the utter rejection of the body. But after the Crucifixion came the Resurrection: Jesus took back the body he had supposedly rejected, bound himself to it permanently, and ascended into Heaven with it! What is to be made of that?

Well, the Gnostic conclusion is that Jesus obviously wasn't really resurrected, not physically. The true Jesus is a being of pure spirit. He did appear to some of his disciples in human form -- just as God appeared to Abraham as three men and to Moses as a burning bush -- but this was a concession to their limited understanding and should not be interpreted as proof of his true nature. God is not really a burning bush, and the risen Jesus is not really a man with flesh and bones. And don't some of the anecdotes in the canonical gospels back this up? The risen Jesus could apparently appear and disappear at will; his features were mutable; he sometimes looked like himself and sometimes like a stranger; and in the end, he rose up into the sky and vanished, later to appear to Saul as a disembodied voice and a light. Isn't it obvious that we're not dealing with a physical man here, but with a spiritual entity that can appear as a man when he so wishes?

But what of the empty tomb? What happened to the body if Jesus didn't come back to reanimate it? Easy: The body disappeared because it had never been real to begin with. If Jesus' post-resurrection body was only an appearance, not a physical reality, what is to stop us from saying the same about his original body? And the Gnostics did say it, or at least some of them did. Hence John's reference to those that "confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." Come in the flesh? What doctrine could be more blasphemous than that to those who have equated the flesh with adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, and so on? Jesus was never really a man; he merely appeared in human form.

(When I was a Mormon missionary back in the late 1990s, I met someone who maintained something similar about Moses. He had told me he didn't believe God had messengers, and I said, "What about Moses? Wouldn't you say Moses was a messenger of God?" His reply has stuck with me all these years, more for its strangeness than anything else: "I used to believe that, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Moses was never really a man at all but a projection of God himself.")

Once the assumption has been made that both the Incarnation and the Resurrection were illusions, all sorts of facts rearrange themselves in support of what has been assumed. Didn't Jesus appear suddenly at the age of 30, saying that he had come down from heaven and denying that his mother and brothers were really his mother and brothers? Isn't his youth a blank and his infancy a handful of mutually contradictory legends? Didn't he have a way of suddenly appearing in places, with no one knowing when or how he got there? Didn't he once go 40 days without food or water? Didn't he walk on water for God's sake? Obviously a spirit appearing in human form, not an actual man.

Together with the Incarnation and the Resurrection falls the Passion. While what has become mainstream Christian tradition places great emphasis on the enormous suffering of Christ -- the sweat of blood, the scourge, the crown of thorns, the spikes driven into living flesh -- Gnostic texts treat the whole thing as a joke. The body was not real, the suffering was not real, and -- we are told in one of the Gnostic gospels -- while his enemies were gloating and his disciples mourning, the true Jesus, an impassible spirit, surveyed the scene of "his" Crucifixion from high above and laughed.

As Elaine Pagels has pointed out, one consequence of this view was that the Gnostics never embraced or glorified martyrdom the way their Catholic cousins did. The Catholic Christ willingly submitted to torture, indignity, and death because "to this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth" (John 18:37). The Gnostic Christ, in stark contrast, successfully tricked those who wanted to torture and kill him. Each sect emulated the Christ they knew. This was one of the causes of conflict between the two groups -- the Gnostics saw the Catholics as troublemakers, and the Catholics saw the Gnostics as cowards -- and, if the blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the church, it may have been one of the reasons for Catholicism's eventual ascendancy over its onetime rival.


The ultimate consequence of Gnosticism, though, has to do with the Creation. If matter is evil, what is to be made of the God of Genesis, who created the earth and all that is on it, and saw that it was all very good? Did they dare to go there? They did. This Creator, they reasoned was obviously not the true God but a mere demiurge, and they gave him the name Samael -- interpreted by them as "the blind god," and more traditionally a name used in Judaism for the "chief of all the satans." Basically, the Creator was the devil, the "prince of this world" mentioned in the New Testament.

The Creator's antagonist, then -- the serpent of Eden, bringer of forbidden knowledge -- must have been a good guy, and was sometimes identified with Christ himself (who said "be wise as serpents" and "the truth shall make you free").

So this is where the original Gnostic assumption, that matter is evil, leads us: to borrow a distinction introduced by Waite in Devil Worship in France, if not to "Satanism" (the worship of evil as evil), certainly to "Luciferianism" (the belief that being most call the Devil is actually good).

That mainstream Christians and Gnostics, with their nearly opposite worldviews, could both make a plausible claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and to derive their doctrine from him is nothing short of astonishing, and it highlights the vital importance of metaphysical assumptions.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good. The way I imagine it happened is that the gnostics took their already-existing philosophical religion - a type of neoplatonism - and assimilated Jesus to it.

But, I regard the mainstream church as having been on the same continuum as the gnostics - for example fitting Jesus into the pre-existing concept of God.

It was not until Mormon theology that this alien and gnostic tendency was - potentially - removed from Christian theology; albeit this did not fully penetrate Mormon doctrines and practices.

johnson said...

"is come in the flesh" implies coming down from heaven and thus implies more than man, angel at least. So the "just a man" crowd is excluded by this as well.

Daniel F said...

The assumptions of each side will then also of necessity dictate which parts of Scripture can be accepted as canonical. Aside from the 1 John passage you mention, one could cite John 1:14 ("The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."), the Doubting Thomas passage from John 20, various passages in Paul relating to resurrection (e.g. Romans 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:15-20), the various nativity and youth narratives that William alluded to, etc etc.

This is not to say that this "proves" one side or the other; indeed, many of those passages (particularly from the Johannine corpus [pun intended]) may have been inserted as ammunition against the Gnostics.

But the point is that the Gnostic canon would have to be significantly different from the traditionally accepted Biblical canon.

Ra1119bee said...


William,

Although I don't believe in one particular ideology, much of what you've written here
about the Gnostics actually mirrors quite a bit of my own perspective.
Throughout the years, I have read and I am familiar with the Gnostics beliefs especially
where it concerns the Soul.

You wrote: "So this is where the original Gnostic assumption, that matter is evil, leads us: to borrow a distinction introduced by Waite in Devil Worship in France, if not to "Satanism" (the worship of evil as evil), certainly to "Luciferianism" (the belief that being most call the Devil is actually good)".

"In the case of the Gnostics, the starting assumption is simple: Spirit is good, and matter is bad."

" Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

My response : I don't necessarily agree that matter is EVIL or that Spirit/Soul is good
and matter is bad. All power sources in this duality dimension are just that,they're Power Sources. It's the intent that makes a power source Good or Evil and intent is a vehicle used towards manifestation.

When we categorize something as Good OR Bad, we are doing so from the perspective of the EGO, not the Soul.


Your comment : "which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

My response:
All of those things you mentioned : Adultery, fornication uncleanness wrath etc, are all Ego pursuits as the EGO pleasures and protects the imperfect physical cell body only.

To not inherit the Kingdom of God, makes sense, at least to me, because in every incarnation when we succumb to the EGO, the Soul must endure the sentence/punishment' of returning to this dimension under the Sun(Siriusly hot, much like Hell) to a mortal imperfect cell body until we earn/learn the worth to become pure spirit
and one with the Divine, which, from the perspective of the released Soul, is Heaven.

All IMHO of course....

No Longer Reading said...

Recently, I was reading Arthur Lovejoy's "Great Chain of Being" and while he doesn't mention the Gnostics explicitly, he mention the Neoplatonists's theory of emanation. The Gnostics also had a theory of emanation and the difference between these two ideas helped me see the difference between the two groups. I think the contrast helps clarify the nature of the Gnostic cosmology.

Lovejoy quotes Macrobius, who he claims gives "sums up the conception [of the Neoplatonists] in a consise passage":

"Since, from the Supreme God Mind arises, and from Mind, Soul, and since this in turn creatres all subsequent things and fill them all with life, and since this single radiance illumines all and is reflected in each, as a single face might be reflected in many mirros placed in a series; and since all things follow in continuous succession, degenerating in sequence to the very bottom of the series, the attentive observer will discover a connection of parts, from the Supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break. And this is Homer's golden chain, which God, he says, bade hang down from heaven to earth."

Lovejoy also says (quoting Plotinus in this passage):

"Each hypostasis will 'produce something lower than itself'; to the 'ineffable' potency of generation 'we cannot impute any halt, any limit of jealous grudging; it must move forever outward, until the ultimate confines of the possible are reached. All things have come to be by reason of the infinity of that power which give sforth from itself to all things and cannot suffer any of them to be disinherited. For there was nothing which prevented any one of them from participating in the nature of the Good, in the measure in which each was capable of doing so.' "

The Gnostics also believed in a series of beings each of which generated the next lower being, but they also believed that the world of matter was an aberration. It should never have been made, while the Neoplatonists believed that the world of matter was indeed a link in the chain of being, that even though less good than pure spirit, it was still good and so it was good for it to be made.

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