Pistis Sophia is a late Gnostic text, typically dated in the 3rd to 4th Century CE. Largely it is known to us from a Coptic edition in the Askew Codex. It is long and somewhat impenetrable to casual reading.
Pistis Sophia is an apocalypse telling of both the beginning and the end of the world; and as we find in most texts of that genre it spends no small amount of time describing what will happen to people’s souls after the final judgment. Like most Gnostic texts, Pistis Sophia describes human souls as being trapped by the Archons in a cycle of reincarnation. There are some interesting similarities to the Tibetan Buddhist text Bardo Thodol (“Liberation by Hearing in the Liminality”), and also to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
As in Bardo Thodol, right after death the human soul has a chance to be freed from the cycle of reincarnation. If the person while alive was baptized, followed the purifications (Pistis Sophia advocated a life of abstinence), and carried out the necessary instructions upon death, they would be well-equipped to grasp that opportunity and rise up “like an arrow” beyond the obstacles of fate and fear. Also as in Bardo Thodol, the unprepared also had a chance at liberation, but they had to be lucky enough to hear and understand liberatory prayers spoken by someone who had received the proper instruction.
Pistis Sophia, like most Christian apocalyptic texts, proscribes the judgment of souls, but in describing the fate of souls its tone is much more merciful than we encounter in mainstream Christian scripture. The details of the fate of souls borrow heavily from Greek and Egyptian notions of the afterlife.
Upon death, the human soul is said to fall into the company of “receivers,” of whom there are several classes having varying levels of friendliness towards the soul. Those who lead ethical lives, regardless of their beliefs or instruction in the Gnostic mysteries, fall into the company of friendlier receivers who first “spend three days circling with it in all the creatures of the world” (ch. 103). They then guide the soul through different regions of the underworld (Amente and Chaos, of Egyptian and Greek myth) where they are judged but do not suffer greatly. They are made to drink from a cup of forgetfulness, and finally the soul is led back to be born into a new body, and whether they are assigned a good destiny or bad one reflects their conduct in the previous life.
Those who led less ethical lives do not fare as pleasantly. They are taken up by “retributive” receivers who usher them through the realms of judgment, where they are punished by the Archons according to the wickedness of their actions in life. A “wise fire” purifies them by burning away the worst parts of them. (Baptism involving fire was not literally practiced by Gnostics – as far as we know – but they referred to the inner initiatory rituals as “fire baptism” to distinguish them from the water baptism that was open to everyone.) Finally they are brought before Barbelo, the Virgin of Light, who assigns a new fate for them based on their actions in the previous life.
Those who have been initiated in the Gnostic mysteries are said to be able to offer help to the souls of the departed. They can recite prayers over the corpse in hopes that the spirit will hear it and follow instructions that may help them rise up beyond the spheres of fate that trap the human soul on Earth. They can also offer prayers to the Virgin of Light on their behalf, so that she will give them a more merciful assignment in the next life.
For a few souls who led especially wicked lives on Earth – or Gnostic initiates who slide back repeatedly into immoral behavior – a particularly terrifying fate awaits. They are taken to the Outer Darkness – the same Outer Darkness which Jesus described in the Gospels as a “place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Unlike popular depictions of Hell as a place of fire and brimstone, the Outer Darkness is described, like the deepest level of Hell Dante’s Inferno, as a place of terrible, freezing cold. There, the souls of the wicked will be frozen until the end of the world, at which time they will cease to exist.
There is no eternal suffering in this depiction of Hell. And redemption is open to even the Archons or demons too, if they should repent. Several of the Gnostic texts, including Pistis Sophia, Hypostasis of the Archons, and the Secret Book of John, describe a role given to a repentant Archon named Sabaoth.
I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that it is hard to reconcile ancient apocryphal texts proscribing harsh or even infinite punishment for wrongdoers with modern ideas of justice. Pistis Sophia addresses this problem directly. The section of the text which deals with judgment ends with Jesus assuring the disciples that the holy Mysteries will be more merciful in their judgment than any human. Citing examples of cases where people commit many sins “deserving of death” but who are then given mercy by earthly kings or judges, he claims that even more merciful will be the Mysteries.
To illustrate his point, Jesus brings before Peter (in order to test him) a woman who had transgressed three times after repenting and being baptized. He instructs Peter to “perform the mystery which cutteth off the souls from the inheritances of the Light.” Peter demurs:
When then the Saviour had said this, Peter said: “My Lord, let her yet this time, that we may give her the higher mysteries; and if she is fit, then hast thou let her inherit the Light-kingdom, but if she is not fit, then hast thou [to] cut her off from the Light-kingdom.”
When then Peter had said this, the Saviour knew that Peter was compassionate as he and forgiving. (Pistis Sophia, Chapter 122)
The choice of Peter in this parable is notable, because throughout the Gnostic texts, Peter is depicted as being particularly hot-tempered, misogynistic, and quick to judgment. Even Peter can not bear to be the one who cuts this woman out of salvation, when faced with actually doing so. The point is made: God must be even more merciful than Peter.