Tag Archives: salvation

Mercy and Judgment in Pistis Sophia

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.

Escaping Fate by Rising Through the Heavens

Continuing the overview series… the Gnostic schools pretty much universally believed in the idea of fate or predestination.  Some even believed in astrology, the notion that planetary patterns reflect patterns in human lives here on Earth.  Here’s the twist, though: they were convinced that fate was evil and that part of our quest for salvation involved learning how to thwart it.

In the Gnostic mythos, fate was part of the trap the archons set for human spirit.  From the Secret Book of John:

[T]he Chief Ruler knew that [the human beings, after the Mother awakened their thinking] surpassed him in the excellence of their wisdom. He wanted to restrict their plan for he was ignorant. He did not understand [that] they were wiser than he. He made a plan with his powers.  They begot Fate and they bound the gods of heaven and angels and demons and human beings with measures and seasons and times in order to keep them all in its fetter—for it was lord over them all.

The Secret Book of John lists 12 archons, including the chief archon, Yaldabaoth; and further names seven “glories” who were appointed by Yaldabaoth to rule over the heavens, and also over the days of the week.

The seven heavens are of course the orbital spheres of the seven then-known planets.  The idea of reading one’s fate in the stars likely came to the middle east by way of Babylon, where it was brought to Egypt by the conquest of the Babylonian Empire.  Much of the Western innovation in astronomical research during the period of antiquity took place in Egypt and northern Africa.  Claudius Ptolemy, whose famous work the Almagest expounded his famous geocentric system, published his work around the same time as the development of the Gnostic myth about fate and astrology.

With fate seen as a trap set by the archons, the Gnostics sought a way to overcome it.  The notion of becoming free of the material fetter became also a myth of cosmic ascension — of rising spiritually through the seven heavens, overcoming each archon one by one and passing on into the next realm.  Beyond the seven planetary spheres was one last obstacle, the eighth heaven with its sphere of fixed stars, which included the twelve signs of the zodiac. These too were ruled by the archons. Beyond the eighth heaven was the Empyrian Realm, a realm of light and fire, which was said to be the dwelling place of the Father.  In Ptolemy’s myth this was the realm of the Prime Mover, the one responsible for keeping the heavenly bodies in motion.

Astronomical myth played a central role in Christian doctrine from the beginning.  Recall, for example, that three kings from east (legend says from Babylon, which is the realm where the first western astrology was developed) followed a star to find the birthplace of Jesus.  Throughout his ministry Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and his ‘heavenly Father’ (as distinct from his worldly or mundane father).  And finally, Jesus was lifted up into heaven to be with his Father.

Cosmic ascension is, therefore, a symbol for union with God that goes back to the very roots of Christian doctrine.  It is reminiscent of the ascension of Enoch.  Visions of being transported to heaven and shown around abound in Christian mystical literature, Gnostic and otherwise.  See for example the Apocalypse of Paul, which purports to describe the vision of heaven Paul was given during his conversion event on the road to Damascus.  The endurance of this tradition is demonstrated by the similar visions described by Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso.

At least one sect developed this into an extremely elaborate system of ritual magic recorded in the Books of Ieou (or IAO).  This book describes 30 heavenly aeons through which the ascendant must pass, each one governed by three archons, who must be challenged.  The ascendant uses a particular sign and grasps a numerical glyph in his or her hand while demonstrating authority over the archons.

When you come out of the body and you reach the first of the aeons, and the archons of that aeon arrive before you, seal yourselves with this seal.  Say its name Zozeze — say it one time only.  Grasp this pebble with both your hands: 1119.  … Say these protective spells also: ‘Retreat Proteth, Persomphon, Chous, archons of the first aeon, for I invoke Eaza Zeozaz Zozeoz.’  Whenever the archons … hear these names, they will be very afraid… and flee leftward to the west while you journey on up.  (Ancient Christian Magic, p. 67; translated by Richard Smith)

God Within Us

The communities and schools of thought that were all lumped together as ‘Gnostic’ have a wide range of different ideas and teachings. Some were misogynistic and preached complete abstinence from all pleasure; others were libertine and gender-egalitarian. But there are a few points of commonality. The most important of those is the teaching that within each of us there is a piece of the divine presence.

In many versions of the myth, our spirits are pieces of a goddess – usually named Sophia – who has been kidnapped by the archons (the rulers of this world) or otherwise fallen under an enchantment and forgotten who she is. The Secret Book of John and the Hypostasis of the Archons are two Gnostic texts with classic renditions of this myth. The tale begins with the archons making a clay statue modeled after the perfect spirits (the aions) of whom they had gotten a glimpse. They can build the clay model but they can’t make it move; the only thing which brings the clay figure to life is when the spirit of Sophia or The Mother is breathed into it. But then, since the clay body now possesses spirit which they themselves don’t have, making it superior even to them, the archons become jealous and seek to trap the spirit by creating the illusion that it lives in a beautiful garden.

This is the tomb of the molded body with which they clothed the human, the fetter of the flesh. He is the primal one who came down and the primal partition. But it is the Thought of the primal light who dwells in him who awakens his thinking. …

The Chief Ruler took him and placed him in paradise, of which he said, ‘It is a delight for him’ but really so that he might deceive him. For their delight is bitter and their beauty is licentious. Their delight is a deception and their tree is iniquity. Their fruit is an incurable poison and their promise is death to him.

This belief, that human beings possess a divine spirit temporarily deceived into forgetting its nature, distinguished the Gnostics from most other Christians of their time, and certainly from all of them since Augustine. It is not compatible with the idea of original sin, or the later idea of total depravity. If there is a part of you that is divine, it is not God that does the work of reconciling you to the divine presence, it is you — and that reconciliation is not the crossing of a great gulf, but merely the cultivating of awareness of that which part of you already knows. If there is a part of you that is divine, then you are not fundamentally broken, but fundamentally okay.

It’s interesting though how different schools of Gnosticism took this idea down different paths of reasoning when it came to morality. One path led in the direction of deep ascetic worldly denial; another led in the path of heady amorality; and a third group took a middle way.

The Thomas Christians compared the physical body to a garment which the soul wears.

Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” (Gospel of Thomas 37)

The Hymn of the Pearl is another writing preserved by the Thomas Christians, a parable of a prince sent to Earth to retrieve a pearl. But the prince falls under an enchantment. He forgets his royal heritage and lives as a slave to the world’s ruler, wearing only rags. It is only when he is reminded who he is that he is finally able to discard the rags in which he was clothed and complete his task of retrieving the pearl.

Many of the Gnostics took these beliefs to mean that denial of worldly pleasure was the holiest course. They developed a morality of restriction, in which the life of ascetic denial is holy, which leads in predictable directions, such as the hostile misogyny found in later Gnostic writings such as the Exegesis on the Soul.

This text is essentially a commentary on scripture, developing the idea of the reincarnating soul comparing it to a wandering prostitute who couples with many bodies. The tone is misogynistic, which is not surprisingly coupled with a strong moralizing tone and promotion of an ascetic way of life. The text is a little unusual in that draws from the Prophets as well as the New Testament and Homer, but this underscores the syncretic nature of Gnosticism.

As long as she was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and […] her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short, they defiled her, and she […] her virginity.

Other Gnostics, such as the libertine Carpocratians, believed that morality of restriction was another way of letting the flesh rule you. None of their writings have survived, but we have a (somewhat polemically described) summary of their beliefs recorded by Bishop Irenaeus:

[T]hey maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular.

The Valentinian school eschewed both extremes, following the argument of Aristotle that every virtue is a rational mean between two vices, which are extremes:

it is possible to fail in many ways … while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect…

For the Valentinians, the archontic prison was much more devious than simply “enclosing spirit in a prison of flesh” — the mind was the starting point and the ending point for their investigations. The mind is the source of error, following fear and and hate and falsehood down pathways of erroneous logic — but is also the source of the solution, capable of following truth and wisdom and applying correct logic. Salvation then depends on learning how to discern error from truth, which is not a kind of wisdom that can be encapsulated in a myth or a set of pithy principles. Any idea or concept can be misused or misapplied or taken to an extreme. One must raise one’s mind above (metanoia) the traps of logic and error.

Because there is only one way to be right and many ways to be wrong, it follows that there is ultimately only one wisdom, and we can see clues of this in many faith traditions. Also, this truth should in every way match what we find in natural observation of the universe. When we investigate nature we should not find patterns there which reflect a different order from the things we believe – or else our beliefs must be mistaken, since truth and nature are reflections of the same cosmic ordering principle — the same Logos.

The difficulty of belonging to a faith tradition was illustrated in the Letter of Ptolemy to Flora, an epistle from one student of Valentinus to another, which namely is this: that in any doctrine, the truth is intertwined with falsehood, and we must contemplate each teaching to ascertain whether it is truly the teaching of Logos or merely that which was written by a man in pursuit of a particular goal.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself … nor by the devil…, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate.

And if the perfect God is good by nature … and if the one who is the opposite nature is evil and wicked, characterized by injustice; then the one situated between the two is neither good nor evil or unjust, but can properly be called just, since he is the arbitrator of the justice which is his.

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.”  They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.

At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife.  The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies.  The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.

Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife.  According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul.  When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.

But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time.  Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth.  Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation.  The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation.  The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not.  The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.

The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death.  This was a privilege granted only to the righteous.  Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):

He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”

Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.

The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme.  The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time.  Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”

This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:

Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here.  Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten.  If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state.  If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being!  But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit.  (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)

According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.

Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)

The Gospel of Truth, 3: salvation like a seed taking root

Continuing my series of posts on the Gospel of Truth.

For this reason, do not take error too seriously. Thus, since it had no root, it was in a fog as regards the Father, engaged in preparing works and forgetfulnesses and fears in order, by these means, to beguile those of the middle and to make them captive. The forgetfulness of error was not revealed. It did not become light beside the Father. Forgetfulness did not exist with the Father, although it existed because of him. What exists in him is knowledge, which was revealed so that forgetfulness might be destroyed and that they might know the Father, Since forgetfulness existed because they did not know the Father, if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.

“This reason” to not take error seriously was discussed in the last post: error is nothing but a fog borne of getting caught up into the wrong way of looking at things. A Greek word translated here as “ignorance” is agnosia; though this is the root from which we derive the word ‘agnostic’, it refers to being without (a-) gnosis (gnosia).

There is another similar bit of wordplay going on in the opening of the Gospel of Truth. The word commonly translated as “truth” is aletheia. This word also begins with the prefix a-, added to the root letheia, which means “forgetfulness.” (In Greek mythology, Lethe was the name for a river of Hades, which would cause you to forget everything if you drank of it.) So we have a direct pair of contrasts here:

truth (memory, revelation of what is concealed) vs. forgetfulness (concealing of truth)
gnosis (acquaintance, familiarity, attunement) vs. agnosia (ignorance)

Forgetfulness is a theme that comes up throughout the Gnostic scripture. The underlying notion is that we’ve been made to forget our true nature, and that developing a state of gnosis of the Father is a really a process like remembering something we already knew but had forgotten. See for example the Hymn of the Pearl, which tells a story about a prince sent on a quest, but who has fallen under a spell and forgotten who he was or what he was seeking. Before he can complete his quest, he first has to remember who he is!

“Root” is a term that shows up in the untitled Nag Hammadi text known to scholars as the Valentinian Exposition. There we find several times “Root of the All” as a name for the Father. Recall, the aions, the members of the Pleroma, are always described as having organic origin – as being begotten of another aion. “Root of All” is a very evocative notion, providing a vivid image of things in the cosmos existing as branches of a tree, of which the Father is the root. It also depicts a cosmic order like a tree, of which every part is rooted into the ground. But error, forgetfulness, “had no root.”

Who are “those of the middle”? To answer this we have to consider a threefold distinction between types of nature, hinted at in the writings of Paul and made more explicit in the writings of the Valentinians.

  • The pneumatic, or spiritual, is that which is already in tune with God, and therefore is not in need of guidance. It is on the path to full reconciliation with the Father and therefore to re-enter the Pleroma.
  • The hylic, or material, is that which is fashioned from the fog of error and, being no part of the genuine order, will eventually simply dissolve. It is maya.
  • The middle nature is called psychic. The modern English use of the word ‘psychic’ is a bit off from the original Greek meaning, ‘soul,’ in the sense of that which characterizes what is alive and animate. The psychic nature has the potential to be reconciled with the Father… but it also has the potential to simply dissolve.

Valentinus saw this three-fold distinction reflected in the lives of people around him. Not in the sense of saying that there are three “types” of people; rather, it is a way of thinking about the decisions people make and the actions they take. He was opposed to the very idea of fate or destiny, believing it to be a trick to keep the spirit into remaining intertwined with error. To look at it from the perspective of fate, it is everyone’s “fate” to remain entangled in the fog of error created by the demiurge; that there are not one but two ways to escape from the fog of error is a “hack” provided by the Father and the Logos.  But to take the pathways out of error and liberate oneself from the fate built by error requires conscious choice and deliberate effort. It requires metanoia. It requires rightness of action.

This notion has existed in many forms in Christian teaching; it is not exclusive to the Gnostics. For example, in Eastern Orthodoxy, there is the threefold path of theosis, of becoming like God. This is a path that requires both faith and action, inward change as well as outward change. This is the way by which those who have led a psychic life can still attain reconciliation with the Father. But it contrasts with the Protestant notion that salvation comes by faith alone, which implies that salvation is an “on or off switch,” like a toggle – where you either have it or you don’t.  The Gnostic view teaches that salvation is an ongoing process.

Those whose actions reflect a pneumatic nature do not need as much guidance to achieve or maintain attunement with the Father. They are called upon instead to help provide that guidance to those who need it — “those of the middle,” who are in more danger of making choices that will lead them on a destructive path.

Valentinus goes on to say what will happen to those who accomplish this: “if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.” To use a metaphor from a later portion of the Gospel of Truth, it is like waking up in the morning. The fearsome foes who menaced you in your dreams do not even fade or retreat; they were never real to begin with.

Earlier posts in this series:

1: on the Logos and the Pleroma

2: apokatastasis and stillness