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3.3.2 Gnosticism

To the Gnostic the world is a darkened room, the “world” of man’s experience without the “light”. The nature of this world is dark and heavy. It changes and is full of uncertainty; it is a world of gross matter, subject to decay and death. It is a world full of illusions, of false promises and pain. It is characterised by fatigue and distress, and it is, in short, a material world. What the Gnostic knows is that this world is not his or her true home. At the heart, the root of the Gnostic, is the living Jesus. This is what it means to “know yourself”. These so-called heretics were pneumatic members of the Catholic Church spiritual aristocracy -“cognoscenti”- who organised extra-church meetings without the authorisation of the bishop. The Gnostics came to believe that they were outside the bishop authority. All this created confusion and division within the Church and could not be tolerated at length. The church organisation and doctrine were reinforced around the bishops, and the heretics were jailed, murdered, or excommunicated. While some Literalist Christians went so far as to accept martyrdom as an imitation of Christ’s end, most Gnostics saw no religious value in martyrdom and death. For some time the Christian Gnosis had been able to develop alongside and within the Christian Church. However a new doctrine, proposed by Irenaeus, changed all this:

  • It was now the Church’s view that Knowledge (Gnosis) was incompatible with Christianity
  • Gnosticism could not tolerate anymore within the Church
  • Gnosis was classified as part of the “old mythology”, and its main concepts were said to come from pagan philosophy that the Church was going to banish


Irenaeus was so successful that after his death Gnosticism was not a threat to the Catholic Church anymore. The main reasons for the elimination of Gnosticism were not only doctrinal, but also political. It was a difficult time for Christians who were still often persecuted and, to survive, it was important to have a united organisation. During the third and fourth centuries there was a great movement away from paganism and towards Christianity. This did not help the Gnostics who were seen by many as being half way between a pagan and a Christian. There is no doubt that Christian Gnosticism reached its peak during the first two centuries of the Christian era, but this does not mean that it was only a Christian heresy. Gnosticism has Iranian, Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian and Jewish sources. It grew in a world dominated by the Greek culture and language, but Roman and Latin soon replaced this. With the growing importance of Christianity, the new Church regarded the old Hellenic culture as pagan and tried to suppress its remaining influence. The Church Fathers found it convenient to proclaim that Gnosticism was derived from Greek, and more precisely from Platonic philosophy, that is from what they saw as a pagan culture that they tried to describe as false and irrelevant. Gnosticism still attracts the attention of many people, although the Literalist Christian Church describes it as the work of the Devil. Gnosticism has many faces, as it is not constrained by a rigid dogma like most universal churches. Gnostic teachers and philosophers were, and are, individualists who produced their own literary and speculative works freely, outside any constraining dogma. However it is also true that Gnostics have many ideas in common:

  • First of all, most Gnostics believe that the world was the work of an incompetent, or malevolent deity. They believe that the true God is beyond the created universe, and even alien to it. In the beginning, the Gnostics believe that there was only the transcendent God, a male principle that existed for eternity with a female principle, the Ennoia (Thought). Together they produced two archetypes, Mind (male) and Truth (female). In their turn these principles produced thirty pairs of males and females known as Aeons who, together, constituted the divine Realm, known as the Pleroma or Fullness. Of all the Aeons only the first, Mind, knew and understood the greatness of the Father and could behold him. The last and youngest Aeon, Sophia (Wisdom) wanted to have the same knowledge and contact with the Father. Without telling her male partner, she projected from her own being a flawed emanation, known as the Demiurge, who created the material cosmos and saw himself as the absolute God. His cosmos consisted of spheres, each ruled by one of the lower powers, the Archons, who together govern man’s world, the earth, which is the lowest of the spheres
  • Gnostic theology, cosmology, and philosophy are dualistic as symbolised by light and darkness. The divine realm is the realm of light and the Aeons are beings of light, while the cosmic spheres and their rulers, the Archons, are part of the realm of darkness. Good and evil, spirit and matter, knowledge and ignorance are other antitheses linked to the fundamental one of light and darkness. As a result, for the Gnostic, the world is the darkest part of the creation where matter, evil, and ignorance prevail. Man’s nature, too, is dual, consisting of a perishing material body and a spiritual spirit, or “divine spark”, which is part of the divine substance. When the divine spark is released from the material body at death, it wants to join the divine substance again. The Gnostic believes that at death, his soul would ascent beyond the earth to the source of Light within the Pleroma of the father. In Alexandria it was thought that this could happen also before death. However the journey through the spheres is not easy, as the Archons try to catch it and reincarnate it into another body of the physical world
  • Ignorance keeps man a slave of the Archons. Gnosis –knowledge of the transcendent God and of the divinity within- alone can liberate his soul and allows it to join the divine substance again. This saving knowledge cannot be discovered in the material world, the realm of darkness. It has to come from the realm of light by revelation (or illumination), or brought by a messenger, a transcendent Saviour. For the Christian Gnostics this saviour is Christos or Jesus who brings salvation, not from sins as the Literalist Christian Churches say, but from ignorance. The Gnostic Jesus does not offer redemption but the knowledge that redeems, and demands no belief and contrition, but spiritual effort and diligence. Only a few people, the elite, can possess Gnosis or knowledge of the existence of the divine spark within themselves, and reach salvation. The contempt for the Demiurge who created the world can lead the Gnostics to put themselves above the law, and behave, as they want

The Gnostic dramatic account of the creation still appeal to many modern people as well as the concept of dualism, the struggle between the physical and spiritual components of the human nature. Gnostics do not force any belief on anybody, for belief is not the way to Gnosis. Truth is not manifest or easily accessible, it is hidden and hard to find. Gnostic literature may help people seeking the “truth”, but it is not a replacement for the necessary process of psychic self-exploration and growth.

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