The central idea around which the entirety of Gnosticism revolved was a form of dualism called “anticosmicism” (from anti-, “against,” and cosmos, “the world”): the belief that the everyday world is inherently evil and opposed to the divine. Divinity, as Hans Jonas has aptly put it, was “not the essence of [this] world, but its negation and cancellation.”[1] The Gospel of Philip expresses the Gnostics’ anticosmicism particularly succinctly and poetically: “Winter is the world, summer is the other… the eternal realm.”[2]

From the Gnostics’ anticosmic perspective, true spirituality had nothing to do with achieving harmony with this wasteland of a world or its creator, but was instead all about transcending them. Gnosis – the mystical, otherworldly insight that Gnostics strove to cultivate above all else – was seen as unnatural and even anti-natural.[3] In the words the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas places on the lips of Jesus, “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.”[4]

The word “dualism” can have a number of different meanings depending on the religion or worldview in question. It can refer to the idea that the world is tugged in opposing directions by opposing spiritual forces, such as God and the devil in what we today think of as “normal” Christianity, or their counterparts in Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu or Ahriman). It can refer to a puritanical, black-and-white morality. It can refer to “Cartesian dualism,” the split between mind and matter. Or it can refer to any number of other things. Anticosmicism is a specific form of dualism, and the Gnostics wouldn’t have necessarily agreed with any of those other types of dualism.[5]

The Gnostics’ central myths, their versions of creation and Christ’s journey on earth, were effectively articulations of anticosmicism through vivid stories rather than through the detached, conceptual language of philosophy and theology. In the beginning, there was only God the Father and his unsullied perfection. Then, a number of heavenly beings arose from God and populated Heaven. The youngest of these beings, Sophia, fell from grace and inadvertently gave birth to the demiurge, a malevolent, misshapen being whom the Gnostics identified with the god of the Hebrew scriptures.

The demiurge created the material world – something that was never supposed to happen in God’s plans – along with demonic entities called archons to help him administer his reign. The Gospel of Philip puts it bluntly: “The world came into being through a mistake.”[6] The fallen creator then imprisoned sparks of divinity from Heaven in matter so that he could rule over them. The bodies and minds of the creatures within whom those sparks existed were entirely under the sway of the archons, making abusive demonic possession their default state in life and causing their divine essence to go unnoticed and unheeded.

But there was a flaw in the demiurge’s diabolical plot: the ever-present possibility that those sparks of divinity might achieve gnosis, the knowledge of who and what they really were, which would enable them to escape from the demiurge’s prison. That’s why God sent the heavenly being Christ to earth in the body of the man called Jesus: to impart gnosis to people and thereby to liberate them from the world and restore them to Heaven where they belonged.

Anticosmicism thus presented a deeply nihilistic view of earthly life.[7] The Gnostics would have agreed with the anguished proclamation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.[8]

But unlike many forms of nihilism, anticosmicism wasn’t a repudiation of spirituality. Instead, it was a motivation for spirituality – and a particularly intense form of spirituality at that.

Remarkably, anticosmicism also entailed that humans – or at the very least the Gnostics themselves – were superior to the universe, its creator, and its rulers. In the Gnostic version of Christianity, there was no original sin, but rather original innocence. Adam and Eve didn’t fall – the creator’s mother did, and the creator was the product of that fall. In the account of creation in the Gnostic Secret Book of John, “Adam was more intelligent than the creators and the first ruler. When they realized that Adam was enlightened and could think more clearly than they and was stripped of evil, they took and threw Adam into the lowest part of the whole material realm.”[9] After Eve was created, “The human beings were made to drink water of forgetfulness by the first ruler, so that they might not know where they had come from.”[10] Thus began the familiar human predicament. But the capacity for transcendence, for the remembrance of the innate superiority of the inner divine particle over the cosmos, remained. It was just dormant and in need of a heavenly savior to awaken it.

Anticosmicism and Proto-Orthodox Christianity

Since the Gnostic variety of dualism implicitly condemned all of human society along with the rest of the mundane world, it should come as no surprise that virtually everyone besides the Gnostics condemned them and their beliefs in return. And anticosmicism was typically the aspect of Gnosticism that the Gnostics’ critics reviled the most.

One of the most vociferous opponents of Gnosticism was the pagan Platonist philosopher Plotinus. Plotinus gave his work Against the Gnostics a telling alternate title: Against Those Who Say that the Universe and Its Maker Are Evil. His chief admonishment was that the Gnostics, in his words, thought “very well of themselves and very ill of the universe” – something that a pious, tradition-minded Roman pagan such as himself found wildly offensive and sacrilegious.[11]

Even the Gnostics’ fellow Christians tended to agree, despite the differences between their worldview and that of Plotinus. This was especially the case for the so-called “proto-orthodox” variety of early Christianity – the type that would eventually become the state religion of the Roman Empire and give rise to the main branches of Christianity that have come about since that time (most prominently Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism). For example, the highly influential proto-orthodox heresiologist (“heresy hunter”) Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in a work critiquing Gnosticism that “To say that the world is a product of fall and ignorance is the greatest blasphemy.”[12] Anticosmicism, especially the doctrine of a malevolent creator, was also the idea that Irenaeus’s colleague Justin Martyr singled out as the definitive one that separated “true” Christians like him from “false” ones like the Gnostics.[13]

Yet proto-orthodox Christians themselves held views that bordered on anticosmicism, albeit a diluted version of it. Although they insisted that the same God had both created the world and sent Christ into it, they also believed that the world had become dreadfully corrupt since its creation. After all, if there wasn’t anything horribly wrong with the world, why would people need to be saved from it?

This “God vs. the world” dualism seems to have originated in the writings of John and Paul, which were held as sacred scripture by both the Gnostics and the proto-orthodox. For example, in John 17:25, Jesus prays: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you.”[14] John 1:10 says the same of Jesus: “the world did not know him.”[15] 1 John 5:19 declares, “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”[16] Later, in 2:15-16, 1 John urges its readers, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world — the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches — comes not from the Father but from the world.”[17] Paul repeatedly uses the term “archon,” and other related terms, to refer to sinister beings who govern the world from the part of the sky below the highest heaven.[18] And in Philippians 3:20, in an anticipation of the language of “foreignness” that was so prominent in Gnostic writings, he asserts of Christians that “our citizenship is in heaven,” not in any worldly nation.[19] (See The Origins of Gnosticism for more on these points.)

Thus, someone like Tertullian, another proto-orthodox heresiologist, could write to Christians facing martyrdom: “Nor let this separation from the world alarm you; for if we reflect that the world is more really the prison, we shall see that you have gone out of a prison rather than into one.”[20]

But the proto-orthodox and the Gnostics took their shared theological and mythological inheritance in very different directions past these commonalities. The Gnostics sharpened the prevailing Christian “God vs. the world” dualism into full-blown anticosmicism, whereas the proto-orthodox weakened it and attempted to at least partially bridge the gap between God and the world.

For the proto-orthodox, God had created the material world, Christ had been a fully material human in addition to being fully divine, and salvation would occur via bodily resurrection rather than spiritual enlightenment. The material world may have been corrupt, but it was created to be perfect and therefore contained within itself the capacity for perfection, which would be realized again when Jesus returned to earth a second time on Judgment Day.[21] The world’s ultimately temporary evil wasn’t due to an evil creator, but rather human sin. The fall hadn’t occurred in Heaven prior to creation; it occurred through Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after creation.[22]

Thus, the proto-orthodox attitude toward the world was one of considerable ambivalence. While they sometimes made statements that were very much in accordance with the Gnostics’ anticosmic stance, they could more or less have it both ways, depending on which way suited them best in any given situation. What they criticized Gnostic theology for amounted to its being more systematic, decisive, and extreme with regard to certain tendencies that both groups held in common, and in the process excluding other tendencies within early Christianity that the proto-orthodox held dear.

Conclusion

But did the Gnostics’ anticosmicism mean that they couldn’t encounter the divine anywhere except in their own internal depths? Was the world around them exclusively a barrier to experiencing the divine, and never a conduit for it? According to their own writings, the outer world could occasionally provide a means of accessing the divine, but only under certain exceptional circumstances.

The Letter of Peter to Philip provides what’s probably the clearest example of this. According to that text, Christ’s twelve apostles gathered at the Mount of Olives after their leader’s crucifixion. Fearing that they, too, would soon meet a similarly gruesome fate, they prayed to Christ to save them from the hands of their enemies. Then “a great light appeared, and the mountain shone from the vision of the one who appeared. And a voice called out to them and said, ‘Listen to my words that I may speak to you. Why are you looking for me? I am Jesus Christ, who is with you forever.’”[23] Christ’s voice, projecting from the glowing mountain, then gave them a long, mythological speech that set their hearts at ease.

This clearly wasn’t a case of “nature” or the world as a whole manifesting or speaking of the divine. Instead, it was one particular part of the world manifesting the divine at one particular moment. Before Christ’s appearance to his apostles, there hadn’t been anything divine about the Mount of Olives, and after Christ’s appearance had ended and the light that had shone from the mountain faded, it went back to being a purely earthly mountain (a special one, no doubt, given its prominence in early Christian traditions, but nevertheless earthly rather than divine). Christ temporarily took it over from the outside, as it were, and then left – just as he had done with the body of the man Jesus.

Furthermore, in an anticosmic context, the best that elements of nature could do was to provide assistance with transcending the world of which they were a part. In another Gnostic text, the Book of Thomas, Thomas asks Jesus about the sun, and Jesus replies, “Blessed Thomas, surely this visible light has shone for you not to keep you here, but that you might leave.”[24] Such was the intention of the resurrected Christ’s appearance to his apostles through the Mount of Olives. The Gnostic interpretation of Christ’s incarnation again provides a parallel – he had taken on a material form not to redeem matter, but to overcome it.

References:

[1] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 271.

[2] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Philip.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 179.

[3] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 42-43.

[4] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Gospel of Thomas with the Greek Gospel of Thomas.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 146.

[5] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 171-172.

[6] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Philip.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 179.

[7] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 332.

[8] Shakespeare, William. MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5.

[9] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 125.

[10] Ibid. p. 128.

[11] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 144-145.

[12] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 254.

[13] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 108-110.

[14] John 17:25, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john+17%3A25&version=NRSV Accessed on 3-15-2019.

[15] John 1:10, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john+1%3A10&version=NRSV Accessed on 3-15-2019.

[16] 1 John 5:19, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+john+5%3A19&version=NRSV Accessed on 3-18-2018.

[17] 1 John 2:15-16, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+john+2%3A15-16&version=NRSV Accessed on 3-15-2018.

[18] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 52-53.

[19] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 103.

[20] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 139.

[21] Ibid. p. 211.

[22] Ehrman, Bart, 2014. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperOne. p. 307.

[23] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Letter of Peter to Philip.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 590.

[24] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Book of Thomas.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 240.