The Case for Gnosticism, Part 3: Is the Purpose of Life to Obey God’s Commandments?

In the first blog on the ancient and modern Gnostic understanding of life, I provided an overview of why this mystical path provides a much better alternative to orthodox Christian theology:

I have also shown, in God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion, that modern, militant atheism, which denies anything its leaders regard as “supernatural,” is irrational and an enemy of intellectual freedom, with a track record every bit as dangerous in its hubris as that of traditional religion.

In Part 2, I addressed the bold assertion, based on Eastern philosophy and what I call the New Age interpretation of quantum physics, that material reality is an illusion (or an unimportant, temporary blip in eternity)

I argued that this attitude (which is popular among those disillusioned with Western monotheism) contradicted what we can confidently state about reality, as supported by science, common sense, and even mainstream Hindu mystical experience. It also minimizes suffering. Unless we accept this world as real, there is no point in discussing what the metaphysical truth might be and the ethics that could flow from that.

That brings us to the topic of this blog: did a benevolent God place us here with the free will to obey his commandments and show that we deserve to go to heaven? This can include the idea that doing good by itself won’t get us there, that we must either accept Jesus as our savior or Allah as God.

The equivalent in mainstream Hinduism and popular Buddhism is to posit that one can be reincarnated until gaining enough good karmic balance to enter the realm of the gods (in the atheistic version of Buddhism and in Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, the goal is to recognize there is no eternal individual soul and by breaking the illusion, the practitioner is released from the cycle of rebirth, which I critically examine in God Reconsidered).

I believe that this notion that there is a divine purpose in our becoming mortal persists for a number of reasons:

Most people don’t have enough knowledge to understand why this simplistic outlook would not explain most of human history or prehistory or they don’t have enough awareness of global conditions today to see why this is problematical.

Most of the 70 billion people who have lived have known nothing of germs or scientific medicine. This was a major factor in the 25-50% childhood mortality rate until recent times. As I detail in chapter 5 of the book, the Black Death caused 200 million deaths in the 14th century, while in the 20th century alone, smallpox killed 300-500 million and malaria caused as many as 250 million deaths.

Then there were the 43 million who died in China during the 1958-61 famine, the four million who died due to a flood there in 1931, and 830,000 from an earthquake in 1556.

So how would we explain the purpose of such short lives and needless suffering? And how is it that the Creator is responsible for our bodies and souls and yet not for the consequences, like the 3-5% of all births worldwide that have congenital defects, or the occurrence of one out of 68 school children in the U.S. having autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control? As for karma, that doesn’t really explain how someone deserved to be born with genetic defects or to catch a terrible disease: we would need to understand what caused the individual to do something in the prior life that led to this fate.

Furthermore, even if there weren’t so much seemingly pointless suffering, most humans have spent their lives just trying to survive or engaged in activities that would not seem to have much relevance to continuing into a spiritual dimension. Do we really think that the vast majority past and present who were subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers were spending much time learning how to obey all of God’s laws? Even today, most spend a third of their time working, a third sleeping, and a third engaged mostly in leisure activities, not a spiritual quest. How does, say, earning, an MBA, becoming a great general, or pushing through school reform legislation have any eternal applicability?

And how can most people who have ever lived have been expected to know the truth about the divine ethical code of behavior if that were based on the Bible or the Koran? They either lived before these were published, were illiterate, or didn’t have access to these scriptures in their languages. On the other hand, if the truth should be drawn from the Buddha’s teachings, why do his followers in different sects believe radically contradictory doctrines and constitute just 8% of the world’s population? Hinduism has largely been confined to India. For that matter, it was only until the 20th century that travel between continents became easy, so how could the masses living around the world be expected to adhere to any one divine code?

And how should anyone at any time be expected to know what God’s will is about abortion, stem cell research, suicide, the death penalty, sexual morality, or any other important issue? It has to be recognized that in terms of being able to clearly recognizing the truth about anything, this is the worst of all possible worlds.

Then there is the philosophical problem of population growth. There were only one billion people alive in 1960, but world population is now 7.5 billion. If one believes in the divine creation of each soul, does God think things have gone so well he is busy creating more spirits to be born? Or how would reincarnation explain the enormous increase? It is certainly an argument against the idea that each incarnation helps the soul gradually improve until released from the cycle of rebirth.

We live in the bubble of our own experience that we interpret in a meaningful way, blocking out the fact that a great deal of daily life is the result of accidents.

Such accidents might be someone becoming infected by a virus on paper being passed around at work, the poisoning of urban water by lead pipes, a mistake made in construction that leads to a building collapse, or misinformation that results in bombs being dropped on civilians. In New Age parlance, we want to believe that to have a meaningful life, everything must be “meant to be,” part of the divine plan. All we have to do is obey his commandments (be they those brought down by Moses or taught by Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, etc.). Recognizing that this is an absurd philosophy doesn’t mean that we cannot have an optimistic attitude towards our personal lives or a belief in higher spiritual powers.

People who experience tragedies are extraordinarily resilient, so over time might feel that their ability to recover is a blessing, rather than that the original loss or illness was evidence that God did not protect them.

People tend to compartmentalize both tragedy and fortune through a survival mechanism called homeostasis, which brings us back to emotional balance. Studies have shown that on average people return to a more-or-less normal state in three months after everything from divorce to the death of a loved one, as wells as when they win a lottery ticket or are able to get their dream job.

We don’t see the conflict between ultimate outcomes of exercising our free will and an omniscient God who has foreknowledge of everything.

Those who insist that God is all-knowing have to believe that everything in life has a fate that he can foresee. If we also adhere to the belief that while God created everything in the material world, but isn’t responsible for human thinking or behavior, and that all natural accidents and diseases unfold in a perfectly predictable way, then the future isn’t controlled by him. We can then blame Nature, but somehow not the God who supposedly created it. Yet one has to ask why he continues to put spirits in bodies if every kind of tragedy that he can foresee will result. Is he bored and wants to watch the game play out to its foregone conclusion?

Psychics and prophets claim to have accurately predicted some events, so this is extrapolated to mean that these individuals were able to see part of the inevitable future.

Having investigated some noted psychics with impressive records, as I discuss in the book, I know that some can, indeed, be accurate about a few specific events. But they also tend to greatly exaggerate their accuracy. As for prophets, there is little objective evidence that any of them have foreseen distant events, but if they were accurate, they could have been told about God’s intentions, which would not make everything else predetermined.

It feels like we make most of our decisions in a rational way: we weigh the pros and cons of which college to attend, which stock to invest in, etc. While we know we have been influenced by genetics and our environment growing up, and we know we often lack information we would like to have for a fully-informed choice, most of us still believe that free will plays a vital role in our decisions.

Harville Hendrix (Oprah Winfrey’s favorite relationship counselor) documents in Getting the Love You Want that most of everyone’s personality characteristics are set very early childhood. Hendrix does provide a plan of counseling to improve relationships, yet half of marriages in the U.S. don’t work out and very few people ever go through psychotherapy to understand why they do the things they do, in order to be able to consciously change their behavior.

The human predicament doesn’t fit well with a monotheistic God who created us (yet isn’t responsible for our physical or psychological defects), then waved a magic wand that gave us free will to do the right thing for the rest of our lives. Nor does reincarnation offer an adequate explanation: if our course is largely set at birth, we may fulfill part of our karma (assuming the chaos of the world doesn’t interfere), but there can’t be many goals that are programmed into our genes and brains that are so powerful that they overcome all contrary environmental influences (such as being bullied at school or having parents who don’t care about grades).

I summarize the debate among scientists and philosophers about whether we have free will in chapter 6 of my book, but they all agree that even the concept doesn’t make much sense: how can there be a tendency to do something without an immediate cause and a chain of infinite causes before that? Many leading thinkers, including Stephen Hawking, declare free will to be an illusion. Still, those who argue that it has been proven that the mind is simply the brain and everything we do is predetermined by brain chemistry overstate the evidence.

Theories of relativity describe a four-dimensional “space-time” that isn’t a simple linear series of events, so time travel into the future would seem possible. Like defenders of divine foreknowledge, advocates insist that this future can somehow be set without impinging on the free will actions of the past and present.

If we conclude that there is neither past nor future, cause nor effect, only a timeless space-time, then there can’t be any meaningful discussion about the need for ethical behavior to have an earthly impact now, with eternal consequences. But proponents of a science fiction interpretation of physics want to have it both ways: they insist that we have free will and yet our actions can lead to a future that can be visited and is therefore in some way predetermined.

A layman’s summary of the technical arguments about the implications of relativity and quantum mechanics for time travel can be found here:

There is, of course, no evidence that human beings can time-travel in either direction. Experiments that purportedly show “reversed causality” are highly debatable. This isn’t surprising, since we’re in the infancy of understanding the implications of the laws of physics and some appear to conflict at this point. Hawking, the field’s most adventurous thinker, observed in A Brief History of Time that although the flow of time might be reversed in theory, in this universe it only runs forward, due to the fundamental laws of nature.

As the Wiki article p. 10 puts it, “the fact that causality is preserved in quantum mechanics is a rigorous result in modern quantum field theories, and therefore modern theories do not allow for time travel or faster-than-light communication.”

The philosophical problem of travel into the past is “the grandfather paradox” (could you go back and kill your grandfather before you were conceived by your father, therefore making it impossible for you to kill your grandfather?). But the past is not what is important in the debate over free will. The question is, if we can visit the future, is it predetermined?

“Eternalism” is the philosophical school that views the past and future as in some way real or set, not simply the result of past or present actions, according to a common interpretation of special relativity’s space-time.

The “many worlds” theory posits any number of futures in parallel dimensions as a way to preserve free will, so that every decision leads to another world. When you consider that every action of every person who has ever lived, not to mention the activities of nature, this would require an infinite number of other worlds, which seems absurd (no religion goes to such lengths to try to preserve the concept of free will). But the simple fact is that this is mere speculation whose logic is disputed by Hawking.

That doesn’t stop time travel enthusiasts like Deepak Chopra, who writes in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind that since “two particles can move backward in time as easily as forward” anyone can make themselves youthful again (presumably more than one particle at a time).

As leading physicist Lee Smolin wrote in Time Reborn, “Time is paramount and the experience we all have of reality being in the present moment is not an illusion, but the deepest clue we have to the fundamental nature of reality. If the laws of nature are outside of time, then they’re inexplicable.”

Let us agree that the universe had its beginning 13.82 billion years ago, is still expanding, and its end is somewhere in the undetermined future. Let us call the series of events in the material world “sequence,” to avoid getting confused by speculations about space-time by physicists who, from the perspective of eternity, haven’t yet graduated from kindergarten.

Gnostic mythology depicts a cosmic accident that resulted in spirits becoming embodied. That could explain why there is no evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (my chapter on UFOs doesn’t mean they are extraterrestrial in origin; encounters have paranormal elements, as I discuss in number 6 of this blog). The short and largely miserable lives of most of humanity from the beginning, as well as the irrelevance of most of their activities to any concept of afterlife, argue against the purpose of life put forth by religions East and West. Until we admit that, we cannot start building a fresh understanding of metaphysics based on truth.

In Part 4 of this series, I will turn to other issues that showcase why I believe Christian Gnosticism has by far the best answers to the great questions of life.

By Scott S. Smith

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