Most religions East and West assume that God is good and there is a divine purpose to our mortal lives. Generally, this means we have been given free will to follow God’s laws so that when we die we will be with him and our loved ones (or escape the cycle of reincarnation).
Gnosticism, one of the earliest versions of Christianity, radically disagrees with this consensus. In the decades after Jesus’ death, Gnostics asserted that the Creator God, identified with Jehovah (aka Yahweh) of the Old Testament, was not the same as God the Father. According to Richard Smoley in How God Became God, Jehovah evolved in Jewish thought from being an angel of God assigned to guide the tribes of Israel to being identified as a manifestation of God himself. But it is easy to see why many early Christians felt the teachings of Jesus could not be reconciled with Jehovah’s character and commandments.
“Yahweh is capricious and at times evil-minded,” wrote Smoley. “His wrath is kindled against Israel for vague and unspecified reasons. He has David number the people and then punishes them for it: 77,000 people die of a plague (2 Samuel 24:15)…Saul, the first king of Israel, falls into the Lord’s disfavor because he has failed to carry out an act of genocide (1 Samuel 28:18).”
The first version of the New Testament reflected the Gnostic analysis, consisting largely of Paul’s letters (favorites of Gnostics and orthodox Christians). It was compiled around 144 A.D. by Marcion, son of a Christian bishop in Sinope, part of the kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea. He called the Old Testament God the Demiurge, meaning “craftsman” of the material world, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of the High God beyond this universe. Marcion was excommunicated from the emerging orthodox church, but formed his own and by the early third century, the proto-Catholic father Tertullian expressed alarm at how widespread it was. Marcionite churches were functioning as late as the eighth century.
There were other influential Gnostic leaders, such as Valentinius of Alexandria, Egypt, who moved to Rome in 135 and became a leading bishop. He taught an allegorical interpretation of the Bible and wrote eloquent philosophical stories to illustrate his message, such as The Gospel of Truth (one of the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in Egypt in 1945). His followers attended the same churches as orthodox believers, but secretly taught those they felt were ready for the deeper truths.
The first Christian state was not Catholic Rome, but a Gnostic one, Osroene, with its capital at Edessa in modern Turkey near the Syrian border. The Gnostic teacher, Bardesanes (or Bardaisan), converted King Abgar IX, who ruled 177-212. Bardesanes was credited by church fathers with inventing the Christian hymn and wrote 150 songs that were popular for generations. The most famous is the “Hymn of the Pearl,” a beautiful allegory of the soul being lost in the world and returning to God, found in The Acts of Thomas, an early 3rd century text. But once the Catholic faction received the official support of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325, persecution of heretics intensified and the Gnostics went underground and faded away.
A cousin religion, Manichaeism founded in Persia by the Prophet Man in the 3rd century, emphasized the cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Mani considered Jesus the greatest of the prophets and his religion spread to Central Asia, becoming the official religion of the Uighur Empire in what is now western China until 840.
The last of the major Christian Gnostic movements was the Cathar Church in southern France beginning in the 12th century. It flourished in the civilized culture of Provence and the Languedoc, with support from the rulers of cities such as Toulouse and Carcassonne. Its leaders were admired even by local Catholic clergy because of their simple lives and dedication to helping others.
The popularity of this rival church, however, stirred jealousy and, with the support of the king who controlled northern France, Pope Innocent II declared a crusade in 1209 (the only one against fellow Christians). By the time the final phase was over in 1255, an estimated one million Cathars and their sympathizers had been killed. The Inquisition was formed to root out these heretics across Europe.
The Heresy of Orthodox Christianity
Mainstream Christians today read the Bible through the lens of their very similar Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions. The fundamentalists assert that the text is God’s word and is free of any error, despite all the differences among the surviving manuscripts that were written long after Jesus’ death. They also contain significant factual and historical mistakes, including failed prophecies.
Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar and former evangelical, shows in Jesus Interrupted, that two millennia of Christians have managed to overlook the striking lack of harmony in even the highlights of Jesus’ life. These are not merely minor differences or varying perspectives on the same events, but narratives that are difficult to reconcile. The Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) often contradict each other and the related Acts of the Apostles.
Matthew and John tell stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood that seem to be from completely different sources. There are only two points on which they agree: Mary was a “virgin” (probably a mistranslation for young woman) and gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.
There is no evidence for Luke’s empire-wide census that he claims brought Jesus’ parents there from Nazareth because Joseph’s ancestor, King David, was born there a millennium earlier. There was no logical reason to require everyone to return to their ancestors’ hometowns and it would have created unimaginable turmoil. Luke and Matthew have totally different genealogies to show that Jesus was fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah being born from David’s lineage, despite also stating that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. If Luke’s census did occur, the time he provides would also have been years after when Matthew says Jesus was born.
The Gospels also disagree about what happened after the crucifixion (there is a scholarly consensus that the last 12 verses of Mark in the New Testament were tacked on centuries later, the original text ending with the discovery of the empty tomb). Once you put the Gospels side by side, you realize that the authors could not have been eyewitnesses and were writing decades after Jesus’ death, relying on different traditions.
After the Gospels provide varying accounts of which women meet the resurrected Jesus at the tomb, Mark says they were told to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee and the disciples went there immediately. Yet the book of Acts claims they waited 50 days in Jerusalem. Matthew, on the other hand, reports that three days after the crucifixion, the women inform the disciples of his resurrection and he shortly appears to all of them in Jerusalem.
Luke asserts that the women conveyed the message that the disciples were to remember what Jesus had told them in Galilee, that he would die and rise again, and they should remain in Jerusalem. Jesus soon appears to two of them and later the entire group, after which he ascends to heaven.
These discrepancies would not be too important in an ordinary history, but if the key events of the central narrative are confused, how much reliance can we put on what it claims Jesus taught? How can the average spiritual seeker know whether the Bible is any more reliable than the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita?
This also raises the question of why, as mainstream Christians claim, we should have to accept Christ as our savior to avoid hell (Jesus never makes clear why his death would save his followers). The Bible claims that humans were created by God, yet the Creator made sure most of the 70 billion who have ever lived never heard Jesus’ message.
Most people throughout history were not literate and did not have easy access to a printed Bible. If they did read one, they might be put off by a God who seems like a capricious and violent egomaniac. Furthermore, does not God have some responsibility for the nature of those he created? Their ability to discern the truth is largely due to the biology of the brain and individual upbringing. And why would the perfect Creator even want to bring such imperfect creatures into a world where the truth is so hard to know, then send them to hell if they made the wrong choice?
Why Did Jesus Die and Was He God?
But the entire mainstream idea of the “plan of salvation” is not found in the Four Gospels and they apparently were written after Paul, who wrote his letters from 50 on and shows no awareness of them. Paul asserts that Christ died for our sins and the penalty was not hell, but death, and we are released from that because he was sinless. The “princes of this world” (a lower order of angels) who brought this about did such an injustice that that the Law of Moses was invalidated. But later Christian leaders felt uncomfortable with the idea of such powerful fallen angels, so this was blamed on Satan. By paying a “ransom” of his own innocent blood, they argued, Jesus had forced the devil to release his hold on humanity (which started when Adam was enticed to eat the apple by Eve against God’s command, committing Original Sin, according to the late Catholic theory).
But by the fifth century, there were qualms about giving Satan such power, so theologians decided it was better to say that it was actually God who needed to be appeased. This God was the Trinity: the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, which are three aspects of one being. According to this new view of salvation, the Father had to send his innocent Son—an aspect of the Father—to earth to appease his sense of justice in saving sinful humans, as long as they accepted Jesus as savior. This “penal substitution” theory is the most widely accepted one today.
The problem with this, aside from the lack of any logic, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the New Testament, which was not made official in its current form until 367 A.D. (and scholars now know that many of the letters attributed to Paul are in a different style and were written much later than the authentic ones). As I point out in God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion www.GodReconsidered.com, Jesus refers to the Father as someone he prays to, as in the Lord’s Prayer.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all tell the story of the young man who addresses Jesus as Good Master, who responds, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is God.”
In John 17:20-21, this unity is explained as spiritual, not as literally making two beings one. He prays for his disciples, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word; that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they all be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Traditional Christianity has a whole set of other interpretations of passages that they have elevated into dogma with much support, such as the notion that one only has to have faith in Jesus to be saved and no evil can be done afterwards that would disqualify the sinner from getting into heaven.
And the most perverse aspect of modern evangelical Christianity is that it largely ignores a clear central message of Jesus about the importance of helping the poor and social outcasts. It seems to me that St. Francis understood this and Pope Francis does, as well. But If aliens were to visit evangelical churches, they would conclude that this religion’s savior taught a gospel of tax cuts for the rich, sports competition, a strong military, restrictions on immigration, a ban on gay marriage and abortion, and justification for disenfranchising voters who disagree with that agenda. And yet evangelicals seem to somehow have overlooked Jesus’ ban on divorce.
The Forbidden Questions
The original Gnostics emerged as a result of interaction between Greeks and Jews in Israel in cosmopolitan Alexandria, Egypt. They also absorbed a central idea in pagan mystery religions, such as Orphism and the Hermeticsism, which declared that each individual had a portion of the divine within, giving them the potential to become god-like in a blissful hereafter.
The Gnostics sought experiential insight into the ultimate truth, called gnosis, by connecting directly with the divine and through using psychologically therapeutic rituals which would restore them to a sense of wholeness
“The Gnostics were the first to view traditional religion as the opiate of the masses, the drug that keeps people satisfied to serve the gods and their kings as obedient slaves and vassals,” wrote April DeConick, a biblical studies professor, in The Gnostic New Age. “They were convinced that the traditional religious communities had been duped by trickster gods.”
They raised the Forbidden Questions to traditional believers, which we can restate from our modern perspective:
*Why is there is no evidence of “intelligent design” in evolution? If the God of this world were all-powerful—or even if we were created by extraterrestrials—why did evolution take 600 million years from the first multi-celled animals, resulting in an unimaginable number of deaths?
*If the God they worshipped were good, why would he allow disease, natural disasters, accidents, and war to kill people seemingly at random? Why would he not reveal the existence of germs or at least anesthesia?
*How would the purpose of life explain the 25-50% infant mortality rate throughout the world until very recent history? How do we explain why God allows innocent children to be molested, with all the damage that causes? These things can’t be justified by reincarnation because the behavior of the prior embodiment would be caused by previous lives in an endless chain.
*Why would he create humans with nearly 400 mental-emotional disorders that cripple their ability to get along with others and lead productive lives?
*Why would an all-knowing God create people who would do so much evil? The notion that we have complete free will to do the right thing is contradicted by the evidence that genetics and environment program our decisions (if God has absolute foreknowledge of the future for everyone, as evangelicals assert, then he has created a mechanical toy to amuse himself as it plays out its destiny, before he gets bored because he knows how this movie ends).
*Why would human life be so short (especially going back 150 years in the poorest regions of the world) and mostly taken up with sleep, work, and entertainment, which would have little relevance to an afterlife of the spirit?
*Why would God allow us to be so confused about mundane truths, such as which diet to follow to ensure good health, what the ethical position should be on abortion, and what the best economic policies are to keep people out of poverty?
The Gnostic Awakening
The Gnostic worldview was reintroduced through the revival of interest in the ancient Hermetic tradition during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The noted literary critic Harold Bloom wrote about Gnostic tendencies in the rise of interest in alternative spiritual paths, from the Kabbalah to Mormonism, in The American Religion. The depth psychologist Carl Jung had mystical experiences that caused him to recognize that human beings had spiritual potential that wasn’t acknowledged by the reductionist theories of Freud (see the lectures at www.gnosis.org and Stephan Hoeller’s The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, which discuss striking parallels between human psychology and Gnostic mythology). Popular culture is now infused with Gnostic elements, from Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The DaVinci Code to “The Matrix” films, which grossed $1.6 billion.
So what do modern Gnostics believe? As in ancient times, they are not dogmatic about many doctrines, but broadly speaking they hold that:
*God the Unknown Father is an impersonal being who is beyond this universe, yet can be experienced in a personal and mystical way. He is not one of the minor gods of this world who want mortals to worship them (hence, the name of the popular Gnostic podcast www.TheGodAboveGod.com).
*This Transcendent High God can be prayed to, with the response coming either to our souls directly or through angels and saints. Foremost among the benevolent powers is Jesus, who did not die for our sins, but opens our spiritual eyes to truth.
*There are supernatural forces, the archons, which are enemies of the divine powers, led by the Demiurge, an entity who caused the material creation through a cosmic accident, hence the absurd and cruel nature of earth life. There is a dualistic tension between the divine and the malevolent forces, though seers anticipate a time when the good may overcome the evil.
*There is another dimension where our souls continue, the realm determined by our spiritual development (Gnostics disagree on the details; most groups have believed we die once, but many have accepted the idea of reincarnation, which I argue against in my book; I believe that our spiritual progress can continue in the other dimension, if we wish).
*Gnostics do not agree on a strict set of commandments that must be obeyed on threat of punishment (the Old Testament orders that children who are disrespectful to the parents should be killed, along with women who commit adultery). However, Gnostics have generally followed a common sense code of good social conduct that has sparked admiration by those who have condemned their philosophy. Nor are they pessimists, living the best life they can while staying in touch with the divine and looking forward to liberation at death.
DeConick wrote: “Gone is the God of damnation…the focus on sin and retribution….[We] wonder why religion perpetuates sexism, racism, and violence alongside more charitable structures. Gnostic spirituality encourages us to seek the transcendent , the God Above All Other Gods, as the source of our being…This…Gnostic awakening is so massive that we are still in its throes.”
About the author
Scott S. Smith is a freelance journalist, whose 1,600 articles have appeared in 180 media, such as Los Angeles Magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, He has specialized in interviews of famous people and his subjects have included Bill Gates, Meg Whitman, Stan Lee, Richard Branson, and Kathy Ireland.
He has also used his worldly skills as an analytical journalist to make the case for the paranormal in Fate magazine and in several books, notably The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death and his latest, God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion, which has a dedicated website and online discussion forum at www.GodReconsidered.com.