A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car. I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read. Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas. Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas. I got to the first page and stopped. I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped. The introduction to Thomas says,
The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus. For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.
Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.” “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources. This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.
“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time. They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple. The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005. Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on. Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document. Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples. Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus. Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels. About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. The rest are of unclear origin.
Those of us who are Gnostics believe that all people are ultimately saved and that God always loves us, no matter what we do. These beliefs are true, but they can very easily be simplified and misunderstood. God is never angry with us in the way in which a vengeful human would reject us, but God’s love for us has a dark side and one which we should rightfully fear. God loves us not in a sentimental way which aims at our ease and pleasure but, rather in a way which aims at our highest good and with an intensity which no one, even the highest angels, can understand.
–Edward J. Parkinson, in “Divine Justice: Gnostic Reflections on Some Often Terrifying Realities” at CatholicGnostics.com.; courtesy Wikiquote
There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems. There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes. To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.
Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things. Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down. Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.
This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity. This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety. Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism. I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism. In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category. This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.
The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular. Thus, we will look at them first. Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course. However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below. We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.
To which I can answer only, “Beats me.” I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see. I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.
I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos. I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity. In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t. Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge. In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer: God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.
Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God. Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another. Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.
First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall. To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment. That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls. Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment. Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection. Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good. It is also important to point out that in this model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form. Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).
C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:
I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it. And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.
In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God). Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation. Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos. In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present. Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.
Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak. We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.
Update: A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. Due corrections have been made! I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….
In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale. Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show. Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts. The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes. The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality. They literally can’t see the weirdness.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field. It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce. Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field. Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”. The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.
My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.
Starting this past Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been reading The Gnostics by David Brakke, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity by Birger Pearson, and Voices of Gnosticism, an anthology of interviews with scholars of Gnosticism, edited by Miguel Connor. For the last year, I’ve been periodically reading The Secret Revelation of John, Karen King’s study of the Sethian scripture The Apopcrypon of John. Alongside this, I’ve been re-reading some of the so-called Gnostic Gospels and related scripture, such as the aforementioned Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of Thomas, The Thunder, Perfect Mind (the basis of the above short directed by Jordan and Ridley Scott), the Tripartite Tractate, and others. I have been running an ongoing series, Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy, in which I’ve been comparing little-o orthodox Christian thought and Gnostic Christian thought, towards the purpose of seeing what insights can be derived from each, and to what extent the two can be harmonized. Given this, and the relatively heavy reading in Gnosticism I’ve been doing of late, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a few thoughts I’ve had in this regard. Nothing systematic; just some thoughts and impressions.
First, over here I said, “None of the schools that we call “Gnostic” ever, as far as we know, used the term of themselves.” After reading Brakke’s book, I retract this. He argues, persuasively, in my view, that the school known to modern scholars as Sethians did, in fact, use the term of themselves. Briefly, he points out that “gnostic” (gnōstikos) was, in the first couple Christian centuries, a positive term, which some of those later considered orthodox (what Brakke calls the “proto-orthodox”) used of themselves. Brakke argues that Irenaeus, the first to refer to his theological opponents as “gnostics”, would hardly have used a positive term for a group he so roundly condemned, unless they actually used it of themselves. Irenaeus, in fact, rather snarkily calls their teaching “so-called gnosis”–recall, that though his famous work is usually referred to simply as Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), it’s full title is On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis. This seems to me a cogent argument. Brakke goes on to note that of all the groups Irenaeus attacks, there is only one whom he describes as “Gnostic”, and that these, based on his description of their beliefs, is most likely those that we now call Sethians. This is the group that produced, among other scriptures, The Apocryphon of John, The Trimorphic Protennoia, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.
This is often what it’s like to write about Gnosticism. I have a sporadic series about the interactions between Christian orthodoxy (of the little-o sort) and Gnosticism. “Orthodox” isn’t that hard to define–simply put, it describes Christians who accept, explicitly or sometimes implicitly, the definitions of the historic Creeds: Apostles’, Nicene, and (to a lesser extent) Athanasian. Details beyond these may be debated, but the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and many Protestant churches would fit this criterion. Though the Coptic Church and those in communion with it (historically called “Monophysite” or sometimes “Miaphysite”) and the Assyrian Church of the East (historically called “Nestorian”) were originally considered heretical for other reasons (they all accepted the first Council of Nicea, but not the later Council of Chalcedon), negotiations with the Catholic (and to a lesser extent, Orthodox) Church have resolved the Christological issues between these and the Chalcedonian Churches. Therefore, for the purposes here, I’m going to classify them as little-o “orthodox” too. Thus, “orthodox” is not hard to define.
“Gnostic”, however, is a vexed term. Ever since Eric Voegelin, there has been a bad tendency for people to use the term “Gnostic” as a term of opprobrium applied to whatever they don’t like (or in some cases, a term of praise for anything they like). Thus, it turns into an alternate way of saying “bad!” or “good!”; which makes it pretty much useless. If I’m going to write about Gnosticism, I’d better have an idea of what I mean by the term; which is what this post is about.