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Gnosticism: From the Height of the Third Millennium

by Alexander Maistrovoy, Distinguished Guest Blogger

Author of Gnosticism Through the Prism of the Third Millennium

Two thousand years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean, there appeared a religious movement later known in history as Gnosticism. Its supporters are known as Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis—‘knowledge’).

The Gnostics radically changed the traditional picture of the world and the universe, the relationship between the Deity and people.

‘Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. … I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior,’ Isaiah proclaimed. ‘Behold, God is great, and we know him not!’ Job humbly agreed. Plato’s demiurge comes across as a just and righteous creator.

Gnostics overthrew the demiurge from the pedestal. Yes, he was the creator of the cosmos, the material world, although not all-seeing, compassionate, merciful, and caretaker of a man, but ignorant and conceited.

The cosmos, matter, and flesh were seen as evil, incompatible with divine spirit, a substance which it found alien and repugnant.

The quintessence of Gnosticism is in the opposition of God (Pleroma) and Creator (Demiurge), Spirit and matter; and at the same time – in presence of the particle of Spirit in the material dungeon. This particle (pneuma) makes people connected, through the Holy Spirit and with the help of the Holy Spirit, with the Divine world of Pleroma and elevates them above the spoilt world of matter (world of incompleteness - Kenoma). Pneuma endows them (or at least many of them) with genuinely divine knowledge, which helping to grasp the essence of the world and one’s own place in it. This knowledge is Gnosis.

In its covers, Gnosticism was so diverse and multifaceted that at times it seemed it represented multiple completely different approaches and perceptions of the world. But the idea, with all its variations and turns, remains unchanged: the world was an

obvious evil, the creation of the forces of darkness, according to the dualistic

Persian school, or a sorrowful result of the fatal disruption of harmony of the divine world, according to the Mono dualistic Alexandrian Gnostic School.

Gnostic ideas, formed two thousand years ago, in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, were expressed in myths. Extraordinarily colorful and vibrant, this mythology was all the less too confused and difficult to comprehend for masses of people to accept and understand the Gnostic idea. In many respects this is why Gnosticism, paradoxically, giving deep and in many respects exhaustive answers to the questions of being, remained on the sidelines of the life of the world, becoming the lot of religious scholars, philosophers, spiritualists and mystics.

How possible and real is the resurrection of Gnosticism with the intellectual might, completeness, and colourful diversity it had two thousand years ago?

I believe, to have this happen, Gnosticism has to be reinvented and rethought in terms of, not myth and esotery, but reason, rationality, and logic. We have matured enough to do it from the point of view of existing experience and the perception of the world—the world that has changed so much in the past millennia and at the same time has essentially remained unchanged. We can be sure: Gnosticism not only did not lose its meaning, but is extremely relevant, natural, intellectual, and at the same time available for the perception without the veil of contrived and false mysteriousness for anyone endowed with faith and a sense of pain for the tragedy of humankind and the world.

We can and must try to evaluate Gnosticism, its meaning and idea, from the height of the third millennium in the light of the experience, knowledge, and concepts which we have at our disposal. In our current time, which has so many similarities to what was going on in late antiquity, when the humankind is wedged between the grindstones of irrepressible and unbridled hedonism and fanatical religious fundamentalism intolerant of live thought, Gnostic dualism reminds us about the other possibilities of spiritual choice and other dimensions beyond the existing ones.

  • An Ideal Miracle

Undoubtedly, the Pleroma is comprehended by the heart.

But we can and should comprehend the laws of the Demiurge through reason, through science, social and historical knowledge.

What do we know about the physical world?

Modern science shows us that the Cosmos, matter, nature, living nature and people are the result of an ideally adjusted, flawless jewelry plan, implemented with amazing accuracy.

I have devoted a detailed and thorough chapter of my book to the proof of this amazing phenomenon. Here are just a few quotes from very famous and very authoritative scientists.

  • Eric J. Chaisson, an American astrophysicist from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and teacher of natural science at Harvard University, author of Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature and From Big Bang to Humankind: Seven Epochs of the Cosmos, did not doubt the existence of the brilliant evolutionary plan—not only regarding the Earth but the universe as a whole. He does not conceal his admiration for the complexity of biological forms combined with minimal chances for their creation.

  • Freeman John Dyson, an English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, wrote ‘As we look out into the Universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.’ (As quoted in ‘The Anthropic Cosmological Principle’, 1986)

  • Stephen William Hawking, an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, declared himself an atheist (a person who does not believe in the anthropomorphic God of monotheistic religions) but at same time believes that ‘the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.’

‘Many people do not like the idea that time had a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.’, he wrote. (‘A Brief History of Time’).

  • Michael Denton, British-Australian biochemist and molecular biologist, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, wrote ‘It is so efficient that all the information … necessary to specify the design of all the species of organisms which have ever existed on the planet

… could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written.’ (‘Evolution: A Theory in Crisis’)

  • Hugh Ross, a Canadian North American astrophysicist from the University of Toronto, wrote, ‘Astronomers who do not draw theistic or deistic conclusions are becoming rare, and even the few dissenters hint that the tide is against them.’ (‘The Creator and the Cosmos’)

  • Robert Jastrow, an American astronomer, physicist, and cosmologist, who was a leading NASA scientist and founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote:

Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the Biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and Biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled

the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

(‘The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe’).

  • Sir Fred Hoyle, an English astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, wrote:

A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? (‘The Intelligent Universe’).

  • Sir Fred Hoyle and Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote:

No matter how large an environment is considered, life cannot have had a random beginning. Troops of monkeys thundering away at random on typewriters could not produce the words of Shakespeare, for the practical reason that the whole observable universe is not large enough to contain the necessary monkey hordes, the necessary typewriters, and certainly the wastepaper baskets required for the deposition of wrong attempts. The same is true for living material.

(‘Evolution From Space’)

  • Francis Sellers Collins, an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project, wrote:

As the director of the Human Genome Project, I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.

(‘Collins: Why this scientist believes in God’, CNN, April 6, 2007)

I could go on endlessly, but it hardly makes sense, those who wish can read the evidence for the existence of the Creation Plan in my book.

  • Evil: Search for the Primal Cause

But if the cosmos, nature, and humankind are the results of creation, this brings us back to the original dilemma—the question Why? Why the nonsense, absurdity, and gloomy onerousness of existence? Why the blatant injustice and cruelty of all living things?

Indeed, if the world presents such a splendid, ingenious creation, an ideally adjusted perfect construction on the physico-mathematical level, then how can we explain why it is so imperfect, even detestable from the point of view of not just morality and spirituality, but also common sense?

What makes evil so powerful, unconquerable, and eternal?

There are several answers to these questions. The first one is Judaic-Christian: fall from grace and the expulsion. Rejected by a virtuous God for weakness, doomed for atoning for their guilt, the descendants of Adam and Eve lead wretched and torturous existences hoping for rescue, which will be given to them either at the end of all days with the coming of the Saviour or in a different enlightened world. But why would a good, virtuous, and just God first tempt his children by means of devious tricks and afterwards punish them for the wrongdoing in a cruel and merciless way? Why would such a God kill defenseless children from generation to generation and torture and torment his own offspring? We are entitled to contravene by words of Julian of Eclanum, the most prominent follower of Pelagius, who says in his letter to Augustine, the popularizer of the original sin idea:

Tiny babies, you say, are not weighed down by their own sin, but are burdened with the sin of another. Tell me then, who is this person who inflicts punishment on innocent creatures? … you answer God. God, you say, God! He who commanded His love to us, who has not spared His own Son for us … He it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who sends tiny babies to eternal flames … It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far, indeed, from mere common sense, in that you think your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. (Opus imperfectum contra Julianum, I. 48ff).

Let us recall Diderot, who sarcastically remarked, ‘The Christian God is a father who makes much of his apples and very little of his children.’

The second answer, a variation of the first one, is that a merciful and virtuous Creator made a perfect world, but it was spoilt by the self-conceit and madness of Lucifer, who seduced the original humans and put them into the chains of sin. But Lucifer is no more than a fallen angel. How is it possible that an all-powerful and merciful God endowed him with such an incredible power? There are two answers, and both of them are unsatisfactory. Either God is not all-powerful and not virtuous, or he successfully collaborates with Lucifer, time after time testing his most devoted and obedient followers as he did it with Job.

The third answer: Evil does not exist as such. Evil is the absence of good just as darkness is the absence of light. But evil in our world is not amorphous; it’s tangible, extremely real, and frightening. It’s not just the absence of good; it’s the opposite of good. It’s not just ignorance, concessions, and dejected silence. It’s oversaturated with demonic features: anger, hate, envy, avarice, passion for violence, jealousy, and fanaticism.

Buddhism sees the source of suffering in humans as people being too attached to the material world. But can one not be attached to the world, being its part and its hostage? Can fish not be attached to water, spiders to cobwebs, or moles to their holes? How can humans not be attached to the world if, since birth, they have been ensnared with countless links tying them to the world?

Modern technical civilization tried to give its own explanation. It was born in the epoch of Enlightenment, acquired radical completion in Marxism, and was given momentum by modern progressives. According to this approach, evil is the result of social deviations, class, estate, national, and religious oppression. If these enslavements were removed and humans were endowed with basic benefits, then they, being reasonable and virtuous by nature, would subjugate the world by means of science. They would get rid of diseases, bad habits, vices, envy, and greed, and they would acquire harmony and happiness. Indeed, for three centuries, humankind achieved an awful lot in a technical sense but did not become happier. Moreover, if, in the eighteenth century, someone had been told that, within a century and a half, millions of people would be turned into the swarms of speechless slaves, starved, deported into the wilderness in masses, thrown into moats while still alive, beaten to death with cleavers, and fed to mosquitoes in a boreal forest in the name of a ‘happy future’, such a fantasist would have been considered raving mad. It turned out that the path to happiness led to an abyss.

Gnostics give their own explanation, which we have forgotten. Humanity was created by the demiurge the way it was meant to be created. Humans are the personification of the demiurge’s plan—perhaps not primarily evil but certainly flawed. However vague the purpose of this plan, pain, ordeals, and trials are the main ingredients of the ‘stew’ which we start tasting as early as childhood and stop consuming only when we leave this world. This is the constant equation, the meaning of which fully opens in history. Evil is not a whim or accident; neither is it the deficit of love or social injustice. It is the spring of the material world.

Perhaps, despite the external pointlessness, ugliness, and randomness, human civilization presents an ideal formula, calculated, and verified with the same meticulous accuracy that helped to lay the ideal physico-chemical development parameters for the material world. This imperative is in eternal movement; in the most precise, calibrated combination of suffering and will to live which encourages humankind to constantly and fatefully strive after happiness.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. … They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think”, - wrote English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Suffering has been made the focal point of the whole construction by default; it is an integral part of the gigantic living organism we call humankind.

On the other hand, without the powerful survival instinct, without the desire to satisfy their desires and happiness, our existence would be unbearable and odious.

This combination is a perpetuum mobile—perpetual motion—of its kind: the eternal force of progress, however sacrilegious and cynical this sounds.

  • The Path of Life

Humankind is a part of living nature. Elements of the environment suppress humans. Like ants, they are swept away by a gigantic tsunami wave; like bugs, they are squashed by earthquakes, tyrannies and wars, invasions and genocides, ethnic cleansings, and revolutions; diseases and epidemics cut them down; wounds, fear, and the agony of death torment their bodies and souls. Millions of forces hold them hostage. Like scared and mortally wounded animals, they dart around, trying to find refuge, trampling on their brothers and sisters, and inventing increasingly new ways of survival where survival seems impossible.

But—and this is crucial—humankind cannot stop this movement. The cruel paradox of human development is this: whilst freeing themselves from the snares of nature; perfecting social laws; inventing technological marvels; learning to manage diseases, hunger, and cataclysms; acquiring comfort and prosperity, humans are unable to overcome themselves. Their race is, first of all, an escape from their own selves, which is beyond their control.

Humans are the fruit of a calibrated combination of the same factors that govern the animal kingdom.

Three demons of nature hold humankind hostage, crucifying people on an invisible cross: the vulnerability of matter, the call of sex, and a feverish desire to possess.

Furthermore, humans possess not only intellect, like animals, but also self- consciousness. The laws of the animal world are projected onto the most delicate

mental structure. Imagination, conscience, vanity, the pain of loss, and a taste for analysis turn life for humans into a purgatory, and sometimes even hell. People are thrown into a moral dilemma; they are driven by the need for self-realization in society; a constant fight for survival; ruthless competition; the horror of loneliness and dissatisfaction; an unrestrained flight of imagination and attraction to a mystery; an urge to submit to force and at the same time to defend one’s dignity; the ability to create boundless complexes and reflections as well a confused, dark, and controversial inner world.

For centuries, humankind tried to avoid wars. People believed that this evil that caused so much grief and suffering could be exterminated by means of getting rid of social vices. Kant believed that monarchy and despotism lay at the heart of wars; Rousseau and consequently Marx were convinced that the root of all evil was in private property, oppression, and injustice; Kropotkin named big cities as the cause of captures and aggression. Erich Fromm maintained that wars were brought forth by economic interests of the elite.

All these theories did not withstand the test of time. Wars—no less cruel and bloody—were made long before the existence of slave-owning societies, monarchies, and tyrannies. They were made and are still being made (as it happened before our very eyes in Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo) by primitive tribal alliances that never had before—nor do they have now—any class divide, big cities, pernicious tyranny, or political machinery of suppression. In many cases, this was blood for the sake of blood, madness in the name of madness, atrocity for the sake of pleasure. This was an ‘apotheosis of war’ for the love of war.

A French researcher of the medieval wars, Philippe Contamine, the author of the famous work War in the Middle Ages, made an effort to classify armed conflicts according to the reasons for their occurrence. He presented seven key reasons for war, and economic reason—war for the sake of usurpation, appropriation of enemy’s property and his resources—took the last line in this register.

In our time, it appears inconceivable that hundreds—even thousands—of young men and women leave their quite functional, well-to-do families and countries and thrust themselves towards Iraq or Syria to join the ranks of the followers of jihad. They risk their very lives, subject themselves to unimaginable suffering, but crave the ‘bloody brotherhood’ in which they can realize their secret desires.

This is not surprising. The façade of civilization is ephemeral. It evaporates like the morning dew at the first rays of the sun at the moment when humans receive permissiveness, when moral prohibitions slip, and cultural codes are declared invalid. Genocides and ethnic cleansings, which swept through the Europe of the last century at the peak of Western culture, as well as the Milgram experiment of Yale University and Stanford prison experiment are all sad confirmation of this.

‘Human spirit would always remain the same as it was … Nobody can find in human spirit more than what is in it already. To think it possible is the biggest of delusions; this means inability to examine oneself,’ wrote a French aristocrat of the nineteenth century, Joseph de Maistre, who hated and despised progressives for their naive and unbridled idealism.

Human nature is unchangeable, but humankind refuses to accept this and longs to change it so passionately that people are prepared to endlessly deceive themselves and, walking along a vicious circle, convince themselves that they are well on the way to progress.

Humankind is doomed to a constant hopeless fight with primal instincts, and what could better illustrate this than the arguments around Jesus Christ about the superiority and closeness to him on the throne at the Day of Judgement.

‘The desire of a body, the desire of a glance and the conceit of life’ (The Epistle of John 2:15–16) cloud his vision and poison his mind.

Combined with the primordial demons of nature, the forces of the subconscious foredoom humankind to pain and ordeals, and there isn’t the slightest need for the devil’s tricks for the explanation of the misery and adversity befalling humans from generation to generation on all continents and in all epochs.

Humans are their own battleground, victims, and torturers all in one. All their lives, humans find themselves in constant movement, chasing mirages and trying to escape from themselves. They create and destroy, destroy, and create. They burn themselves in the flames of passion and drown themselves in forgetfulness.

The hostages of body and soul, people are never satisfied. They are doomed to forever move forward in a futile hope to discard the hated chains.

A persistent exhausting overcoming of burdensome existence, movement for the sake of movement—every day, every year, every century—is an ‘enduring torture’ (Qual), according to German mystic Jakob Böhme; a ‘rack of formation’ and a ‘drawing frame for an individual’ in the words of Teilhard de Chardin.

Whether it is on micro or macro levels, we witness one and the same unchangeable picture: movement caused by escaping oneself. It should never end – and end it does not.

A clash between burdensome reality and the pursuance of salvation and perfection: here are the hammer and anvil that strike a spark, inject a shot, putting in motion this astonishing perpetual motion, an eternal engine of the humankind.

What utmost precision regulates the narrow path that humankind moves along!

If people had a slightly higher level of suffering and pain combined with a weaker survival instinct, they would prefer a voluntary death to the tortures of this world. With a lower level of suffering and a stronger survival instinct, humankind would be frozen in its development, content with its joyless but tolerable fate.

People live in a perpetual motion of world civilization—an endless suffering balanced by the lust for life that does not allow humans to stop. If humans were to come to a stop, they, like an individual, collective body, would be doomed to death.

“Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.

There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.” (Blaise Pascal).

They are constantly directed into the future, earthly or otherworldly. Like Sisyphus, they are never to roll the block they are pushing onto the top of the mountain, but at the same time, they are constantly finding new ways to perfect their work and make their path less torturous.

Does such Perpetuum mobile make any sense? Is it possible to assume that it is the driving force behind the evolution of human civilization, even if it is unstable and intermittent? Maybe. Perhaps we are dealing with some kind of experiment, the purpose of which, as Ptolemy, the disciple of Valentinus, suggested, is to test whether moral imperative and human reason can change the gloomy reality of the world and the vicious nature of mankind. Let us remember that, according to him, the Creator as "neither good, nor evil, nor unjust, but judging by his own truth."

Our world is similar to a cell in which pathological sadists set their intricate experiments and ruthless overseers’ rule. But, if by chance, people find themselves in a medical laboratory where the experiments over rational beings—monkeys, dogs, and rats—are in progress, then, stricken by repulsion and anger, will they decide that there is a gathering of maddened fiends in front of them? And will their impression not be in part the truth? But only in part, and only in its minor part.

We feel His design in everything, from the perfectly adjusted mechanism of celestial bodies to the unmatched structure of bacteria, from dragonfly’s eyes to human DNA. Maybe this design is directed at reconstruction of the previously lost harmony of celestial spheres, but how helpless and pitiful humans are in this design—lost in his ‘nothingness, weakness, and darkness’ (Blaise Pascal). And how distanced and alien to human pain the Creator is.


People are cornered by the merciless laws of the Creator; they are agonisingly cramped and frightened in ‘the closet of the Creator’, but it is in their power to throw a gangway over constantly raging dark elements of this world to a divine harbour — pleuroma. And this is their only salvation. The hostages of relentless fate, people are foredoomed to remain in the black hole of fear and instincts, but

fortunately for them, they are endowed with souls—the pneuma — which can take

them to other dimensions and worlds.

‘If a person has the Gnosis, he is a being from on high.’ Valentinus, great Gnostic philosopher wrote.

Author of "Gnosticism through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or between

God and the Creator" Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

1 comment

1 Comment

Unknown member
Aug 31, 2023

An excellent article! Perfect exposition of the pathetic state of affairs this world has always vividly portrayed, and the Gnostic way out of it. 🙏

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