Is Gnosticism a Reincarnation Religion?
You saw Christ, you became Christ. For this person is no longer a Christian but a Christ.
If someone first acquires the resurrection, he will not die.
—The Gospel of Philip—
Jesus said, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.”
—The Gospel of Thomas—
Unlike most Western religions, Gnosticism’s ultimate goal is not really in the afterlife. The Gnostics sought to become living Christs—beings that ultimately conquered spiritual ignorance and no longer served the gods of this world. In this state, the mysteries of Creation and beyond would become manifest, time and space would dissolve before consciousness, and all the illusions of reality would collapse under the realization The Kingdom of the Father was all around. As April DeConick writes in her latest book, The Gnostic New Age, the goal of Gnosis was to “become mortal gods freed from the perpetual turning of the wheel of reincarnation.”
Put in a different, more symbolical way, to many Gnostics, failure in achieving spiritual transcendence meant imprisonment in the coils of the cosmic dragon eating its tail, the Ouroboros.
It meant reincarnation.
But Gnosticism was never truly a reincarnation religion, although the transmigration of the souls had a place in its complex cosmological systems. Here are some brief and evolving examples.
The earliest hints of reincarnation in Gnosticism
According to the Church Fathers, the font of all Gnosticism (and heresy in general) was Simon Magus (who makes a cameo in Acts of the Apostles). The doctrine of reincarnation, at least in mythic terms, is found in one his accounts. In this Gnostic myth, Simon was God incarnate traveling across history in search of Helena (his “first thought” and co-creator). She was kidnapped by renegade angels at the beginning of time and hidden in the world, forced to reincarnate in various forms including Helen of Troy. Simon eventually found Helena inside a brothel in the city of Tyre sometime in the first century.
The union of Simon Magus and Helena not only symbolizes the completion of humans after long quests through birth and rebirth but the completion of the Divine in its process of self-discovery.
Reincarnation in Classic Gnosticism
Later Gnostic sages would provide their versions of reincarnation. In the second century, Basilides of Alexandria taught his followers that Gnosis was the climax of many lives of effort. Basilides said that “men suffer from their deeds in former lives,” to a certain extent indicating a Gnostic version of Karma.
His contemporary, Carpocrates of Alexandria, also believed in the transmigration of souls. But his theology was much different from Basilides, as is recorded by the Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 1.25). Carpocrates held that humans could not escape the Oroborous until they underwent every physical experience possible and became weary of the material world. Irenaeus alleged that this included all manner of atrocity. Considering Carpocrates was a follower of Jesus Christ and the Church Fathers often painted their foes as psychotic monsters, this is likely an exaggeration (I furthermore argue against Gnostic crimes in my article on Gnostic sexual rituals).
Reincarnation in the Gnostic Gospels
The Secret Book of John has a different theology that echoes the Eastern Bodhisattva Vow. In one section, Jesus explains to the Apostle John that human souls are recycled by the Demiurge, constantly thrown into “forgetfulness” and “prisons” (the physical body, political systems, nature, etc.). John then asks him how a soul can become emancipated from the Oroborous. Jesus answers:
This soul needs to follow another soul in whom the Spirit of life dwells, because she is saved through the Spirit. Then she will never be thrust into flesh again.
The Savior does warn John that those who obtain Gnosis and then reject it may receive eternal damnation. The concept of some form of Hell is echoed in such texts as The Apocalypse of Peter and The Pistis Sophia—revealing the conventional synthesis and lack of consensus in Gnostic dogma (except for the tragedy of being separated from the Alien God). For more on this doctrine, certainly read my article on the Gnostic view of Hell.
The Pistis Sophia, however, does propose reincarnation for some people. It states that human spirits cannot enter the Eternal Realm until after many lifetimes of perfecting Gnosis, culminating into a final incarnation that will be a “righteous body which shall find the God of Truth and the Higher Mysteries.”
In The Revelation of Paul, reincarnation is revealed to Saint Paul during a mystical voyage through the heavenly realms. He witnesses a murderer punished by angels and then cast down to Earth to inhabit a new body.
The Book of Thomas the Contender declares:
Watch and pray that you may not be born in the flesh, but that you may leave the bitter bondage of this life.
The Gnostic Gospel Zostrianos has a complete section on the trials of a soul in the labyrinths of the material world until it finds a way to escape:
…It becomes a mere physical object. Accordingly, this type of person descends into generation and becomes speechless because of the difficulties and indefiniteness of matter. Although possessing eternal, immortal power, this type is bound in the clutches of the body, removed and continually bound within strong bonds, is lacerated by every evil spirit until it once more reconstitutes itself and begins again to inhabit it.
The Gospel of Thomas provides a passage that alludes to the potential of past-life recollection instead of simply breaking free of the Oroborous after a person is Enlightened:
When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will bear!
It should be noted that since all Gnostic schools of thought were heavily influenced by Plato, reincarnation would have been a routine consideration (as well as the preexistence of the soul, predominant in all Gnostic traditions).
Reincarnation in medieval Gnosticism
The doctrine of reincarnation became more standard and uniform—in the vein of a traditional reincarnation religion—with the Gnostics of the Middle Ages.
The Manichaeans, the largest Gnostic denomination in history that thrived across the world for centuries, universally believed in reincarnation. In Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists (P. 40), Saint Augustine’s description of the Manichaean attitude on reincarnation is similar to the Hindu concept of spirits transmigrating into life forms other than human, depending on their amassing of Gnosis. Augustine wrote:
They believe that the herbs and the trees are alive and the life that is in them is endowed with sensibility and able to suffer when hurt. This is why no one can sever or pluck anything without inflicting suffering upon it.
Curiously, Augustine also claimed that to the Manichaeans being reborn into certain vegetation like melons or cucumbers was a step up from being a human.
The Cathars, who flourished between the 11th and 13th Centuries in Southern France, also held a strong belief in reincarnation. Andrew Phillip Smith writes in The Secret History of the Gnostics:
Cathars believed that the soul would go through many lifetimes before it achieved salvation…The importance of reincarnation was that it gave the soul repeated attempts at attaining freedom from this world and hence salvation and a return to the true God. According to the Cathars, the soul transmigrates from one body to another, including animal bodies.
The last remaining Gnostic sect of antiquity, the Mandaeans of Iraq, have all but abandoned the concept of reincarnation. The exception, in some cases, is for unmarried men (could they become cucumbers or melons?).
Regardless of their cabalistic speculations, it’s obvious that Gnosticism scorns reincarnation, just as much as eternal damnation or extinction. The apparent reason was that being trapped within the Oroborous entails the venom of continuous forgetfulness and ignorance—opposites to the liberating antidote of Gnosis. One life or a thousand is equally fruitless unless an individual can ignite The Divine Spark and become Christ-like.
In the end, Gnosticism starts with an inward journey instead of some quest to some distant paradise. In any inner journey, you will meet different reincarnations, histories, and realities of yourself. Furthermore, despite the imagery of Gnostics being sedated mystics, the truth is that Gnosticism has always had an underlying sense of urgency that, like reincarnation, is also missing from most Western religions.
Between the urgency and manifestations of your soul, you even might even find yourself as a Mandaean unmarried man.