Did the Gnostics Believe in Hell?
The doctrine of Hell may have lost some of its fire in the modern world. Many scholars and theologians now argue that eternal damnation was never in the minds of early Christians or even the words of Jesus. One ancient Christian tradition where the traditional view of Hell is certainly lacking is Gnosticism—at least as a literal place although very prominent in another way closer to home (or actually at our home).
How exactly did the Gnostics view the metaphysical planes? Like ancient Judaism and early Christianity, Gnosticism speculated widely on the possibilities of the afterlife. These possibilities ranged from the notion of reincarnation to the prospect of the complete annihilation of sentience (one option Jesus offers in the Secret Book of John). Some Gnostic texts even suggest immortality had to be earned, regardless, a concept occultist G.I. Gurdjieff would champion in the 20th century. All of these contemplations in Gnosticism, however, are almost secondary to the wholeness of the soul and the rebirth of the mind while an individual was alive.
But they did propose darker regions of the multiverse where a soul be found itself in the company of plenty of misery-loving company.
Hell is for (temporal) children
In their often baroque depictions on the soul’s adventure when leaving the body, the Gnostics tended to embrace the Hellenistic idea of Hades: a repository for souls in the underworld, with a potential of promotion depending on karmic factors. But ultimately Hades was academic. In the Gnostic cosmology, all states of reality were ruled by the Archons—the immortal vassals of the Demiurge or Creator God—and comprised a cosmic labyrinth erected to corral the soul attempting to reach the Pleroma (or Fullness of the real Divinity).
There were variances in Gnostic texts as to what agencies controlled the hellish fiefdoms. Some examples, as Andrew Phillip Smith points out in A Dictionary of Gnosticism:
- In the Gospel of the Egyptians, it is none other than the fallen Sophia who rules the planes of Hades!
- In the Secret Book of John, the Jewish demon Belial lords over the underworld.
The salient point, though, is that Hades was just one of many negative waypoints in the grand maze that was Creation. It certainly wasn’t all that superior to the paradises, as shown in the Apocalypse of Paul, which has the Apostle Paul witnessing angels torturing souls on their journey up the heavens.
The closest to the modern concept of Hell in Gnosticism may be found in the Pistis Sophia. The text has Jesus describe to Mary Magdalene an infernal dungeon, surrounded by a great dragon, where the sinful are punished depending on their earthly misdeeds. Still, it is possible for the damned souls in this story to gain purgation or reincarnation, or, again, complete annihilation.
The problem with the Pistis Sophia, as scholars have noted, is that it is a likely third or fourth century scripture heavily influenced by more orthodox flavors of Christianity. Even so, like purer Gnostic writings, it exposes all planes of existence as being ruled by lesser divine agencies. The Gnostic thrust for salvation remained the same: gaining Gnosis imparted by a hierophant of mysteries while one was in the flesh—not to be born again as a person, in the Evangelical sense, but to be born again as a being higher than all angels, demons or gods. This soteriology was the fundamental way to becoming free from the coils of the great dragon (representing the Buddhist Wheel of Suffering).
It should be noted that the Gnostics possibly gained their theology of a “resurrection while in the flesh” from Plato’s works, like Crito—where Socrates declares that philosophy is the art of dying while still alive, in order to gain a direct link to the Nous (the Mind of God).
Hell is for (terrestrial) children
The Gnostics certainly saw no problem in declaring that the world itself was Hell—the true font of suffering as long as an individual’s mind was attached to temporal constructs. In other words, damnation was a state of being for those who invested in the constructs of creator gods.
Interestingly, the church father Origen also agreed with the Gnostics, proposing Earth was merely the highest plane of Hell; and also that Hell could be temporary even for Satan, if he simply repented.
Here some examples, from the Nag Hammadi library, of how the Gnostics saw how Heaven, Hell, and Earth were but cornerstones for the same cosmic labyrinth:
For the Son of Man clothed himself with their first-fruits; he went down to Hades and performed many mighty works. He raised the dead therein; and the world-rulers of darkness became envious of him, for they did not find sin in him. But he also destroyed their works from among men. (The Testimony of Truth)
Arise and remember that it is you who hearkened, and follow your root, which is I, the merciful one, and guard yourself against the angels of poverty and the demons of chaos and all those who ensnare you, and beware of the deep sleep and the enclosure of the inside of Hades. (The Secret Book of John John)
Only a little while longer, and that which is visible will dissolve; then shapeless shades will emerge, and in the midst of tombs they will forever dwell upon the corpses in pain and corruption of the soul. (The Book of Thomas Contender)
And he opened the gates of the heavens with his words. And he put to shame the ruler of Hades; he raised the dead, and he destroyed his dominion. (The Concept of Great Power)
Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing. (The Gospel of Philip)
And so he dwells either in this world or in the resurrection or in the middle place. God forbid that I be found in there! In this world, there is good and evil. Its good things are not good, and its evil things not evil. But there is evil after this world which is truly evil – what is called “the middle”. It is death. While we are in this world, it is fitting for us to acquire the resurrection, so that when we strip off the flesh, we may be found in rest and not walk in the middle. (The Gospel of Philip)
Conclusion (and Hell is for all of the Creator God’s children}
The idea of Hell being a spiritual state, rather than a parallel dimension or underworld, would be borrowed from the Gnostics, to a point, by various mystic Christians throughout history. Some include Emanuel Swedenborg, Meister Eckhart, and even John Calvin. It was also John Milton who famously said in Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Certainly, the position of a metaphoric Hell is more accepted in modernity; so is the attitude that Heaven and Hell are not just states of being but two states we should ultimately escape from—as depicted in the film Constantine, the television show Preacher or the comic book Spawn. And it harkens to the Buddhist notions of being freed from any divine or demonic influences, once one has attained Enlightenment.
Gilles Quispel, the great scholar of Gnosticism, perhaps summarized the Gnostic belief system better when he wrote that Gnosis “entails going through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.”
The ancient Gnostics would likely agree with Quispel. Being the perennial outcast artists of history, and along with the Buddha, they would also agree with the lyrics from the Black Sabbath song, Heaven and Hell:
Well, if it seems to be real, it’s illusion
For every moment of truth, there’s confusion in life
Love can be seen as the answer
But nobody bleeds for the dancer
And it’s on and on, on and on and on….
…it’s Heaven and Hell
They say that life’s a carousel
Spinning fast, you’ve got to ride it well
The world is full of Kings and Queens
Who blind your eyes then steal your dreams
…it’s Heaven and Hell, oh well