Gnostic Soteriology, Take 2

I’m reading Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew.  I found something that Ehrman said on pages 125-126 to be intriguing:

“Some Christian Gnostics maintained that there were three kinds of humans.  Some are creations of the Demiurge, pure and simple.  Like other animals, they have no spirit within; like them, when they die, their entire existence is annihilated.  Other people have a soul within, but not a spark of the divine spirit.  Such people have an opportunity for an afterlife, if they have faith and do good deeds.  These in fact are regular Christians, those who believe in Christ but do not have the full understanding of the secret knowledge that leads to ultimate salvation.  The third group of people have this knowledge.  They are the Gnostics, those ‘in the know,’ who have within them a spark of the divine, who have learned who they really are, how they got here, and how they can return.  These people will have a fantastic afterlife, in that they will return to the Divine realm from which they came and live eternally in the presence of God as part of the Pleroma.”

My understanding of Gnosticism is that it believed that there were human beings who had a divine spark within them and were in captivity within their fleshly bodies, not to mention the material world, which was created by a (not particularly good) sub-deity.  Gnosticism’s aim was to enlighten people about this.  My understanding had lacunae, however.  Specifically, I wondered if people’s divine sparks would go to heaven after death if those people had been unaware of the inferiority of the material world and the divine spark within them.  In short, was going to heaven after death automatic, according to Gnosticism, or did one have to achieve enlightenment before one could go to heaven?

In my rambling post here, I talked about Birger Pearson’s discussion of the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, which (according to Pearson) posited three types of people.  The first type were the perfect, the ones who had the Spirit of life.  They were saved.  The second type were those who were ignorant about to whom they belonged, and they would be given another chance to acquire enlightenment in another incarnation.  The third type had knowledge but turned away from it, and they would undergo eternal punishment.  In this scenario, one needed to be enlightened in order to be saved.

Ehrman, however, paints a different picture, which also contains three types of people.  The first type, which encompasses a large number, are those who lack the divine spirit within them.  They were created by the sub-deity who made the material world, and their outcome is simply annihilation.  The second type lack a divine spark, yet they have a soul.  Still, they can be saved by believing in Jesus and doing good deeds.  The third type are those who have the divine spark and who know about it, and they will be saved.

Perhaps there were different Gnostics who believed in different things.  Or maybe these two pictures can be harmonized, on some level.  One could say (perhaps) that the Apocryphon of John is providing more nuance about the third category that Ehrman discusses: those who have the divine spark within them.  Within that third category would be those who know who they are, those who never find out within this lifetime and thus need another chance to find out, and those who had knowledge but turned away from it.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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