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Gnosticism and Apocalyptic

Gnosticism was actually one of the two quite opposed extreme religious tendencies that flourished at this time, the other being the Apocalyptic movement.  The term "Apocalyptic" means "uncovering" or "revealing", and is used to refer to that broad movement which developed and flourished within the Judaic and later Christian religions from the 2nd century before the common era to the 2nd century after Christ.  It describes a movement in Judaism and Christianity that claimed that God had revealed to the writer the secrets of the imminent end of the world.  Believers in this form of religion despaired of the way things were going in the world, and expected a redeemer figure who would act by the power of God to transform the world and judge its peoples (the "Last Judgement" or "Day of Judgment"); they expected the flesh to be transformed and looked for the resurrection of the body.  Well-known texts are the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, and the non-canonical Books of Enoch.

Like apocalyptic, Gnosticism despaired of the world and its history.  But whereas apocalyptic regarded the world as ultimately under God's control, Gnosticism regarded the world as under the control of spiritual powers hostile to God.  Gnosticism expected a savior who would come into the world and impart knowledge as a means of escaping from this lower world to the transcendent Divine or spiritual realm.  It despaired of the flesh and believed that imprisoned within the body was a divine spark, the true Soul, that could be liberated by "knowledge". [pp.65, 124]

Clearly, the tension between "Apocalyptic" and "Gnosis" is a long-running one.  Divested of all extraneous symbolism, It is the actually the tension or contrast between salvation through radical world-transformation, and salvation through radical world-transcendence.

The reference to "God" in Apocalyptic, and "Knowledge" in Gnosticism may give the impression that Apocalyptic was solely an exoteric religious phenomenon, whilst Gnosticism was uniquely an esoteric spiritual praxis.  Such an interpretation would be simplistic, for Gnosticism, as it developed during the post-Christ Hellenistic era, was, like both the Indian Yoga tradition and the modern "New Age" movement with which it could be compared, certainly in large measure a religion - which is not to say that there were not any true Gnostics (just as there are genuine Yogis) - whereas apocalyptic conversely would have certainly contained, or at least originally been inspired by, elements of genuine Gnosis.  A better way of comparing and contrasting Gnosticism and Apocalyptic would be to say that the former deals with Cosmogony (the beginning of things); the latter with Eschatology (the conclusion of things).

Basically then, "Gnosticism" is concerned with the beginning of things; with the unfolding of God from the transcendent Absolute, the origin of the cosmos and the soul, the pre-creation crisis or "fall" and the origin of evil, and the descent and ensnarement of the Light within the Darkness of matter.  In other words, Cosmogony; how everything came to be.

Certainly the Gnostic teachers also spoke of the descent of the Savior, who brought salvation through Knowledge (Gnosis), and the final destruction of the world once all the trapped particles of Light have been freed from the clutches of matter, but anyone reading the material of the Alexandrian-Hellenistic Gnostics, whether it be the accounts of heresiologists like Ireneus, or the surviving writings themselves, such as the Nag Hammadi material, is struck by the disproportionate attention paid to cosmogony at the expense of soteriology.  One encounters long descriptions of the origin of things - the emanation of the deities ("Aeons") within the Godhead, the creation of man's body by demons, and the Gnostic version of the Adam and Eve genesis myth - usually involving such an over-attention to details as to appear absurd.  In contrast, the account of salvation through the transcendent redeemer is usually quite cursory.

In contrast, "apocalyptic" is concerned with the eschaton, the culmination of history in and through a miraculous working of God.  This involves an actual transformation and spiritualisation of the material body and the world.  But very little attention is paid to the question of origins.  And the cosmogony that is described usually follows the conservative religious version.

Note the difference: Gnosticism deals with the origin of things in a profound, if often over-enthusiastic, manner; apocalyptic only has a simplistic exoteric understanding.  But Gnosticism can only see the end of things in terms of the final separation of Light and Darkness and the consequent destruction of the latter (which includes physical reality); the whole cosmology only considers things from a very negative point of view, whereas  apocalyptic gives us the magnificent, if theologically distorted, vision of the end-time as the upliftment and spiritualisation of the world, not its destruction.

So we have the two types of Gnosis: Anamanesis; the Remembrance of things, the intimation of how the present world and the present situation, with all its tragedy and paradox, came to be.  And Apocalypse, the prophetic dream or vision of perfection, of how all things could be rectified and uplifted.  In the last chapter of this book we will look at a modern "Apocalyptic" or teaching of bodily transformation, which retains the best of the old Apocalyptic but does away with its childish theology.



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page uploaded 28 June 1998, last modified 6 June 2004


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