Christianity’s Lost Legacy
Like the sages of the yoga tradition, Gnostics of the early Church believed in reincarnation, a direct experience of God, and the divine light in everyone.
In the 3rd century AD one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the ancient world wrote down his views about Christianity, a controversial religion that was becoming popular in Rome. What surprised me most as I read Plotinus’ comments, written 1,800 years ago, was that the Christianity he described seemed nothing like the religion I had been taught as a child. It was astonishing to discover how different Christianity had been during its early years. Indeed, many of Jesus’ original teachings have been forgotten over the millennia, including his specific instructions about who God the Father really is and how we can directly experience his light. It’s a lost heritage of hidden wisdom that’s been buried under centuries of theology.
The Christians Plotinus mentioned believed not in one God but two. The first and lesser deity was the angry creator god of the Old Testament who threw Adam and Eve out of paradise. The second and greater god was a transcendent being of pure light who emanated love, goodness, and truth. His grace-filled purpose was to lead humanity back to paradise, a luminous realm of unadulterated divine joy. Many early Christians believed it was this second god that Jesus was referring to when he spoke of his father in heaven.
Modern scholars have long known that this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, called Gnosticism, was widely accepted in the early Church. Surprisingly, some passages in the Bible itself seem to support this view. The most dramatic example is when, in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the god of the Jews “a devil,” a “murderer from the beginning” with “no truth in him,” “a liar and the father of lies.” That’s awfully strong language!
While the deity of the Old Testament called on his people to slaughter their enemies, Jesus taught instead, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3–4). It’s easy to imagine how the Gnostics, reading passages like this, could believe Jesus was accusing the Jews of worshiping the wrong god, and calling on his disciples to turn to Jesus’ own divine father, the true God.
When I studied early Christian history at an American seminary in the 1980s, my professors discussed Jesus’ connections with Gnosticism very frankly in the classroom. But when they climbed the pulpit to preach in their churches on Sundays, they carefully avoided this controversial topic. Today, with the enormous success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, many Christians are learning about their Gnostic heritage for the first time.
A library of Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, in 1945, reveals some of the beliefs of these ancient Christians in detail. We learn that in addition to his twelve male disciples, Jesus was also very close to his women devotees. Chief among these was Mary Magdalene, who is candidly described as Jesus’ consort. And while Christians today reject the existence of a Goddess, these texts often refer to a divine mother as the ultimate source of the world. Jesus himself speaks about this great Goddess.
We also discover that these early Christians had a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of other cultures. Along with numerous manuscripts about Jesus, they also carefully preserved works by Plato, by the great Hermetic philosophers of Egypt, and even a beautiful hymn about the goddess Isis.
The surprises keep coming. Like the yogis of India, the Gnostics believed in reincarnation. The Nag Hammadi materials contain a conversation between Jesus and his brother James in which Jesus explains what we need to hold in our awareness at the time of death in order to escape the wheel of rebirth. We should say to ourselves, “I came from eternity to learn the difference between things that exist in matter and those that exist in spirit. I have learned that matter actually exists in spirit. I call upon this imperishable divine knowledge to save me.” If you can hold this saving knowledge in your mind, Jesus promises, “You will be free to ascend to the kingdom of light, which is in fact your own light.”
Jesus explicitly tells James, “Free yourself from the blind idea that you are merely the body of flesh which encases you. Then you will no longer be the mortal James; rather you are the One Who eternally is.” It’s amazing to find Jesus sounding more like a yogi than like a typical priest or rabbi.
In yet another manuscript from Nag Hammadi, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the one who seeks and who is the one who reveals?” Jesus answers, “The one who seeks is the one who reveals. That which you seek is within you.” He says again, “The living God dwells in you and you dwell in him.” When the apostle Matthew begs Jesus to show him the divine reality, Jesus says, “Each one of you who has known himself has already seen it.” Like the sages of India, Jesus continually redirects his students from an exclusive focus on the external world to deep meditation on the inner nature of the soul and its union with divine light.
The Inner Teachings
The Gnostics taught a path to enlightenment through gnosis, or direct personal knowledge of higher states of consciousness. The Greek word gnosis is directly related to the Sanskrit word jnana. In India, jnana yoga refers to the spiritual path of contemplation in which we learn to differentiate between the transient world of maya and the eternal world of pure spirit. This is the very path Jesus appears to be teaching his disciples.
The parallels with yoga teachings go on and on. If you didn’t know that the following words were written by Gnostic Christians in Egypt, you probably would have guessed they came from a yoga text: “Where there is desire and conflict there is a sense of incompleteness, but where there is unity, there is perfection. Just as darkness vanishes the instant light shines, and just as ignorance vanishes the moment one acquires knowledge, in the same manner our feeling of incompleteness vanishes immediately when we know the supreme light. This occurs when the separate forms we perceive in front of us merge into oneness. We can attain this unity by purifying ourselves till the sense of multiplicity dissolves. When unity is experienced, matter, darkness, and death disappear.”
The text goes on to explain the material objects we experience in ordinary life “are illusions, sheer fictions, as if one is dreaming. But when those having these disturbing experiences awaken, they recognize that these events have no actual reality. Therefore those who are truly awake, having cast ignorance away like sleep, do not perceive the world as solid and substantial, but as a dream in the night. They cherish knowledge of the Divine Father, who is the true light, as much as they value the rising sun.
“This is the condition of those beings who have attained immeasurable greatness by reaching out toward the perfect, unitary Father. They do not experience purgatory-like states after death, nor do they feel sorrow or envy during life. There is no death in them, for they rest in the one unchanging being who is truly good, who is the root of their own being. Never again will they experience loss. This is the condition of the blessed souls. Yes, this is their dwelling place.”
Unlike orthodox Christians today, the Gnostics did not believe in the resurrection of the physical body. “You yourself are not flesh but were given flesh when you entered this world.” The true resurrection, according to the Gnostics, means the resurrection of one’s inner being from the tomb of the material body.
This is all very different from the Christianity our priests and pastors teach us today. The Gnostic Christ urges us to turn away from an image of God as jealous or condemning, or who in any way condones our acts of violence. His God is pure love and light, and calls on us to imitate him in a continual stream of acts of charity, kindness, and forgiveness. This Christ also challenges us to do our inner work, not merely to passively rely on him but to actively seek God’s love and light at the center of our own soul. In the Bible, Jesus urges us to know the truth, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). According to the Gnostics, Jesus taught his disciples not merely to believe in a higher reality, but to actually experience it.
Most scholars admit that the biblical Gospel of John is unmistakably Gnostic. Many of the books of the New Testament, however, were written by St. Paul. Few Christians today think of him as a Gnostic, yet one of the leading Gnostic sects, the Valentinians, claimed it was Paul himself who originally taught them their doctrine. Elaine Pagels, perhaps the best known of all modern Christian scholars, has written extensively on the numerous Gnostic elements in Paul’s writings.
So why, until the publication of The Da Vinci Code, had so few of us heard of the Gnostics? It turns out that over the centuries, the doctrines we now think of as Christianity gradually took shape. As Christian priests gained more power they found it helpful to centralize authority in one universal church. The numerous Gnostic sects, which taught that each individual could directly experience divine light without a priest acting as an intermediary, were condemned as “heresies” and were violently suppressed. Every unorthodox book containing information on Gnostic beliefs and practices was burned. In their attempts to homogenize Christianity, the fathers of the early Church may have inadvertently discarded some of Jesus’ authentic teachings. If a group of Christians in Upper Egypt hadn’t carefully buried their library in the 4th century, very few Gnostic texts would have survived for us to read today.
Even so, throughout the Middle Ages, Gnostic beliefs were continually rediscovered by various European communities— but individuals who strayed from orthodoxy were censured and sometimes even burned alive. The controversy over Gnostic teachings caused by The Da Vinci Code is merely the latest skirmish in a religious battle that has been going on for centuries.
The pagan philosopher Plotinus, mentioned above, was also critical of the Gnostics, however. He felt their view of creation and the creator god was too negative, and that they took the biblical myths too literally. Worst of all, he complained, many of them spoke glibly about “divine knowledge” without bothering to do the spiritual practices necessary to actually experience it. In this respect, the Gnostics’ worst enemy may have been themselves.
Still, it’s tempting to wonder how different modern Christianity might have been if the Gnostic perspective had prevailed. Our churches would be teaching karma and reincarnation, and we might have learned basic meditation skills in Sunday school. It’s ironic that today we have to look to the East for knowledge and practices that were once part of the Western tradition.