GNOSTIC UNIVERSALISM IN PISTIS SOPHIA?
(Here is another little informal essay about Michael McClymond’s hypothesis expounded in his Devil’s Redemption that Christian Universalism originates in Egyptian Gnosticism in the second and third centuries C.E.
‘The Devil is in the detail’ as the old saying has it. And this time I want to look at another detail from Dr McClymond’s argument; that is, his contention that the Gnostic Dialogue known as Pistis Sophia is useful supporting evidence for his hypothesis.
Argument from Authority using Brian Daley
In Devil’s Redemption ., vol. i, c. 2.3, para. 1, Dr McClymond opens his case with an argument from authority as follows:
Brian Daley notes that ‘’positive punishment for those who reject the saving gnosis’’ is not a prominent theme in gnostic treatises. While certain passages mention punishment, ‘’other Gnostic documents speak, more encouragingly, of a purifying punishment of each soul after death… The Pistis Sophia describes in some detail the purification of all departed souls – even sinless ones – in fire, until they are judged worthy to drink ‘the water of forgetfulness.’’ Another major text, the Tripartite Tractate, suggests that much time will be needed for the perfection that has been achieved in the: Logos to be accomplished in his members; only when all are perfected will the Logos and his body be ‘restored’ to the Pleroma.’’
The book cited is The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology . This is still regarded as a standard authority on the range of opinions held by the Fathers on eschatology. However, even a standard authority is open to question. Daley’s expertise was certainly not in Gnosticism – and when I read the quotation from him in Devil’s Redemption when I began to feel uneasy I was prepared to trust my feelings of unease.
For starters, ‘’Positive punishment’’ (a term taken from Behaviourist Psychology) seems an odd phrase to use for eternal retribution – but this must be what is meant because in Daley’s full text he cites The Apocryphon of John as one example; and, indeed, in this Sethian Gnostic tract apostates from gnosis are condemned to eternal torment (see, Apoc. John., 27). I was also confused by the relevance of the premise of the argument; rarity of descriptions of retributive punishment specifically for apostates does not necessarily suggest Gnostic universalism. And while the Valentinian Gnostic text known as the Tripartite Tractate cited at the end of this quotation does not anywhere threaten torment for apostates, it is certainly not Universalistic in any meaningful sense. It states that there are three classes of human beings; the pneumatics (spiritual humans), the psychics (humans with animal souls) and the hylical (purely material humans). Unlike other Valentinian sources the Tractate does not assume a hard deterministic framework – it teaches that people are not born into these classes. However, it teaches that they become fixed in their class by their responses to the Saviour – and it does unequivocally state that the hylicals who reject Christ are doomed to annihilation. Thus it is not in any way a universalist text (see, Trip., Tract., 118). Those who are perfected in the Logos over time and then restored to the spiritual realm of the Pleroma are the psychics (see Trip., Tract., 122).
Dr McClymond – via Brain Daley - seems to be leading us here through implicit contrast to believe that the Pistis Sophia is a Universalist Gnostic text that does not contain any passages concerning ‘’positive punishment of those who reject saving gnosis.’’ I consulted the primary source and found that this is not the case. In Book III of Pistis Sophia the Saviour thunders:
‘’Say to those who will abandon the teachings of the First Mystery: woe to you for your punishment is severe beyond all men. For you will remain in great frost, ice and hail in the midst of the dragon and the outer darkness, and you will not be cast into the world from this time henceforth forever, but you will perish in that place. And at the dissolution of the universe you will be consumed and become non-existent forever’’ (P.S., Book III, c. 102, p. 260)
The woe oracle against apostates is immediately preceded by the Saviour’s statement that those who ‘’teach erroneous teachings and all those who learn from them’’ will be punished severely and then annihilated. Later in Book III the Saviour also says that those who receive the Mysteries and then fall again into sin and are unfortunate enough to die in their sins without repentance will also be consumed and come to nothing (see P.S. Book 111, c.121 p.308).
This is all in Book III of Pistis Sophia . However, Daley is referencing Book IV when he writes that –
The Pistis Sophia describes in some detail the purification of all departed souls – even sinless ones – in fire, until they are judged worthy to drink ‘the water of forgetfulness.’’
So I want to be fair to him and look at the part he was actually using. However, after checking Book IV I have found that not all departed souls are purified – some are simply tormented and then annihilated; that the fire is an instrument of retribution rather than purification (as is snow and hail) –and it is actually water boiling like fire that purifies; and, finally, that the water of forgetfulness (‘lethe’) is not a gift given according to worth – rather it is a draught given to souls that are about to be reincarnated (normally so as to undergo further punishment in the circumstances of their reincarnation). The draught of ‘lethe’ is given so that souls forget their previous lives and their period of punishment and purification in the underworld; this is a stock image in classical mythology.
I want to leave no shred of doubt about the lack of Universalist credentials in Pistis Sophia here; so I’m now going to list the fates of sinners spoken of in Book IV.
Those that are punished, purified and – in all but one case – punished again through circumstances.
The man who curses will be punished by fire and by avenging archons, purified in the boiling fire waters, drink from the waters of forgetfulness and then be reincarnated as a person who is ‘’troubled in heart’’(P.S., Book IV, c.144, p. 374)
The man who slanders will be punished, purified and given amnesia in the same way but in this instance reincarnated as a person who spends their time being oppressed. (Book IV, c.145, p.376)
The proud and scornful man will be punished, purified and given amnesia in the same way but in this instance reincarnated as a person in a ‘’lame, crooked and blind body’’ (P.S., Book IV, c. 146, p. 337- 378)
The robber and thief who dies unrepentant will be punished, purified and given amnesia in the same way but in this instance reincarnated as a person in a ‘lame and ugly body so that everyone continually despises it (P.S., Book IV, c. 146, p. 379)’;
The man who has not committed sin and has continually done good deeds, yet has not found the mysteries will go to the underworld, but only for the mildest of correction rather than for vengeful punishments. He will be purified , given the waters of amnesia - and then will also be given a cup of wisdom and sobriety to drink so that when reincarnated this will act as a spur for him to seek wisdom so as to inherit the mysteries of eternal light (P.S., Book IV, c.148 , p. 383)
Those who are tormented and then annihilated
The murderer who has never committed another sin will be punished by tormenting demons in the places of frost and snow will be judged and then be lead to the ‘‘outer darkness’’ to await the time when the ‘it will be destroyed and dissolved’’; (P.S., Book IV, c.146, p. 378)
The continual blasphemer will be dragged around by the tongue, punished with fire and then taken to the outer darkness to await being ‘’destroyed and dissolved’’; (c. 14 pp. 379-380)
The pederast is tormented by demons then taken to the outer darkness to be ‘destroyed and dissolved’ (P.S., c.147 pp. 380-381).
Those that make a dish of lentils mixed with sperms and menstrual blood and then eat it declaring: ‘we believe in Esau and Jacob’ – are judged by the Saviour to have committed the sin surpassing all others. These will be taken directly to the outer darkness to be consumed and perish in ‘the place where there is no pity’ (P.S., c. 147 p. 381)
Election and determinism
In both Book III and Book IV there is always hope for the person who has committed every possible sin but then discovers the mysteries of light, can become one of the elect and not sin again. However, the elect are limited in number:
‘’… when the number of perfect souls exist I will shut the gates of light. And no one will go within from this hour… [after this even those souls who find the mysteries of light] will come to the gates of light and they will find that the number of perfect souls is completed… Now those souls will knock, at the gates of light, saying: ‘O Lord, open to us.’ I will answer and say to them: ‘I do not know you, whence you are.’ And they will say to me ‘We have received from thy mysteries, and we have completed the whole teaching, and thou hast taught us upon thy streets.’ And I will answer and say to them: ‘I do not know you, who you are, you who do deeds of iniquity and evil up until now. Because of this go to the outer darkness.’’ (P.S. Book III, c. 125, pp. 315- 16)
Also there is a strong vein of astrological determinism running throughout the Pistis Sophia . For example, in Book IV towards the close the Saviour comments:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘’If when the sphere turns, Cronus and Ares come behind the Virgin of the Light, and Zeus and Aphrodite come into the presence of the Virgin … all souls which she will cast into the cycle of the aeons … become righteous and good, and they find the mysteries of the light… If on the other hand Ares and Cronus come into the presence of the Virgin; while Zeus and Aphrodite are behind her… all souls which will be cast into the creation of the sphere in that hour become wicked and ill-tempered…’’ (P.S. Book IV, c. 148, p. 384).
Now perhaps that was overkill – but I think it is fair to say now that Pistis Sophia is not relevant as evidence of ‘Gnostic universalism’ and that I can assert this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Brian Daley made a mistake – and I can hardly blame Dr McClymond for that. However, it is important to check authorities when citing them. I note that Pheme Perkins - another authority cited at the beginning of Vol. I, c. 2 of Devils’ Redemption by Dr McClymond for, in his view, explicitly affirming Gnostic universalism - actually gives the quotations from Pistis Sophia Chapter III referring to the torment and annihilation of apostates and of false teachers and their followers on pp. 138-9 of her book, Gnostic Dialogues . This is the very book that Dr McClymond cites as authoritative – so that lessens my sympathy for this mistake. Also I do believe that his arguments that the Tripartite Tractate – mentioned above – is in some ways a universalist text with some non-universalist bits is based on misdirection away from the truth of the evidence. But that will have to wait for another little essay.
Daley, Brian E., The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology , Cambridge, C.U.P. 1991 (p. 27 Chapter 3, Rergaining the light; eschatology in the Gnostic crisis
McClymond, Michael J., The Devils Redemption, Two Volumes, A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism , Grand Rapids, Baker Academic 2018 (Kindle DX version retrieved from Amazon.co.uk)
Perkins, Pheme, The Gnostic Dialogue , New York, Paulist Press, 1980
Schmidt, Carl, Macdermot, Violet, Pistis Sophia , Leiden, Brill 1978.