For Gnostic Christians, the story of salvation is the story of human beings learning of their true position in the world and of their taking the necessary steps to escape the bondage of the evil Creator God. The Gnostic goal was the return of their Spiritual Light, which the Creator God had trapped within their bodies, to the Father Of Light.
Many Gnostics believed that the Savior was sent by the Father Of Light to help us in this quest. Others, like Marcion, believed that the Savior was sent by another deity entirely, an “Alien God” completely uninvolved in the creation of our particular cosmos, but who, knowing of our condition, took pity on us and sent the Savior to deliver us.
Other Gnostics, such as the Manichaeans, thought the first appearance of the Savior was in the Garden Of Eden, at which time he took the form of the Serpent. This serpentine Savior attempted to open humanity’s eyes to the knowledge of Good and Evil in order that they might escape from this prison of matter in which the Creator God had trapped them.
A very interesting interpretation of the Creator God’s Law is given by the early Christian Ptolemaeus, also known as Ptolemy The Gnostic. Ptolemy states that the original Law, as given in what the Christians call the Old Testament, was “interwoven with injustice.” This Old Testament, or Mosaic, Law contained imperfections, such as the sanctioning of vengeance (as when we are told by the Creator God that an eye should be cut out for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and that murder should be avenged by a murder). According to Ptolemy The Gnostic, the life-taking avenger is just as guilty of murder as the first murderer. He contends that humanity was given such imperfect Laws because “of the weakness of those of whom the legislation was made,” most people being unable to keep to the “Pure Law” but by fear of reprisal. But these Mosaic Laws are “alien to the nature and goodness of the Father Of All.”
Of the original Law, some of it was totally thrown out by the arrival of the Savior, laws such as those of the “eye for eye” variety. For the Savior in fact taught the opposite of vengeance, that is, to turn the other cheek. “Opposites cancel out,” says Ptolemy, so this part of the Law has now been annihilated.
A second part of the Law was “completed” by the Savior. These are laws such as “you shall not kill,” and “you shall not commit adultery,” and “you shall not swear falsely.” The Savior reiterated these in even broader terms (forbidding not just killing, but growing angry with your neighbor; and forbidding not just adultery, but lust, itself).
Ptolemy believed that the original Law, being imperfect, could not have been issued by “the Perfect God, himself.” Nor could the Law have come from the Devil, for even the original Law had much Good in it. Therefore, Ptolemy comes to the conclusion that the Mosaic Law was issued by an inferior God, the Demiurge, “the maker of this Universe and everything in it.”
Because the Creator God is at best inept and at worst downright evil, many Gnostics not only believed it is okay to go against God’s laws, but that we MUST disobey him if we wish to obtain salvation. That is why many believed that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden was a “heroic” act of rebellion. As Barnstone explains it, “they began the process of redemption through their first act of disobedience to the Creator God by eating from the Tree Of Gnosis.” Through their rebellion, Adam and Eve “sought to free us not only from laws, but from their Maker, and the world He created.”
The idea that Jesus Christ transcended the old Mosaic Law is pronounced throughout several different Gnostic scripture, and indeed has echoes even in the Orthodox Christianity of today. Circumcision, Passover, the Sabbath, unleavened bread… “all these things are images and symbols” says Ptolemy. The Saviour transcended the outdated law by commanding us “to make offerings not of irrational animals or of incense of this worldly sort, but of spiritual praise and glorification and thanksgiving and of sharing and well-doing with our neighbors.” Physical circumcision is replaced by the idea of circumcising our “spiritual heart” so that we are separated from the desires of this material world. Likewise, fasting is superseded by the “abstinence from everything evil.”
For the Gnostics, the Savior was not sent by the Creator God, but from a higher power in order to help humanity circumvent or escape the Creator God’s malevolent rule. The Saviour is usually portrayed, not as the Son of God, but as a transcendental being higher than the Creator God. The Savior exhorts us to trade the evil rule of the Demiurge for another, better rule. “Come unto me,” says Jesus in the Gospel Of Thomas, “for my yoke is easy and my lordship mild, and you will find repose in yourselves.”
Besides delivering us from the Demiurge’s evil, in some Gnostic texts Jesus tries to educate humanity upon the nature of the deeper reality around us. He speaks of obscure stumbling blocks which trip us up on our way toward freedom and enlightenment. He attempts to convince us that the “the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the Earth and men do not see it,” and that “the Kingdom is inside of you” as well as outside.
Of the mystery of the co-existence of the material with the spiritual in this world, the Gnostic Jesus implies that it would be a big mistake to think that the corporal existed before the spiritual, saying that, “if the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if the spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders.”
Unlike the Orthodox Christian belief, many Gnostics do not believe that the Savior actually suffered or died a human death upon the cross, it being unthinkable that such a high being would truly experience such physical agony. Some common Gnostic explanations of the crucifixion are that: the being on the cross was not really Jesus, or that it was just a facsimile of Jesus’s outer form, or that the actual Savior had vacated the body. The spirit of the Savior, speaking simultaneous with or just after the crucifixion, tells John in the Gnostic text, The Acts Of John, “I have suffered none of those things which they will say of me.”
Arguably, the deepest divide between Orthodox Christians and Gnostic Christians is their differing philosophy of salvation. Instead of salvation by Faith, the Gnostics believe salvation can only be obtained through wisdom, which in turn will lead one to renounce the desires which keep us chained to this world, freeing that divine spark imprisoned within us, allowing it to return the source, the Father Of Light, the Highest God. According to the NeoPlatonist Plotinus, the ultimate aim “of those who have Gnosis” is “to become God.” In effect, the salvation of the Gnostics is the discovery of divinity within ourselves.
As Jesus explains to Thomas, this spiritual journey requires great self-knowledge. “For he who has not known himself has known nothing,” says Jesus, “but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the All” […] “for what is inside of you is what is outside of you.” It is only the “witless men” who “search night and day” through the world for what can already be found inside them.