On the Origin of Evil
By James M. West.
Copyright © October 20, 2007; revised
There are people out there who insist that evil has its ultimate origin in God, the supreme Being. They reason that if God is really supreme, and all powerful, and all-wise, then there is no way that evil could exist unless God allowed it for a purpose. According to this view, even the Gnostics have failed to recognize the contradictions in their own myths, which represented the efforts by Gnostics to separate God from evil. The Gnostics were notorious for the way they established a chain of intermediaries between God and the world. The purpose was to show that evil began somewhere down the chain from God; where some lower agent fell into error and introduced evil into the universe. The Gnostics are accused of foolishness and self-delusion, because they fail to see that this very chain of intermediaries goes straight back to the supreme Father himself.
We Gnostics are accused accordingly of self-deception and of failing to grasp one of the greatest and most sublime of all mysteries: which is that God himself introduced evil in order to teach us about the value of goodness. After all, how could we know the evil of the Holocaust unless there actually was one for us to know? Or how could we know the evils of child rape and kiddy porn, unless these heinous crimes were realities for us to know? And how could we ever condemn the evil of nuclear weapons; unless we know what nuclear weapons are? Supposedly we are blessed by God because we now know what these things are; and maybe have been victims of these evils ourselves…
How God has blessed us! Isn't this a wonderful thing that God has done for us? – that he has initiated us into the mysteries of wickedness? Oh the wonderful depths of the Father and his knowledge!
Of course the issues are really not as simple as this. I have my own reasons for doubting that God is the source of evil; and for me this is a matter of gnosis at its deepest level. In this article I will share my thoughts as to why evil does not originate from the supreme Being. And I would like to explain, in the light of Gnostic wisdom, why the above proposition is not the best explanation for the paradox of how a good God and “evil” can both exist at the same time.
For a Gnostic the question of whether evil comes from God is not simply a question of intellectual debate or dialectics. That sort of debate is more applicable to the question of whether this world, and the Human race, are the product of a supreme Being. Before we can discuss the origin of evil we really must consider and reason logically on the question of whether this world is from the hand of a supreme Being.
In my view, the notion that this world was created by a supreme Being is wishful thinking. We would all love to believe that we are from the hand of some supreme and wise God. But the facts at hand point to a prospect which is much less flattering.
If this world was really created by some supreme and perfect God then it seems to me that this world, and the Human race, should reflect these attributes accordingly. But the ugly truth is that our so-called “civilized” world emerged from three or four dozen centuries of wars in which numerous tribes robbed, raped and murdered each other in their quests for survival.
To make matters worse, we Humans today, in spite of our ‘progress’, still don’t know where we came from or why we are here. Our religions offer their doctrines and fables; and scientists offer their theories – but there is no unified consensus on the question. The Human race as a whole has no natural or innate knowledge of its origin or why it exists. If Humans discover the answers at all, it is only through a difficult process of soul searching. This is not something that most Humans have a natural, conscious awareness of. Most Humans are not inclined to know themselves. In Western culture there is an entire industry – known as psychiatry – which is dedicated to helping people figure themselves out. This is very strange indeed.
As a race we have no innate sense of purpose. We are unable to live in harmony with each other, or our inner-selves, or with the natural environment. We don’t understand our own bodies and how to care for them. There is something about us Humans that is unnatural and artificial. We never seem to fit into the Earth's environment; and are constantly at odds with it. The more advanced we become technologically, the greater the probability of self annihilation, possibly through war, or tampering with genetics and viruses, or because of pollution. We Humans can be compared to some genetically altered virus which has infected the Earth’s surface.
And then there is the future. What is the
future of the Human race? Do we have a practical vision or goal for the future
– aside from the easy saying that “God” or “evolution” will provide? The fact
is, as a civilization, and as a race, we Humans have no practical vision or
goal for the future. And again, this is a result of the fact that the Human
race has no natural understanding of its own identity and purpose. So how can
anyone define what the future is? If you approach the Fundy Christians, they
will tell you that the future will bring Christ’s Kingdom, and that Jesus will
‘fix’ everything. The Atheists will tell you that Humanity’s future will be
determined by evolution (not very re-assuring!). The Muslims will tell you that
the future will bring a world dominated by Allah and ‘His’ obedient Muslim
servants. The Jews in turn envision a world where YHWH rules, and
My point is that Humanity has no unified sense of itself, or its purpose for existence, or its origin. The origin of evil on Earth can be traced to Humanity’s fundamental ignorance regarding itself. Most Humans don’t really know within themselves why they are here. So they just focus on surviving, competing, fucking, and engaging in the never-ending game and business of war. Each culture has its own religious explanation for Human existence: and none of these religious traditions agree. Nor do these traditions provide any practical solutions for anything.
The question now is am I really obligated to believe that this is all simply the providence of a supreme Being? Can this be proven? I think the answer is no. Why should I be expected to believe that the supreme Being is the author of ignorance and chaos? And, why should I be expected to believe that a supreme Being should benefit from something like this? (I think my argument here is applicable to atheists too. Why should I be expected to believe that “evolution” produced this chaos we call the Human race? Is there a precedent for this? I think the activity of some deviate intelligence is a valid theory that may explain this enigma.)
I think that simple, consistent logic dictates that this world is the expression of some lesser intelligence which is in turn at odds with itself. To proclaim this world and Humanity as evidence of a supreme Intelligence is to believe the improbable and the illogical. I also believe that such a proposition is dangerous because if a supreme Good God is responsible for the existence of this world, and the manifold evils herein, then this constitutes an obscuring of clear definitions for good and evil. It amounts to believing that that which is purely Good somehow produced evil. To believe such a thing is immoral, illogical and is spiritually degrading. To embrace such an ideal is a poor choice; especially when the thesis can never be airtight anyway.
This unsound opinion is also very dangerous because it opens the way for the idea that evil can be used to achieve a ‘good’ purpose. This is the foundation of Machiavellian philosophy. And it is the creed of all tyrants like Hitler, Stalin and Bush in their pretensions to solve the world’s problems. This is also the creed of the God of the Old Testament: “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7) and also “The Lord has made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4).
Indeed we know a tree by its fruit.
The early Gnostics were unique among the religious traditions in that they refused to impute any form of evil to the supreme Being. And they wrote their myths with the purpose of explaining the paradox of how a good God and an evil cosmos could exist at the same time, and why. They didn’t base these myths on a scientific knowledge as we know it. They used images and symbols from the religious traditions of their day in order to explain why goodness does not hold sway over evil in the world. (We must remember also that the ancient Gnostics lived in a time where violence, poverty and suffering existed at a level that few of us have seen today. I shudder to think of some of the evils that these people either witnessed or endured.)
The Gnostic myths appear in the form of two main themes or motifs. The older and more primitive theme expresses the notion that this material world was created by certain fallen angels who rebelled against the good Father. The Savior is sent from the Father in order to bring gnosis to those good souls who share some essence in common with the Father. Irenaeus attributed this motif to Saturninus, Cerinthus, Marcelina, Basilides and Carpocrates (Against Heresies, 1.24-26). According to this scenario evil came into existence because of the angels. The God above it all will save the good people and destroy the cosmos.
And then there are the schools associated with Valentinus, the Sethians, and the Naassenes. They developed the myth of Sophia, which was based on the “wisdom” parables in Proverbs 8 and 9, and the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon. According to this scenario “Wisdom” is identified as an “Aion” (an alternative title for a “god” among the Greeks; used most often in reference to Chronos/Saturn). This Aion in turn resided in a perfect archetypal realm that was called the “Pleroma” in Gnostic jargon. (The latter term was derived in part from the words attributed to Paul in Colossians 2:9, “For in Him dwelleth the pleroma of the Godhead bodily.” Irenaeus reports that the Gnostics construed this passage to mean that Jesus represented the Pleroma in person (ibid. 1.3.4).
Wisdom, or Sophia, resided in this Pleroma with other Aions. And all of these Aions in turn were the progeny of one supreme Aion of Aions. This concept of an archetypal realm was based on Plato’s concept of the primeval archetypes on which the material cosmos was created, and by which order was brought to the primeval, material chaos. Thinking in the context of Plato the Gnostics introduced the notion that this chaos came into existence as the result of error by Sophia: which is to say that chaos and evil came into existence as a result of a disruption of the primeval order. This is described symbolically as a futile desire by Sophia to be like the Father. This desire leads her into error, and causes her to conceive a miscarriage. In the Valentinian myth this miscarriage is ejected from the Pleroma and accounts for the existence of Plato’s primeval chaos, from which the cosmos was created. (Platonism does not assign an origin to chaos, but maintains that it existed from eternity. In contrast, the Gnostics believed that chaos, and evil, originated from a breach in the primeval order as symbolized by the Sophia myth; e.g. the Gnostic treatise The Apocryphon of John; see Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 114f.)
Sophia’s miscarried metaphysical goo becomes the substance from which the material cosmos and the souls of Humans, angels and gods were created. Evil exists in this cosmos as the result of Sophia’s misguided passion and error. The purpose of the myth is to convey the idea that both the cosmos and evil came into existence through error, and not through the will of a supreme Being. Let us here note this plain statement from the Gospel of Philip: “The world came about through a mistake” (NHC: II, 3.75; M. Meyer, ibid., pg. 179).
I know that others will say that if the supreme Being is truly supreme then he must have allowed evil. But this is speculation. And it depends on the unsound idea that evil has its ultimate origin in Good. And at this point I could appeal to simple logic: It is illogical for me to believe that Good can produce evil. Good may produce error, and from error, evil proceeds. But there is no reason why I should believe that evil has a direct origin from Good. The Gnostic mythos is based on this simple formula, and for this reason they used the concept of intermediaries in their myths. Hence from God came goodness, from Sophia came error, and from error came evil. Some people think the Gnostic myth is a scandal and a form of self-deception. But is this really any worse than the claim made by some that evil came out of Good? I think the latter proposition is far worse and is a gross error. To believe such a thing is to embrace an opinion that is logically and ethically perverted.
But again there are those people out there who want to believe that God has it all under control; and that only a stupid and weak God would allow evil without willing it. In my opinion this approach is symptomatic of those people who desire to believe in a “personal” god who has it all under control. But in reality there really is no evidence that God has it all under control. If God has this world under control then he has shown himself to be a corrupt and incompetent ruler indeed.
To embrace such logic, and to jump to such conclusions that God is weak or stupid is to engage in rude speculation that is unworthy of a true Mystic or Gnostic. The true Gnostic understands that God is sublime. God is not about power: God is about consciousness: perfect consciousness. There is nothing physical about it. What I refer to here is part of the experience of gnosis. Perfect consciousness has no connection with evil and has no need for it. The goal of the Gnostic is to tap into this perfect consciousness and to join with it.
Personally, I believe this perfect consciousness is identical with the Light that certain people have encountered in so-called “out of body” experiences. This is the unknown God that true Gnostics have encountered. I believe this is also the source of those experiences, or visions, which were known among ancient mystics as the “Vision of the Divine.” This is the Vision of the Light of the Good God. This is the good God that awaits us once our earthly lives have crumbled into dust. For the Gnostic, to know this God is to know peace, and to know that good will ultimately prevail in the end to matter how ugly and how evil this world becomes. If you have seen this Light then you are a Gnostic in Truth. You share a portion of the divine nature, and by nature you will be saved from this world, and from death. You beheld the Vision because the Light is aware of your existence and has revealed itself to you.
This is the unvarnished Gospel of Gnosticism.
Getting back to the subject in question: those who know the Light know that there is no evil in God, in Perfection. The world we know is imperfect, and is plagued by evil. This world is evidently the product of an imperfect consciousness which has revealed itself, and struggles with itself, through the existence of the Human race. Gnostic wisdom tells us that we are capable of redemption because our Sentience originates from the highest and finest substance. We can discover that redemption, that hope, by seeking within ourselves. The Light appears to those who seek self-understanding and maturity. And this in turn is relevant to the most important reason that we must not attribute evil to the Light: because it is a wrong conception of God that will obscure the Vision: and will lead us into communion with the lesser god instead – and the seeker will remain enslaved.
Remember above all else that no evil comes from God. Those who maintain base conceptions of God will seek and find according to their own distortions. –jw
By James M. West. Copyright © October
20, 2007; revised
Readers can e-mail their comments, etc., to me at firstname.lastname@example.org