Life, Death & Gnosis: The Gnostics on the Afterlife

Jacob's Ladder by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)
From New Dawn 109 (Jul-Aug 2008)

The possibilities for life after death come down to a mere three:
1. There is no life after death. Death is the total extinction of consciousness. 2. Life after death continues on earth (through reincarnation). 3. Life continues after death on another plane than that of earthly reality (such as in heaven or hell).

If we’re going to talk about this subject at all, we can rule out the first option categorically, especially since practically every culture and religion teaches that there is some form of life after death. There are many discussions of the evidence for the afterlife, and while this is a fascinating subject, it’s out of the scope of this article.

Which, then, of the two remaining options is most likely? Usually these are simplistically conceived. You reincarnate: depending on your karma, you come back down to earth to live again as a sage or a stockbroker. Or you are judged before the heavenly throne and are sent up to heaven or down to hell once and for all.

The Gnostics, the mysterious esoteric teachers of the early centuries of the Common Era, had their own perspective on the afterlife. Although their teachings have been all but lost, enough material remains so that we can reconstruct them. If we do, we will reach some valuable insights not only about some elements of the later Western occult traditions but about the project of spiritual liberation.

The Gnostic texts speak very little about reincarnation. We do, however, find some references to this concept in the Corpus Hermeticum (“Hermetic body” of writings). Probably written in the first to third centuries CE, they largely consist of dialogues between a divine figure named Hermes Trismegistus and his son Tat (or Thoth, the Egyptian god that most resembled the Greek Hermes). Their origin is suggested by the title of the leading treatise: Poimandres (from which I’ll quote below). This is a Grecization of p-eime-n-re, “illumined mind” in Egyptian. The Hermetic texts were descriptions of ancient Egyptian esoteric knowledge recast in the language and thought of the Greeks, who were culturally dominant in the Mediterranean world of that time. The Hermetic texts aren’t usually considered to be Gnostic per se, although their ideas were extremely similar to those of the Gnostics and can be taken as part of the same milieu.1

The Hermetic texts speak of reincarnation, but not in the sense familiar from New Age versions of the doctrine. The Hermetic writings generally portray reincarnation as a punishment. One treatise tells us that a person who dies childless “is sentenced to a body that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s – a thing accursed under the sun.” And a text known as the Asclepius says that “those who live faithfully under god” will ascend to become divine beings, but “for the unfaithful it goes differently: return to heaven is denied them, and a vile migration unworthy of a holy soul puts them in other bodies.”2

Both the Hermeticists and the Gnostics were much more interested in the spirit’s ascent after death. In order to understand their views, we have to set aside one background assumption that we may have received from conventional Christianity: that heaven is all good, that, as it were, all the evil is down below. As a matter of fact, the Gnostics say little about hell as such. To them the dangers encountered by the spirit after death took a very different form.

Meet the Archons

If you read even a small amount about Gnosticism, you will come across references to the archons, whose name comes from a Greek word meaning “rulers.” Malign spiritual powers, they stand in the celestial realms interposed between us and the true, good God far above. Who are these archons?

Although it’s sometimes forgotten, the Gnostics took much of their inspiration from the apostle Paul. One key verse appears in Ephesians (an epistle that, most scholars today agree, was not actually written by Paul, although it was attributed to him): “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12).3 Although the verse does not use the word archons (in the Greek New Testament, this word usually refers to human rulers; cf. Luke 12:58, John 3:1), the word translated as “principalities” is arkhas, which comes from the same root. The writer of Ephesians is saying that these “rulers of the darkness of this world” are in the celestial spheres that are interposed between the earth and the realms of the true heaven far above. For the Gnostics, this meant that there are two heavens: one a sinister, intermediary realm of the archons, the other the realm of the true, good God above. To reach the true heaven (sometimes called the Pleroma or “fullness”) after death, the spirit has to pass through the spheres of the archons.

There were many Gnostic systems, and their critics sometimes complained that they changed their teachings every day. But in essence both Gnosticism and Hermeticism envisaged the journey of the spirit in the afterlife as an ascent through the realms of the concentric spheres surrounding the earth. Often these were associated with the seven planets as understood by the ancients: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (in that order), each of which had its own ruler or archon. The clearest and most concise description of this process appears in the Poimandres, which describes the bad qualities the spirit must shed after death in each planetary zone:

Thence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone [the moon] surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second [Mercury] evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third [Venus] the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth [the sun] the ruler’s arrogance, now freed from excess; at the fifth [Mars] unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth [Jupiter] the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone [Saturn] the deceit that lies in ambush. And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad [the spiritual realm]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father.4

Another portrait of the soul’s ascent appears in Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus”), a polemical work written by the Church Father Origen (c.185–c.254 CE). Origen at one point describes the teachings of a Gnostic sect called the Ophites. Not much is known about them, but they were so called from the Greek word ophis (“serpent”). Unlike orthodox Christianity, they regarded the serpent of Genesis as a positive figure, bringing Adam and Eve gnosis or knowledge.

Ophite Gnostic cosmology symbolising the structure of Reality.
The world serpent Leviathan encircles the planetary realm, with Saturn on the boundary. After death the soul/spirit attempts to ascend through the spheres of the archons that are identified with the planets.

The Ophites, Origen tells us, believe that after death the soul has to pass through a “barrier of evil.” Then it has to confront a series of archons, who are associated with the planets. In ascending order from the earth, they are:

  • 1. Moon: Horaeus
  • 2. Mercury: Ailoaeus or Eloaeus
  • 3. Venus: Astaipheus
  • 4. Sun: Adonai
  • 5. Mars: Sabaoth
  • 6. Jupiter: Iao
  • 7. Saturn: Ialdabaoth

(Note that the order is the same as in the Poimandres.) In order to pass through these spheres, the Gnostic initiate was taught what to say to the archons and which symbol to present to them as a kind of passkey. To Ialdabaoth, for example, one is supposed to say:

And thou, Ialdabaoth, first and seventh, born to have power with boldness, being ruling Word of a pure mind, a perfect work for Son and Father, I bear a symbol marked with a picture of life, and having opened to the world the gate which thou didst close for thine eternity, I pass by thy power free again. May grace be with me, father, let it be with me.5

Irenaeus of Lyons, the second-century Church Father whose work Against the Heresies is one of our chief primary sources about Gnosticism, describes another view of this process. Speaking of one school of Gnostics, he writes:

These hold that the knowledge of the unspeakable Greatness is itself perfect redemption. For since both defect and passion flowed from ignorance, the whole substance of what was thus formed is destroyed by knowledge; and therefore knowledge is the redemption of the inner man. This, however, is not of a corporeal nature, for the body is corruptible; nor is it animal, since the animal soul is the fruit of a defect, and is, as it were, the abode of the spirit. The redemption must therefore be of a spiritual nature; for they affirm that the inner and spiritual man is redeemed by means of knowledge, and that they, having acquired the knowledge of all things, stand thenceforth in need of nothing else. This, then, is the true redemption.6

Soul, Spirit & the Afterlife

Irenaeus indicates that the Gnostics believed in a tripartite division of the human entity: the physical body, the soul (what Irenaeus calls the “animal soul”), and the spirit. Orthodox Christianity originally had the same teaching, although it would be lost over the centuries. Today you will have great difficulty finding a churchman of any denomination who can explain to you the difference between the soul and the spirit.7 But the Gnostics thought these two things were very different indeed, and this fact provides the key to their views of the afterlife.

When you read a standard version of the New Testament and come across the word “soul,” it is almost always translating the Greek word psyche. That’s what “soul” originally meant. It is the psyche – the constellation of thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious, that constitute your inner life. It also includes the vital principle, or life force (the “animal soul”). As the passage from Irenaeus suggests, the Gnostics knew that this soul was not immortal and was not meant to be.

‘The Ascent into the Empyrean or Highest Heaven’ by Hieronymus Bosch

The spirit is another matter. It is that in you which, at the deepest level, says “I.” It is the principle of pure consciousness that looks out of your body and psyche as through a telescope. There are many names for it: Atman, the Self, the kingdom of heaven, ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. This principle is immortal and indestructible; it will remain long after both body and soul have disintegrated. 

In fact the soul is supposed to disintegrate. It is made up of planetary influences (hence it is sometimes given the name “astral body”), which are as temporary and transitory as the combinations of molecules that make up the physical body. The Gnostics conceived of incarnation as a descent from the supernal realms through the spheres of the seven planets down to earth. As the spirit made its way through these spheres, it takes on the colouration of each of these planets. Conversely, at the time of death, the spirit ascends and (at least ideally) shakes off the influence of each planet in turn, since these influences are the shackles that bind the soul to materiality. That’s why the Hermetic text quoted above tells us that “the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone [the moon] surrendering the energy of increase and decrease” and so on. Some of the Gnostics, such as the Ophites, thought it was necessary to know the occult names of each of the archons guarding these tiers as a way of getting through (in ancient magic, to know the name of something is to have power over it). Others, like the ones described by Irenaeus, apparently believed that the mere knowledge of the situation was enough for liberation.

For individuals who do not have access to this salvific knowledge in one form or another, “it goes differently,” as we read in the Hermetic text quoted above: “return to heaven is denied them, and a vile migration unworthy of a holy soul puts them in other bodies.”

Reincarnation Undesirable

Reincarnation today is an increasingly popular belief. Surveys show that about 20–25% of the population of the Western countries (and as many as a third of the people in Russia) believe in it. It has the advantage of being more reassuring than the conventional Christian view that you could fry in hell for an infinite amount of time as punishment for sins committed for an extremely finite amount of time on earth. And there is a considerable body of work attesting to past-life memories (Ian Stevenson is a pioneer in this field), so that reincarnation is far better-validated than scientistic materialism would have us believe.

Nonetheless, practically all the traditions that teach reincarnation view it as undesirable. We can come back, but if we do, it is the result of a problem or a mistake on our part. The ideal fate for an individual in Hinduism is moksha or liberation from the chain of incarnation; nirvana has the same position in Buddhism. The celebrated Tibetan Book of the Dead consists of step-by-step instructions for the newly deceased in how to avoid reincarnating. The Gnostics and Hermeticists portrayed this liberation as the ascent of the spirit through the realm of the hostile archons into the Pleroma. 

Even the position of reincarnation in conventional Christianity is not quite what you might expect. Astonishingly, the doctrine of reincarnation has never been explicitly repudiated by the Catholic Church, even though most of its theologians have dismissed or derided it. Today some people claim that the doctrine was rejected either by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE or by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, but as a matter of fact neither of these dealt with the topic; instead they were concerned with the nature of Christ. One source of this misconception is Shirley MacLaine, the actress and New Age author, who introduced these ideas in her highly popular books, adding further to the confusion by mixing up the two councils.8

At any rate, reincarnation sits ambiguously on the edge of the Christian tradition. Valentin Tomberg (1900-73), a Baltic German convert to Roman Catholicism whose Meditations on the Tarot, published anonymously, remains one of the great modern classics of esoteric Christianity, observes:

The Church was hostile to the doctrine of reincarnation, although the fact of repeated incarnations was known – and could not remain unknown – to a large number of people faithful to the Church with authentic spiritual experience. The deeper reason is the danger of reincarnation by way of the ghost, where one avoids the path of purification (in purgatory), illumination and celestial union. For humanity could succumb to the temptation of preparing for a future terrestrial life, instead of preparing for purgatory and heaven, in earthly life.9

If you set aside the Catholic term of “purgatory” in this passage, you end up with a view very much like that of the Gnostics. The spirit is purified and illumined in its ascent, and eventually enters the realm of the Father. The “ghost” of which Tomberg speaks is a soul – that is, an astral body – that has not properly disintegrated. It either lurks around the earth, causing ghostly phenomena, or becomes entrapped in yet another physical body. 

Curiously, the Gnostic teachings also survived in Eastern Orthodoxy, which owes more to Gnosticism than it cares to admit. Orthodox Christianity uses the quaint but vivid metaphor of “aerial tollhouses” to speak of the spirit’s perilous ascent after death. The number of these tollhouses is usually said to be twenty. Here is one account, attributed to Taxiotes, a soldier in antiquity who had a near-death experience:

When I was dying, I saw Ethiopians who appeared before me. Their appearance was very frightful; my soul beholding them was disturbed. Then I saw two splendid youths, and my soul leaped out into their arms. We began slowly to ascend in the air to the heights, as if flying, and we reached the toll-houses that guard the ascent and detain the soul of each man. Each toll-house tested a special form of sin: one lying, another envy, another pride; each sin has its own testers in the air. And I saw that the angels held all my good deeds in a little chest; taking them out, they would compare them with my evil deeds. Thus we passed by all the toll-houses. And when, reaching the gates of the heavens, we came to the toll-house of fornication, those who guard the way there detained me and presented to me all my fleshly deeds of fornication, committed from my childhood up to now. The angels who were leading said to me, “All the bodily sins which you committed in the city, God has forgiven, because you repented of them.” To this my adversaries said to me, “But when you left the city, in the village you committed adultery with a farmer’s wife.” The angels, hearing this and finding no good deed which could be measured out for my sin, left me and went away. Then the evil spirits seized me, and overwhelming me with blows, led me down to earth. The earth opened, and I was let down by narrow and foul-smelling descents into the underground prison of hell.10

It’s easy to find resemblances in this passage to the Gnostic and Hermetic texts we’ve already examined. The basic process is the same: the soul ascends through the aerial region toward heaven but encounters sentinels that bar its way. The Gnostic texts saw the way through in esoteric terms: it was necessary to know the name of the archon guarding each one and to know how to address him, or at any rate to understand the truth of the situation. Here, in an Orthodox Christian context, it is a matter of purity from sin. (As a matter of fact, the seven planets are associated with the seven deadly sins: the moon, with envy; Mercury, with sloth; Venus, lust; the sun, pride; Mars; anger; Jupiter, gluttony. The seventh, covetousness, is associated with the earth, but as we can see from the Poimandres, the seventh is sometimes taken to be deceit, and is associated with Saturn.) Like the Gnostics, the Orthodox regard these aerial tollkeepers as evil spirits. Their leader is the Devil, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). 

Echoes of Gnostic ideas resonate in other forms of esotericism. Here is one passage from the Zohar, the central text of the Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism. A rabbi tells of his encounter with some “children of the East” and their books of sacred wisdom, which, he says, resemble the teachings of the Jewish Torah. These books from the East said that:

It is by his acts, by his words, and by his fervency and devotion that [the worshipper] can draw to himself that spirit from on high. They further said that if a man follows a certain direction in this world, he will be led further in the same direction when he departs this world; as that to which he attaches himself in this world, so is that to which he will find himself attached in the other world; if holy, holy, and if defiled, defiled. If he cleaves to holiness he will on high be drawn to that side and be made a servant to minister before the Holy One among the angels…. Similarly if he clings here to uncleanness, he will be drawn there towards that side and be made one of the unclean company and be attached to them. These are called “pests of mankind,” and when a man leaves this world they take him up and cast him down into Gehinnom [i.e., hell].11

The rabbi also says that these books also have “rites and ceremonies pertaining to the worship of the stars, with the requisite formulas and the directions for concentrating the thoughts upon them, so as to draw them near the worshipper.” These would seem to resemble the Gnostic formulas and directions for encountering and passing through the gates of the archons, who are associated with the planets. But the rabbi discourages this kind of practice, saying that Jews are to worship the Holy One alone.

It would be possible to trace the threads of these Gnostic ideas in many more directions, certainly in the Kabbalah. Gershom Scholem, the greatest twentieth-century scholar of the Kabbalah, emphasised that “it was Gnosticism, one of the last great manifestations of mythology in religious thought… which lent figures of speech to the Jewish mystic.”12

Such is the view of the scholar. He sees affinities and resemblances between texts and traditions, and naturally assumes that the earlier ones must have influenced the later ones. But someone who wants to transcend the limits of mere academic scholarship has to ask another question: are these similarities the result of influence in a conventional sense, or is it rather that these mystics and illuminates of different traditions saw the same reality and tried to express it in terms of their own language and thought? I myself suspect that both of these things are true.

What, then, is the mystical reality to which all these teachings point? I would suggest that it is something like this: The psyche, the soul, is made up not only of planetary influences (which is why the natal horoscope is believed to give the key to your character) but of the concepts and conditioning that were attached to it over the course of an incarnation. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes this process in Tibetan Buddhist terms, calls this complex “the thought-body of propensities.”13 The ascent through the realms of the archons or the aerial tollhouses represent the stripping away of these influences, including concepts and conditioning of a religious nature. If the break is more or less complete, the unconditioned spirit can make its way to the “true heaven” – that is, other realms of existence where it will continue to be perfected. If not, it is thrown back down to earth (or perhaps to still darker realms) for another round. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that the way to penetrate through the bardos (the Tibetan equivalent of the tollhouses) is to “know these apparitions to be thine own thought-forms.”14

What practical conclusions can we draw from all this? Personally I would point back to the passage from the Zohar quoted just above: “If a man follows a certain direction in this world, he will be led further in the same direction when he departs this world.” The future of the divine monad, the spark of pure consciousness that lies at the centre of our being like a jewel in a lotus and whose refinement and perfection is perhaps the sole purpose of human existence, will be determined by how we cultivate it in this life. For all of the archons and celestial tollkeepers that may appear to face us after death, the responsibility for our evolution – or, if you like, salvation – continues to rest with ourselves.

This article was published in New Dawn 109.
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1. For further discussion of this topic, see my Forbidden Faith, 32–35.
2. Asclepius 12, in Brian P. Copenhaver, ed. and trans., Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and an Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 74; Corpus Hermeticum II, 17, in Copenhaver, 12.
3. Biblical quotations are from the Authorised (King James) Version.
4. Corpus Hermeticum I, 25–26; in Copenhaver, 6.
5. Origen, Contra Celsum, 6.31; in Henry Chadwick, ed. and trans., Contra Celsum, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 347.
6. Irenaeus, 1.21.4;; May 24, 2008.
7. For more on this subject, see my article “Christianity: The Ultimate Secret,” New Dawn No. 84 (May-June 2004), 27–32; also my Inner Christianity, 19–20, 70–71 et passim.
8. See Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 321-22.
9. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert A. Powell (Warwick, N.Y.: Amity House, 1985), 361. Emphasis in the original.
10. Quoted in Seraphim Rose, The Soul after Death (Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1980), 84.
11. Zohar 1, 99b; in The Zohar, Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (London: Soncino, 1934), vol. 1, 324–25.
12. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3d ed. (New York: Schocken, 1961), 35.
13. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed. and trans., 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), 104.
14. Ibid.

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About the Author

RICHARD SMOLEY is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History; The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness; How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). A frequent contributor to New Dawn, he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Visit his blog at

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