Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism: The Root of the Human Disease

The shared context and perspective of 2nd century Gnosticism and modern existentialism has been pointed out by Christopher Lasch, Eric Voegelin, and most brilliantly by Hans Jonas.  The dualism, the antinomianism, the individualism, but most starkly, the sense of alienation, arising from the Roman disestablishment of traditional religion and modern disenchantment, gave rise to thought and religion steeped in and ultimately dependent upon a radical dualism. The individual alone in a hostile or indifferent world finds herself abandoned and helpless before the laws of fate or nature. The world is a horror; the laws of the universe a tyrant under which the individual is crushed and helpless. There is order, but it is an order of absolute law which leaves the human alienated, imprisoned, and alone. To acknowledge this incomprehensible darkness and alienation is the beginning of freedom. The realization of the sickness contains the negative knowledge giving rise to the will to defeat it. To be integrated into or reconciled with the world is to be ruled by ignorance and it is to squelch the inner spirit which is by definition transcendent. The power of the cosmic laws felt in total alienation is the dark truth which points to the inner spark and possibility of freedom.

The climate of moral confusion in which old faiths were dying, gave rise to a new imperialism, the spread of education (aimed not at mastery and mental discipline but at utility), as rapid circulation of goods and ideas created a new cosmopolitanism which would throw off the former provincialism. In this world in which the old myths could no longer be directly believed there was an effort to reinterpret them, not in order to believe but in order to surpass belief and regain the enchantments/insights and vigor of a former time. In Lasch’s description, it “was a time when the accumulation of wealth, comfort, and knowledge outran the ability to put these good things to good use. It was a time of expanding horizons and failing eyesight, of learning without light and great expectations without hope.”[1]  In the depiction of both Jonas and Voegelin, the overlapping context produced an overlapping turn to “salvational knowledge.”

It was the overlap of the times and thought that drew Jonas deeper into his lifelong study of Gnosticism. He found in his study of Heidegger and Gnosticism a “dimly felt affinity” which “lured” him on into examining Gnosticism, for at the base of both he began to uncover what he would identify as a shared nihilistic element.[2] Jonas turns to Pascal, whose description he claims was the first to face the frightening implications of modern cosmology. Rather than finding himself at home in the universe, Pascal describes the early tenets of an existentialism, which both in its Christian and atheistic manifestations, speaks of a profound alienation. God has been set at such a distance, he had absconded (Deus absconditus) and therefore is fundamentally unknowable (according to Nicholas of Cusa, John Calvin, and Martin Luther). Pascal would take up the notion, as did the Jansenists to whom he had converted and become an influential member. This notion accentuated human loneliness in the unfolding perception of modern cosmology (the notion of a world machine governed by immutable laws).

 Pascal speaks of a fundamental fear: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened.”[3] As Jonas notes, it is the indifference in the imperception (the not-knowing) of the universe that gives rise to the feeling of insignificance and loneliness. The universe is blind to man, so that just as his being can be attributed to a blind accident, so too his destruction is of no consequence. Yet, unlike any other part of the extended universe man is a thinking reed. The world is all res extensa (as his contemporary, Descartes had taught)– it is all matter and extended magnitude and only the human knower stands out as a thinking thing. But this very thought alienates, separates, and brings the awareness of being easily dispensable. His consciousness is alienating, marking the “unbridgeable gulf between himself and the rest of existence.” [4]  Alienation, foreignness, estrangement, is the very substance of reflection as the mind does not work to integrate but in thinking separates itself. That is, Pascal, as in mathematics so too in religion and philosophy, is ahead of his age and recognizes what Descartes did not: the thinking thing is lost in the universe.  As Pascal notes, “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”[5]

Pascal continues, “I am frightened and amazed at finding myself here rather than there; for there is no reason whatever why here rather than there, why now rather than then.”[6] In more settled times the cosmos may have been felt to be man’s natural home, now, according to Pascal, man should “regard himself as lost” locked away as he is in the “prison-cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the (visible) universe.”[7] Telos has been lost as the “utter contingency” of existence gives rise to the feeling of being out of place. The Copernican universe captured an understanding of the mathematical gears but has knocked man from its center and denied him any sense of an intrinsic teleology or meaning.

Pascal may be the first to feel himself left unsupported by the inherent ontological frame. There are no values and the self is, in Jonas description, left unsupported and thus “thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and value. Meaning is no longer found but is ‘conferred.’ Values are no longer beheld in the vision of objective reality, but are posited as feats of valuation. As functions of the will, ends are solely my own creation.”[8] Vision is displaced by will and the temporal can no longer contain the goodness of eternity, as the first hints of an overt nihilism begin to surface. As Nietzsche will poetically phrase it (in Vereinsamt): “Now man is alone with himself. The world’s a gate to deserts stretching mute and chill. Who once has lost What thou hast lost stands nowhere still. . . Woe unto him who has no home!”[9]

Pascal has faith in God, but this faith and this God are no longer the outgrowth of or connected with the natural world:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.[10]

God is unknown and unknowable and the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose but only power, immensity and will – God’s will and power and human will. The reason for the universe eludes man and the question is beyond answering. “The deus absconditus, of whom nothing but will and power can be predicated, leaves behind as his legacy, upon leaving the scene, the homo absconditus, a concept of man characterized solely by will and power—the will for power, the will to will.”[11]

The nihilism kindling early theistic existentialism will become the key pole characterizing the dualism which will become primary in both theistic and atheistic existentialism. Nothing, death, darkness, and absence will inform something, life, light, and presence. The turn to the individual and the will to power, whether of the Hegelian or Nietzschean form, will characterize the modern.

There is only one other example, according to Jonas, in human history in which “tarrying with the negative” or the overt embrace of nihilism is recommended. Jonas suggests that the only other epic which compares to this “cataclysmic event” is the rise of Gnosticism as a distinct religion. “That is the gnostic movement, or the more radical ones among the various gnostic movements and teachings, which the deeply agitated first three centuries of the Christian era proliferated in the Hellenistic parts of the Roman empire and beyond its eastern boundaries.”[12]

Jonas gathers under the name gnostic a highly diversified and widespread phenomenon which is distinctly not Christian but which is feeding on the same cultural disturbances that mark the rise of the Christianity. The various forms of Gnosticism appearing in a variety of places and in many languages, share the “radically dualistic mood which underlies the gnostic attitude as a whole” constituting it a unified system or systems. “It is on this primary human foundation of a passionately felt experience of self and world, that the formulated dualistic doctrines rest. The dualism is between man and the world, and concurrently between the world and God.”[13]

Jonas locates the impetus behind arcane gnostic doctrine in the same feeling of alienation which characterizes the modern. The “absolute rift” between man and the world and the feeling of alienation is projected onto a God, who is by definition, alien to the world and has no part in the physical world. True deity is beyond the world: “Unknown, the totally Other, unknowable in terms of any worldly analogies.”[14]

The principle or law bringing forth the material world might be attributed to some lower deity or personal agency, but this agency is subject to a deeper “impersonal necessity of dark impulse.” No allegiance is owed to this demiurge as the laws it serves are beneath the spirit or divine spark within humankind. The passion, ignorance and blind force which brought forth the world is without knowledge or benevolence. The world only sets forth a negative knowledge, that which is sick, unenlightened, ruled by necessity and power. But it is in the face of this dark power that man recognizes his true essence, found in knowledge of self and of God: “this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe.”[15]

It is not that the world is chaotic, rather it is a cosmos of order “but order with a vengeance, alien to man’s aspirations.” The universe is a complete and orderly system but the law that orders the system would and has dominated humankind under the guise of logos or reason. “But cosmic law, once worshiped as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom.”[16] Man is counted out of the necessities of the universe. Fate, misidentified by the Stoics as providence, is a tyrant. The supposed providence, once attached to the power exercised by the stars, is nothing other than law, order, and fate which stands opposed to human freedom.

Rather than seeking to integrate the self into this law, like Pascal and Heidegger, one should feel frightened: “Dread as the soul’s response to its being-in-the-world is a recurrent theme in gnostic literature. It is the self’s reaction to the discovery of its situation, actually itself an element in that discovery: it marks the awakening of the inner self from the slumber or intoxication of the world.”[17] The knowledge (gnosis) thus gained will liberate from servitude to the law, to “providence,” to seeking to be integrated into the cosmos. Where the Stoics pursued freedom through consent to the law, the Gnostics would overcome the law through the power of gnosis (power against power). There is no longer the presumption of finding significance in the whole (e.g., the city, the empire, the cosmos) or the law of the universe or cosmic destiny.

Though the arguments and theories of Gnosticism and existentialism in regard to the law may be vastly different, nonetheless they share this antinomian tendency. Nietzsche can declare “God is dead” and in Gnosticism “the God of the cosmos is dead” but in both instances a nihilistic vacuum is created in which “the highest values become devalued.” This nihilistic conclusion is the impetus behind the abandonment of transcendence in modernity and to the positing of a radical dualism which does not allow for any intelligible connection in Gnosticism. The gnostic God is completely unknown (the absolutely absconded) and the “known” is primarily negative. As Jonas puts it, “this God has more of the nihil than the ens in his concept.”[18] He is totally different, hidden, and beyond. Just as hidden human nature (spirit) is revealed in its alienation, the divine counterpart is posited primarily as an absence. In practice, there is not a lot of difference between the denial of transcendence and a transcendence removed from any normative reality. There is no law, no sign, no value attached to human action in either instance. Existential man and pneumaticos man do “not belong to any objective scheme, is above the law, beyond good and evil, and a law unto himself in the power of his ‘knowledge’.”[19]

As a formula from the Valentinian school epitomizes gnosis: “What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.”[20] This “thrownness” is fundamental to Heidegger, and may echo Pascal’s “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces,” but Jonas claims its origin is gnostic: “In Mandaean literature it is a standing phrase: life has been thrown into the world, light into darkness, the soul into the body.” [21] It denotes an original violence and the necessity of a certain helpless passivity as one “speeds” from “who we were” to “what we have become” and the only element left out is the present. One is caught between the poles of past and future – one is born and one dies, and as in Heidegger, all major terms are determined by past and future. “Leaping off, as it were, from its past, existence projects itself into its future; faces its ultimate limit, death; returns from this eschatological glimpse of nothingness to its sheer factness, the unalterable datum of its already having become this, there and then; and carries this forward with its death-begotten resolve, into which the past has now been gathered up.” There is no present but only the crisis between past and future in which the between continually eludes and fades. In other words, what is lost is eternity, real presence, the essence of God and the essence of reality.

Jonas is not only describing the modern discovery of the shared darkness, the explicit deployment of darkness as a means to the light, that Hegel will call the dialectic, which Freud will refer to as death drive, but he is also depicting what Lacan and Žižek locate in Paul’s encounter with the law. Paul and John are countering the false teaching which will become Gnosticism. It is precisely this existential sort of gnostic nihilism that the Word become flesh defeats. Eternity has intersected time and the light has overcome the darkness and darkness and death are not determinative. The Gospel and Epistles of John explicitly describe the developments of this proto-Gnostic thought as relying on the dualism between flesh and spirit and depending upon a series of dualisms, which Jesus, in John’s depiction will defeat by collapsing the poles upon which they depend. Jonas’ insight into the modern and ancient predicament, which he sums up as nihilism, seems to describe the fundamental human disease.[22] Gnosticism and existentialism partake of the overt form of nihilism which absolutizes nothing as its realization of something (what the Bible calls idolatry).


[1] Christopher Lasch, “Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future?” Salmagundi, No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-42. Available online at https://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/pc_gnosticism_92.pdf

[2] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, Third Edition, 2001), 320.

[3] Blaise Pascal Pensees, ed. Brunschvicg, fr. 205. Quoted in Jonas 322.

[4] Jonas, 322.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 24.

[6] Pascal Op. cit. fr. 72. Quoted in Jonas 323.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, 323.

[9] Quoted in Jonas, 324.

[10] Pascal, English, 20.

[11] Jonas, 324-325.

[12] Jonas, 325.

[13] Jonas, 326.

[14] Jonas, 327.

[15] Jonas, 327-328.

[16] Jonas, 328.

[17] Jonas, 329.

[18] Jonas, 332.

[19] Jonas, 334.

[20] Clemens Alex., Exc. ex Theod., 78. 2. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[21] The Mandeans are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[22] The nihilism may be explicit, as it is in Gnosticism and existentialism, or it may be implicit as it is in idolatry.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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