Three Gnostic sects flourished nearly simultaneously in the Second Century, all which accepted universal salvation: the Basilidians, the Valentinians, and the Carpocratians.
The Basilidians were followers of Basilides, who lived about A.D. 117-138. He was a Gnostic Christian and an Egyptian philosopher. He wrote an alleged Gospel--exegetical rather than historical--no trace of which remains. As some of his theories did not agree with those generally advocated by Christians, he and his followers were regarded as heretics and their writings were destroyed, though no evidence exists to show that their view of human destiny was obnoxious. Greek philosophy and Christian faith are mingled in the electicism of the Basilidians. Basilides taught that man's universal redemption will result from the birth and death of Christ. According to the "Dictionary of Christian Biography," 1 Hippolytus gives an exposition of the mystic Christian sect. Basilides himself was a sincere Christian, and "the first Gnostic teacher who has left an individual, personal stamp upon the age." 2 He accepted the entire Gospel narrative, and taught that the wicked will be condemned to migrate into the bodies of men or animals until purified, when they will be saved with all the rest of mankind. He did not pretend that his ideas of transmigration were obtained from the Scriptures but affirmed that he derived them from philosophy. He held that the doctrines of Christianity have a two-fold character--one phrase simple, popular, obtained from the plain reading of the New Testament; the other sublime, secret, mysteriously imparted to favored ones. His system was a sort of Egyptian metempsychosis grafted on Christianity, an Oriental mysticism endeavoring to stand on a Christian foundation, and thus solve the problem of human destiny. Man and nature are represented as struggling upwards. "The restoration of all things that in the beginning were established in the seed of the universe shall be restored in their own season."
Irenæus charges the Basilidians with immortality, but Clement, who knew them better, denies it, and defends them. 3
The Carpocratians were
followers of Carpocrates, a Platonic
philosopher, who incorporated some of the elements of the Christian
into his system of philosophy. The sect flourished in
The Valentinians (A.D.
130) taught that all souls will be
finally admitted to the realms of bliss. They denied the resurrection
body. Their doctrines were widely disseminated in Asia, Africa and
These three sects were bitterly opposed by the "orthodox" fathers in some of their tenets, but their Universalism was never condemned.
It would be interesting to give an exposition of the
for some of the earlier centuries
agitated the Christian Church; it will suffice for our purpose here to
its manifold phases were attempts to reach satisfactory conclusions on
great subjects of man's relations to his Maker, to his fellow-men, to
and to the universe--to solve the problems of time and eternity. The
in the church show the results of
blending the Oriental, the Jewish, and the
Platonic philosophies with the new religion.
"Gnosticism, 4 was
philosophy of religion," and Christian Gnosticism was an effort to
the new revelation philosophically. But there were Gnostics and
of the Christian Fathers used the term reproachfully, and others
it as one of honor. Gnosis, knowledge, philosophy applied to religion,
deemed all-important by Clement, Origen, and the most prominent of the Fathers. Mere Gnostics
Gnostics were those who accepted Christ as the author of a new and
revelation, and interpreted it by those principles that had long
religion of Jesus.5 "The Gnostics were the
first regular commentators on the New
Testament. The Gnostics were also the first
practitioners of the higher
criticism. It (Gnosticism) may be regarded as a half-way house, through
many Pagans, like Ambrosius or
Says Prof. Allen: "Gnosticism is a genuine and legitimate outgrowth of the same general movement of thought that shaped the Christian dogma. Quite evidently it regarded itself as the true interpreter of the Gospel." Baur quotes a German writer as giving a full exposition of one of the latest attempts "to bring back Gnosticism to a greater harmony with the spirit of Christianity." Briefly, sophia (wisdom), as the type of mankind, falls, rises, and is united to the eternal Good. Baur says that Gnosticism declares that "either through conversion and amendment, or through utter annihilation, evil is to disappear, and the final goal of the whole world process is to be reached, viz., the purification of the universe from all that is unworthy and perverted." Harnack says that Gnosticism "aimed at the winning of a world-religion. The Gnostics were the theologians of the First Century; they were the first to transform Christianity into a system of doctrines (dogmas). They essayed to conquer Christianity for Hellenic culture and Hellenic culture from Christianity."7
Differing from the so-called "orthodox" Christians on many points, the three great Gnostic sects of the Second Century were in full agreement with Clement and Origen and the Alexandrine school, and probably with the great majority of Christians, in their views on human destiny. They taught the ultimate holiness and happiness of the human family, and it is noteworthy that though all the Gnostics advocated the final salvation of all souls, and though the orthodox fathers savagely attacked them on many points, they never reckoned their Universalism as a fault. This doctrine was not obnoxious to either orthodox or heterodox in the early centuries.
1 Vol. I, pp. 271, 2.
2 Bunsen's Hipp. and His Age, Vol. I, p. 107.
3 The standard authorities on the subject of Gnosticism are Neander, Baur, Matter, Bigg, Mansel (Gnostic Heresies).
4 Baur, Ch. Hist. First Three Cent., I, pp. 184-200. Baring Gould's Lost and Hostile Gospels, p. 278.
5 Mansel, Baur, etc.
6 Stieren's Irenæus V, 901-3. Clem. Strom. IV, 12.
7 Outlines of the Hist. of Dogma, pp. 58,9.