By Edward J. Parkinson
In my article "Immanence, Transcendence, and a
Gnostic View of the Fall of Man in Eden," I contrasted traditional
Christian and Gnostic views of sin. I there discussed "orthodox"
views at somewhat more length than liberal, Gnostic views. Here I
would like to discuss in more detail the Gnostic view of sin.
Bishop Pigott succinctly summarizes the matter by
stating that "involution is the cause of sin and evolution is its
cure" (42). Since involution must of necessity precede evolution,
we cannot consider sin to be evil in an ultimate and unqualified
sense , but only in a relative sense. Sin is always a detour on the
journey back to God but very often a necessary detour because the
only way to learn is to experiment with various choices and in the
process of experimentation to make mistakes.
While certain particular sins might be avoided
(and in many cases ought to be avoided), sin itself is necessary in
the cosmic scheme of things. The Logos descends into virgin matter
to create suitable companions for God. Our Lord has called us to be
not only His "servants," but His friends. This requires that we
leave behind the innocence of the Garden of Eden and "be as Gods,
knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). "Knowing" good and evil
often requires experiencing the consequences of both. We do not
necessarily "know" after memorizing a proposition or, even,
sometimes, after sincerely intellectually assenting. We "know"
only when experience has brought the truth home to the deepest
levels of our psyches. This why Annie Besant in Dharma opines that it is sometimes better for a man to go ahead and commit
a particular sin (even if it be a terrible sin) and experience the
full bitterness of the punishment rather than to resist and keep
"wanting" the indulgence from which he artificially restrains
himself. If he follows the latter futile course, he will eventually
sin anyway—probably even more grievously than he would have had he
succumbed to temptation earlier—and, in addition to the detour
occasioned by the particular sin, will have wasted much time in
futilely gnashing his teeth "wanting" something which he does
not yet "know" is wrong (68—70). "Thoughts against
thoughts in groans grind," says the nineteenth-century Jesuit poet
G.M. Hopkins in his imaginative vision of hell, "Spelt From
Sybil's Leaves." Bishop Leadbeater states the case quite
eloquently and succinctly: "It may be objected that in daily life
we constantly see people doing what they must know to be wrong, but
this is a misstatement of the case. They are doing what they have
been told is wrong, which is quite a different matter. If a
man really knows that an action is wrong, and that it will
inevitably be followed by evil consequences, he is careful to avoid
it. A man really knows that fire will burn him; therefore he
does not put his hand into it" (84). Sin, therefore, is necessary
for spiritual evolution.
In Dharma Annie Besant defines sin as any
choice that hinders a creature's spiritual evolution. Because
creatures have different natures and are evolving along different
paths and are at different stages on those paths and because
different creatures have different roles to play in the universe,
morality must of necessity be relative (5—17). It would be a
progressive step for an uneducated criminal to become a
Pentecostalist; it would be a regressive step for most Gnostic
Catholics. For a short-order cook at a fast food restaurant,
accepting a job as a bank teller would be a step forward; it
would, however, be a step backward for a board-certified
ophthalmologist. It is good for a diabetic to take an insulin
injection every day; it would be bad for a healthy person to do so.
It is not wrong for Othila, one of my cats, to amuse herself by
climbing trees and killing birds, but it would be wrong for me to
seek recreation in such a manner. Thus, what is right or wrong for
a particular creature is determined by that creature's dharma ,
which Annie Besant defines as the creature's nature at a given
time and the requirements for its progression to the next stage on
its evolutionary path—in her exact words, "the inner nature of a
thing at any given stage of evolution, and the law of the next stage
of its unfolding—the nature at the point it has reached in
unfolding, and the law which brings about its next stage of
unfolding. The nature itself marks out the point in evolution it
has reached; then comes what it must do in order to evolve further
along its road. Take these two thoughts together, and then you will
understand why perfection must be reached by following one's own
Given the foregoing, it is easy to see the chief reason
for the inevitability of sin: the metamorphosis of dharma .
Avoidance of sin would require a constant precise knowledge of one's dharma and its ethical requirements, and such knowledge is
not possible until a high level of development has been reached.
The most blatant dichotomy is the difference between
involution and evolution. Before the individual can ascend to God,
he must become an individual, and the requirements for individuation
are different from those for spiritual progress later. Animals
must be predatory in order to gain sufficient power to pass on from
the animal kingdom. This acquisitiveness must continue in the early
stages of human development so that a strong ego can be built.
Indeed, such acquisitiveness is logically necessary for the very
concept of sacrifice: one cannot offer sacrifice if one has nothing
At a certain point, however, this involutional dharma has begun to be transformed into a more evolutionary dharma . At that point what was good previously is now no
longer suitable. If the involutionary patterns nevertheless
continue, sin appears and must be painfully corrected by the Lords
of Karma. Bishop Pigott summarizes these matters very well: "…the
law which governs the evolution of matter is exactly opposite to the
law which governs the evolution of spirit. The preservation and
reproduction of material forms depends upon acquisition; the growth
and evolution of spirit upon sacrifice. These are 'contrary one
to the other,' but the each is right and very good in its own
sphere. Material forms could not grow by the law which governs
spiritual growth, nor can spirit evolve under the material law; if
matter sacrifices, it suffers loss; and if spirit 'seeks it own,'
it ceases to evolve. In that contradiction and opposition of laws
of evolution, as between the material and the spiritual, is to be
found the cause and the whole cause of the confusion known as sin.
Spirits blinded by matter seek to evolve according to the law of
material evolution. Such is sin" (40).
The necessity of sin in a universe inhabited by finite
creatures was elucidated clearly by the non-Christian neo-Platonist
Gnostic Plotinus in his Enneads . Sin is a consequence,
Plotinus said, of the soul's attempt to imprint its spiritual
essence upon matter and so elevate the material. "…this desire
of the soul to create has unfortunate results. …as soon as it
becomes joined to a body, it has the task of governing what is lower
than itself, and …the soul becomes chained to the body" (Russell
These ideas were clearly understood by St. Paul,
although they are constantly misunderstood by clergy who purport to
speak in Paul's name.
"I do not know sin but by the law," Paul said.
"For I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: 'Thou
shalt not covet'" (Romans: 7:7). The law appears to say, 'Thou
shalt not covet" only when conversion takes place and the Prodigal
Son decides to return to his Father.
Then, what was previously permissible comes under the
judgment of the Lords of Karma: "…the commandment that was
ordained to life, the same was found to be unto death to me"
(Romans:7:10). This can be taken in two senses: the involutional
commandment to "increase and multiply" is now deleterious—"death
to me"—and the higher commandment is "death" because it
contradicts the old natural behaviors and brings painful
punishment—"death"—when one follows one's inclinations.
The "confusion" of which Bishop Pigott writes
torments Paul: "For the good which I will I do not; but the evil
which I will not, that I do. …I find then a law, that when I have
a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with
the law of god, according to the inward man: But I see another law
in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating
me in the law of sin, that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am,
who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans:
7:19—24). The "inward man" is the spirit emanating from the
Father in the Third Outpouring; it has not yet brought the lower
vehicles and forces into harmony.
When we reflect thus on the nature of sin, we are
led inexorably to an appreciation of the theosophical dictum that
"sin is rather a matter for abandonment than for forgiveness"
(Pigott 40). St. Paul—who, incongruously, is loved by angry
fundamentalists—cautions us not to fear the vengeance of an
anthropomorphically angry Deity and not to fall into self-hatred
because of our sins: "If God be for us, who can be against us? He
that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how
shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay
any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth.
Who is he that condemneth? Is it Christ that died, yea rather, that
is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also
maketh intercession for us?" (Romans: 8: 31—34).
Let us strive as soon as possible to lay aside our
sins, and let us face bravely whatever karmic consequences may await
us for our previous ignorant malefactions, remembering all the while
that "all things work together for good to them that love God"
Besant, Annie. Dharma . Wheaton, Illinois.
Quest Books, 1986. New edition of 1918 edition.
Leadbeater, C.W. The Inner Life . Wheaton,
Illinois. Quest Books, 1978.
Pigott, F.W. Religion For Beginners .
London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1928.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy .
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.