The Gnostics were an early Christian group declared by the early Church to be heretical. Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge, or "gnosis," that could be acquired through spiritual means. This secret knowledge was the key to salvation for the Gnostics. The Gnostics weren't by any means an organized group, and they had no shared belief structure or official standing in the early Church.
Gnostics believed that God is far above and beyond, detached from humanity and creation entirely. God is instead the source of existence; spiritual forces emanate from God, and humanity can experience these. One of these emanations, for example, was Jesus Christ. Rather than having been a physical person who lived, breathed, died and rose again as the mainstream Christians believed, Gnostics understood Christ to be a spiritual figure appearing to humanity.
The core of Gnosticism rests on secret knowledge. God sends emanations or spiritual signals to humanity, and some people receive these signals and gain this secret knowledge. This knowledge isn't an intellectual, content-based knowledge such as an understanding of scientific realities or spiritual truths. Instead, it is an indescribable internal component that becomes part of the Gnostic's mind and soul. It is what frees the Gnostic from ignorance and the physical body, which amounts to salvation for Gnostics.
Salvation is a cosmic process for Gnostics. It's not a matter of a sinful soul being redeemed, as mainstream Christians believed. Instead, through the use of secret knowledge, human beings can transcend the mortal, physical world. In Gnosticism, there is no sin except for ignorance, and secret knowledge frees a person from ignorance. In other words, there is no eternal punishment in hell to be saved from, as the mainstream Christians taught, but rather human beings who need salvation from their ignorance.
There are a number of Gnostic writings that express Gnostic beliefs. One of the most well-known is the "Gospel of Thomas," which emphasizes secret knowledge right in the beginning of the text: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke." The first verse declares that anyone who understands the sayings in this text "will not experience death." Other Gnostic writings include "The Secret Book of James," "Gospel of Mary," "Dialogue of the Savior," "Acts of Peter," "Epiphanes" and "Gospel of Truth." These writings all encourage the reader to understand secret meanings in the text to obtain salvation.
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