Over the centuries, Christians have had lots of ideas about demonic or sinister powers. Some Christians believe that people can be possessed by demons… and an even smaller subset thinks that demons can even possess Christians! There are still people out there who’ll offer to exorcise demons from you. Going to someone else to cure your evil? Sounds like a good bargain!demonic tree

Modern ideas around demons and exorcism, however, can sometimes miss the point. We tend to think of demons like modern rationalists– do they exist, and if so, what are the objective implications? However, early Christians often thought about them radically differently; in fact, they thought about them in the opposite order! Rather than starting with a hypothesis (demons exist!) and then working through all the different things that this entails, they started by reflecting on their experience and then generating mythology to interpret that experience.

We’ve written before about how the Demiurge was used by early Christians to wrestle with tensions they faced in scripture. In the Gospel of Philip, the Valentinian writer explores the implications of the world they see through such mythological language. Why do people call things “good” that are actually bad? Why do good things happen to bad people? What is evil, and why is it so powerful?

If you’re interested to learn more about how the Gospel of Philip treats demonic powers, keep reading, below!

The Archons

The Gospel of Philip records that there exist supernatural enemies — demonic powers called Archons. These archons aren’t just floating in the air, however; they’re actually “rulers”! Bad news, right? From this writer’s perspective, the world we’re in is ruled by oppressive forces.

These rulers, the Archons, want to fool people. Why? Because they “saw that people had a kinship with what is truly good”. What is truly good is, of course, free– not particularly helpful to their reign. So, what did they do?

They took the names of the good and assigned them to what is not good, to fool people with names and link the names to what is not good. So, as if they are doing people a favor, they take names from what is not good and transfer them to the good, in their own way of thinking. For they wished to take free people and enslave them forever.

Wow. So, since what is good makes us free and we long for what is good, the Archons pulled the wool over our eyes. They bargaining handdeceived us, telling us that things are good for us which actually harm us, and setting us up to value evil actions as if they were good! Terrible, right? The text even goes on to say that the Archons do “favors” for people, evoking the idea of making deals or bargains with demonic forces… except, unlike the modern trope of demonic bargains, the humans think that they’re actually doing what’s right!

This brings us to a really interesting question: what’s in it for the Archons? Why do they really care? Here’s how the text explains it:

They do not want people to come to [salvation], but they want their own existence to continue. For if people come to salvation, sacrifice will [stop]… and animals will not be offered up to the forces… The animals were offered up alive, and after being offered they died. But a human being was offered up to God dead, and the human being came alive.

This section accomplishes a few really fascinating things. First: it explains the history of the majority of human religious traditions known to the authors. Why was everyone, in every culture they encountered, offering sacrifices of animals and thinking they’re doing something good? Isn’t that obscene? The answer, according to the writer of the Gospel of Philip, is that the sacrifices were not really being offered to God but to the demonic Archons! The very thing people thought was good– animal sacrifice– was, in fact, evil!

What, then, did Christ come to do? To subvert the source of the Archons’ power! He inverted the sacrifice by being offered to God while dead as a human being, rather than alive as an animal. In doing so, he conquered death and showed that the true worship of God isn’t through animal sacrifice. Pretty radical stuff!


The Great Charade

So, we’ve established the text’s explanation that humans are serving the Archons because they’ve been duped by demonic powers to do so. However, there’s another layer to this: the Archons think they’re doing this of their own free will, but in the Gospel of Philip, it’s all being orchestrated to lead to their downfall!

Consider this passage:

The rulers thought they did all they did by their own power and will, but the Holy Spirit was secretly accomplishing all through them by the Spirit’s will.

And this passage:

Evil forces serve the saints, for they have been blinded by the Holy Spirit into thinking they are helping their own people when really they are helping the saints.

This is all, according to the text, part of a masterful plan, so brilliantly executed that the Archons don’t even understand that they’re the ones being manipulated!


The Root of All Evil

How, then, do the Archons still hold such sway over us? Is it our sinfulness, our impurity, our immorality or vices? Not at all, according to the author of the Gospel of Philip. Evil survives and the demonic powers hold sway over us because we are ignorant of it. The text argues:

It will be uprooted if we recognize it. But if we are ignorant of it, it takes root in us and produces fruit in our hearts. It dominates us. We are its slaves, and it takes us captive so that we do what we do not want to do and do not do what we want. It is powerful because we do not recognize it.

The solution, then, is knowledge. Gnosis. We remain imprisoned because of our ignorance– as the text later notes, “ignorance is the mother of all evil. Ignorance leads to death… the word says, ‘if you know the truth, the truth will make you free‘. Ignorance is a slave, knowledge is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruit of truth within us. If we join with it, it will bring us fulfillment.” blindfold statue

So, therein lies one of several challenges and calls to action at the core of the Gospel of Philip. What lies, demonic and oppressive as if placed upon us by the Archons themselves, have we been believing and calling good? What willful ignorance have we been implanting in our minds, which cause us to feel justified to others but in reality leave us enslaved? What truth needs to be known, that we may be made free?

I hope you enjoyed the post! There’s a lot packed in here, and the Gospel of Philip is dense with so much more. There is tons more to cover. If you’re interested in learning more about the Valentinians and specifically this text, perhaps start with my post about Valentinian thoughts on baptism. Thanks for your feedback and comments!

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