What is reality? You probably think that it’s comprised of your body, what exists physically, and other tangible things like the inevitability of death. You may also find the Christian ideas of resurrection, spirit, and truth to be illusory– perhaps to be believed, but not able to be grasped as “real”. However, some early Christian writers– like the Valentinian author of The Treatise on Resurrection — held the opposite view.

Those Christians considered the physical and material world to be illusory, and spirituality to be what is “real”. Central to this idea was the presentness of resurrection and its implications for achieving spiritual peace. What did this author mean by resurrection? Why was he skeptical of the reality of the material world? And what did he think this meant for the Christians of his time? It all starts, according to the Treatise on Resurrection, by understanding when Jesus died!

Reality and Knowledge in the Treatise on Resurrection

When Did Christ Die?

When asked when Jesus died, you probably answered, “at his crucifixion”. However, for the author of this text, that is incorrect. The Treatise argues that death is not something that merely occurs at the end of life; rather, it is an essential quality of the world, of the “law of nature, which I call death”. The very fact that we are physical and material creatures means, in some very real sense, that we are already dead– what we call “life” is really the process of dying, and we– just like every other living (and even non-living) material thing– are fundamentally condemned to death and destruction.

The very thing we call “life”, then, is false– in reality, it is death. Christ, for the author of the Treatise, preexisted in a realm above death as “from above, a seed of truth” who existed “before the structure of the world, with all its dominions and deities, came into being”.  By living as a human, 

“[He] embraced both aspects, humanity and divinity, so that by being a son of God he might conquer death, and by being a son of humanity fullness might be restored”

What does this mean for us? The author of the Treatise thought that Paul showed the way.

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We Must Swallow Death

The Treatise on Resurrection calls Christ “Death’s Destroyer”. It claims that the savior “swallowed death”. He consumed it, while inside of it. He laid aside the perishable world and exchanged it for “an incorruptible eternal realm”.  As the treatise eloquently claims:

He arose and swallowed the visible through the invisible, and thus he granted us the way to our immortality.

The Treatise argues that we must partake in this act of resurrection. It references Paul, such as Romans 8:17, Ephesians 2:4-6, and Colossians 2:12 and 3:1-3, in arguing that “we suffered with him [Christ], we we arose with him, we ascended with him”. Note the tense– past tense, ascended.

The immortality that this text speaks of isn’t future oriented– it’s not talking about having your flesh be reanimated in the future and you turning into a zombie– according to the Treatise on the Resurrection, fleshly resurrection isn’t really resurrection. Rather “resurrection of the soul (the psyche) and the resurrection of the flesh” are swallowed by the “resurrection of the spirit”. The immortality this letter speaks of isn’t of something occurring in the future after your physical death, but actually about your past and your present. Therefore, you must “believe in it… [and] find it”.

How can this be, you may ask? First, understand that for these Christians, your physical existence is illusory– which you essentially must exist beyond the material world.


You Preexisted Reality

For the author of The Treatise on Resurrection, the material world is “insignificant”– it came into being, and it will fade away. Your relationships, your job and your possessions, your very body– are of these are fleeting and will pass. However, the spiritual world underlying reality– the “Fullness” or “Pleroma”– is eternal and will never perish, nor will that which belongs to it.

Says the author:

The system of the Fullness is strong; what broke loose and became the world is insignificant. What is held fast is the All. It did not come into being. It was.

What about us, then? We are encouraged not to worry about our body– it is nothing but corruption. We ought to prefer “what animates the flesh”– spirit, pneuma– over the flesh, itself. Our bodies will die, and the visible parts of it will not be saved– only the spiritually alive but invisible parts inside of us will survive.

The text argues that we did not begin to exist once our flesh did, but we “took on flesh” when we were born. This has two implications: first, that our bodies are not essentially us, and we ought not be overly concerned about them; second, that just as we received bodies when we entered this world, we will receive new bodies when we enter into the spiritual world.


Resurrection Is For Today

Like the Secret Book of James, The author of the Treatise on Resurrection challenges us to be bold. We should “not get lost in details”, nor should we focus on our fleshly lives or fleeting reality “for the sake of harmony” with the condemned world we find ourselves in. Our mortal bodies already know they are dead, according to the Treatise, so we must be driven by our spirits if we are to find peace. As the text says, “why not look at yourself and see that you already have arisen and have been received?”

As a parting thought, I leave you with this poem entitled “Reality and Illusion” from the Treatise on Resurrection :

What am I telling you?

All at once the living die.

How do they live in illusion?

The rich become poor,

kings are overthrown,

everything changes.

The world is illusion.

Let me not speak so negatively.

The resurrection is different.

It is real,

it stands firm.

It is revelation of what is,

A transformation of things,

A transition into newness.

Incorruptibility [flows] over corruption,

light flows over darkness, swallowing it,

Fullness fills what it lacks.

These are symbols and images of resurrection.

This brings goodness.

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