Saint Anselm (1033-1109), bishop, philosopher and theologian, made an ontological assertion of God’s existence: “God is that greater than which cannot be conceived.”[i] This description of God as something inconceivable is not far from the Buddhist indescribable and inconceivable ultimate nature.
The Bible begins with God’s creation of heaven and earth in Genesis, telling us that, “God said: ‘Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that is was good; and he divided the light from the darkness.”[ii]
Later in the Bible John reveals that, “In him (God) was life, and the life was the light of men.”[iii] Then we are told that there was a man, John, who came “to bear witness to the light,” and this light ”was the true light that enlightens every man.”[iv]
Through John we also learn that, “God is light,”[v] and that “God is love.”[vi] In this way, John gives testimony of God’s nature by both explaining that the light is in God and that God is light ‘himself.’ This sounds a lot like the inconceivable light of love that is experienced in the near-death experience, and I believe that we are talking about the same thing here—that God is the source of the light. If God is not the nature of the light, then at least the light is part of God’s nature.
The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying, “We came from the light, the place where the light came into being of its own accord and established itself…We are its children.”[vii] As children of divine light created in God’s image, we also have the image of God within us: “He (Jesus) said to them…There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world.”[viii]
In Beyond Belief Elaine Pagels explains that the big difference between The Gospel of John and The Gospel of Thomas is whether or not we have the image of God within us. John continuously reminds us that we (the people) cannot “recognize,” or “receive” the true light, and this was why Jesus came to tell us about it.[ix] Thereby, to those people “who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”[x]
Pagels tells us that what John’s gospel does, and has persuaded the majority of Christians to do, is that “only by believing in Jesus can we find divine truth.”[xi] She then says that Thomas’ gospel on the other hand describes a Jesus that “directs each disciple to discover the light within.”[xii] Rather than John’s “whoever does not come to me walks in darkness,” Thomas lets Jesus reveal that, “The Kingdom is inside of you,”[xiii] and that, “You are from the kingdom, and to it you shall return.”[xiv]
The conflict between John and Thomas is clearly whether or not we can realize God, or the light, by ourselves. With John it is only through Jesus that we can find God, whereas in Thomas’ gospel we find the Kingdom of God within all of us. This is the difference between creating followers or independent individuals.
Thomas’ Jesus also says that, “When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”[xv] While John focuses on the need for the disciples to believe in the name of Jesus, Thomas’ gospel clearly directs the disciples to find God for themselves, as they too, are sons of the father.
In the near-death experience we find evidence to support the view of Thomas’ Jesus that the father lives within us all. Kenneth Ring calls this the experience of “being inwardly close to God,” and he explains that near-death experiencers are more likely to shift in the direction of “God is within.”[xvi] One account testifies that, “Everything that exists has the essence of God within it,” and another tells us that, “I think that God is in every one of us; we are God.”[xvii]
Finding the light within is what the East has been teaching long before the Bible was put together.
Before we looked at the descriptions of the Bhagavadagita, which said that, “I am the self…I am mind among the sense. I am consciousness in (living) beings.”[xviii] This was the answer to the search for the source—the origin of the gods—which is the “creator of all things,” and “lord of the universe.”
The Anugita explains further that it is “by consciousness of self one enjoys the qualities; and thus [through] the source of all entities, the producer” that we come to know the creator of all things.[xix]
The Bible does have descriptions that share similarity with this view: “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”[xx] And if we go back to the Old Testament, when God reveals himself to Moses on Mount Sinai we are told who God is: “I AM WHO AM…HE WHO IS.”[xxi] In the footnote it is revealed that this I am who am means: “I am being itself.”[xxii]
Still the Bible does not take us as far as I would like to go, which is why I find the Gnostic Scriptures so interesting. In The Sophia [Wisdom] of Jesus Christ, the text tells us that after Jesus rose from the dead, his twelve disciples and seven women were perplexed about “the underlying reality of the universe.”[xxiii]
In The Sophia Jesus tells his 19 disciples that,
While they have inquired about God, who he is and what he is like, [they] have not found him…their speculation has not reached the truth…none is close to the truth, and they are from man. But I, who came from Infinite Light, I am here – for I know him [Light].[xxiv]
The disciples ask for further clarification, and Jesus continues, “The Father is the beginning or principle of what is visible… the beginningless Forefather.”[xxv] Phillip then asks how God appears to humans, and Jesus answers: “Before anything is visible, the majesty and the authority are in him, since he embraces the whole of the totalities, while nothing embraces him. For he is all mind.”[xxvi]
Then Jesus goes on to explain how creation appeared from mind:
In the beginning, thought and thinkings appeared from mind…And from what was created, what was fashioned appeared. And what was formed appeared from what was fashioned…And after everything, all that was revealed appeared from this power.[xxvii]
This interpretation of the nature of God is very modern and can be fit into our scientific understanding of the universe today. God as the principle of creation is very much like the search for what was before the big bang in science, and if we think of this principle being of mind as energy we can relate it to quantum physics and the study of consciousness.
Pagels lets us know that in Valentinian Gnosticism, God was “understood as the ultimate source of all being…an invisible incomprehensible primal principle.”[xxviii] Here she also refers to Protestant theologian Paul Tillich who talks about a “God beyond God.” This God beyond God is the true nature of God as the “ground of being” that underlies all our concepts and images.[xxix]
Thereby, Pagels concludes that, “Achieving gnosis (knowledge) involves coming to recognize the true source of divine power – namely, ‘the depth’ of all being.”[xxx] Here I see this “depth” and “ground of being” as fitting with the mind, consciousness, or the self. It is clear that if God is being itself—I am—then the true nature of God can only be found through realizing our true self, and not through others who tell us who or what God is.
To envision God beyond our literal interpretation is the way out of fundamentalism, and I believe that expanding our view of God as the ground of being can help us along in this direction. A modern understanding of God as consciousness, with the path to God seen as knowledge of the self, seems much more peaceful and aligned with the light on the other side than the fundamentalism many still practice today.
That God is fully knowable and that his words have been correctly interpreted in any book shows a lack of humility. The universe is beyond our understanding, and as Buddhism tells us, the ultimate reality is indescribable. We also find that the dimension of the near-death experience is beyond our comprehension.
The point in self-knowledge is that only we can realize our own true nature. No one can tell us our own truth; we have to find it by ourselves. The Bhagavadagita says of self-knowledge: “Neither the gods nor the demons understand your manifestation. You only know yourself by yourself.”[xxxi]
In her foreword to The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels quotes the Gnostic teacher Monoimus as saying the same thing.
Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.”[xxxii]
[i] Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 284,
[ii] The Holy Bible, New Catholic Version, Old Testament., Genesis, 1:3-4.
[iii] Holy Bible, New Testament, John, 1:4.
[iv] Holy Bible, NT, John, 1:9.
[v] Ibid, 1 John 1:5.
[vi] Ibid, 1 John 4:16.
[vii] Robinson, The Gospel of Thomas, 50, The Nag Hammadi Library, 132.
[viii] Robinson, The Gospel of Thomas, 24, The Nag Hammadi Library, 129.
[ix] Holy Bible, NT, John, 1:10-11.
[x] Holy Bible, NT, John, 1:12.
[xi] Pagels, Beyond Belief, 67.
[xii] Pagels, Beyond Belief, 68.
[xiii] Robinson, The Gospel of Thomas, 3; The Nag Hammadi Library, 126.
[xiv] Pagels, Beyond Belief, 68.
[xv] Robinson, The Gospel of Thomas, 3; The Nag Hammadi Library, 126.
[xvi] Ring, Heading Towards Omega, 152.
[xvii] Ring, Heading Towards Omega, 151.
[xviii] Telang, The Bhagavadagita, Chapter X, 89.
[xix] Telang, The Bhagavadagita; The Anugita, Chapter XXVII, 335.
[xx] Holy Bible, Ephesians 4:6.
[xxi] The Holy Bible, New Catholic Version, Exodus, 3:14.
[xxii] The Holy Bible, New Catholic Version, Exodus, 3:14, footnote.
[xxiii] Robinson, The Sophia of Jesus; The Nag Hammadi Library, 222.
[xxiv] Ibid, 223.
[xxv] Ibid, 227.
[xxvi] Ibid, 225.
[xxvii] Ibid, 230.
[xxviii] Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 32.
[xxix] Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 33.
[xxx] Ibid, 37.
[xxxi] Telang, The Bhagavadagita, Chapter X, 88.
[xxxii] Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, xix-xx.