"Are you a good demon, or a bad demon?"
It’s a take so edgy, it dates back to the 1st century AD. “Bruh, what if I told you God is a tightwad killjoy and the devil is actually a tragic hero?” The Western mind has never been more than a bong hit away from mistaking this minor absurdity for a shattering insight.
Most recently, Amazon Prime has released a variation on the theme called Hazbin Hotel, in which the daughter of Lucifer and Adam’s mythical first bride, Lilith, fights on behalf of hell’s demons for redemption. Or something. Whatever. People have been grinding out remakes of this particular fanfic since the days when they had to do it on papyrus.
The shelf life of Gnosticism is unmatched among heresies. Its contempt for the body and the material world has crept its way back into our psyches in the age of fillers, filters, and hormone injections. “Every day I wake up and I’m subject to the burden of embodiment” is a sentence that could easily be from the Apocryphon of John. In fact it’s from TikTok.
If you have ever experienced symptoms such as discomfort in any part of your body, dissatisfaction with the effects of aging, failure to transcend time and space, and the horror of approaching death, Gnosticism has a cure—or at least a diagnosis. Its central conceit is the one at the heart of Amazon’s trailer for Hazbin Hotel: God, or the entity we have been taught to call God, is actually a meanie weeny poopy-head (I’m translating a bit loosely from the Greek here). That is why he locked you away in this gross mortal body with all its wrinkles and farting.
It often follows that Lucifer, the rebel angel, was just misunderstood. “He was a dreamer with fantastical ideas for all of creation,” goes the Amazon version, “but he was seen as a troublemaker by the elders of Heaven.” In the cache of texts uncovered at Egypt’s Nag Hammadi library, we find this “God-actually-wants-to-ruin-your-fun” motif developed at tiresome length.
The “jealous God” of the Bible is portrayed in the Gnostic apocrypha as a petty, domineering impostor whose real name is “Yaldabaoth.” (This “fake God” idea probably goes back even further, perhaps to the days when the ancient Egyptians made a mockery of the Jewish faith). This evil demiurge felt the need to pose as the sole and supreme creator so as to disguise his “thoughtlessness” in assigning “demons” to encase the human spirit in limbs and flesh. It’s his fault, not ours, that we live in this world of sin.
That was the secret knowledge, the gnosis, that the erudite initiates of the Gnostic faith were supposed to possess. It is a story that has now been done absolutely to death. If it ever really was a closely guarded secret, it certainly isn’t now that Philip Pullman has re-hashed it almost point for point in the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s version was at least well done. But that was the ’90s. There have been movies and streaming adaptations already. Do we really need yet more of this?
Yes, apparently—because it turns out Gnosticism never entirely loses its allure. It’s an almost irresistible sales pitch: the secret knowledge, the one neat trick, that can get you in with the cool kids and set you free from the hall monitors all at once. Though when you take the DIY kit home and rip off the splashy new packaging, you find it’s just warmed-over heresy and adolescent “f*** you, dad” energy. Not exactly as advertised on T.V.
We’ve been over all these issues before—for centuries in fact—but they’re coming back now because we know exactly nothing and we believe we thought of everything ourselves. Other heresies are enjoying a reboot right at the moment, too—Pelagianism, for instance, and Marcionism—as is paganism, and all for the same reason: the West has nowhere to go “after” Christianity. We can only revert to old distortions and diminutions of our ancestral faith, with the added ignorance of failing to realize that we’re doing so. All this is far less shocking or provocative than it is tedious and pitiful.
Rebellion is inherently exciting—to teenagers. That’s part of Gnosticism’s enduring appeal. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” says Milton’s Satan. There’s a stubborn perversity that chafes even at perfect order and contentment, because they are perfect—because they need nothing from us, because we didn’t create them. William Blake famously thought Milton himself, retired insurrectionist that he was, felt the attractiveness of that Satanic defiance intensely.
But as C.S. Lewis masterfully argued, Satan’s claim to rakish insouciance turns out to be a massive cope. This is one of the main reasons why he cannot repent:
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc'd
With other promises and other vaunts
Than to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
Under what torments inwardly I groane (4.73-88).
To save face among the fallen angels whom he has led disastrously to perdition, Satan pretends his uprising was noble and justified. But in solitude he confesses that his existence has become one desperate free-fall from misery into misery. Rebellion for its own sake—against things that can only bring us joy, against good itself—is illogic in its essence and a massive self-own. Whatever dashing new image Satan may plaster over his ancient error, beneath it all he is a self-destructive worm.
And above all, despite the endlessly recycled cachet and excitement that often attaches to his exploits, Satan’s rebellion always turns out to be unspeakably monotonous and dull. The whole thing is rather like a supposedly daring and original cartoon on Amazon that’s actually just a 2,000-year retread.
Simone Weil wrote that “imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” If anything needs rebelling against, it’s our arid and exhausted culture, in which iconoclasm has become perhaps the most tired establishment trope of all. It plays on our real longing for adventure but domesticates it by feeding us banal drivel in the name of corporate profit.
The only true and genuinely thrilling rebellion is and always has been against Gnosticism—against the cold austerities of a self-congratulating, over-clever intellectualism—and for life—life embodied and immediate, rich and dramatic, marred by sin but created good.
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