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Which Came First: Chaos or Order?

Is the world in greater chaos now than any other time in my life? Is chaos the natural and original state of being?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Celestial Light Over a Darkened Landscape

I wonder about the necessity of chaos and violence frequently. The political scene in the US, the war imposed on Ukraine, the rapid changes in the climate, confusion about AI and mental health—these are the contemporary indications that chaos could just be the innate state of humanity. But, on the other hand, people keep seeking peace and healing. The beauty of nature reminds me of a world of wonder right at my fingertips.

Most humans pray for peace.

Which came first—chaos or order? Or, we could ask, what is our default situation? If it were true that the original state of being was peace and order, then we should be able to return to our natural, peaceful, state. But if chaos is a better indicator of our origins, then we could find ourselves in perpetual disorder.

I’m intrigued with the opening of an ancient Christian text from the Nag Hammadi Library, known as On the Origin of the World, because it does claim that peace is the primordial state of humanity. The (unknown) author writes:

Since everyone, both the gods of the world and people, says that nothing existed before chaos, I shall prove they are all wrong, because they do not know the origin of chaos or its root. Here is the proof. . . . Let us consider the facts of the matter, and particularly what was in the beginning, from which chaos came. In this way will the truth be clearly demonstrated (97,98).

Creation as an act of chaos and violence

I will describe the author’s ‘proof’ in a moment, but we should first take a look at what the “gods of the world and people” have said about chaos. Walter Wink, a renowned theologian, draws a direct link from a very ancient (13th-century BCE) Babylonian myth to our present attraction to violence. It depicts creation as an act of violence.

In the beginning, according to the Babylonian myth, Apsu, the father god, and Tiamat, the mother god, give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them so they can sleep. The younger gods uncover the plot before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu. His wife, Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.

Terrified by Tiamat, the rebel gods turn for salvation to their youngest member, Marduk. He negotiates a steep price: if he succeeds, he must be given chief and undisputed power in the assembly of the gods. Having extorted this promise, he catches Tiamat in a net, drives an evil wind down her throat, shoots an arrow that bursts her distended belly and pierces her heart. He then splits her skull with a club and scatters her blood in out-of-the way places. He stretches out her corpse full-length, and from it creates the cosmos. (Wink, Powers That Be, 45)

According to this myth, evil precedes good, and the most violent god takes over all the power. Therefore violence would appear to be the innate means by which humans maintain order.

So this second-century perspective from On the Origin of the World would have appeared in stark contrast to this much older myth. This author’s confidence in the origin of peace is worth thinking about. His argument is laid out plainly:

In actuality, chaos comes from a shadow, and it is the shadow that has been called darkness. The shadow comes from something that has existed from the beginning, and so it is obvious that something in the beginning existed before chaos came into being, and chaos came after what was in the beginning (98).

What existed from the beginning, before a shadow could appear, was the world of immortals that came from “the infinite” (98). The shadow that followed was called “limitless chaos” (98) and then became visible. The argument against chaos hinges on the concept of the infinite.  As the author explains,

The aeon of truth has no shadow within it because infinite light shines everywhere within it. There is a shadow, however, outside it. (98)

Light and peace from the beginning

These are mind-bending ideas here, but there is more logic with this argument than in the mythological threat to kill the frolicking young gods for being too noisy. In several other second-century texts, we have considered the meaning of ‘aeon’ more like a level of consciousness than the common use of the word indicating a very long period of time.

It makes sense to consider that the consciousness of truth would have no shadow in it because the light of truth would always be present. If there were such a thing as a shadow, or falsity, it could not reside within the consciousness of truth.

The ‘shadow’ outside the reality of infinitude is well-named because it contains no substance of its own. It only indicates that a real substance exists somewhere else. It would have to be outside. But, of course, what could be outside the realm of infinitude?

The answer to this question is where the second-century text picks up its myth too. Nothing of lasting consequence or substance could actually exist outside the realm of the infinite because that would render the infinite finite. But a dream, or false sense of something, could exist outside the range of truth, and that shadow (dream) is where the myth of chaos plays out.

The myth of the shadow features Yaldabaoth, the chief creator of chaos, who becomes arrogant and claims he is the only god. But when he discovers the light in the reflection of the waters, he became ashamed and “knew for certain that an enlightened, immortal human existed before him [and] he was greatly disturbed” (107).

Peace at the beginning and the end

According to the author of On the Origin of the World, the solution to chaos lies in the primal authority of the truth, or light that destroys chaos.

The immortal Father knows that the deficiency of truth (aka ‘chaos’) came to be among the aeons and their world (aka consciousness of mortals). So . . . he sent the blessed little innocent spirits, who are like you. . . . They are the immortal within the mortal, and they will condemn the gods of chaos and their powers (123-125).

I am more impressed with the ‘default situation’ of On the Origin of the World than of perpetual chaos and violence. Peace rests on the logic of the infinitude of good, or truth. The stability and permanence of order relies on an intelligent creator who is not weakened or defeated by a ‘shadow’ of chaos. And finally, the “blessed little innocent spirits” have the authority to come to our current life situations and condemn the “gods of chaos and their powers”—or, the shadow (124, 125).

Interestingly enough, this depiction of primordial peace is also consistent with the numerous reports and studies on Near Death Experiences (NDEs). The vast majority report peace and light. We have reason to consider now that chaos is actually a shadow, giving way to the peace and light that define both our origins and conclusions.