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Nag Hammadi and Quantum Physics: Consciousness and the Ultimate Reality

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Human Consciousness Graphic

As strange as it may sound, I think both quantum physicists and scholars of extracanonical writings draw radically similar conclusions regarding the function and meaning of the universe.  I am not a physicist, but I am relatively comfortable in the realm of second-century writings that relate to Jesus in some way.

The Secret Revelation of John, one of the most important writings from the Nag Hammadi collection, includes the author’s detailed understanding of reality, creation, human existence, and what we might call the ‘ultimate reality.’ This elaborate explanation was necessary for explaining ‘salvation’— or solving human problems.

Modern-day quantum physicists focus on the way the universe works also. They don’t seek salvation, but their experiments are designed to lead them to truth, or we what we might also term the ‘ultimate reality.’

Strangely similar conclusions

With thousands of years between these two systems of thought and entirely different goals driving their investigations, they tend to arrive at remarkably similar conclusions. The Secret Revelation of John—probably quite well known in its day—competed with other groups of Jesus followers who focused on the personhood of a saving Messiah (Jesus). Quantum mechanics emerged amid a nearly universal acceptance of classical mechanics, with its focus on the definite knowledge of matter in space and time. But systems of thought point to the role of consciousness as the foundational reality. Here is a striking comparison.

A comparison between the Secret Revelation of John and quantum physics

In its simplest and most relevant statement, quantum physics says, “Nothing is real unless it is observed.”

This is almost exactly the same language used in the Secret Revelation of John to explain how creation occurs. Here, the author says the One Mind (God) who is all loving and all-powerful causes existence through thinking—or we could say, ‘observing.’

It gazes upon Its image, seeing it in the spring of the Spirit, …And its thinking became a thing. (Secret Revelation of John, transl. King, 6:11-13).

This powerful and loving Spirit, understood as ‘God,’ creates all true existence through its Mind-self. God’s thinking creation into existence presents humanity with the foundational reality of health, freedom, dominion, and joy.

As in quantum physics, the reader of the Secret Revelation of John is invited to admit that the knowledge of reality will not come from the human senses or experience. It will appear only from the source of infinite consciousness, or the ‘Father.’

The challenge of consciousness as the foundation

Admittedly, the idea of consciousness as the foundation for everything challenges the deeply rooted worldviews of most Western educated people today. But this is worth pondering because it breaks open the possibility of living with freedom and liberates us from victimization.

This description of creation from the Secret Revelation of John is often referred to as myth, designed to make theological points. The truth claims in the modern study of quantum mechanics are equally challenging but scientifically more secure.

The fact that the Secret Revelation of John and quantum mechanics operate on the same premise of reality means that modern readers generally need to make a shift in the way they learn or evaluate things. It requires a new worldview with a presumption of foundational consciousness. The Secret Revelation of John identifies it as a divine, or single-sourced, consciousness, and quantum physics remains more ambiguous about its source.

Helpful resources from scientists 

Several renowned scientists have provided important and helpful videos for the public that explain how and why we should take seriously the idea that consciousness does not arise from the brain. This interview with Professor Donald Hoffman is a good example.

Johanan Raatz “Quantum Physics Debunks Materialism” also provides a logical explanation for the move from so-called physical reality to consciousness-based reality. Here are some key points:

  • ‘Realism’ claims that a physical reality exists independent of observation. By contrast, ‘idealism’ claims that reality is a mental construct, and physical reality doesn’t exist independent of observation.
  • When materialism was believed to be the reality, matter was thought to be tiny particles that exist independent of our observation. 
  • However, as Anton Zeilinger argued in 2007, we have the most compelling evidence yet that there is no objective reality beyond what we observe. It’s the observation that creates the reality. “We have to give up the idea of realism to a far greater extent than most physicists believe today.”*

While the Secret Revelation of John is the classic text from the Nag Hammadi Library that spells out this kind of worldview, many others from this collection do so in a similar manner. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, refers to ‘the kingdom’ rather often. But those references don’t make much sense unless you translate the word ‘kingdom’ as ‘consciousness’. ‘Kingdom’ tends to imply a royal place for God to abide, but ‘consciousness’ indicates the intelligent reality.

Examples from the Gospel of Thomas

A traditional reading of Saying 3 in the Gospel of Thomas would be like this:

The kingdom is inside of you and outside of you.” (Gospel of Thomas, 3)

If we read consciousness instead of kingdom, then the translation would be clearer:

The consciousness (or ‘presence’) is inside of you and outside of you.

Another example from the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 27, translated traditionally would be:

If you do not abstain from the world, you will not find the kingdom. (Gospel of Thomas, 27)

But again, substituting ‘consciousness’ for ‘kingdom’ makes more sense:

If you do not abstain from the time-space concepts of the world, you will not find consciousness (or Ultimate Reality).

We are living in a remarkable time when the once unthinkable may have come upon us. It is possible that religion and science could proclaim together ‘the Ultimate Reality.’

* Anton Zeilinger, “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality,” Physicsworld.com, April 20, 2007. Quote from Zeilinger from writeup in NewScientist, 23 June 2007.