Darkness and Light in John’s Gospel

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from: The Gospel of John and his Letters, by John Wijngaards,
Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1980, pp. 46-61.

John adapted his Gospel to Hellenistic thinking in opposites: light and darkness, above and below, life and death. This was given an extreme interpretation by Gnostic teachers.


The Night

“One of you will betray me”, Jesus had said, with great sorrow. Judas sat up and looked at Jesus. Was the master going to expose him? But Jesus did no such thing. He stretched out his hand, took a morsel of bread, dipped it in the herbal sauce and gave it to Judas. An ordinary gesture of oriental hospitality, the significance of which was grasped only by Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved”. For Judas it was a chance to reconsider, a warning, a challenge perhaps. But Judas looked at Jesus, took the morsel – and hardened his heart. “As soon as he took the morsel of food Satan entered into him” (John 13, 27). Then Jesus urged Judas to leave. He went outside and “it was night” (John 13, 30).

Outside the cenacle it was night indeed.The high priest and other religious leaders were making final arrangements for Jesus’ arrest and trial. All the injustices, all the hatred, all the violence mankind has committed in its history, came to a head in an orgy of spite and malice. The darkness of sin covering mankind would show its true face, revealing the full horror of its brutality in the murder of this innocent man. It was the night when it looked as if the powers of evil would finally gain the upper hand: by destroying the only person able to dethrone them.

When Jesus rose, the night of terror ended (John 20, 1). His ultimate victory was assured (John 16, 33). But the image of the night, of the world of darkness, still holds its validity for us today. In John’s eyes many people still “walk in darkness” and as Christians we can only stay in God’s love by remaining constantly aware of the threat that darkness might trap and engulf us too. To understand this image and its meaning for today will be the purpose of this chapter.

Prophetic Judgement

As we shall see presently, John derived the imagery of the dark world from the Hellenistic circles he was trying to convert. Jesus himself did not employ it; at least not habitually. Once or twice we find him speaking about “the children of this world” (Luke 16, 8; 20, 34) but this in no way deviated from rabbinical usage at his time. Much closer to the Johannine imagery was Jesus’ judgment on his contemporaries. He often called them “an evil generation” (Matthew 12, 45; Luke 11, 29), “an adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8, 38), “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 17, 17). Even the simple expression “this generation” always implies criticism and disapproval (Mark 8, 2; 13, 30; Matthew 11, 16; 12, 41-42; 23, 36 and par.).

Also, here it is not the language that distinguishes Jesus from the rabbis in his time. They too would deplore the faults of “this generation.” Moses’ indictment of his contemporaries: “they are a perverse and crooked generation” (Dt 32, 5-20), were known to all. But Jesus’ criticism had a new urgency and a new meaning. He had come to call people to faith and repentance. What he found was hardness of heart and unbelief. The people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South, examples of those who sincerely seek God, will condemn this generation (Matthew 12, 41-42). This generation are like children in the market place unwilling to join in, whether a mourning song is played to them or a tune for dancing (Matthew 11, 16-19). Their lack of firm commitment makes them like a possessed man who rid himself of one evil spirit, but ended up with seven demons worse than the first (Matthew 12, 43-45). The people of this generation will come to grief like the people of Noah’s time or Lot’s time. They, too, did not heed warnings and kept enjoying themselves until disaster overcame them (Luke 17, 25-30). With such parables and biblical examples Jesus castigated unwillingness to repent and lack of response.

To what extent did Jesus’ word imply a general judgement on the sinful condition of the world? It is hard to say. Jesus acted and spoke in specific situations. His sermons were addressed to particular audiences in such rural townships as Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin (Matthew 11, 20-24). But there is in them a ring of wider connotations. When Jesus says he will disown any person “who will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8, 38), he seems to indicate an overall condition affecting the situation in the world. This seems also to be the implication of Peter’s words on Pentecost Day, when he is reported to have said: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2, 40). Jesus’ words thus carried the seed from which the more fully developed theology of John could grow.

Land of Opposition

The notion “world” (kosmos) occurs more often in John than in other New Testament writings. (1) It is thoroughly Hellenistic in origin and meaning, even though the rabbis developed a parallel Hebrew term for it.(2) Complex enough in classical Greek, it became even more so in Hellenistic Jewish parlance when it had undergone the influence of oriental cosmologies and mystery religions. Scholars discuss all the ramifications of meaning and how these could affect the interpretation of John’s Gospel. Such an approach in this book would confuse rather than help. I propose therefore to present a somewhat coherent picture of what the term meant for John, with references to contemporary Hellenistic literature where these prove helpful.

For John the world stands for the whole created universe. The world also contains the lower region of reality, which is distinct from God’s space, the region “above” (John 8, 23). Since human beings are the main occupants of the world, the term “world” can stand for “the whole of humanity”, the “human family”, “the world of people”. In this John follows ordinary Greek usage. As a believing Jew he knows the world to be intrinsically good, because God created it (John 1, 3-4). As a Christian he knows God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to save it (John 3, 17; 10, 36; 12, 47). The world cannot be bad in itself if Jesus is its saviour (John 4, 42) and its light (John 8, 12; 9, 5). No question therefore of Manichean dualism which places material reality in radical opposition to whatever is good and spiritual.

But, with the Hellenists of his time, John accepts that this world is immersed in a situation of sin. It was not just a way of speaking, or a metaphor. The Hellenists considered the area of sin very much in spatial terms. When they used the expression “this world”, in opposition to the world above or the world to come, it always denoted the realm of sin, the complicated network of human relationships where evil dominated. In John’s Gospel, too, we find the same expression “this world” with similar spatial and negative connotations (John 8, 23; 9, 39; 11, 9; 12, 25; 13, 1; 14, 30; 16, 11; 18, 36).

To get the feel of these negative connotations, it may be helpful to read what Mandaean Gnostic literature has to say about “this world”. We find for it the following descriptions: “the region where there is no ray of light; the dungeon of death; the black water; the world of the evil ones; the place that consists of sinners where envy and discord abound; the world of vices, full of delusion, deceit and fraud; the world of falsehood; the world that is worthless, with nothing that can be trusted; that useless abode, like a house ready to collapse; the realm of darkness . . . . ” (3) In other words: it is a place dominated by evil.

The Dark Grip of Death


The image of the world covered by sin is strengthened by another image, that of spatial darkness. We are not talking here of the kind of darkness so familiar to us which consists in a mere absence of light. No, darkness in these Hellenistic circles was considered an enveloping sphere that actively hindered movement and that posed a realistic threat. It is a power that one fears. It is related to that original, cosmic darkness feared by Gnostics. “After a while there was a down-bearing darkness which came on bit by bit; it was terrifying and hateful. It twisted and coiled down, it seemed to me, like a snake. Then the darkness changed into a wet substance, indescribably shaken, and it gave off smoke as from a fire. The darkness produced a kind of sound, continuous and inarticulate. Then it gave out a formless cry, which seemed like a voice of fire.” (4) In this vision darkness, the snake of evil, the cosmic ocean and

The image is scarcely less dramatic in John. Darkness and “this world” are closely connected. In fact, darkness is this world’s proper nature in which it flourishes.(5) In what is probably a reference to the struggle between good and evil in paradise, John comments: “The light shines on in the darkness for the darkness did not put it out” (John 1, 5). When Adam and Eve sinned, darkness had almost quenched all hope. But the light continued to shine in God’s promise of future salvation. It is the world of darkness that refused to believe in Jesus (John 7, 7; 15, 18). Because it is darkness, the world did not recognise him (John 1, 10), neither did it know his Father (John 17, 25) nor can it see the Spirit (14, 17). Many of the hard sayings in the Gospel become meaningful against this background. Jesus’ disciples do not belong to the world (John 15, 19; 17, 14; 17, 16). In as far as the world is the domain of darkness, Jesus refuses to pray for the world (John 17, 9). To the same extent we are warned that we cannot love the Father if we love the world. “For all that is in the world – the sinful desire of human nature, the sinful desire of the eyes and life full of pride -does not belong to the Father; all that belongs to the world” (1 John 2, 15-16). “To walk in darkness” means: to be part of that world, to be under its sway (John 8, 12; 12, 46; compare John 11, 10; 12, 35).

Because darkness is seen as an aspect of the spatial reality of “this world”, conversion can be described by Gnostics as a stepping out of the darkness into the light. “Come out of the darkness so that the light may receive you.” Leave the darkness; accept the light!” (6) In the same way Jesus can say: “Anyone who does evil deeds hates the light, and does not come near the light for fear his deeds will be exposed. But the one who acts in truth comes into the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds are done in God” (John 3, 20-21). “No one who believes in me need remain in darkness” (John 12, 46).

Christian Realism

How do these images apply to us? Do we, Christians of this twenty-first century, live in a dark world? I certainly believe we do. The imagery of John’s Gospel is eminently suited to give us a much needed awareness of evil. As I have stated before, the images do not say that the world itself, created as it is by God, is evil; or that we need to be in despair regarding the eventual victory of truth and love. The image means that, unfortunately, there is a lot of evil in society as well, because many people have voluntarily said “No” to God’s love. Sin is a reality. And we can only stay away from it by recognising it for what it is.

Being good people, we are sometimes naively inclined to project good intentions on the whole of society around us. For example, we may take for granted that the State in which we live is the epitome of virtue and goodness. For patriotic purposes an idealised picture may have been held out to us. Our constitution enshrines the noblest of human values . . . . Those in political power have only our welfare in mind . . . . The police defend our rights and soldiers are prepared to give their lives to protect our freedom . . . . We live in a paradise where hard work is rewarded and where all can live happily. Unfortunately, such a picture does not reflect reality. Many individuals fall short of the ideal: some politicians seek power at any cost; some police and judges are corrupt; some military leaders do not serve the cause of freedom but commercial interests. What is more, the very structure of our political State may enshrine vestiges of evil: discrimination against certain groups, ranking of power and money above religious values, public license for forms of exploitation.

I do not say that there are not many good values in our democratic societies. There are. Nor that many individual leaders do not mean well. Thanks be to God they do. What I do say is that as Christians we have to be at the same time realistically aware of the evil that is also there. This is, I believe, John’s message. As Christians we cannot naively identify with all the ideals of “this world”, of the society in which we live. We remain critically aware of its darkness and discover day by day how much it needs the light of Christ. The question remains: Will we always recognise the darkness? How can we know it as darkness? Here, too, John provides an answer.

Violence and Death

I mentioned before that the world of darkness is seen by John as the active opponent of God. This opposition shows itself in hatred. Again, we should not think here of a mere dislike, a human emotion however strong. Hatred, like darkness, is considered a cosmic force, the symptom that reveals the mystery of iniquity. As a demonic metaphysical power it raises its head against God and God’s plans for salvation. Gnostics looked forward to the day when “hatred will be taken away from the earth and overthrown.” (7) It is with this full import that John states the world hates Jesus.(8) In the words of Jesus: “If the world hates you, remember that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15, 18).Opposition to Jesus is opposition to his Father. “Hating me means hating my Father” (John 15, 23). This hatred is inexcusable because people have seen his good works (John 15, 24-25). The world’s hatred springs from its unwillingness to change. “Anyone who does evil hates the light” (John 3, 20). “The world hates me because I bring the proof that what it does is evil” (John 7, 7). Hatred is a distinguishing feature of the world, so much so that “the person who hates his brother is in the darkness” (1 John 2, 11). The world, darkness, and hatred are one of a kind .(9)

Hatred is out to destroy. “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3, 15). The hatred of the world found its actual expression in the determination of the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus. It runs as a refrain through the Gospel. “The Jews sought all the more to kill him” (John 5, 18). “The Jews looked for an opportunity to kill him” (John 7, 1; see also 7, 19-20.25; 8, 37. 40). “From that day on they made up their minds to kill him” (John 11, 53). Their determination to take his life brought them to hand him over to Pilate: “We are not allowed to put anyone to death” (John 18, 31), and to shout: “Crucify him!” (John 19, 15). The hatred of the world thus revealed its true nature in violence and murder.

How to Diagnose What is Wrong

It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that John had what we might call a pessimistic view of the world. The contrary is true. As we will see in later chapters, John holds out the most convincing reasons for profound joy and optimism. God is absolutely good. There is in him no shade of darkness (1 John 1, 5). The human family is so dear to God that his own Son became one of us (John 1, 14). Through his resurrection Jesus has won for us the unspeakable gifts of his kingdom: his peace, eternal life, abundance of joy, the presence of his Spirit. John presents good news, a message of liberation and hope.

It is here that John’s message differs from that of Gnostic teachers. They taught that the material world was in itself evil, that it had been created by an evil demiurge. Body, sex and marriage belonged to the realm of darkness and sin. But we can see how they could interpret John’s Gospel in such a radical way . . .

If we were to translate John’s image of the dark world that hated and killed Jesus into modern language, we might express its contents in this way: hatred is the disease of unredeemed humankind; and its symptom is violence. However much God created humanity good, and however much most people may mean well most of the time, our world is full of violence and injustice. We should be realistic about this and recognise it for the evil it is. Many people are murdered in cold blood. Whole nations and classes die of starvation and undernourishment through oppression by richer neighbours. There is the violence, whether physical or psychological, between husband and wife, between parents and their children, between men and women in every walk of life. That violence is the symptom that shows the evil that exists. To put it in John’s imagery: it shows up the hatred of a world still in darkness.

It is necessary for Christians to become sensitive to this presence of violence, for only then can we avoid it. “The person who claims to be in the light while hating brother or sister is still in the darkness all the time” (1 John 2, 9). Whoever thinks he or she is a good Christian while doing violence to another person, is outside the Kingdom. Just as we have to learn to discern the presence of the Kingdom by its distinctive features (see chapter John 17), so the occurrence of violence should immediately alert us to the presence of evil.

Every kind of violence, whether big or small and whatever form it takes, belongs to the unredeemed world that opposes God and his salvific plans. Every victim who suffers violence is somehow reflected in what happens to Jesus. “When I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12, 32). If we want to be part of the realm of light, we have to rid ourselves of violence and side with Christ.


(1) C

(2) Hâ ôlâm. For a full exposition of the term kosmos I recommend the study by H. SASSE in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) ed. G. KITTEL, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1965, Vol 111, pp. 868-895.

(3) H. ODEBERG, The Fourth Gospel, Grüner, Amsterdam 1974, pp.123-124.

(4) Poimandres, 4. Documents for the Study of the Gospel, ed. D.R. CARTLIDGE and D.L. DUNCAN, Collins 1980, p.244. chaos are all part of one and the same image! In Mandaean texts darkness is presented as an overpowering force which rages and howls, which forms destructive plans, which seeks to ensnare people and hold them in its grasp.

(5) R BULTMANN, Theology of the New Testament, SCM, London and Scribners, New York 1952, Vol 11, p.362.

(6) Acts of Thomas 28; Acts of Pilate 8,32. Cf. H. CONZELMANN, “skotos,” (TDNT VII) p.437.

(7) “Odes of Solomon 7,20; O. MICHEL, miseô, TDNT IV p.689.

(8) Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth was an old tradition (Mark 6,1-6; Matthew 13,53-58; Luke 4,16-30) which was also known to John (4,44). This rejection may well have become for John the prototype of all rejections Jesus suffered. G. REIM, “John IV.44 – Crux or Clue?”, New Testament Studies 22 (1976) 476-480. In the same way, the final expulsion of Christians from the Jewish Synagogue around 90 AD may have become for John the prime example of rejection by the world. This may explain why he virtually equates “the world” and “the Jews:” W. WEIFEL, “Die Scheidung von Gemeinde and Welt im ohannesevangelium auf dem Hintergrund der Trennung von Kirche and Synogoge”, Theologisches Zeitschrift 35 (1979) 213-227; A. YARBRO COLLINS, “Crisis and Community in John’s Gospel,” Theology Digest 27 (1979) 313-321.

9) The only time when “hatred” occurs in a more neutral sense is in John 12,25: “the man who hates his life in this world preserves it”. This may be due to its derivation from an Aramaic saying of Jesus. See the parallel in Luke 14,26. See also F.F. SEGOVIA, “The Love and Hatred of Jesus and Johannine Sectarianism,” Catbolic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981) 258-272.