The Light Shineth in Darkness: Dualism

On our way home the other day from Waterton Lakes National Park in South-Western Alberta my wife and I stopped in the village of Storthoaks, Saskatchewan to see what one of my best friends was doing there.

It turns out he decided that he was done living where he had been living, packed up very few belongings and left. Ended up Saskatchewan, fell into helping a guy do some work on a house, was going to get some money from there and then proceed to go to wherever it is that he decides to go to, leaving me to wonder just when I’m ever going to see him again.

During our long and various discussion(s) he mentioned something to the effect that the world was balanced, the whole dark/light dualism that we hear about from lapsed-Western Catholics/Protestants who upon leaving the West travel so far East they pass over the Eastern Orthodox Church and find themselves diving head-first into Oriental paganism. I mentioned that in Star Wars that may be the case, but in Christianity there is only Light, to which he countered quoting John 1:5, “the light shines in the darkness.”

I could see the faulty exegesis of his here; put unfairly simple, the verse mentions both light and darkness; hence you have yin/yang; he even mentioned the Tao somewhere along the line that afternoon. So let’s look at the correct understanding of John 1:5 for a moment as a preface to a long quote addressing duality specifically which I’ll end this post with.

John 1:5 in the Patriarchal Text reads: καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν. On this verse, the great Greek grammarian and Southern Baptist A.T. Robertson wrote:

5. Shineth (phainei). Linear present active indicative of phainō, old verb from phaō, to shine (phaos, phōs). “The light keeps on giving light.” In the darkness (en tēi skotiāi). Late word for the common skotos (kin to skia, shadow). An evident allusion to the darkness brought on by sin. In 2 Peter 2:17 we have ho zophos tou skotou (the blackness of darkness). The Logos, the only real moral light, keeps on shining both in the Pre-incarnate state and after the Incarnation. John is fond of skotia (skotos) for moral darkness from sin and phōs (phōtizō, phainō) for the light that is in Christ alone. In 1 John 2:8 he proclaims that “the darkness is passing by and the true light is already shining.” The Gnostics often employed these words and John takes them and puts them in the proper place. Apprehended it not (auto ou katelaben). Second aorist active indicative of katalambanō, old verb to lay hold of, to seize. This very phrase occurs in John 12:35 (hina mē skotia humas katalabēi) “that darkness overtake you not,” the metaphor of night following day and in 1 Thess. 5:4 the same idiom (hina katalabēi) is used of day overtaking one as a thief. This is the view of Origen and appears also in 2Macc. 8:18. The same word appears in Aleph D in John 6:17 katelabe de autous hē skotia (“but darkness overtook them,” came down on them). Hence, in spite of the Vulgate comprehenderunt, “overtook” or “overcame” seems to be the idea here. The light kept on shining in spite of the darkness that was worse than a London fog as the Old Testament and archaeological discoveries in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Crete, Asia Minor show.

A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2001), paragraph 5880.


and from the so-called “paleo-orthodox” Protestant compilation of Patristic comments edited by United Methodist Thomas C. Owen:

1:5a The Light Shines in the Darkness

THE LIGHT AND GIVER OF LIGHT. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA: The most wise Evangelist now expands the thought expressed above. . . . Not only is the Word of God indeed truly light, but he is also the giver of light to all whom he infuses with the light of understanding. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 1.7.

A BLIND PERSON CANNOT SEE THE SUN’S LIGHT. AUGUSTINE: But perhaps the foolish hearts cannot receive that light because they are so encumbered with sins that they cannot see it. Let them not on that account think that the light is in any way absent, because they are not able to see it. For they, because of their sins, are darkness. . . . For suppose, as in the case of a blind person placed in the sun, the sun is present to him, but he is absent from the sun. This is how every foolish person, every unjust person, every irreligious person is blind in heart. Wisdom is present, but it is present to a blind person and is absent from his eyes; not because it is absent from him but because he is absent from it. What then is he to do? Let him become pure, that he may be able to see God. TRACTATES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 1.19.

DARKNESS IS NOT AN IRREVOCABLE PART OF OUR NATURE. ORIGEN: People are not [darkness] by nature, since Paul says, “For we were once darkness but now are light in the Lord,” and this is especially the case if we are now called saints and spiritual. Just as Paul, although he was darkness, became capable of becoming light in the Lord, so may anyone who was once darkness. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 2.134.

CHRIST OVERCOMES OUR PRISON OF DARKNESS. ISAAC OF NINEVEH: Let us not be troubled when we are plunged into darkness, especially if we are not the cause of it ourselves. For this darkness is brought about by divine providence for reasons that are known only to God. Our soul becomes suffocated and placed, as it were, in the middle of a storm system. Even if someone tries to approach Scripture—or whatever he approaches, it is only darkness on darkness that he finds instead that causes him to give up. How often is it that he is not even allowed to approach. He is totally incapable of believing that any other possibilities are out there that might give him some peace again. It is an hour filled with despair and fear! The soul is utterly deprived of hope in God and the consolation of faith. It is entirely filled with doubt and fear.

But those who have been tested by the distress of such an hour know that in the end it is followed by a change. God never leaves the soul for a whole day in such a state, otherwise it would lose life and all Christian hope. . . . Rather, he allows it to emerge very soon from the darkness. Blessed is he who endures such temptations. For, as the Fathers say, great will be the stability and the strength to which he will come after that. This struggle will not be over all at once, however; neither will grace come and dwell in the soul completely at once, but gradually. After grace, the trial returns. Sometimes there is temptation, sometimes consolation. . . . We do not expect complete deliverance from it here, nor do we expect complete consolation. ASCETICAL HOMILY 48.

1:5b Darkness Does Not Overcome Light

DARKNESS DOES NOT PREVENT LIGHT FROM BEING SEEN. AMBROSE: The person who supposes that he is protected by the darkness is vain, since he cannot escape the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not. Accordingly, he is discovered like a fugitive and a wicked hireling and is recognized before he can conceal himself. For all things are known to the Lord before he seeks them out, not only past events but also those that are to come. THE PRAYER OF JOB AND DAVID 1.3.6.

THE LIGHT IS CHASED BY THE DARKNESS. GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS: The light shines in darkness, in this life and in the flesh, and is chased by the darkness but is not overtaken by it. By this I mean the adverse power leaping up in its shamelessness against the visible Adam but encountering God and being defeated—in order that we, putting away the darkness, may draw near to the Light and may then become perfect Light, the children of perfect Light. ON THE HOLY LIGHTS, ORATION 39.2.

DARKNESS GOES ON THE OFFENSIVE. ORIGEN: Christ, because of the benefit that follows for humankind, took our darkness on himself that by his power he might destroy our death and completely destroy the darkness in our soul so that what Isaiah said might be fulfilled: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”

This light, indeed, that was made in the Word, which also is life, “shines in the darkness” of our souls. It has come to stay where the world rulers of this darkness live. They by wrestling with the human race struggle to subject those who do not stand firm in every manner to darkness. He comes that, when they have been enlightened, they may be called children of light. And this light shines in the darkness and is pursued by it, but it is not overcome. . . .

The darkness pursued this light, as is clear from what our Savior and his children suffer. The darkness fighting against the children of light wanted to chase the light away. However, if “God is for us,” no one will be able to be “against us.” . . .

Now there are two ways that the darkness did not overcome the light. The darkness is either left very far behind it and, because it is slow, cannot keep up with the swiftness of the flight of light even to a limited extent, or, perhaps the light wanted to set an ambush for the darkness and awaited its approach and when the darkness drew near the light it was destroyed. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 2.166–70.

DARKNESS CANNOT COMPREHEND THE LIGHT. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA: “Darkness” is what John calls the nature that lacks illumination, that is, the whole originate nature. . . . For such a nature produces nothing on its own. Instead, it receives its whole being and well-being, such as it is, from its creator. This is why Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” And since, along with the rest, it receives its light from God, not possessing it on its own, it receives it. But that which does not have light of itself cannot be called anything but “darkness.” The fact that “the Light shines in darkness” is a credible demonstration (in fact, one following from very necessity) that the creation is “darkness” while the Word of God is “Light.” For if the nature of things originate receives the Word of God by participation, as Light, or as of Light, it receives it then since it is inherently darkness, and the Son “shines in it” as “the light” shines in “darkness,” even though the darkness has no idea of the light’s existence. For this, I suppose, is the meaning of “the darkness did not comprehend it.” For the Word of God shines upon all things that are receptive to his radiance and illumines without exception things that have a nature that is receptive to being illumined. But [the Word of God] is unknown by “the darkness.” For that which is the rational nature upon earth, I mean humanity, “served the creature more than the Creator: it did not comprehend the Light,” for it did not know the Creator, the fountain of wisdom, the beginning of understanding, the root of sense. Nevertheless, because of his love for humankind, things originate possess the light and are provided with the power of perception implanted concurrently with their passing into being. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 1.7.

THIS PROLOGUE SHOULD BE ENGRAVED IN GOLD IN EVERY CHURCH. AUGUSTINE: The old saint Simplicianus, afterwards bishop of Milan, used to tell me that a certain Platonist was in the habit of saying that this opening passage of the holy Gospel, entitled “According to John,” should be written in letters of gold and hung up in all churches in the most conspicuous place. CITY OF GOD 10.29.

Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1-10, ACCS 4a; ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 26-28.


It is evident then that the darkness St. John wrote about is not a thing in its suchness (Tathātā), not the yin part of the yin-yang symbol. But rather the darkness that St. John is referring to “indicates both spiritual ignorance and satanic opposition to the light,” as notes in The Orthodox Study Bible put it.

Showing that my friend’s exegesis was wrong doesn’t mean that his proposition wasn’t correct; however, it is in fact incorrect. And the following from the Anglican C.S. Lewis demonstrates this clearly,

A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless. There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of every thing, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market. But it has a catch in it.

The two powers, or spirits, or gods–the good one and the bad one–are supposed to be quite independent. They both existed from all eternity. Neither of them made the other, neither of them has any more right than the other to call itself God. Each presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy, and each backs its own view. Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other–like preferring beer to cider–or else we are saying that, whatever the two powers think about it, and whichever we humans, at the moment, happen to like, one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself as good. Now if we mean merely that we happen to prefer the first, then we must give up talking about good and evil at all. For good means what you ought to prefer quite regardless of what you happen to like at any given moment. If ‘being good’ meant simply joining the side you happened to fancy, for no real reason, then good would not deserve to be called good. So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right.

But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relation to the real ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to Him.

The same point can be made in a different way. If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons–either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it–money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. I do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong, way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong–only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him. In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted. It follows that this Bad Power, who is supposed to be on an equal footing with the Good Power, and to love badness in the same way as the Good Power loves goodness, is a mere bogy. In order to be bad he must have good things to want and then to pursue in the wrong way: he must have impulses which were originally good in order to be able to pervert them. But if he is bad he cannot supply himself either with good things to desire or with good impulses to pervert. He must be getting both from the Good Power. And if so, then he is not independent. He is part of the Good Power’s world. he was made either by the Good Power or by some power above them both.

Put it more simply still. To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must borrow or steal from his opponent. And do you now beg to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness. All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things-resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.

But I freely admit that real Christianity (as distinct from Christianity-and-water) goes much nearer to Dualism than people think. One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe–a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. (source)

Further listening: AFR – Christ the Eternal Tao

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