John’s Cosmic Reconstitution: Redemption as Overcoming Dualism

The human disease presents itself in a variety of oppositional dualities – darkness versus light, good versus evil, flesh versus spirit, such that the seeming cure would be in reconciling these differences. “Oppositional dualities,” however, are not “dualisms” in which the opposed pairs are equally real and stable and forever needing to be harmonized.  The Star Wars “dark” and “light” sides of the Force typify this Gnostic sort of dualism, in which evil is pictured as a competing reality with the good. In this world (cosmos), good and evil or life and death constitute a “reality” of struggling between opposed pairs. Life is consumed in an agonistic striving toward balance, but the illusion –  producing suffering and death, is that engaging the struggle more intensely is the means of resolving the struggle. This peace through war or life through death antagonism not only misconstrues the power and substance of war and death but loses life and peace in the process.  Simply stated, the human failing is to confuse reality with unreality, setting up an antagonistic struggle to the death. John’s Gospel, defines the cosmos of darkness through a series of oppositional dualities which are precisely not dualisms, as John will reduce and collapse one pole of the opposed pairs. In a closed cosmos (in which the cosmic reality is all encompassing) oppositional forces, in David B. Hart’s description, constitute “an economy, a cycle of creation and destruction, oscillating between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy: a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death.” Hierarchy, law, and sacrifice are aimed at warding off chaos through maintaining a rigid balance. In John, the Logos explodes this cosmos of darkness in that the light will penetrate and expose the darkness, life will defeat death, heaven will come to earth, and the children of the Devil will become the children of God. The evil, fleshly, world below is not an enduring autonomous reality but is exposed and defeated so that the apparent dualisms are exposed as mere oppositional dualities. 

Where a dualism is posited, reality and truth are not to be found on one side of the duality, as if all dualities reduce to truth versus falsehood.  Life, peace, goodness, and light, do not survive, either conceptually or as lived possibilities, when paired with death, violence, evil, and darkness. Where life is gained through death, where peace is the end product of war, where goodness is the counter to evil, and where light is apprehended through the darkness, the oppositional reality infects both poles of the duality.  The lie resides not in one of the opposed pairs but in the opposition itself.  This system, what John will call the cosmos of darkness, does not present a true picture of alienation, rather it is a system of alienation in which the seeming route to overcoming alienation enacts it.  John’s Gospel opposes this proto-Gnostic tendency, not because it is the peculiar sin of his day, but because this identity through difference is the universal form of sin.

The height of oppositional dualities is found in John’s depiction of the “Jews” as constituting the darkness. Jesus comes from above from God, and “the Jews” are from below as the children of the dark prince of this world. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires,” Jesus says in John. “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44-15).  Here we find the most extreme of oppositional dualities, such that there seems to be a demonization of “the Jews.” Luther is typical of the tendency to read dualities as a dualism in which one pole, “the Jews” in this case, are an enduring and stable opposition. Christianity of this sort is necessarily anti-Semitic – to the extremes worked out by German Lutherans. Yet, John alone of all New Testament writers states that “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22) and in John, Jesus identifies himself with the Jews by claiming that “we [the Jews] worship what we know” (4:22). A Christian tradition geared to oppositional dualities turned the cross against Israel, one which was the basis of Israel’s rejection and even destruction, yet John tells us it was for Israel that Jesus died (11:50-52). Those who most violently oppose him, are the very instruments through which salvation is wrought; not because God is pulling all the strings, to kill Jesus so that his anger might be appeased, but because the evil he would confront is exposed in those who are his own.

In John 1:14 Jesus is portrayed in terms of the Israelite sanctuary: “the Word became flesh and dwelt [eskenosen, literally, “tented”] among us, and we beheld his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” In the cleansing of the Temple Jesus declares, destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up. John 1:14-18: at several points draws on the theophany at Sinai: Moses was not allowed to see the face of God, whom no one has ever seen (Exod. 33:20) but the Logos, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known (1:18). The Law given by Moses told about creation and the Sinai-event is simply a witness to Jesus as Logos, the Son of God, 1:17. John 8:6-8 describes Jesus’ act of writing with the vocabulary that Exodus 32.15 (as well as 31.18) employs to describe God’s authorship of the Decalogue. Jesus as the embodiment of the Temple and law does not reinforce the alienation of the law but exposes the laws incompleteness. The law cannot compete with the Logos through which all things came into being (1:3). The cosmos came into being through him (1:10) and yet the cosmic rejection of him is precisely in regard to this claim. “He came to his own and his own human beings received him not” (1:11).

The black and white world of the Jews maintains rigid boundaries and oppositional stances of inside and outside, Jew and Gentile, sabbath keeping, rules of purity – cleanness and uncleanness, rules which would demarcate men and women, and which organize and define Jewish life.  For the Jews the law, with its opposition dualities, constitutes their world. Their mistaken orientation to the law (the universal failure) is one which imagines the law and all it entails is an end in itself. Jesus, as Logos and source of the cosmos, as a Temple replacement (the Temple is itself a microcosmos), as Lord of the sabbath (the sabbath or seventh day being the purpose of the cosmos), and as embodiment of the law, threatens the totality of their reality. This means Jewish notions of black and white, of oppositional dualities, begin to break down and this is illustrated in the various shades of gray experienced by prototypical individuals.

For example, Nicodemus is man thrown into a crisis of ambiguity – a member of the Sanhedrin – is he in or out – is he a Jesus follower or of the darkness? Nicodemus is a “man of the Pharisees … a ruler of the Jews” (3:1) (and “Jews” in John designates unreceptivity), yet he came to Jesus like the disciples, who have been described as coming to Jesus (1:39, 47). Nicodemus’s initial profession of faith (“Rabbi, you are a teacher come from God”), is not earth (cosmos) shattering. It is not as profound as Andrew’s (“We have found the Messiah”) or Nathaniel’s (“You are the Son of God”), and Jesus is not impressed. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew (unless one erases one notion of the cosmos and begins again), one cannot see the kingdom of God,” 3:3). Jesus’ subsequent words are a clear and emphatic rebuke: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” The notion of rebirth, of world change, of character shift, is thematic in the Hebrew Scriptures. “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?“ (vv. 10-12). Nicodemus cannot escape his Jewish cosmic frame so as to come to a fullness of faith. This is perhaps best illustrated at the very point where Nicodemus would defend Jesus.

To defend Jesus, Nicodemus appeals to the procedures of the law.  When the Pharisees condemned Jesus and rebuked the officers for failing to arrest him, Nicodemus’ words unveil the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Nicodemus believes (to some degree) and speaks up precisely when the Pharisees claim no informed Jew would believe.  They rebuke the crowd for their ignorance of the law (v. 49) and then turn on the arresting soldiers: “You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed” (Jn 7:45-49).  Nicodemus said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (7:51). These words seem to repeat Jesus’ injunction, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (v. 24). Jesus’ words, however, refer to a correct judgment regarding himself, while Nicodemus refers merely to a concern for correct legal procedures.

Nicodemus seems to be a representative of those mentioned in 2:23-25, whose faith is based on the signs. He came “by night” (3:2), though it is equally true that he came to Jesus (3:2), that is, to the light that “shines in the darkness” (1:5). His hesitancy to openly believe, is perhaps due to “fear of the Jews” (an important motif in this Gospel: 7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19; cf. 12:42). He comes secretly to help Joseph of Arimathea attend to the body of Jesus.  He is the silent partner and lets Joseph make the arrangements. Does the grave of Jesus mark the limits of Nicodemus’s vision? He brought to Jesus’ burial a hundred litras of burial spices. Is this, as one commentator asks, “a ludicrous attempt to preserve from decay the body of the one who is in life and death the resurrection and the life?” The Gospel paints in shades of gray and leaves us with varying degrees of ambiguity. The “Jews,” some of whom are disciples of John the Baptist, some of whom had an incomplete faith (6:60-66), some who were secret Christians who remained within the synagogue (they were not only disciples of Jesus, but also believed in him, though they were afraid of being “put out of the synagogue” (12:42-43)).  Nicodemus demonstrates in one individual the cosmic crisis initiated by Christ.

Jesus confrontation with the Jews does not assume that darkness and evil are a reality with which he must compete (which can contain him in the grave). It is precisely where darkness and evil are allowed to do their worst that they are undermined. In Christ’s incarnation alienation is overcome when evil appears to have obliterated goodness and when life seems to have been swallowed up in death.  This is the opposite of dualism in that this oppositional “reality” is given full reign and allowed to play itself out and is exposed in the process.  Darkness, we are assured in the Prologue, did not conquer the light, yet darkness seems to prevail even among the apostles. But the point of the Gospel is not that human wickedness, at its culminating point, is beyond the pale of redemption. Christ does not “oppose” the Jews any more than he opposed Judas or the world of darkness. Jesus loved the world and came into the world to save it, not to condemn and destroy it.

In the Temple community of Christ, oppositional dualities are overcome: enmity between Jews and Greeks, ethnic and religious divisions between Jews and Samaritans, enmity of gender and class between men and women and slaves and free, are no longer the means of doing identity as this community worships ‘in spirit and truth’ (4:23).  The closed cosmos in which the oppositional dualities of the law structure all things is undercut in John’s picture of redemption in which identity encompasses difference.

(Registration is open for “The Gospel of John” with Ploughshares Bible Institute.)


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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