Introducing the Course on the Gospel of John

Is there in John, and by extension in Genesis, the notion that evil (in the form of darkness and chaos) precedes and enters into creation from its inception, or is John foreclosing this “narrative gap” to locate the origin of evil subsequent to creation? This is not an academic question, as the Gnostics and their predecessors (to say nothing of present-day Gnostics) find in Genesis and John a cosmic dualism, in which light and darkness are engaged in an ongoing ontological struggle. Philo, for example, presumes that chaos, emptiness, and darkness were there from before creation, and so too in some modern interpreters of John, these nothings are not among the things that come into being as these are over and against being.[1] These are of the nothing and non-being, such that one could say (and mean something very different than John) that “Nothing came into being apart from the Logos.” The Nothing of creation ex nihilo that is, is assigned an actual reality as a counter force over and against God and creation.

Is it the case that there was a preexistent evil resistance to creation and this is represented by darkness?  Or is the darkness subsequent to creation and accounted for within the parameters of the story (the story of creation or the story of the Gospel)? Is sin and evil something we can locate, name, and identify, along with its defeat or is the battle between light and darkness of such proportions that we are mere pawns in a game in which we cannot know from whence it came or where it is going? The answer to this question divides the Christian world (roughly between East and West) but it also amounts to two readings of John. The basic contention is whether John is a text that accords with the Platonic tradition (identity through difference, the necessity of a dualism)[2] or is John, in taking up the Logos (a key Greek philosophic term), describing an understanding over and against the Greeks and the Gnostics?

There is no part of the Christian enterprise that is not affected by how we conceive the Logos, as it is the abstraction of the Logos (conceived as the preexistent Christ and reduced to something like a first principle) which accounts for or accords with the mystification of sin, the turn to apologetics, the focus on an abstract atonement theory, the privileging of the law, the turn to nominalism, and the basic tenor of Western theology.

This understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ. The nominalist positing of an empty sign or the disconnect between word and action or between words and ultimate reality, or the gap posed between God and creation flow out of this separation. For example, Luther and Calvin could not conceive of first order participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma but is the condition addressed by Christ.

The incarnate identity in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was some pre-incarnate form of the Logos.

John opens his depiction of recreation with the (Genesis) light personified in Christ and with the confirmation of creation ex nihilo through Christ but also with the resistant chaos of darkness threatening: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:3-5). The darkness does not overtake, grasp, overpower, or vanquish the light but the very existence of the penetrating light relativizes the darkness.

As in Genesis, the chaos of the waters and the darkness of night, is not a residue of the nothingness from out of which things were made but is a condition existing within creation. The “formless and void” condition and the “darkness over the surface of the deep” is limited by the light (1:2-4) and in the midst of the waters, atmosphere is formed creating a vertical space, and land is formed holding back the waters, creating a horizontal space (1:6-10). In John, Jesus’ movement between heaven and earth is on the order of the creation of an atmosphere in which heaven and earth meet as the life and breath of God are readily available in this joining. So too in John, the darkness can be named, comprehended, grasped, and is even overpowered in the culminating “it is finished” which sums up creation and recreation.

It is not that darkness takes on substance in John or that the dualism between light and dark are affirmed. Rather, John is depicting a decisive defeat of the darkness, and not a battle between two equal and opposite forces or the balancing out of the powers. The cure of the human disease is not, as it is for the Gnostics, in reconciling light and darkness and seeking a middle way of harmony between these opposed pairs. 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, good and evil or life and death constitute a “reality” of struggling between opposed pairs. As the Stranger describes in Plato’s Sophist:

Whereas we have not merely shown that things that are not, are, but we have brought to light the real character of “not being.”  We have shown that the nature of the Different has existence and is parceled out over the whole field of existent things with reference to one another; and of every part of it that is set in contrast to “that which is” we have dared to say that precisely that is really “that which is not.” . . . [We have proved] that the Kinds blend with one another; that Existence and Difference pervade them all, and pervade one another, that Difference. . . by partaking of Existence, is by virtue of that participation, but on the other hand is not that Existence of which it partakes, but is different; and since it is different from Existence . . . quite clearly it must be possible that it should be a thing that is not (Sophist 258-259).[3]

In other words, the nothing and nonexistent competes with and participates in being. Where a dualism is posited, reality and truth are not to be found on one side of the duality, as the dualism constitutes the existence (with the lie, in Plato’s description, having its own reality and substance necessary to the truth).  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 illusion or lie is to imagine that difference is definitive and that existence and non-existence and the endless differences of the world constitute the world. Simply stated, the human failing is to confuse reality with unreality, setting up an antagonistic struggle to the death.  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. 

 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. Hierarchy, law, and sacrifice are aimed at warding off chaos through maintaining a rigid balance, while 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 (and not equal and opposite dualisms).

Just as darkness in the original creation is an absence of light, so too in John, the darkness is a negation of the Light and belief is an apprehension of the Light. The Light is not only apprehended through belief but by this means “you may become sons of Light” (12:35-36). It is not that the darkness is a definitive direction or quality (a definitive counterforce) or a necessary ingredient of its opposite. As Jesus describes it, walking in the darkness apart from the Light will allow the darkness to “overtake you” as “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” On the other hand, walking in the Light is to imitate Jesus and walk so as to avoid the darkness.

 As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[4] God has spoken definitively and finally in the word of the cross. “It is finished” (John 19:30); the Spirit is given and recreation has commenced. Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world in the word of the cross, the Logos of God.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] For example Jonathan A. Draper, “Darkness as Non-Being and the Origin of Evil in John’s Gospel” Darkness_as_Non-Being_and_the_Origin_of_Evil_in_Jo.pdf William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world” (fashioned of the same stuff as Augustinian/Calvinist sovereignty). Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated. What is differentiated and divided is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates. (“Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf) God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

[2] See for example, Plato’s description of the status of a lie and of difference in the Sophist.

[3] F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato translated with a running commentary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935), 294-296. Quoted in Draper.

[4] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, (Herder & Herder, April 1, 2004).

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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