Recently I was reading John 1:1-18 with some international students who knew next to nothing about Christianity. I was bracing myself for all sorts of questions about the trinity and the incarnation. Actually they understood these quite easily. (After all how difficult is the sentence "God is a loving relationship of three Persons" or "the Word became flesh" - these concepts are only difficult if you're committed to a whole other raft of theistic suppositions!). Here is what they really struggled with:
The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it
Now one issue is the translation of the word for "understood". katelaben could be translated 'lay hold of', 'take possession of' or in the cognitive sense of "understand" as the NIV has it. Perhaps the English word "grasp" straddles these meanings nicely? "The darkness has not grasped the light."
But however you translate it, you have this conceptual riddle: if light shines how come there's darkness??
Well there might be some reasonable explanations like, maybe the Light is not very strong. Well no, the Light is Jesus Christ - the Light of the cosmos! (v9-10).
Ok, well perhaps the Light is not shining in the right place? No - the Light shines directly in the darkness, the darkness that is humanity in its unbelief (v4-5).
Hmm, well maybe the Light only shines on some but not on others, leaving the darkness unenlightened? No, "the true Light gives light to every man." (v9).
This is the riddle: the Light really shines and shines directly into the darkness. John even says the Light enlightens every man. Yet the darkness remains. Somehow the darkness does not receive the omnipotent Light of the cosmos.
These international students were stumped. And actually so was I. This should have struck me many times, but it took their fresh pairs of eyes to see what is really a very great question: How can omnipotent Light shine and darkness remain?
If this doesn't strike us, it really should. And we must resist the urge to smoothe the problem away. The text does not let us off the hook - either saying "He doesn't really shine" or "It's not real darkness." No, He really shines and there's really darkness.
In fact this has been a riddle from day one. Literally.
3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day", and the darkness He called "night". And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.
Though verse 2 told us of 'darkness' and 'the deep' (abyss), the Word of God brings a triumphant light. Yet this light does not extinguish the darkness. Instead there is a separation of light and darkness. How strange! We think of light swallowing up darkness - illuminating it, removing it. Yet what we see is two realms separated. The light is clearly superior but the darkness is not obliterated.
Recently 2 Corinthians 5 has come up on two blogs I read regularly - Baxter's Ongoing Thoughts and Halden's Inhabitatio Dei. In particular the emphasis has been on the fact that "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ." (2 Cor 5:19). I heartily agree. But I took issue with what I see to be the loss of any category for ongoing darkness/alienation/separation. Paul goes on in the next verse to explain his ministry of reconciliation - he urges people "Be reconciled to God." Paul goes around this (in one sense) reconciled world and urges people (with a passive imperative - interesting grammar no?!) to be reconciled. Why? Because the light shines but (somehow!) darkness remains.
And this makes the darkness not less outrageous but more. The sin of those in the dark is not that they haven't had the light or not pilgrimmaged towards it. Their sin is that they are being enlightened minute by minute and yet walk in darkness. Think of Paul in the Areopagus - he tells the Athenians that they live and move and have their being in God - He is not far from them at all!!! (v27-28). And yet they must repent (v30-31) because judgement is coming. This is the great problem - not that they have sinned against a 'god over there.' Rather, they have rejected the God in Whom is their very life. The light is shining, they are (in one sense) living in God. And yet this makes their darkness all the more appalling.
How can we be godless, given how God has lifted the whole creation to Himself in Christ? How can we shout our 'No' to God given His omnipotent 'Yes' in Christ? This is an outrageous conceptual problem. But it is, even more, an outrageous moral problem. It must not be rationalized or wished away. God really was reconciling the world to Himself on the cross. He really has said Yes to all creation. The true Light really does enlighten everyone. Yet somehow humans remain godless, they shout their defiant 'no', they love and remain in and perpetuate the darkness.
Sin is insanity. There simply is nothing reasonable about it. We must remember this as we go about our ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18-20). At the most fundamental level, there's nothing credible about unbelief. Let's not conduct our evangelism as though there is.
We are to urge the people of this reconciled world to be reconciled. How can they not be!? That should be the flavour of our evangelism. How can you not be enlightened by Him who is shining with Almighty power?? That urgency and incredulity and insistence and even moral outrage should characterize our ministry. Christ shines - how can you not be enlightened?? Christ is given to you - how can you not receive Him?? Christ has reconciled the world - how can you not be reconciled??