Darkness in the Judeo-Christian Tradition and beyond

by Catherine Bird.

This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Catherine Bird.

Darkness has had a rather incredible journey throughout time, shifting like the sands in terms of how it is perceived and understood.

But as humanity developed and evolved, a deep seated and intuitive understanding of the balance of nature also emerged and there wasn’t from the beginning of humankind and civilisation this understanding of light as good and dark as bad, things were much more interconnected – in a way that really goes against our modern dualistic association of light with goodness and dark with evil – that’s an association that is not really very widely reflected in what is known of many ancient cultures.  But at various points in the history of Christianity, Darkness has been variously upheld as either a genuine pathway to divine encounter or as a symbol of heresy and evil.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, darkness is the fundamental state – God draws light from darkness. We might ask, if darkness was so terrible, why didn’t God at that point decide to get rid of darkness? But God keeps the darkness, as much of it as the light, 50-50 wherever we are in the world, and God saw that it was good. And many Creation myths share this as a common narrative, darkness as a pure state from within which beautiful things emerge.

The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is actually replete with poetic and positive, dark related images which offer a vision of God residing in the darkness.  Stories which have God using the cover of darkness as a means of liberation and enlightenment, loads of events which take place in the darkness and offer hopeful and positive narratives of transformation and Divine encounter.

One of the best known and most frequently quoted dark related images in the Old Testament is that to be found in Psalm 139.

In the context of a treatise about God’s omnipresence and omniscience, we read in verses 11 and 12, ‘if I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

The writer here is describing the impossibility of hiding from God’s presence, and I do not read this Psalm as saying that darkness does not exist for God, or that light is supreme. Rather that darkness is not a place in which God is, or can ever be, absent. It is a place of growth, spiritual formation and sanctuary, a place in which God meets us at our most vulnerable.

Similarly in the New Testament, nany wonderful things happen under the cover of darkness.  Even in John’s gospel, which loves the light good/dark bed metaphor, even there, we meet Nicodemus, the learned teacher and scholar who comes to Jesus after sundown to seek answers and to expand his mind. The night apparently serves Nicodemus well, setting him off on a journey in which we see him let go of a purely rational way of thinking and embrace the more mystical path of Jesus. 

The inconsistency between metaphor and reality in John’s and to a lesser extent the other gospels, seems to pass the writers by actually! In the darkness of night an epiphany and a conversation of potential life changing significance take place; resurrection breaks through and the Glory of God is revealed. Yet still, in the midst of these things, darkness continues to be used as a term to describe malevolence and the absence of God.

For Reflection

  • Think about Scripture – where in the Bible is darkness used positively, either as a metaphor or as a device?

3 thoughts on “Darkness in the Judeo-Christian Tradition and beyond”

  1. In the aftermath of WW 2 Albrecht Goes wrote The Burnt Offering, which depicts the dark days of Nazi antisemitism, the Holocaust and the subsequent defeat and devastation of Germany. In the book one character remarks, “A small flame is still burning. If that flame were not there, the whole world would freeze in the darkness.” People who give of themselves out of compassion remind us that there is still a light shining, a light of hope, faith and love.

    Jesus’ command was clear, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16) Jesus himself is the very embodiment of light displacing darkness. “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12)

    We are intended to be part of the light which will dispel the darkness. A light pointing to God. In this time of wars, terrorist evil, gross inequalities, worship of consumerism and celebrity status, much of it fuelled by self-centredness, that light is needed more than ever. “Let your light shine in the darkness, so that your life points to the Light of life.”

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  2. Thank you for the reflection Catherine. Your piece and question made me think of our Christmas celebration. Not just in the imagery of the ‘light of the world’ but also the sense of the creative potential in the darkness which I feel at Christmas. The stories of John and Jesus in the creative darkness of the womb, the shepherds experiencing the call at night, the star that is only seen because of the night and can only be followed at night, even the Victorian images of a baby born in a stable at night. It seems a time of creative, potential flourishing and growing, not despite of the darkness but in the blanket of darkness, perhaps reflecting the movement in our natural world in the Northern hemisphere at this time of year, which is full of hidden and growing potential for the spring ahead.

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  3. Lord of the Darkest Places

    I am the Lord of the darkest places,
    Mind, destroying all the light.
    Spirit of the shadowed spaces
    I know what’s wrong, I know what’s right.

    I am Logos, Truth and Might.
    I stand alone from every thought
    I know it all, there’s no escape
    I’m Father-God who rules by ought.

    My Peace – eternal guilt and strife,
    My Love – a dove that holds a gun.
    My Justice discounts human life
    And burns the weaklings in its Sun.

    I am the Lord of the darkest places,
    A man, your King, Power over all.
    Leading the war gainst all things female
    My Bible blames them for the Fall.

    Obedience brings eternal bliss,
    And I blame man for all his ills.
    He suffers and the fault is his;
    I don’t care what nature wills.

    What care I for human need,
    The world is evil, no exception;
    My moral church has straighter lines
    Only the saved can earn redemption.

    R. Bridge 2004

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