One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the John’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin.
The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.
In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.
The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:
1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)
But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Of John’s Gospel and Letters, 277). The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.
I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)
For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.
If this is on track, how would it help read 1 John? Does it help overcome some of the “black or white” ethical commands in the letter?