1 John and Dualism

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the the writer’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.

Use the Force

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 Oof 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.

11 thoughts on “1 John and Dualism

  1. This is one of the most beautiful truths about Christianity, not only that our God loved us so much in the beginning to give us a direct relationship with him, but that he still loves us just as much so he was willing to restore that relationship through the death of his son. At the same time this is almost something to be expected since Gods love for us is unchanging and that he could not love us any more than he always has. This is one of the core truths of our faith, and this message is one of the most important ones for us to spread to the rest of humanity.

  2. 1, 2, and 3 John are books that I am not too familiar with, but I find this “light vs. dark” thing interesting (especially with your “use the force” graphic). I can see how some would see this way of thinking as extreme. At first glance, John’s writing looks like he’s saying “pick a side; there’s no in-between”. And I think there is some truth to the point that we have to pick a side, to follow God and live righteously, or ignore God and live in sin. The Bible says for us not to be lukewarm. At the same time, I think we should be careful not to overreact to this “light vs. dark”. We all know that we’re never going to be perfect, and I don’t believe that’s what John is saying. I think his main point is that we need to choose which lifestyle to live, and give our all to it. Obviously,
    he says that light is the right way to go.

  3. The teaching of dualism would have been reassuring for the audience as they lived in a world where the lines were not so clear. Being a light in a dark world is not easy. At times the dark seems to blend in with the light and things get confusing. Not every situation is easy as sin, false teaching, etc are disguised or made to appear as good. As Jobes says, “John’s readers were in a place of vulnerability and needed reassurance and persuasion to continue in what they had embraced as the source of eternal life” (415). The audience was struggling from the slow fade and desensitization of the world. But John offers hope in this situation. 1 John 5:4 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.” He re-establishes the relationship of man and God before the fall and reminds them that through Christ there is victory. There is a black and white/dualistic truth in that. So keep walking in the light and don’t be fooled by the darkness.

    • I do really like what you say here about 1 John 5:4. This world is very much black and white, sin and not sin. However, simply because you are a Christian does not mean you will never sin again. I do not think John was saying in this verse that once one has become enlightened and saved they become perfect like at the beginning of time. I feel that John is making the point that once you are saved, the chains of sin are broken because of the death on the cross and they can be overcome with the reliance on God. So when a Christian does stumble, they should not be upset. Becoming a Christian does not make one perfect, and that should be understood. Sins will occur even with being saved. However, how we approach sin and its influence on our lives has dramatically changed.

  4. It seems to me that relationship with Jesus, “walking in the light”, is the way in which we are able to actually commune with God again. Whereas “walking in darkness” is a life that ignores the truth of God. Paul says in Romans that God’s nature has “been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). I think that this “dualism” ideal is more an idea that one needs to make the choice to live their life in a way that is “[leaving] the dark side, and through faith in Jesus Christ, [coming] into the light where eternal life is found” (Jobes 415). I think that John is trying to encourage believers to live such a different life from the world that people take notice, and I think that modern Christians ought to look at this thought process a little more carefully.

  5. The apparent dualism in 1 John is a presentation of the difference in lifestyle as others have said. This dichotomy of differing lifestyles is to encourage the readers to continue “walking in the light”. The important thing to remember when addressing this issue is that dualism to the extent that God is set against the world or Satan is a heresy. There is a black and white lifestyle for us as followers of Christ, but God is not in a battle against evil. I find the view presented by Professor Long very interesting. Relating this dualism in lifestyle back to Genesis. This lifestyle of light is a restored relationship like that of the garden in Genesis 1-2, while darkness is the fallen condition of man. I believe that may be the best way to approach the dualism as opposed to God versus the world.

  6. 1 John talks a lot about the love that God has for us. And that is what makes Christianity so wonderful, because we have the love from a father that is so deep, and half the time we don’t deserve it. And what amazes me is that yet we are sinners and we had a broken relationship with God, that he sent his son to fill that gap for us when he died on the cross for our sins. Our passion for God should never be lukewarm, we should always be on fire for God and that heat should help restrain from sin. I think the main point in 1 John is determining how we should live our life, in light or in darkness. And the path of light is the one that is obviously pushed throughout 1 John.

  7. I would definitely agree that 1 John has a very black or white way about it. One is either living in sin and darkness and all that is bad, or they have found Christ and walk in the light. This as we look at it as contemporary Christians kind of looks scary. I think of what it would be like for a new believer to read 1 John and it scares me. One would believe that if they slip up and sin or fall to the flesh that there was no way for them to walk in the light with Christ. I think 1 John is more of a guide to warn against the darkness. I believe that the book is pushing Christians to realize walking in the light which is Christ is the only way to push back and defeat the dark.

  8. I would definitely agree and say that 1 John is definitely very black and white. One can either walk in darkness and sin, or they can walk in the light that is Christ. I think 1 John can be scary for the Christian body when it comes to newcomers of the faith. This book could easily scare or intimidate, and I say that because when I was a new believer it intimidated me. With that being said i believe that 1 John is to push believers toward walking in the light. If you are walking in darkness, but profess to be a Christian are you really saved? This is a common theme that we have seen throughout the Roman world in the Bible. We see believers who profess, but live a sinful disobedient lifestyle. 1 John corrects this and brings the darkness to light.

  9. The concept of light and darkness is one I have had a number of conversations with a friend of mine about. In a weird form a dualism, we’ve had conversations about how darkness couldn’t exist without light and the other way around, and how they are necessary forces to balance each other out. While obviously a twisted view and not one I agree with, there’s a lot of that in media, from Star Wars to comic books to all sorts of different stories where goodness and sin are seen as two flip sides of a coin as opposed to something different. I have to wonder where all that started.

  10. The initial explanation – that it was an allusion to Gnostic dualism was quite appealing to me since it seemed to make sense at first glance. And – to be honest, it’s an easy answer. So I was a bit disappointed as I continued reading and discovered that other research contradicts or heavily suggests that this is not quite correct. Once I got to the section about the Dead Sea Scrolls having a different type of dualism I was stumped.

    The acknowledgement between horizontal and vertical dualism is important here, I think.
    The suggestion here in the blog is interesting to me. Again with the vertical relationship in both aspects. The gap between humanity and God has been restored, therefore we literally are or aren’t in relationship with him. Just writing that out makes it harder to grasp – that some literally are the children of God and some are not. Sometimes it is easier when things are black and white, although here I think it is a bit harder simply because it is quite an uncomfortable thought.

    If this is what John’s dualism is referring to here, I would not be surprised. It would fit well with the rest of 1 John, especially among the other if/then statements: If you have fellowship with God then you will walk in the light. If you love me then you will keep my commandments. If the world hates me then you should not be surprised if it hates you.

    I do struggle with the concept that if we are Christian then we cannot sin. Because we do sin, on a daily basis. Though I am guessing that John here is referring to the fact that our sin is literally gone because it has already been paid for, or something along those lines.

    Maybe the dualism here is so hard to grasp because it demands commitment? And that may have been what John was getting at after all. You can’t be in love with the world and in fellowship with God. There are choices that have to be made. And maybe the idea that we can’t dabble in both is what makes it uncomfortable. Personally, it’s hard to look at chapters like this where it is quite clear one can’t sit on the fence with one leg on either side. It makes me look at my life and my choices and the commitments I’ve made. It isn’t real easy (and again, this may have been John’s whole point). The idea of just writing it off as an allusion to gnositism? That’s a bit easier….I actually like that thought a lot. Though it’s too late now because, P. Long, you’ve ruined my easy out. 🙂

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