The biblical worldview speaks clearly and consistently about light and darkness. Whereas light signifies truth, goodness, and understanding, darkness symbolizes falsehood, evil, and confusion. Paul’s primary mission, as noted in Acts 26:18, was to open the eyes of the Gentiles precisely so that they would turn from darkness to light.
The process of moving out of the darkness and into the light is powerfully captured in Augustine’s Confessions. Painfully aware of the darkness within his soul — the flaws in his reasoning and the waywardness of his heart — Augustine writes, “[T]he soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth. You will light my lamp, O Lord. My God, you will lighten my darknesses, and of your fullness we have all received. You are the true light who illuminates every man coming into this world, because in you there is no change nor shadow caused by turning” (Augustine, Confessions, IV.25).
The light-and-darkness theme pervades the entirety of scripture, from beginning to end. From the opening of Genesis (chapter 1) to the conclusion of Revelation (chapter 22), God is described as the author of light, and his very being is couched in the concept of luminosity. According to the scriptural witness, God, who introduced light into the universe, will himself serve as the source of light in the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no need for lamps or sunlight, because God’s glory will illuminate the city. The light of the Lamb will disperse the darkness, so that night itself will be a distant memory (Rev. 22:5).
The Old Testament and the New Testament alike cast God’s character, word, and glory as indomitable rays of light that emanate from the author of all things and draw his creatures back to himself.
The light signifies God’s presence. After Moses spoke face to face with God — as if with a friend — in the Tent of Meeting, his face shone, reflecting the radiance of the glory of God. Paul writes, “God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made us understand that this light is the brightness of the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus refers to himself as the “light of the world.” “If you follow me,” Jesus claims, “you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).
It is little wonder that Christians equate light with goodness, while treating darkness as evil. But has this historic evasion of darkness been detrimental to our spiritual well-being?
Barbara Brown Taylor thinks so. A renowned former pastor, once named by Baylor University as one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, Taylor has released a memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which she explores the spiritual power of darkness. A profile of Taylor is featured in the newest edition of Time Magazine, the cover of which bears an ominous image with the text “Finding God in the Dark.” In the cover story, “Let There Be Night,” Taylor, one of Time’s 100 most influential people, indicates that darkness “may save us all.”
“Contemporary spirituality is too feel-good,” Taylor insists. “Darkness holds more lessons than light, and … contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest.”
According to Taylor, “God and darkness have been friends for a long time.” As a result, Taylor believes she needs darkness as much as she needs light. In order to find God in the darkness, Taylor has adopted — and actively recommends — a series of practices including walking slowly at night, watching the moonrise, and sitting in a closet, that, together, form a “path toward endarkenment.”
This unconventional path has taken her into wild caves, underground nightclubs, and subterranean chapels. And her unconventional path has led to unconventional feelings as well: “Nothing reminds me that I am an earthling like seeing the full moon. Years of Christian training fall at my feet like paper clothes set on fire by sight. I want to dance and shake a rattle.” This statement sounds oddly pantheistic, and Taylor admits that, in recent years, she has gleaned inspiration and insights from naturalists and cosmologists, even though she continues to identify mostly with Christianity.
Taylor’s attempt to vindicate darkness — to redeem the darkness by finding God present in it — is seemingly at odds with scripture. John writes, “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all” (1 John 1:5). Scripture’s persistent association of light with God, righteousness, goodness, and truth would seem to quickly dispel Taylor’s notion that endarkenment — as opposed to enlightenment — is a valid Christian endeavor. Scripture unanimously promotes efforts at enlightenment. According to the Apostle Peter, God calls us “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
In defense of her efforts to search for God in the shadows, however, Taylor mentions the moments in the Bible in which God was active in the darkness. Taylor notes that God spoke to Abraham at night, telling him that his descendants would outnumber the stars. Underneath the star that guided the magi, Jesus was born. And in the darkness of a cave, Jesus was resurrected. Taylor writes, “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Since God has historically worked powerful miracles in the darkness, should Christians seek out the darkness in order to find God in the shadows? As Paul said when he was asked if people should sin more in order that grace should abound, “Of course not!”
In the same way that we have moved from death to life and from sin to grace, we have moved from darkness to light. What will we gain, then, from exploring the darkness, which is consistently employed by God’s word as a symbol of our spiritual blindness?
Commenting on our transition from death to life through the grace of Christ, Paul writes: “Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Romans 6:2-4).
Why should we lurk in the shadows, looking for God in the darkness? Darkness is nothing — it has no substance. Just as sin is the absence of the good, darkness is the absence of the light. In God’s presence, there is fullness of being. All non-reality is cast out. Falsehood (the absence of truth), sin (the absence of goodness), death (the absence of being) are inherent attributes of the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12) that represents separation from God.
Unless you think truth is paradoxical, the path toward endarkenment will not lead to enlightenment. If you search nothingness, you will find nothingness. You will not find God, who is being itself (Exodus 3:14; John 8:58).
God works in the darkness in order to pull us out of the darkness (John 8:12).
“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”
Barbara Brown Taylor is right — God does operate in the darkness. But God is active in the darkness only because we human beings have landed ourselves there. In order to save humanity, God condescended, emptying himself and appearing in human form to serve as the light from heaven, the sunlight that guides our steps, that we might escape the shadow of death and pursue a path of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
God’s pursuit of Abraham in the darkness and God’s activity in the tomb — on the darkness of Holy Saturday — attest to God’s tremendous mercy, that he would appear on foreign territory and accomplish the salvation of those whom he loves.
Contrary to Barbara Brown Taylor’s developing theology of endarkenment, we need not seek out the darkness, because we already — tragically — find ourselves there. As Jesus remarks, people stumble in the darkness (John 11:10), and people sin in the darkness (John 3:19).
God can certainly be found in life’s darkest places. The Psalmist writes that “even in darkness, I cannot hide from you” (Psalm 139:12). But the assumption in that passage is that in the darkness people attempt to escape the gaze of a just God. God’s presence in the darkness serves one purpose: to bring us back into the light (Psalm 119:105).
Jesus teaches that unless a seed dies, it will be alone, a single seed. But in death, it will produce a plentiful harvest (John 12:24). We die to ourselves for the sake of life. Similarly, we tolerate the darkness for the sake of the light we will soon experience. In the same way, we do not seek out suffering and persecution for its own sake but for the sake of God’s truth (Matthew 5:12). Christians seek out neither death nor darkness nor suffering for its own sake.
The metaphorical — and literal — scriptural injunction is to avoid the darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14).
“Don’t participate in the things these people do. For though your hearts were once full of darkness, now you are full of light from the Lord, and your behavior should show it! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, rebuke and expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But when the light shines on them, it becomes clear how evil these things are. And where your light shines, it will expose their evil deeds. This is why it is said, ‘Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’”
When Paul advises the Ephesian church to flee the darkness, he does so not only because darkness symbolizes death and blindness, but also because ungodly people typically do ungodly things in the dark, believing — wrongly, of course — that their activities are hidden from God and men. But as Jesus asserts in the Gospel of Mark, “Everything that is now hidden or secret will eventually be brought to light” (4:22). Our salvation hinges on our surrendering ourselves before God’s judgment, laying everything bare before the one who sheds light on all things, enlightens all men, and overcomes the grief of those who were once floundering in the tenebrous valley of death — in the mist of confusion.
Before he is arrested on the night of the Passover, Jesus tells the chief priests that his upcoming trial, torture, and death are characteristic of the power of darkness reigning on earth (Luke 22:53). Paul echoes this statement when he claims in the letter to the Ephesians that “the mighty powers of darkness … rule this world” (6:12).
Scripture never encourages the pursuit of darkness, which will ultimately vanish before the radiance of God. The fact that anyone would want to dwell in the dark — and elevate the path toward endarkenment — is evidence of just how dark our world remains.