Continuing somewhat randomly with Paul N. Anderson’s The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, today I consider more of the theological riddles.
There are some related issues in John’s view of salvation. One is the issue of whether you can only be saved through a certain response to Jesus. Another is the whole question of John’s light and darkness dualism. Light seems to equate with salvation and darkness with its opposite.
Many will know some prime quotes from John used in evangelism like John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish , but have everlasting life (KJV).
And John 14:6:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (KJV).
These often get used to invite people to make an affirmation of faith in Christ as way to assure their salvation. But, put that way, the decisive agency or initiative rests with us. Salvation depends on something we do.
Anderson sees John presenting an “agency Christology”. The agency and initiative rests with God who sends Christ as a revelatory prophet making known God’s light.
According to the prologue, Jesus was the true light enlightening everyone (1:9). Yet John goes on to say that you can only come to God if the Father draws you (6:44) or allows you (6:65). Yet humans have agency too. They can reject the light or refuse to be drawn–at least for a time. It is unclear that we are so powerful that we can ultimately overcome the love of God by our resistance. Certainly there are consequences to turning away from the light.
Anderson makes much of John understanding Jesus as the prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. At Horeb the people cried out that they could not take the light or words of God because it would kill them (v. 16). So God promises to send a prophet so that they would not perish from the words and the light of God. As the prophet like Moses, Jesus reveals God in a way that gives life and light. But some will still love the darkness.
This is part of the dualism presented in John. Anderson compares it with the dualism of Plato’s cave. In Plato’s story people live in a dark cave chained so that they cannot see sunlight but only shadows on the wall. They think the shadows are ultimate reality. But one of them escapes and experiences the day-light world. He comes back bearing the truth about light. But the cave dwellers kill him rather than accept his message. In Plato this allegory explains the execution of Socrates. But there are parallels to the way John understands Jesus.
John probably derived the dualism of light and darkness from Jewish sources. There are parallels in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the last two periods of the community of John were in the Greco-Roman world. So Anderson sees the dualism as both Jewish and Hellenistic.
This way of seeing the world is more open than conceiving salvation as a matter of a simple decision for Jesus. Jesus hints at this when he says he has sheep that are not of this fold (John 10:16) and by the openness of his statement, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32 KJV).
This does not undermine the evangelistic invitation to affirm Christ, but it puts it in a fuller context. As 1 John 4:10 says, it is not that we loved God, but that God loved us.