Have you ever wondered how the bible can say that God dwells in unapproachable light but also in a cloud of thick darkness, or how light was created on the first day but the sun and stars on the fourth day, or how hell can be a place where God isn’t, even though we say he’s omnipresent? Take 1 Timothy 6:16, “(God) who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light…” and 1 Kings 8:12 “Then spoke Solomon, The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness…” as examples. How can both of these be true? In his book The Language of Creation, Matthieu Pageau introduces readers to the cosmic symbolism of the ancient world. In that world, the world of the Old and New Testament, light and darkness were visual realities but they were also symbols of knowledge.
Pageau puts it this way, “The ancient notions of light and darkness were defined by their roles in the process of knowledge. However, it is important to understand that darkness cannot simply be defined as the absence of light in this context. Instead, there is a causal link between ‘darkness’ and corporeal reality or ‘earth,’ just as there is a link between ‘light’ and spiritual reality or ‘heaven.’” These symbols are essential in understanding biblical language about God but also in understanding what Pageau here refers to as the “process of knowledge.”
In the scriptures this process is often referred to using terms like wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Verses like Proverbs 24:3-4 state, “Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established. By knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” At first it can seem like this is poetic language using different words to describe the same object, but there’s something deeper going on. The word wisdom is used to describe the abstract or heavenly reality (light), while understanding expresses concrete or earthly examples of that abstraction (darkness). Think of the abstract idea of an animal, of which a lion and a bull are concrete examples.
Knowledge, then, is that awareness which recognizes the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. This understanding of the “process of knowledge” is essential for interpreting the book of Genesis, especially the first chapter. Many people have asked how there could be light on the first day if God did not create the sun and stars until the fourth day. On the first day God creates the heavens and the earth, the concrete and the abstract, then he says let there be light and separates the light from the darkness, creating the cycle of revelation and interpretation (day and night). We see this in our own experience, all throughout the day we experience reality, then at night our brains process what we’ve experienced often resulting in dreams.
On the second day God separates the waters above from the waters below, the heavenly chaos from the earthly chaos. Then he places boundaries for the earthly chaos by creating dry land, a stable place for life to flourish. Again, we see this in our day to day lives, life flourishes in pockets of stability surrounded by chaos, and from time to time those waters of chaos flood the dry ground and we have to start building all over again. How then does this interpretation help us reconcile the seemingly contradictory descriptions of God in the bible?
First, we must recognize that all things have their being by participating in God’s essence, for it is in him that we “live and move and have our being.” We are or have the potential to be concrete examples of the abstract reality of God’s glory. When the scriptures say that God dwells in “unapproachable light” what they’re pointing towards is the truth that a complete understanding of how all things work and ultimately relate to God is unattainable for us, but it is a tremendous source of joy for us to contemplate this mystery. At the same time however, it can be extremely painful when we can’t understand how God relates to some aspect of creation, especially human suffering. It is in these times that we see the truth that God also dwells in thick darkness.
This duality of the human perception of divinity is also a key element in understanding the nature of heaven and hell. Many people confess that God is omnipresent and that all things are held in existence by his power and being, but at the same time they’ve also been taught that hell is a place where people are separated from God’s presence. Hell is not a separation from God’s presence because such a state is not possible, hell is a state of being, where nothing seems to be related to the goodness of God. A place of “outer darkness” and “gnashing of teeth,” and these phrases are appropriate because in that state we feel intense anger at the perceived meaninglessness of life.
This interpretation also gives meaning to several other confusing scriptures like Matthew 6:22-23, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” How can light be darkness? If what you think is true, is false. If the connections you think you’ve made between concrete experience and abstract reality turn out to be misleading, then this scripture is precisely true, how great is that darkness!
This relationship between darkness and light is the key to humility. We are called to find a balance between the revealed and hidden nature of God and the truth. It is when we are filled with pride, convinced that we’ve discovered the true nature of a thing, especially God, that we are prone to fall. This is how the church fathers interpreted Satan’s fall. He was placed in a position to see the fullest revelations of God’s glory and it is this position and the pride that arose from his convictions that led to his destruction. If we want to avoid a similar fate we must avoid the temptation to believe that we have God figured out, and the added benefit of this perspective is that in the process, we should also stop believing we have other people figured out. This should in turn cause us to be more patient with one another and truly more curious to understand their point of view.