This is round three of my attempt to determine whether that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light is the judgment/condemnation God did not send his Son into the world to do and has been done already to the one who does not believe, or the basis for judging, and the rationale or justification for condemning one to burn in hell for all eternity. First, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light could be a judgment. (“Oh, you lover of darkness” is admittedly a bit weak as condemnation.) But loving darkness rather than light is merely a preference, and cannot be a basis for judging apart from the reality that preference indicates: because their deeds were evil. In other words evil deeds supply the power that justifies making a preference for darkness a basis for judging, and then condemning someone to hell.
I never thought to question the translation of πονηρὰ (a form of πονηρός) as evil until I read the definitions in the NET online Bible: “1) full of labours, annoyances, hardships 1a) pressed and harassed by labours 1b) bringing toils, annoyances, perils; of a time full of peril to Christian faith and steadfastness; causing pain and trouble 2) bad, of a bad nature or condition 2a) in a physical sense: diseased or blind 2b) in an ethical sense: evil wicked, bad.” But was Jesus speaking ethically as a moral philosopher? It seems to me that I would have related to Him a whole lot sooner if that were the case. I loved Socrates.
But before I substitute any other definitions I should point out that the NET translation is not alone in translating πονηρὰ evil. The NAS and KJV use the word evil, too. That is getting very close to the beginning of translating the New Testament into the English language. This is a long tradition. Perhaps the translators of the NAS and KJV didn’t know all the meanings for πονηρὰ that the translators of the NET had at their disposal. So I’ll begin with the more limited definition from Strong’s Concordance: “hurtful, that is, evil (properly in effect or influence, and thus differing from G2556, which refers rather to essential character…).”
Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were [hurtful]. Obviously, hurtful lacks the justificatory power of evil (e.g., the power to justify judging and condemning someone to hell), but it does sound like Jesus.
Saul, Saul, Jesus said, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads. The implication here was that Jesus had already reached out to Saul in other more subtle ways. But Saul’s faith in his religion was so strong that it took nothing less than a personal appearance in all his glory (which Saul perceived as a blinding light and a voice) to persuade Saul to hear. Jesus did not say, “Saul, Saul, you evil sinner, why are you arresting my followers and condemning them to death?” His concern was that Saul’s persistent and stubborn resistance to the insistent and stubborn call of God was hard on Saul.
So I said, Paul (Saul) continued, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness (σκότους) to light (φῶς) and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
So rather than standing back in ethical detachment as a moral philosopher, using people’s preference for darkness as a basis for judging and then condemning them to hell, this sounds as if Jesus sent Saul (Paul) to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness (σκότους) to light (φῶς) and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]. In this light then, that the light (φῶς) has come into the world and people loved the darkness (σκότος) rather than the light (φῶς) sounds more like a judgment than a basis for judging. And this judgment prompted at least two action items on the divine to-do list. It is the reason God sent his Son into the world, that the world should be saved through him, and the reason Jesus, the Son, sent Saul to open [Gentile’s] eyes.
To be fair to the NET translators, they didn’t think Jesus was speaking in John 3:19. Perhaps John was speaking ethically as a moral philosopher. So I turned to another instance of πονηρὰ translated evil in John’s Gospel. The world cannot hate you, Jesus told his half brothers, but it hates me, because I am testifying (μαρτυρῶ, a form of μαρτυρέω) about it that its deeds are evil (πονηρά). Again evil is used in all three translations, KJV, NAS and NET.
|7:7||The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.||“The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.”||“The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I am testifying about it that its deeds are evil.”|
If Jesus had been traveling around Judea “testifying” that people’s deeds were evil, it would seem a little bit like what God did not send his Son into the world to do (that is, judge or condemn the world). But Jesus had also said, If I testify (μαρτυρῶ) about myself, my testimony is not true, and, the deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete – the deeds I am now doing – testify (μαρτυρεῖ, another form of μαρτυρέω) about me that the Father has sent me. It isn’t hard for me to imagine that Jesus’ righteousness testified to those around Him that their deeds didn’t measure up. But here I picked up the scent. It will be harder to throw me off the trail.
The word evil conjures an image of sin and sinners, violations of God’s holy law. But that doesn’t square with the Gospel narratives at all. It wasn’t an angry mob of prostitutes and tax collectors that led Jesus to Golgotha. It was a mob of religious people, indignant because his deeds of righteousness testified that their religious deeds were hurtful (as opposed to evil). Their religion kept them from coming to Him. He was ready to forgive their sin, their evil, but their faith in their religion and their own “righteous” deeds were the hurtful deeds that caused them so much harm.
I feel more confident now to substitute what the NET translators considered the first definition of πονηρὰ (a form of πονηρός): Now this is the [judgment]: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were [full of labours, annoyances, and hardships]. This definitely sounds like Jesus. Come to me, He said, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.
If I continue in this vein, rejecting the ethical definition of φαῦλα (a form of φαῦλος), I get, For everyone who does [ordinary or worthless] deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed [e.g., as ordinary or worthless]. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.
While in is a perfectly acceptable translation of ἐν, the NET translators used with 145 times and by 135 times in other places in the New Testament. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done [by] God, would have further highlighted the contrast between righteousness and ordinary or worthless religious works done in one’s own strength.
It seems to me now that the translation of πονηρά as evil in these two instances was at best the work of moral philosophers recasting Jesus in their own image. At worst it was the religious mind reasserting itself while attempting to remain in the shadows by focusing the light away from itself and on to the evil. But Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God!”