Darkness is a primal thing. No one likes it. No one seeks it. We think we have beaten our ancient fear of it, but it is only the fragile light bulb that makes us think we are less primitive than we are.
Darkness is disorienting, you cannot see the ground ahead of you nor the prey sneaking up on you. As a child, the prey is the alligator living under the bed. As an adult, the darkness is a thing to be laughed at in the light and a thing to be dreaded while in the dark.
For generations and centuries, man hated to see the sun set, having no candle to ward off the night spirits. Even with a candle or kerosene lamp, its flickering glow seemed too meager to combat the oppressive night.
Sailors for millennia will tell you that the night watch from 2-4 am is the most chilling. Terrifying is the night, especially if there is no moon and the stars are obscured. Samuel Taylor Coleridge captured this in the stanza about sailing at night in his famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
|George Grie ‘Final Frontier Voyager’ Wikimedia commons|
Night sailing is vertiginous, captured here in Grie’s painting. At every moment one believes the edge of the world looms and we will be pitched into a void from which there is no escape.
The River Styx is the Greek mythological river that separates the outer world from the underworld. It is a kingdom lorded over by Hades, and guarded by Cerberus the three headed dog. Charon is the ferryboatman who brings the lost souls across the river to their eternal doom. The term ‘stygian darkness’ comes from the Styx.
Here in the book Stories of the Ships, by Lewis R. Freeman, we read a description of a storm at night-
“The ship was reeling through the blackness of the pit when I clambered to the deck after dinner, so that the driving spray and ice-needles struck the face before one saw them by even the thousandth of a second. The darkness was such as one almost never encounters ashore, and it was some time before I accustomed myself to close my eyes against the unseen missiles (when turning to windward) without deliberately telling myself to do so in advance.”
“Into the Stygian pall the vivid golden triangles from the signal searchlights on the bridge flashed like the stab of a flaming sword. One instant the darkness was almost palpable enough to lean against; the next, the silhouette of funnels and foretop pricked into life, but only to be quenched again before the eye had time to fix a single detail.”
“Darkness you could lean against” … so apt!
I was in total darkness once. I do not mean the dark night, or even the dark when sailing, though that is very dark. I mean under-the-earth kind of dark where there is no spot of light nor any particle of brightness nor any beam of luminosity…just oppressive dark. It was when we toured the Queen Copper Mine in Bisbee Arizona. The tour takes you down under the earth and as you go along, they explain about mining. When we got to the bottom, the tour guide says to turn off your headlamps, and for 5 to 8 seconds we sit in a darkness so black is it alive. It suffocates, and permeates the brain to the extent that you want to scream and scrape your way out. It is a darkness that is palpable, suffocating you with its wild dementia. It is a darkness that claws at your sanity. When the lights come back on your mind relaxes at the soothing balm that brightness brings.
In darkness such as this, your eye has no opportunity to grasp a single detail, and instead, the mind is floating as a raft upon the darkness, free-wheeling and unhinged from the anchoring light.
In this NY Times review of an art installation, Darkness Visible, and Palpable, the author wrote,
“Usually, when we see something, we see it in advance: we know we can approach it; we can assess it as we move forward. Sight helps shape our sense of the future.
Here we have a different experience of time. Sounds help us anticipate, but in this strange, darkened space, even voices seem to float, positionless, in a void. We don’t know what is about to happen; we aren’t sure where we have been; and it is a problem finding out just where we are. No wonder horror movies rely on darkness: Anything can take shape in front of our eyes, and we would hardly know it. The world becomes immaterial in one respect but all too solid with dangers in another.”
|Dore’s illustration in Dante’s Inferno,
Gates of Hell, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’
Studies have been done. Darkness does things to us. Participants in an experiment were put into a dimmed room. Their behavior became more dishonest than the participants in the well-lit room. In another study, participants were situated in a well-lit room with another person, except then they were given sunglasses. Participants wearing sunglasses acted more dishonestly than participants without.
Read more about “What darkness does to the mind” at The Atlantic.
The bible frequently uses light and dark to contrast truths. Ecclesiastes 2:14b says that the fool walks in darkness. John 12:35b says “Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.”
The way that darkness is used here is that movement in the absence of light could cause self-injury or harm to others. You walk slowly when it’s dark, you don’t run. That is because you do not know where danger is. Pulpit Commentary says, “they will drift over the fathomless unknown into infinite and endless suspense. When the Light of the world is spurned, … humanity and the world have no goal set before them; there is no end at which they aim – no mind or will to guide the progress of mankind.”
Sin is darkness. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11)
The power of satan is darkness. (Acts 26:18)
The LORD spoke much in the Old Testament about the Day of Darkness. His judgment brings darkness.
“Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18).
“Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings the darkness, before your feet stumble on the darkening hills. You hope for light, but he will turn it to utter darkness and change it to deep gloom.” (Jeremiah 13:16)
But Jesus IS THE LIGHT!!
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
How wonderful we can follow Him, a Light that never goes on and never dims. We will never walk in darkness if we follow Him. He knows the way, because He IS the Way!
If you do not follow Him, O, my heart aches in sadness to say, but there the person will remain in outer darkness all their lives throughout eternity. A person who dies in their sin, will remain in that clawing, palpable, screaming darkness forever- in hell.
Hell is a place of outer darkness (Matthew 22:13) where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12).
People, the precious Light has come!
“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:36)