Without a doubt, John 3:16 is the most quoted and well-known verse in the Bible. It’s been repeated by Christians, posted on billboards, printed on banners over highways, displayed at sporting events, and recited at evangelistic crusades. Yet, despite its fame, this verse deserves a second look.
I grew up a Christian, but it bothered me when religious folks would recite the verse’s words from the beloved King James Bible, savoring them as if they were a magical formula. The frequency of its recitation diminishes the verse’s power, rendering it a common cliché. It has become the salvation text that characterizes the standard conservative Christian gospel. As a formula for this gospel, it tends to keep minds tied to the dogma that has been handed down to us by institutions of faith. Evangelical theology has for the most part rewritten John 3:16 in a way that fails to recognize its true proclamation about God. This is worrisome because having mistaken ideas about what God is like and how He views the world can cripple us, perhaps even leave us feeling disturbed or angry with God. Perhaps we have offered truncated notions of truth and need to re-read this verse once again.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright contends that the trouble with the popular version of John 3:16 is “that ultimately we end up rewriting one of the most famous verses in the Bible.” He notes that while the verse states “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,” these words “can easily be heard as saying, instead, that God so hated the world, that he killed his only son. And that doesn’t sound like good news at all. If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial mistake that could easily be corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.” (The Day the Revolution Began, 2016, p. 43).
A mentor of mine once said that the meaning of this beautiful truth—that “God so loved the world that He gave”—will be further developed in the closing scenes of earth’s history, rekindling thoughtful reflection on God. So, I have thought carefully about each of these words to gain richer reflection. Rightly understood, this text may be an index of everything the world needs to hear about God—or at least a springboard to a fuller understanding of Him.
Here’s the verse: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3;16, ESV).
The context of the passage is the nighttime visit of Nicodemus to Jesus. Like Nicodemus, the first time we hear the verse, we may be surprised or even a bit resistant. We too know something about God, but those who have come before us have ruined the moment with their traditions of nonsense. We are not ready to see God as He is until He offers a deeper revelation about Himself. Our mistaken ideas about God deeply affect us. We may even pull back in disappointment, trying to make sense of the skeptics’ objections, but Jesus reveals God persuasively to us, and the more we know about Him, the more we come to like Him. Maybe when we finally meet Him, He will be everything we’ve been looking for and more.
“God so loved the world…”
God’s response to the world is love. The God we hope for is grounded in love. Love is the essence of who He is, and amazingly, we have been invited into His unfathomable and irresistible expression of love. If “God so loved the world,” then everything in the text flows from the expression of God’s love. This is the grand narrative that we have been swept into. When we see tragedy and injustice, we can know that God still loves and is reclaiming this world despite its brokenness. God chooses to love the world to make it right once again. It can also be said that God’s love for the world is also at work in those who disagree with us. Yes, God’s love is at work even in our enemies, in Democrats and Republicans, in atheists and non-believers. He provides some unquestionable evidence for this.
God not only loves humans but has ongoing relationships with the world and everything in it. “God is the God of the entire cosmos; God has to do with every creature, and every creature has to do with God, whether they recognize it or not. God’s work in the world must be viewed in and through a universal frame of reference.” (Terrence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, p. xiv.).
God’s love for the world isn’t just about me and you—it’s about the world as God’s creation. That includes non-human entities like animals, oceans, rivers, trees, the sky, and the earth itself. According to Romans 8:19, “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (NIV). God want’s us to participate in His love for the world. Our redemption is tied to the redemption of all creation, which requires being kind to animals and considerate to the earth. Appeals to John 3:16 often focus on human salvation and neglect the earth, but we live in a world that is loved by God, which eradicates the notion that the world is bad. How can anyone proclaim God’s love for the world when they abuse and misuse His creation? God loves the world, so we should love it too!
“…He gave His only Son…”
God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son. The manner of God’s love is a gift that conveys His presence with us. God’s gift of Himself requires no reciprocation from us. His gift is not a loan that must be repaid or one that will be reclaimed when defaulted on. It is not a debt requiring human obligation. We tried to defeat and crush Him, but thank God, He is not a loan shark; we have Him forever. Neither is He a victim of an angry Father but the manifestation of the Father’s generosity and gift of love.
As the one and only Son, Jesus is a revelation proclaimed by God as the dearly beloved son who alone is the exact image of God—and thus not literally a “begotten” son. Jesus is God’s unique personal self-revelation who portrays the intensity of the Father’s love (Genesis 22:18). God chooses to hold us in the company of His Son, and because of who He is, you and I receive new identities as God’s adopted sons and daughters.
And then, the offer of salvation: “…whoever would believe in Him might not perish…”
God’s saving love is poured out indiscriminately on all. It is universal. It is unlimited. Some argue that this love is restricted to the few who believe, but God’s gift of love universally embraces the world (1 John 2:2; 2 Peter 3:9). Narrow interpretations of God’s mercy and love are incorrect. There is a breadth to God’s mercy. It is not only for Jews or Christians but for all—no person is turned away. Everyone is included. Wanting all to be saved, God is working in every human heart, but people can and do resist His gift. When a person’s heart is open to becoming His friend, however, God draws that person further into His unparalleled act of intimacy. God’s love for the world is more passionate, more defined and more intense than we could ever imagine.
The kind of faith or belief that pertains to human salvation is commonly misunderstood. Rather than intellectual assent to commonly defined and understood theological propositions, believing in Jesus has to do with being loyal to His way of love in such a way that it engages every part of our lives. It is not just checking off a list of beliefs and affirming correct doctrines. I do not dismiss mental assent but stress the kind of belief that encompasses faithfulness and commitment. People today become suspicious of religious dogmas and creeds when belief is portrayed as merely a theological quiz, a blind leap into the dark for which no assurances have been provided. Faith becomes reliable when it’s legitimate, meaningful, and embodied.
Will God really consign those who lack theological knowledge to a fate worse than death—to eternal torment? How could we long for an eternity governed by such a God? Is there an alternative way to think about it? Those who refuse God’s act of love will perish, and perishing does not mean going to a hell that punishes sinners for eternity. Such sinners cannot have eternal life. Theologian Edward Fudge was fond of pointing out that if it were true that God punished sinners with eternal torment, no one would perish: “If unbelievers perish in hell, then hell cannot exist” (The Fire That Consumes, 2011, p.164). I would add that perishing is not a response to the failure to meet God’s demand of “love me, or I’ll kill you,” but “let me heal you in my care or you will die.” We are the ones perishing, so perhaps it is more accurate to say that if we fail to respond, we lose out such that only the finality of death is left.
And finally, a word about what it means to “… have eternal life.”
We can only long for eternity if God is all we’ve imagined Him to be. Eternal life is not like some fire insurance policy that rescues us from the demands of an angry deity, nor is it a slice of pie in the sky. It is the fulfillment of our deepest longings for love and meaning, so we might enter into in a shared life of communion with God Himself. It’s about life itself, as God intended it to be—forever!
Rather than describing a cheap ticket to heaven, John 3:16 presents a God who loves the world (cosmos) so much that He gives a dying world His most precious gift. He experiences death on our account, even as we try to get rid of Him, and we end up with the greatest gift of eternal love. God loves the world, and nothing can stop that love from flowing because its gift is grounded in who God is. If you’re still not convinced, the verse that follows may contribute to a fuller understanding of John 3:16:
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17, ESV).
Nothing can cancel God’s love for the world. He wishes not to judge the world but to save it. That’s the character of God’s love for the world, and the moment we recognize this, we will finally meet the all-loving God we’ve been looking for.
Craig Ashton Jr.