Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
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.
— John 3:16
John 3:16 is one of the best known, possibly the best known phrase in the New Testament, available on postcards, badges, mugs, tee-shirts and bumper stickers, and tattooed on the bodies of many self-proclaimed Christians.1 It has also been called the "gospel in a nutshell", because it is considered by many to be a summary of the central theme of traditional Christianity.2
Personally, I've never liked it—at least while it is associated with child sacrifice and the belief that only Christians can be saved—and worse, that absolutely no effort is required on our part, just passive 'belief'. I reckon this view represents a selfish, self-righteous, divisive, lazy and ultimately destructive theology. We don't have to care for anyone else—just believe in Jesus; we don't have to protect the natural world—just believe in Jesus; we can fight all the wars we want, oppress enslave, kill and maim our brethren, destroy forests and oceans but so long as we believe in Jesus we'll be fine. This, surely, cannot be what the writer of John meant.
Happily many theologians today are reexamining this text, reminding us the verse is part of a larger context.3 Jesus was trying to explain in metaphor to Nicademus, a Jewish leader and a literalist, what it meant to be 'born again' into the spirit of the new kingdom. Just as he was not literally talking of coming out of your mother's body a second time,4 he was also not talking about another life apart from this one, here, now. The phrase "everlasting life" did not mean life after death, not the dualistic notion introduced by the Greeks of earth/heaven but life in the coming kingdom, which was eminent and earthbound, and mentioned as such in all four gospels, e.g. on earth as it is in heaven. We can actually live, here, now, in the way we imagine God lives for all eternity. The 'kingdom of God' in times of Empire was a radical concept, and thus hard to trust—to believe in.
God's kingdom is a state of being we must strive towards. It requires a change of mind and heart, yes, but then it requires action—it requires us to behave differently. Being a Christian means reading and following the whole gospel, not just one verse, not just the easy bits. The belief Jesus asks of us is the inherent belief in the goodness of all mankind, and perhaps the belief in ourselves to be capable of profound change.5
1 The verse is even listed in Dictionary.com [jon three siks-teen]
2 See John 3:16 in Wikipedia
3 E.g. Marcus Borg in this short video
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? — John 3:4
5 I recommend Moon-Dancing Bears, Jesus and Nicodemus, a sermon on John 3:1-17 by Pastor Dawn Hutchings, Toronto, 4/3/2020