I suppose most believers think John 3:16 is one of the most wonderful passages in the Bible—and I agree! This passage tells of God’s love for us in a very proactive way. This is why “John 3:16” is found everywhere: on T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, mugs, at ball games, and in an endless number of other places. John 3:16 appears everywhere.
It is as though the mere reference to John 3:16, without comment or elaboration, is a strong message of God’s love. However, I am concerned that many believers who heavily promote John 3:16 have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means, so that their use of the passage is really a misuse, and the message of God’s love is corrupted and severely garbled.
The Severely Garbled Message of John 3:16
When reading John 3:16, many believers infuse it with harmful doctrinal beliefs that really aren’t there, and the message of God’s love is lost and twisted from good news into what is essentially bad news. The meaning is transformed into something very different than what the passage says.
Here is the text of John 3:16 with typical misguided assumptions added in brackets:
God so loved the world [though he can’t bear to look at us because of our sin] that he gave his one and only Son [to suffer and die on the cross in our place and take the punishment for our sins], that whoever believes in him [and prays the sinner’s prayer] shall not perish [in the eternal fires of hell] but have eternal life [in heaven].
The message of God’s love has been seriously garbled! Instead of good news it has become bad news. The bracketed sections are not part of John 3:16 and do not represent its message. This understanding assumes:
- God is angry and upset with us
- God must satisfy his sense of strict justice by killing his own son (penal substitution)
- God requires us to perform a salvation ritual in order to accept us
- God will punish us forever if we do not comply
- Eternal life is only in heaven
This is not at all like the loving Father Jesus tells us about; this is an angry, harsh, and vindictive God. And this is BAD NEWS. This terrible misunderstanding of God originates in harmful doctrinal baggage that developed and accumulated over centuries to produce an idea of God completely at odds with the God Jesus knew.
The truth is:
- God loves us unconditionally
- God accepts us as we are: broken, hurt, and alienated
- God desires our healing and reconciliation and requires no ritual transaction of us
- God does not punish any of us in some imagined hell
- Eternal life begins now
God is like a loving Father/Mother who wants the best for each of us and sent Jesus to tell us of his/her wonderful, unconditional love for every person. This is GOOD NEWS—REALLY GOOD NEWS!
John 3:16 is Only Part of the Context
We need not stop with John 3:16 because the thought continues. Let us see what it says, and note that some believers insert misguided understandings into this passage too [in brackets].
John 3:17, 18:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world [to hell], but to save the world [from hell] through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned [to hell], but whoever does not believe stands condemned [to hell] already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Certain believers (and there are a LOT of them) understand that the goal in accepting Jesus is to go to heaven and avoid eternal hell, which is where angry god will send us if we don’t do the right things. This assumes God to be angry, harsh, and vindictive, but this is NOT the case. There is no reason to be afraid of God, and God is not going to punish anyone. Verses 17 and 18 do not refer to being condemned to, or being saved from, ‘hell’.
If this is true that hell is not in view, then what does it mean to not condemn the world but save it? Save it from what? Or that those who do not believe in him (Jesus) are condemned already? Condemned to what? These are good questions. If people are not being condemned to hell or saved from hell, then what is it they are condemned to or saved from?
I submit that we are being saved from a life of brokenness, pain, alienation, and death. Jesus came to bring good news such as:
- God is not angry as many of us supposed but loves us deeply
- God’s love for us takes away our fear, guilt, and condemnation
- We are not asked to follow burdensome religious rules but to love people
- As followers of Jesus we are agents for expanding God’s kingdom on Earth
- Death is not the end because Jesus offers eternal life and happiness
But what of those who are condemned already because they do not believe in Jesus? I think this means they are still in a state of brokenness, pain, aloneness, alienation, and despair. But it does not mean this is a permanent condition. When one does hear the good news of Jesus and begins following him, this condition begins to change.
Reading John 3:16 should give us great joy, but misreading it (as many do) garbles the good news message entirely. So let us read the passage for what it says instead of what some people mistakenly think it says. For it is GOOD NEWS indeed!
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