How So Many Believers Completely Misunderstand God’s Love in John 3:16

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.

John 3:16

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:

  1. God is angry and upset with us
  2. God must satisfy his sense of strict justice by killing his own son (penal substitution)
  3. God requires us to perform a salvation ritual in order to accept us
  4. God will punish us forever if we do not comply
  5. 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:

  1. God loves us unconditionally
  2. God accepts us as we are: broken, hurt, and alienated
  3. God desires our healing and reconciliation and requires no ritual transaction of us
  4. God does not punish any of us in some imagined hell
  5. 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:

  1. God is not angry as many of us supposed but loves us deeply
  2. God’s love for us takes away our fear, guilt, and condemnation
  3. We are not asked to follow burdensome religious rules but to love people
  4. As followers of Jesus we are agents for expanding God’s kingdom on Earth
  5. 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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This entry was posted in alienation, baggage, God, hell, Jesus, love, The Father, the Good News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to How So Many Believers Completely Misunderstand God’s Love in John 3:16

  1. Finding more and more eye opening information here. What you are saying sets my soul at rest in that it eases some of the cognitive dissonance that’s been plaguing me for so long. There are so many conflicting messages out there that it is difficult to know what to believe… I don’t understand about the being no hell though, so I’m going to have to dive into some of your past posts to try to understand… Thanks for your work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tonycutty says:

    Love this. Will likely reblog it. And don’t be surpriseed that they have twisted the meaning of Jn 3:16-18. They twist everything and it’s easy to become tired of it! Even the idea of ‘Grace’ has been hijacked again, with certain churches calling themselves ‘Grace-based’ whereas they are actually nothing of the sort. And the Christians who have dropped the name ‘Christians’ and become ‘Christ-followers’, because so many believers like me have dropped the name ‘Chistian’ because of its horrible connotations. So now they’ve grabbed ‘Christ followers’ so they can twist that as well…and yet…and yet….Jesus calls me to love these people. That’s what I find hard!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, I am glad you like the post. It is an important issue for me, of course; I am tired of biblical passages being twisted and corrupted with doctrines that are not innate to the passages.

      Like

  3. cmgatlin53 says:

    What if the bracketed [hell]s were replaced wIth [separation from God]? What if the whole punishment model is mistaken, but a danger remains? That is, Jesus came to save us from a real danger, to start our transformation into beings that will be at home in eternity with God? (That there is a danger is shown by the repeated reference to the “torment” felt by figures like Dives in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.) Otherwise why such strong encouragement not to wait until it’s too late?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chas says:

      emg, I am fully with your suggestion of replacing hell with separation from God, because there is no destruction with God, but there is destruction throughout the whole universe, as we can see and detect. When we are able to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, we can begin to push back against destruction, by being enabled to resist doing certain things that we know will lead to suffering. This is the start of the transformation to which you have referred. If we learned about our separation from God, but did not accept that Jesus was the Son of God, then we would continue to do things that we know would lead to suffering (your danger that remains) and would cease to exist (be destroyed) when we died. Since God is kind, gentle and loving, that ceasing to exist does not mean being put into an everlasting torture.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chuck, I respect those who think of ‘hell’ in terms of separation from God; I think there is some validity to the concept. On the other hand, this seems to suggest that those separated from God suffer in some way from the separation. In my opinion, the only reason a person will be finally separated from God is by their own choice; and they will likely choose separation because it is the presence of God that they cannot abide.

      Like

  4. newtonfinn says:

    More than John 3:16, which, as you illustrate, lends itself to being loaded with extrinsic doctrine, I have always found the most remarkable piece of the Johannine literature to be 1 John 1:5, where the entire life and teaching of Jesus is distilled into one awe-inspiring statement: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” This has always been for me a crucial lens or filter through which to read and interpret ALL of scripture and Christian tradition, a rubric to separate wheat from chaff, good fish from bad. I wish this pregnant verse were more prominent in our preaching, worship, and witness. It surely infuses the posts on this blog, helpful and healing to many like me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I think you are on to something here; I agree that this is a very insightful passage, and I can see how it DOES serve as a good filter for understand other passages.

      Like

  5. Chas says:

    Tim, responding to: ‘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 think it says.’ The problem is that this passage is usually read by people who have some prior information (either from other people, or from other passages in the Bible) that can color their interpretation of it. If the passage was read for the first time in isolation from such other information, then it would be possible to reach your interpretation, but it would be possible to reach alternative interpretations. Equally, without any prior knowledge, it would be possible to find the passage meaningless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, you are right of course. Many people approach this passage with preconceived theologies that result in a misguided understanding of it. But I think if one can escape that baggage the passage become much clearer and the good news message can shine through.

      Like

  6. Great article! There’s one more piece that some of our misdirected brethren miss too – that God loves the world, not just humanity. And that God sent his Son for the world, not just humanity. We see a fuller, and more specific telling of this same idea in Revelation when the author writes about a new heaven and a new earth and Jerusalem coming down to earth. Isaiah talks about the lion and the lamb lying together. It’s the idea that there will be reconciliation for all of the cosmos.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “God loves the world, not just humanity.” Yes! This is an aspect of God’s will and concern that seems completely lost on some believers.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I encourage you to persevere with this message.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Alan C says:

    I’d add to your amplification of John 3:16 — “whoever believes in him [and prays the sinner’s prayer and believes all the right doctrines about him]”

    Liked by 1 person

    • newtonfinn says:

      Funny, isn’t it, what belief in Jesus meant when he was walking around among us, and what it has come to mean to so many today? I love the story in the gospel where the father brings his deathly-ill child to Jesus and begs for a healing. Jesus asks flat out if the father believes he can heal the child. And the father answers, in words that ring through the centuries of struggle between doubt and faith: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

      Which, in the infinite grace of God, surprisingly turns out to be enough–this weak, hesitant, semi-cynical statement that nevertheless opens the door to a miracle simply because it is the humble, unvarnished truth. Kierkegaard picks up this thread when he, insisting that truth is subjectivity and subjectivity truth, illustrates this bit of existentialism by saying that a heathen who pours his soul into a prayer to an idol prays to God, while the orthodox Christian who mouths a prayer in church prays to an idol.

      “Whoever believes in him,” as John uses the phrase, would seem to have little to do with conceptual buy-ins and much more to do with passion, transparency, and trust.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alan C says:

        Yes. My understanding of the Greek word for “believe” in the NT means “trust” just as much as, maybe more than, propositional assent. Trust Jesus.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Newton, I think you make a great point about praying to idols. Lewis makes this same point in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle: “But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          Tim, a problem here is that IS members believe that the murderous and barbaric things that they do are done for the service of God.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas, which members to you mean?

            Like

          • Chas says:

            Tim, so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

            Liked by 1 person

          • newtonfinn says:

            Chas, this has been a problem that has continually plagued religion, no doubt since the “primitive” shamanic era. As someone once quipped: there’s no better thing than good religion and no worse thing than bad religion. How to tell them apart? Jesus provided a better test than I can come up with–“by their fruits ye shall know them.” In other words, whether one’s subjective relationship is with the true God or with an idol cannot be determined by the words one uses or the beliefs one claims to embrace, but only by one’s actions in the world. Is the universal love of God (which sometimes has sharp prophetic edges) being manifested in one’s life (however imperfectly), or rather a lesser allegiance or devotion that so easily devolves into hate? Hope this is useful to you as it is to me.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Newton, agreed.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Well said, Newton! I agree that there are people in all religions with good hearts and intentions; I don’t think they will be penalized by following their religion. On the other hand, there are also people in all religions (including Christianity) who follow their religions in destructive and unenlightened ways that demonstrate their own dark hearts.

            Love and reconciliation vs. hate and oppression. Both are found in all religions because both are found in people everywhere.

            Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Yes, Alan. That would be a valid addition to explain the way some people understand it.

      Like

  9. Johanna Meyer-Mitchell says:

    My problem with this passage is its exclusivity. I cannot believe that a God that loves the world as much as I believe God does would condemn everyone who does not know Jesus. I believe that God has sent many messengers with Jesus’ message, and it is the trust in the message of God’s love and light that sets us free, not specifically trust in Jesus.

    Other than that addition, I agree completely with what you say and how John 3:16 has been misinterpreted and twisted.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Johanna, isn’t it interesting that such a short and wonderful passage can be twisted into something entirely different and not so wonderful?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Johanna, yes, God’s love sets us free, but it is our choice to accept it. He offers it, but we can trust Him and accept it, or reject it by thinking that we know better.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Donald John says:

    As a Jewish street preacher here in Austin, Texas… John 3:16 is a fundamental cornerstone scripture to preach because it displays Jehovah’s fervent charity. The same God who sent the flood & fire then GAVE his only begotten Son for eternal life and the destruction of the devil.

    AlleluYAH to the Lamb of God Jesus Christ.

    Yeshua is Messias of Y’israel ✡🕇🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Petra says:

    I think the issue becomes more clear as we track the idea of “ages” throughout the scriptures. the idea of different ages, it is something that was very well known and understood by Jesus’ disciples, as we read in matthew 24 that they’re asking him what will be sign of his second coming and the end of the age (eon in greek). this is what the “new age” refers to: we are in the age of pisces at the moment and the next age lined up, the one when Jesus should return, is the age of aquarius. before the age of pisces there was age of aries (biblically that’s between the flood and the death of Jesus) and before that was the age of taurus (from adam & eve to the flood).
    now. when you read the book of Job, it becomes apparent that he was well aware of the fact that there lies a period of time when life will go on and on, and certain passages from Job suggest that reincarnation, i.e. having “more tries” was a concept people believed in. but from Job we can also see that he knew this period of time will expire and one day he will be ressurected and will face God in flesh. he also knew of his redeemer, although he the book doesn’t seem to suggest that Job knew about when or how will the salvation happen.
    Job lived at the time of Abraham, so quite soon after the flood, and before the hebrew religion even came to be. so it is interesting that this idea of “time will be up one day” is this old.
    now when the OT prophets started prophesize about the redeemer, they were often given words that mentioned his first and his second coming almost within the same sentence. that’s why when he finally came, his followers thought that the age of restorating came with him, although we know it was not meant to be that way. but the idea of “new age” when God will restore everything on earth was very well understood. over time, the disciples came to knowing that that age has not come yet, but that it will be the next age. that’s why they were asking about the signs of the end of the age.
    from NT writings we were told a little bit more about this and especially the book of revelation gives more details of what happens in terms of “who goes where”. we understand that the upcoming age of aquarius is the 1000 years kingdome. without going into too much detail of it, if you dont accept the Light, Jesus, before the beginning of the next age (if you die before it starts), you won’t get another chance to incarnate and try agian. you will simply have to wait for the end of that age for the “white throne judgment”, which is the ressurection Job was taking about. there people will be judged based on what they were pursuing in their last life. i acutally believe most will be allowed to enter everlasting life on the new earth, but some will not, because they will NOT humbe themselves. even after the long wait they will still keep pride in their hearts and even possibly argue that things they messed up in their lives were somebody elses fault. these people will not be allowed to continue to exist, and of course will not be put into any type of hell. they will simply stop existing. they will be blotted out of the book of life and most likely any memories about them will be erased as well.
    time is short..

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Petra, this is a really interesting collection of thoughts and ideas. I agree with a few elements but I think much of it is based on an improper approach to the Bible as a ‘code book’ of clues that can be assembled to reveal a pattern that is not really there. Passages seem to be patched together, without regard to their context, to fit a preconceived construct.

      This is very novel thinking, and might make an entertaining story of fiction, but I don’t think it is supportable by biblical scholarship. Are these thoughts original to you or do they derive from a book or somewhere else? Do you have sources you can document for these claims?

      Thanks!

      Like

      • Petra says:

        I’ve been working on this for some time, and by “working on” I mean spending many hours per day in conversation with the Creator and trying to get the answer for “why are we here”. I’ve had a breakthrough this week and actually a post on your blog put into words what i ve been shown but couldn’t find words to express it. I was typing my previous post on my phone so was rushing it.. I will answer in more detail later on.
        I do take the bible as a work of genius that has many layers. I do believer one of the layer is that it does speak of the over all plan. Some see it there, some don’t.. I do.
        I’ll be back later on with some more coherent post 🙂

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I look forward to your more detailed explanation.

          Like

          • Petra says:

            Astronomical age: i’m not sure if you’re familiar with the concept, so i’m gonna recap on it quickly:
            there are 12 zodiac signs around the ecliptic (above the horizon). if you observed where the sun comes up in the morning of the spring equinox for long enough, you’d realise that the sun would over time change its position, very slowly – only by 1 degree every 72 years. this means if you watched it for approx 26,000 years, the sun would slowly moved around the whole ecliptic. this is called The Great Year. since there are 12 zodiac signs around the ecliptic, sun stays in each of them approx 2160 years. at the moment we are in the last degrees of the sign pisces. when jesus was born, the sun was coming up somewhere between the aries and pisces.
            now here’s the thing: the signs have different length, visually, when you look at them, so we cannot just chop up the ecliptic into 12 similar sized chunks and say “here’s the start of this one and end of the other one”. therefore there are transition zones that can last a few hundreds years.
            this is the age – eon – that the disciples were refering to in matthew 24. this is also what is mentioned in genesis, that the stars were given for time and season keeping.
            the upcoming age of aquarius is what the new agers are waiting for. it is also what the christians are waiting for when they speak of the return of Christ.
            it would seem that the age of aries, which was the one between the great flood and ended round with Jesus’ death, has a ram as its symbol. the OT is full of rams – lambs: Abraham’s story, the role of lamb in the exodus from Egypt, Jesus being the ultimate sacrificed lamb, ending the age.
            there’s simply too many paralels to list, but i’m sure you’re getting the idea.
            now the bible story basically starts with the beginning of the astronomical age of taurus, and after a few chapters enters aries. thats most of the jewish history. the NT was written in, and for the age of pisces, the fishes. the upcoming age of aquarius is said to be the one in which Jesus returns and brings the heavenly kingdom to the earth. after that should be the age of capricorn, which has a goat as its symbol. i consider that age to be the same thing as the white thrown judgment. i do think it will take a long time for God to speak with every soul.
            ….
            i will continue tomorrow.

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Petra, thanks for filling in some detail on your theory. I always say that people can believe what they wish, but I don’t think your theory is consistent with what we now understand of biblical history–especially Old Testament history. You indicate that, “Job lived at the time of Abraham, so quite soon after the flood.” But there was no world-wide flood and Job’s story is not a historical one but a philosophical reflection on why bad things happen to good people; Job is a fictional character in a story.

            You also mention that, “from NT writings we were told a little bit more about this and especially the book of revelation gives more details of what happens in terms of “who goes where”. we understand that the upcoming age of aquarius is the 1000 years kingdome.” But the book of Revelation is NOT a prophecy of some end-time event, but a response to comfort a group of believers during a severe local persecution by the Roman government in the first century. It had nothing to do with the distant future; the 1000 year kingdom and the white throne judgments are simply apocalyptic elements to achieve the purpose of the book in regard to first century events.

            We have been told of the dawning of the age of Aquarius to supersede the age of Pisces(supposedly Jesus’ age) since the 60s, but I have never seen this Zodiac correspondence to the biblical story as anything other than a forced correspondence; they are not made of the same stuff.

            I think your theory is interesting, but I can’t see that it has adequate foundation in biblical scholarship or in the imposition of the ‘ages’ of the Zodiac onto the biblical narrative. This doesn’t mean you can’t believe it or be excited about it, but I am sorry to say that don’t find it at all convincing.

            Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Will Everyone Live Forever with God After Death? Not Necessarily! | Jesus Without Baggage

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