For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life….
I love this verse. It is not difficult to see why it is one of the most famous, most often memorized, most cherished verses in scripture. Packed into this verse are the greatest realities that exist. God. Love. The world. The Son of God. Faith. Perishing. Living forever. All the realities of this life are on display. We see their interactions and their intimate connections- a microcosm of God’s nature and character into twenty-four words.
At the same time, despite all its beauty and import, I consider it to be the most dangerous verses in the Bible. This is because when taken on its own, as so many people understand, it is vague. It is so easily misunderstood. It is so easily misinterpreted and abused. It conveys so much, and for that reason it lends itself a lack of clarity. When read without biblical literacy, it is a broken crutch that ignorant and dying people lay their weight on. That crutch with snap, they will come crashing to the ground, and they will go through the earth and straight into hell. John 3 is a marvellous, wonderful chapter. It is a comfort and a warm blanket. John 3:16 on the other hand, on its own, will be a terror to many, many people.
They will hear and read this verse without understanding. The shuddering theology is obfuscated by temporal and cultural presuppositions, not to mention sinful whimsy. They have this idea that if they believe in God and that Jesus existed and if they are good people then they will go to heaven. There is no conception of anything beyond that. It doesn’t shape how they live their lives or how they respond to that God and to that Jesus. They don’t attach any qualifiers or caveats to it, but rather for them that is the summary of that verse and the perception which they grant it. And yet for most of them, it will be a damnable gospel. A quick examinination of three simple elements to it will show this to be so.
“God” There is no reason to think that Jesus means any other God than the God of the Old Testament. He is the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is personal and not a mere force, meaning he thinks and wills and feels. He loves, and he hates. He is Love, and he is Justice. And as personal God, he is moral—that is, e deals with us in terms of right and wrong and good and bad. And as moral, he is unwaveringly righteous. He is three-in-one, a mysterious Trinity composed of three persons, and because he is infinitely holy, and because he is good, he has designed a system of redemption whereby all have sinned and deserve damnation. His wrath is upon mankind for their trespasses against him, for their cosmic treason, and only the death of his Son on the cross will satisfy his demand for holiness in the form of imputed sinless perfection and perfect righteousness. There is one God. He is fiercely jealous. And he does not accept worship by proxy.
For this reason, if your idea of God is some idolatrous concoction that you have created in the dark recesses of your fractured imagination, then this verse will not save you. It cannot. If your idea of God is some impersonal deistic being, then the truth of this verse will not save you. If your idea of God is yourself, and that we are all divine spirits who control our own destiny, then this verse will be of no comfort to you. If your idea of God is a being who loves everyone, and would never send anyone to hell, and would never make the demands on people such as we find in scripture, then you ought to know that in those last dying breaths when you face eternity, John 3;16 will not be a comfort to you, but rather a curse. The Hindu cannot cling to this verse, neither can the Muslim or the Agnostic or Cult member. If your God is not the God revealed in scripture, possessing all his characteristics and nature, then this is indeed a very dangerous verse for you.
“Loved” People have this idea that the love of God is some ethereal, mushy, tolerant love. They believe that God is love, and that love is God, and that the highest law of the universe is the law of love. It is thought that God loves us the way a man loves his wife, or the way a woman loves her lesbian partner, or the way a child loves his puppy. Because of this, people believe that the love of God is frightenly permissive. They have been led to believe that they can do whatever they want, act however they want, think whatever they want, worship any variations of God they want, and that God will love them anyway, because God loves people, and they are people. There is no thought of God’s love in a biblical sense. Rather it is some grostesquries. Love without Justice. Love without holiness. Love without righteousness. God’s love is their love, and they are making this expression of the love of God cancel out other expressions of the love God, and what better verse to get away with it than John 3:16. More importantly, they don’t understand that the true love that this verse speaks of, is that God sent us his Son to believe in so that we might be saved. That is this love manifest. But instead of upholding that, they are instead playing with and mixing and matching several kinds of love, few of them grounded in a Christ-centered and cross-focussed love, and as a result their arrogance and indifference lead to destruction.
“Believe in Him” I often wonder exactly how much people know about Jesus. You talk to people who say they are Christians, and more often than not we see that they don’t know anything about him. They might know he was God’s son, that he did some miracles, and that he died and rose again, but that’s pretty much it. They know certain facts and historical data about him, but do they really know him? He’s viewed by some as a great teacher- a nice, gentle, somewhat effeminate man who preached a good sermon on a mount and then got nailed to a cross for his trouble, and that seems to be the extent of his Christly proclivities. Do they know that he was fully God, fully man, and that before Abraham was he was? Do they know he was there at the foundations of the world, and that he came to earth as part of God’s preordained plan? That he was born of a virgin woman, lived a sinless and perfect life ,and told people that unless they are born again they cannot see the kingdom of God? That he made exclusive truth claims to his divinity, and that he said no man could came to the father except by through him? Do they believe that? Do the people believe that he loves his sheep, and that died on the cross for our behalf? That he took all our sin upon himself, that it was imputed to him, and that in return Christ’s righteousness was imputed upon us so that we might be seen as perfect in God’s sight? Do they believe he bore the wrath of God for our sins on our behalf, and then was raised from the dead three days later and will come again to judge the living and the dead? Do they believe that if they repent of their sins and put their faith and trust in him, that they will be born again and that the holy spirit will indwell them and sanctify them and keep them until that day when Christ claims them?
I think above all, people don’t understand what it means to believe in him. Their sort of believe is characterised by a vague notion of agreement, but little more.It is not a deep, penetrating, personal conviction. It is not a heart-tugging, heart-wrenching, steadfast and certain understanding of who and what the Son is and did. Rather, it is an inconsequential belief. They believe in him like they believe there is helium in the atmosphere. It’s there, but it doesn’t affect or influence how they will live their life. In fact, it is worse even than the belief of the demons. They at least have the good sense to believe, and tremble, but not our modern man. If they truly did “believe in him” they would believe the entirety of the aforementioned paragraph. And yet how many people are walking around, living like pagans with pagan views of God and pagan views of love and pagan views of the Son, and yet would say that they believe the truth of John 3:16? That they believe themselves saved and good to go? They bring with them their own clever creation of God, their own selfish and self-centered conception on love, and their own esoteric understanding of what constitutes believing in the Christ, and they affirm that they indeed love that verse. That is the sound of the crutch snapping. Trying to cram man-centered definitions into a God-centered reality while claiming innocence and light will be the key that sends them with arms flailing into the abyss. All because they read and agreed with one verse from the bible, and ignored and disregarded the rest which buttressed and supported and explained it.
For those reasons, among others, I believe it is the most dangerous verse. For some, of course, it is not. For some whom Christ has called and given faith it is a wellspring of life and joy. It is a simple truth, a macrocosm of God’s love and mercy reduced to one hundred letters. But for those who take this verse on its own, dismiss the other elements of our sacred revelation, and carry with them their own monstrous preconceived ideas about what constitutes what- God, Love, Belief, Son, the terror will be real. The most well-known bible verse is also the most likely to be misconstrued, especially when taken as a fraction representing a whole, absent the protective context of the rest of John, as well as the other scriptures. If you take this idolatrous image of God you have made in your own likeness [which manifests itself so conveniently in John 3:16] and claim to follow it and believe it, then on that last day, though you had it memorized and could recite it front it back, you will have reason to fear.