If there was just one verse in the Bible you wanted everyone to know by heart, which one would it be? If you grew up as a Bible Belt Baptist like me, John 3:16 was that verse. I could recite it from 4th grade on, until it could be said in one breath, like it was one word,
You may have noticed John 3:16 signs in public places, held up behind the football goalposts so people can see it when the extra point is kicked. “Its good! (John 3:16).” So I guess people are supposed to put down their chicken wing to save their immortal soul.
This verse became so core that you could call American Evangelicalism “John 3:16 Christianity.” It was core for Billy Graham revivals and Campus Crusade and so on. Here is how salvation works in this model. We are sinners and this upsets God. We deserve punishment and what is a just God to do? God can’t just let us off, or some people will just do whatever they want. It will be chaos. So Jesus, the God-man is sent to take on our punishment, so our debt is relieved. This sets the score straight (this is the game winning kick of the ball through the uprights!) and if you believe in Jesus (and this process), and stop sinning, then you will go to heaven. But if you don’t, well- just read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to find out the eternal punishment that awaits you.
Now this theology troubles me. How did “God so loved the world” become a theology of judgment, where God slams down the gavel against us, then sends Jesus to serve our sentence, so we can get out the jail, the mortality of this life, so we can get to heaven? I don’t think this is the real meaning of John 3:16. This Satisfaction/Substitutionary atonement of fundamentalist Christianity is not the early belief of the church, it is not contained in the Apostles or Nicene Creed, nor is it what Jesus taught in the Gospels.
The roots of this theology are in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury. It made sense to them because it mirrored the worldview of the feudal order. European lords lived in defensive castles surrounded by village folk who paid homage- in words, deeds, money and goods. In return, the lords we to protect them from roving bands of vandals and hostile neighboring estates. The Lord of the Manor was the justice system, and if his honor was offended, a debt was incurred. The serf had to pay a fine or take a punishment. Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “I demand satisfaction.” The word satisfaction meant honor had been offended and a debt had been paid.
So Anselm saw God as the Soveriegn Lord of the feudal universe. If we sin, God’s honor is offended and we have broken the order of the universe. The debt needs to be paid, but we mortals cannot pay it, so either we are stuck in eternal punishment, or someone immortal must come along and take our punishment, so Jesus was seen as taking this role. IF you were an 11th century serf, you might find some relief from this view. Your world was the village you lived in, it was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around us in our English village. This worked for centuries because it fit their world. When they heard the words, “God so loved the world” the feudal order of things was the world God loved.
But we hear it differently because this is our world. (Pick up globe.) Think for moment what “world” mean when we look at this globe. It does not mean, God loved only Europeans, or only Americans, it does not say that God so loved only Catholics, or Protestants, or even only Christians. It doesn’t even say God so loved the church, or the true believers. God so loved the world…(spin the globe.) In fact, the world God loves does not even have all these convenient national boundaries drawn in for us. God gets the Apollo view of the world of oceans, deserts and rainforests, and some bright lights at night to show that there are humans here.
Here is another way to think of world. The Greek word for world will probably blow your mind. It is kosmos. God so loved the Cosmos. Not simply our tiny, blue planet, but the sun, moon and stars, the giant Horseshoe nebula, all the galaxies hidden out in the Big Dipper, Quasars, Supernovas, black holes and dark matter. That is God’s world.
This is what Rob Bell was writing about in the second chapter of “What We Mean When We Talk about God.” The point is- our view of world is constantly expanding, and the ways that we have defined reality, the theories by which we have sliced and diced how things work, the boundaries we have drawn on the map and the ways we define who is on our side, or who belongs to God and who doesn’t, the certainties we defend, the things we argue and fight about, the stuff we stress and worry over, seem very insignificant when we define world as cosmos. It has taken us centuries, millions of years, to develop our brains and our civilizations to this point, so we can finally scratch the surface of what cosmos is. I think our species has finally made it to Jr. High. We are at the age where God can’t tell us anything anymore, but we are still pretty impulsive, self-centered, and worry too much of what everyone thinks about us.
Cosmos has a second meaning, it is not just the vast reaches of the universe, it also means “the order of things.” Greek philosophy loved to contemplate the order of things, from geometry, architecture, statutes of the ideal human form, and the ideal government. Cosmos refers to way things are ordered at every level, the human body, the family structure, the changing seasons, the political climate, it is all interconnected. If the Greeks could have discovered the subatomic world, their joy would have been complete. If Plato would have known that his chair, a solid object upon which he sits, was really billions of fast moving subatomic particles crashing into each other at an astonishing rate, so to appear solid, he would have been in rapture. And we could probably use a little more awe and wonder in our worldview as well. The cosmos, from electrons to quasars, is stupendous. No wonder God loves it and calls us to love it as well.
But John is saying one more things about the world God loves. The world also has disorder. People reject how things should be, they fail to love, ignore the interconnections and relatedness of living things, and injustice results. John sees a world that is alienated from its creator. He lived in a time of great persecution, as the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians. John’s Gospel makes a profound statement about this disorder. God does not simply love the good and reject and judge the bad. God loves the disordered nature of humanity as well, and seeks to reconcile it with love. John 3: says Christ came not to judge the world by to save it.
Save it…salvation…Latin:salve…English: salve…that which heals the wound.
John’s Gospel is the only one to contain the words of Jesus, as he carries his cross, and he is being jeered and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That is how God reconciles through Jesus. This Jesus does not die on a cross to satisfy God’s honor and wrath at sin, but to show God’s reconciling love even as humanity does its worst. God loves the cosmos, even the angry crowds, the unjust rulers, and the imperfect people we all can be. God so loved the world…and still does. That seems about as awesome to me as my body is made up of flying subatomic particles. Can you believe it?