Over the past few years, I have steadily and progressively moved away from the often standard Christian teaching that only those who believe in Jesus go to heaven, whereas everyone else goes to hell, in both its strict exclusivism form entailing explicit belief in Jesus and the generous exclusivism that allows for a secret or implicit faith. The impetus behind this has not been to cast aside the idea of hell or God’s judgment. While our conceptions of them may be varied and confused, I can find no strong exegetical warrant to reject the idea that there is a potential judgment of eternal punishment. Rather, it has been due to the way that the fear of hell has damaged me and others that has motivated me to look closely and, upon reading the New Testament over the years, finding no Scripture that speaks of faith and unbelief as the criteria for God’s final judgment.
Faith and justification is certainly instrumental in not facing God’s judgment as Paul in Romans 5.9 states. However, the problem has been that our understanding and significance of faith in the Bible, and New Testament in particular has been too connected to our future fates at death, as judgment, etc. and not as much about how faith leads us in the present state of affairs, as NT Wright and others have made a strong emphasis in their scholarship and teaching to pointing out. As a consequence, when we read about things like faith, life, and death, we are prone to fit this language with the frame of our final destination. John 3.16 is the best example of this.
The way John 3.16 has been used and understood enscapsulates so much of the heaven-hell mentality evangelicalism. It mentions faith, eternal life, and perishing. The contrast between perishing and eternal life seems to must naturally connect with the heaven-hell contrast so well that it seems intuitively obvious at this point.
But let me ask you to join in a thought experiment. Pretend you had no doctrine of heaven or hell. You may have had a vague sense of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection sometime in the distant future, but it is something that seems to be on the margins of your most important beliefs. Rather, pretend your most important beliefs were centered around the God of Israel as the only and true God, that God chose to have a specific relationship with Israel among all the other people’s of the world, and that the most important thing for you to do because God has called you and your people is to obey His instructions. In other words, I am asking you to pretend you are a first century Jew. So, when you hear the words “perish” and “eternal life” would you hear heaven or hell, concepts that had not really been developed in your mind? It is unlikely you would.
How then should we understand John 3.16? Is it an echo of the doctrine of the resurrection? I would suggest not, at least not directly, but rather if we read the Scripture fresh in its context, we can begin to get a glimpse. But I will go ahead and give state what I believe to be the way to understand what is happening is best understood against the backdrop as Jesus as the Teacher who heals people from the teachers of Israel.
John 3.16 is on the tail end of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. There is an important element to this conversation that we often times overlook, but would likely have not been missed in the early readers: both Jesus and Nicodemus are considered to be teachers. Nicodemus calls Jesus a teacher that has come from God (John 3.2) and Jesus recognizes Nicodemus as a teacher of Israel, albeit yet with a hint of sarcasm behind it (John 3.10). Imagine in our day a gathering of Biblical scholars such as NT Wright, Ben Witherington, Douglas Campbell, etc. and them having a discussion about what the kingdom of God is. Anyone who knows who those people are would not take the meeting between them to just be some conversation like the strangers we see talking in the coffee shop: it would be a conversation between heavyweights, with everyone paying close to attention what is said and who brought the best points up. The conversation between Nicodemus, as leader of the Pharisees, and Jesus would have be looked at as an intellectual gathering of local heavyweights around Judea.
I would suggest then that when we hear the Gospel of John talking about believing in Jesus, it needs to understood within a pedagogical context. Not simply that one believes in Jesus as a great figure, but believes He is the teacher from God because He is the only begotten Son of God (τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ).1 To believe in Jesus is to be receptive to Jesus as God’s teacher in a way far greater than one would be for any other teacher.
However, why is it that believing in Jesus as the one from God who teachers us is connected to eternal life rather than perishing? To understand this, we need to go back to John 3.14-15. There, Jesus compares Himself as the Son of Man to the serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness in Numbers 21. In that narrative, the Israelites had complained for the umpteenth time, not trusting God after the numerous times He had provided for them when they previously complained. So, God sent serpents among the people that killed many of them. They call out to Moses to help and God ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent for the Israelites to look at and be healed: the bronze serpent healed the Israelites of the serpents that were in their midst.
By Jesus making reference to this event in the context of the conversation with Nicodemus, we have a suggestion for what is happening here: Jesus is the teacher from God who heals those who believe in Him from the teachers of Israel. While not spoken of in the Gospel of John, both John the Baptist and Jesus did refer to the Pharisees as brood of vipers on various occasions, suggesting that Jesus’ own identification of Himself with the Bronze Serpent may be connected to His work to undo the teachings of the Pharisees, whom he identified as vipers. However, the problem with the Pharisees isn’t that they are inherently evil, but that they, like most everyone else, have become ignorant. Some are perhaps evil, yes, but people like Nicodemus who come to him show that the Pharisees are not by nature a lot of intentionally evil people, but people who even themselves need to be healed from their own teachings by the teachings of Jesus.
Now, there is one significant difference between the serpents in the wilderness and Jesus: God is said to have sent (ἀπέστειλεν in the LXX) the poisonous serpents in Numbers 21.6. While Jesus is also spoken of as being sent in John 3.17 (ἀπέστειλεν), it is not to condemn but to save and rescue. Whereas God’s sending the serpents was an act of judgments against the persistently faithless Israelites in the wilderness, the sending of Jesus is God’s act of love to redeem the world.
So, when we go back to John 3.16, we see that God is said to give His Son (ἔδωκεν). While often times taken as a reference to Jesus’ death and crucifixion, this language of giving fits better with the language of love. When heard in comparison and contrast to the story of the serpents in the wilderness, we can hear of God’s life-giving purposes in the sending of Jesus, to give to the world just as He gave to Israel many times in the wilderness.
So, when we hear the language of eternal life and perishing, we can hear it against the backdrop of God trying to preserve the world from the “wilderness” it is in. Not perishing isn’t about avoiding hell and eternal judgment, so much as it is preserving the people what they need so that they can progress forward towards God’s future for them. In this case, it is about not allowing the teachings of the Pharisees to so take a hold and grip that people become lost within it to the point that evil predominates and they are not even willing to come to the light of Jesus. The Pharisees searched the Scriptures because they believe the Scriptures themselves have life (John 5.39), essentially replacing the Giver of the Scriptures and life with the gift of Scripture as itself the source of life (cf. John 5.42), but it is Jesus who gives life.
In the person of Jesus, God’s provision of life is demonstrated and given, made known and shared in a way that God provides what was lacking among the teachers of Israel. While Jerusalem would face judgment for ultimately killing Jesus, the sending of Jesus was not about judging and destroying, but about a gracious gift to restore and renew Israel’s life, and by implication of Israel being a light to the nations, the world. To believe in Jesus is to be brought into the way of life that brings us to the place where we can successfully reach the end of the wilderness journey, both the smaller wilderness we experience in our lives now that brings us to some good in the present time and also the larger wilderness journey that brings towards new creation and the resurrection of the dead.
I will conclude with this one final point: those of us who aspire to be and are Christian teachers, we find the healing of our ministries and our effectiveness of agents as God’s love and redemption when we bring our hearts and minds and even our bodies to attend to the words of Jesus and following His own life, so that in dying with Him we may be raised with Him. We can be readily tempted to make the Christian life the explication of set of theological ideas and practices. The problem comes when our purposes for using those theological ideas and practices aren’t really being used purposively to point to and lead us to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but rather used for other immediate and direct purposes our theology and practices can be used for, both good and bad. We can begin to replace the Giver of Scripture and Wisdom with the gifts of Scripture and our understanding of God’s wisdom, making the various benefits of the latter, good as they may be, take center stage over the One Who gives gifts and orders our lives. As a result, we can often times revert to believing in the name of Jesus and not believing in Jesus, and in that place and at that time, God can send us a nudge, a word, or even an apparent calamity as a form of disciple to heal us as teachers, so that we can teach and demonstrate in our lives what was made known and possible by what Jesus taught and did. This is an occupational hazard that we as teachers can all face, so it behooves us even more to go back to Jesus as the one who guides and leads us through the Spirit to teach about God with grace and truth.