Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
A little over a couple years back, I wrote a blog post entitled “Why it is better to be an atheist than be ‘born again’.” The title was intentionally provocative, but the point was is that in John 3, Jesus is actually talking about being born from above rather than being born again. However, when people today talk about being born again, it is often done with reference to their own experience of God, putting God into the boxes of their own experiences, thereby making it more about themselves. As a consequence, people will develop all sorts of talk about God, talk that may be more projection than revelation, and as a consequence, atheists who reject the truth of all God-talk are less inclined to believe false things about God than some people who say they are “born again.” However, the hyperbolic nature of that blog post obscured any sense of clarity in what I wrote. The point was brought forward that being “born from above” was focused on God’s activity rather than the inner religious experience of being “born again,” but there was not much further explanation given beyond that point. With more reflection on John 3 and on metaphysics over the past couple of years, perhaps a better explanation of what I believe can be offered now.
In the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus teaching about seeing the kingdom of heaven. In the Greek, Jesus says one must be born ἄνωθεν, which can be understood as “again” or alternatively as “above.” Nicodemus’ response indicates that he understands Jesus to be speaking about a second birth by the nature of his question of reentering the womb. Jesus then offers a clarification in saying that one must be born of Spirit and explains it by an analogy to the wind. Throughout the Old Testament, God was commonly understood to be in control of the winds, including bringing a strong wind to split the Red Sea during the Exodus (could there be an allusion to the Exodus in Jesus’ words about being born of the water and the Spirit?). Given the Spirit throughout the Old Testament as originating from God and that wind also came from God, the language of ἄνωθεν most likely is an indirect designation of God’s domain, heaven, and hence should be translated as born from above.
The exegetical and theological differences between being “born from above” and being “born again” are subtle yet profound. If it is understood as born again, then the reference is something that happens to the person. However, if it is born from above, then the focus is more so on the relationship of the person to God rather than simply some experience of the person. The analogy with the wind is instructive, as the point of Jesus’ analogy is to say that the person doesn’t understand what has happened when they are born from the Spirit, but they recognize that the Spirit has done something to them in an unforeseen way. Those who are born from above perceive the work of God, even as they can’t quite explain it. This coheres well with the perceptual language that Jesus uses in vs. 3, where a person who is born from above sees the kingdom of God. Jesus is explaining that those who have been born from above are able to perceive the activity and presence of God, both in the work of the Spirit and also in the kingdom of God. While the phrase “being born again” doesn’t contradict this reading, it doesn’t readily lend to such an interpretation either, as the focus on the phrase “born again” is on what happens to the person and not to whom one is born to.
The theological implications of this are even more profound. In modern evangelism, to talk about being born again is often understood against the backdrop of a conversionist point of view where a person can identify an event of conversion where everything dramatically changed. An experience of a dramatic change is taken as evidence of this new birth. However, the truth is is that many people, Christian or not, have profound and dramatic changes in their life that come out of nowhere. Could not one simply use the language of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to label a commonly occurring profound change and call it being “born again?”
With being born from above, however, something more profound is being said. Firstly, as Jesus’ words point to, being born from above points towards a perceptual awareness of God’s work and presence. This doesn’t mean one can just readily identify what God is up to immediately, but it means that a person born from above has an increasing awareness of the work of God in their lives and in the world around them. Secondly, even though it isn’t expressly mentioned in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, being born from above is also expressly acknowledging one’s relationship to God, that one is a child of God. Consequently, that would mean that one would come with maturity to become a reflection of God’s character. Being born from above is less about the experience at conversion, even though there may be a time where a person can identify such a change, and more so the telos and purpose we are progressing towards in our character. Being born from above means our relationship with God is becoming defined by our recognizing Him and coming to reflect His purposes in our lives.
In John 8.23-24, Jesus says the following:
You are from the lower regions, I am from upper regions (τῶν ἄνω); you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.
Here, Jesus makes a stark separation between the audience who eventually seeks to kill him and Himself. The distinction he draws between them is expressed through one’s origins: the lower regions below or the upper regions above, which is then further clarified in the distinction between being of the world and not of this world, which implies the contrast between heaven and earth. Ultimately, the character of Jesus’ audience comes from their spiritual origins. Given their eventual murderous intent towards Jesus, what Jesus says about being born from above in John 3 beings to make more sense. In order to participate in the kingdom of God, which would be defined by righteousness, one must be someone who finds their spiritual origins from above. Simply having a dramatic change of heart and mind is not enough, because this change of heart and mind must come from the implanted seed of God’s saving word (James 1.21).
Even hearing God’s word when a dramatic change occurs is not sufficient. In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks of the seed sown on the rocky ground as referring to a person who immediately receives the word with joy, but they have no root that leads them to endure. In another parable of the unclean spirits in Matthew 12.43-45, an unclean spirit leaves a house, only to return and find everything in order but empty, so that he brings seven other more evil spirits along. This parable, and it is almost certainly a parable, reflects the way some persons may for a time have their life become relatively ordered and free from evil but then they fall into an even worse state than beforehand. These two parables together suggest that dramatic change in one’s life does not by itself suggest one is actually born of God and moving towards a growth in holiness. The changed experience that is often labeled as being “born again” is not itself the evidence of one’s spiritual origins being from heaven.
Now, if people use the phrase “born again” rather than “born from above,” it doesn’t mean people’s conversions are automatically not genuine. Being born from God is about God’s agency through His Holy Spirit and not the perfection of human speech. Nevertheless, our language does influence the way we think and a person who is born from God thinks about their conversion primarily in terms of their own experience in being born again, they may become stunted in their spiritual growth by not being more conscious about perceiving the power of the heavens coming to the earth and less attentive to the way their life is called to be a reflection of God’s love. Focus on the experience and the benefits of the experience can come to trump attention to God’s activity and character.
Also, this can also remind us that profound religious experience does not equal growth in true righteousness. While Christian oftentimes regard atheists as the most dangerous moral threat to Christian faith, and in large part this is fueled by the genocide and widespread evil committed in the name of atheistic Communism in the 20th century, the truth is that the most dangerous threat to Christian faith are other religious people who use the name of God to justify the agendas of their minds and hearts as from God. Atheists are at least bound by a sense of pragmatism in this world that recognizes that a peaceful society, which most everyone including atheists want, requires some degree of peaceful and cooperative behaviors to accomplish it, even if they are not inclined towards peace. However, the behaviors of religious people who learn to eschew every sense of real-world pragmatism towards peace are bound by their moral beliefs and habits, most of which are instructed from their religious principles. If those religious principles end up in a place where they call good evil and evil good, much like the Pharisees did of Jesus’ exorcism of demons, then violence and abuse can be justified in their minds, much like the religious leaders did to Jesus. Religious belief, even when paired with some moments of great and profound experiences, is no guarantor of peace and righteousness without it being a birth that comes from the Spirit above. While the true religion that comes from following Christ by genuinely continuing in His word is the world’s greatest hope for bringing life and peace, religion that does not have Christ life and teachings at the center of one’s attention, devotion, and purposes that would otherwise occur by a Spiritual birth from above is no safe-haven of righteousness, peace, and justice.