Is there any verse of scripture more familiar to American Christians than John 3:16? For decades, it was prominently displayed at major sporting events; one can see it on bumper stickers; the verse (if not the words) even appears on tattoos. In fact, it is so ubiquitous especially among Evangelicals, that Christians of other stripes, progressive ones, might be offended when they see it. It’s one of those markers of identity that are as likely to alienate as they are to attract; to divide insiders from outsiders, to condemn rather than invite.
And that’s a shame, because of all scripture, there may be no passage that is as as profound in proclaiming God’s love for humanity and the world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”
In the later verses of this passage, there is condemnation and judgment. But above all, there is also love, God’s love. The passage confronts us with the question of our conception of God, our understanding of the fundamental nature of God. Is God a God of love or a God of judgment? We might be inclined to see these two attributes as equal. Certainly, both are important and both are intrinsic to God’s character. But in this passage, love wins.
“God so loved the world.” This little sentence is really quite remarkable for John’s gospel. Everywhere else in the gospel, consistently, the world, the cosmos, is depicted in opposition to Jesus Christ. And that’s the case even though in chapter 1 the gospel writer proclaims that God created the world. Now we learn that the God who created the world loves the world. Indeed, God loves the world (not just humans, the created order) so much that God gave God’s only son that we might have everlasting life.
The judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.