“If you don’t love me, there will be consequences!” said the husband to the wife. And how would any wife respond to this? I suspect this approach would not result in an appropriate mutual expression of love or become the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship. And yet, isn’t this an integral part of the message being proclaimed by evangelicals the world over? If you love me you will go to heaven, if you don’t, you will be condemned to eternal torment in hell. For some background on my views on the whole heaven and hell issue, read my last ‘Thought Provoking Thursday’ piece. Today, I wish to look at a slightly different aspect that goes to the heart of a message that has troubled me for a long time.
As you will gather from my previous posts, I do not believe heaven and hell are literal places, but rather concepts that describe our lives and experiences. I also believe that the impact of what Jesus said and did has significance in our immediate time space continuum. The transition effected by physical death allows us to be free from much of what ails us on earth, but we all continue to be able to experience ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in similar ways to our experiences on earth. I believe the key to what Jesus did was to demonstrate a love that opens a door for experiencing the full effects of the life intended for every human being both here on earth and beyond. I believe the balance of what we know, mostly from the writings in the bible, shows this love to be unconditional. And if you believe that, then my opening statement has no place in describing how God expresses his love. And yet, again, this is a fundamental piece of the prevailing evangelical viewpoint.
So, how does this viewpoint measure up with one of the most well known quotes in the new testament. I don’t believe a sports event goes by in the US without seeing a placard bearing the words ‘John 3:16’. The reference to this verse is probably much better known than the content itself. Unfortunately, many of the most well-known english translations of this passage were fashioned by those who firmly believed in the ‘love me or else’ school of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Hard to argue with this, and it does seem to suggest that not believing in Jesus means being destroyed. How’s that for consequences?
I have looked into this and other words like this in the new testament and it would seem that translations can often put a very different spin on what might actually be quite compatible with the overarching message of unconditional love. The word perish here is problematic until you realize that it is the same word in the greek used in the story of the ‘lost sheep’. This is the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep who are safe and pursues the one that is ‘lost’ until he is found. Yes, the same word is translated as ‘lost’, not perished or destroyed. In this context, the John 3:16 passage takes on a different meaning.
It is at least possible that what Jesus is offering here is an invitation to the full experience of life in the kingdom of God for now and beyond simply because we accept and embrace what he did for us. But contrary to popular evangelical thought, the ‘lost’ are simply those to whom this fullness of life is lost for the moment. And, even more surprisingly, it is God who pursues us with his unconditional love just as the shepherd does in the story until his plan to bring everyone into this life is complete. The good shepherd does not rest until the last sheep is restored. Is it not significant that following on from John 3:16, in the next sentence, Jesus states that he came ‘not to condemn the world, but to save the world’. When this word ‘world’ is used in other places in the new testament, it clearly means ‘the whole world’. Perhaps there is hope for us all after all!