A Trinitarian Methodist Universalist Reads John 3:16

John Milton, The Guy Who Gave You Your Idea of “Perishing” in Hell

Don’t tell anyone I told you this.  But between you, me, and the internet; I’m a Universalist.  I guess I’m a Trinitarian Universalist.  (Cue rim shot!)  Keep it quiet!  I don’t want this getting back to some crypto-Calvinists lurking in the shadows of online Methodism.  This is between us.  We’re cool, right?

But seriously, I’m a Methodist Universalist hiding in plain sight.  I eat BBQ chicken, pay my taxes, send my kids to the Orthodontist, and have my oil changed regularly.  I also believe God has a grand plan to save us all.  To put it athletic terms, God wants the win.

The Hell most of us believe in was shaped by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (and Dante) more than anything in the Bible.  I love Milton but I’m also comfortable not putting him on par with Paul, John, (George or Ringo for that matter).  Culture shapes our theology.  We live and die by beliefs not formed by scripture.  This realization should make you more than a little uncomfortable.

One reason we need the idea of Hell is because it helps keep good people sane.  It’s difficult for us to understand those who commit radical acts of evil.  These days, acts of evil are regularly attributed to a lack of mental health resources, proper psychiatric care, and someone being under medicated.  Despite this, you’ll still hear the word “evil” bandied about.  If we’re going to stop evil, beyond the thoughts and prayers level, we need identify reasons.  Churches are good at fighting evil, especially the social ones which tear families and communities apart.  The place to fight evil is on this side of eternity.

The desire for justice (and vengeance to a degree) is one of the deepest human emotions.  We really don’t want to know the causes of evil.  Whether it was society, video games, or access to firearms; it’s easier to call it “evil” and ask the devil to open the gates of Hell.  Somebody must pay.  Where else are you going to put all the people who you’ve deemed unworthy to receive God’s grace?  Hell seems like the best option for everyone we’ve deemed deplorable and unredeemable.

What if, in God’s eyes, everyone is worthy of love despite our collective unworthiness? Is it possible God sees things we can’t possibly perceive? I hope so.

Remember what the apostle Paul said, “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”?   I know.  When you put it that way, it’s best to take the Heaven/Hell debate out of the hands of any human being.  Again, I know.  None of us ought to be condemning anyone to Hell or giving away free tickets to Heaven.

My universalism is grounded in six words, “for God so loved the world”.  God loved us before anyone of believed in God, went through Sunday School, Confirmation class, church camp, or we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.

God loved us into being.  Love, in the context of this passage, is simply another means of talking about creation.  And once we’re talking about creation (as created beings ourselves), we realize there’s no other way to talk about ourselves and describe our lives apart of from creation; that is God’s love.  We can’t step outside our lives and look dispassionately at what God is doing.  If we take one step away from God’s creative love, we’re still in the heart of God’s grace.  The gift of God’s son makes this point even clearer.  At any moment we think we’re able to be objective about our relationship with God, we’re overwhelmed with a graciousness (a gift) we’ll never be able to understand.  No matter where we are or where we look, we are unable to overcome the reality that our existence is formed, nurtured, and maintained in the presence of God’s love.  The cross not only directs us to see God’s love in places where we’ve refused to acknowledge God’s presence but sends the unmistakable message:  God’s love is not controlled by the boundaries of death and time.

God’s love is real.  Does God’s ability to love us, anyone, or anything; given the expansive nature of what we know of God’s grace and love, hinge on any single individual’s assent?  I hope not.  God’s love either is or it isn’t.  When we start debating who God can love and why; we’ve strayed over a line that was never meant to be crossed.

I’ve said all this to say:  Love precedes belief.  Belief is a response to God’s love.  Our belief in God does not constitute, define, or create God’s love in or for us.  This is what John 3:16 says.  God didn’t need us to believe in God.  God exists beyond our assent, belief, and permission.  God wouldn’t be God if he depended on my mood to conjure his presence up each morning.  God’s self image was doing just fine without our petty machinations.

The remainder of the verse says, “Whoever believes in him won’t perish but have eternal life.”  It’s an unfinished thought.  John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  The equation does not balance.  You can’t have one without the other.  Our mistake, throughout years of Christian tradition, has been to give the world half a story.

In an effort to frighten people into heaven and out of hell, we’ve ignored the ever present reality of God’s love and placed the cart before the horse.  We’ve told the world that to get God’s love, you’ve got to believe in God first, although the creator in the universe already believes, loves, and cares for all of us, we’ve lied!  We’ve given ourselves the power.  God will only love you if you say yes.

If you emphasize only half the story, rearrange the context, talk real fast, and move your hands like a magician this is what John 3:16 appears to be; is it any wonder this most beloved part of scripture has become little more than a watered down meme, poster, and something to paint under a football players eyes?  John 3:16, when used in spiritual isolation, is little more than a slogan.  It’s become more akin to a magical spell (like something out of a Harry Potter novel) that we utter and expect mysterious things to occur by simply repeating the words in right order at the correct time.  Is there any wonder we keep getting it wrong?  Has our catchphrase lost its punch?

John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  Verse 17 should be memorized in tandem with verse 16.  If we quote John 3:16, we should also follow it up with 3:17.  Why?  Because it lays waste to the idea of perishing and any notions of Hell and condemnation we build create around the notion of perishing.  News flash:  we’re all going to perish.  Somehow, someway, we’re all going to go.  Perishing isn’t the issue.  Is perishing forever?  Will our belief in God guarantee eternal life?  John 3:16, if you stop there, indicates you need one to get the other.

Look at the next verse.  “God didn’t send his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s one translation.  Here’s an older, even stronger translation.  “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s a whole new ball game.  Jesus didn’t come here to condemn anyone, set up a litmus test religion, or create more hoops for people to jump through in order to guarantee their place at the pearly gates.  There’s no “if, then” tension in John 3:17.  Through Jesus, everything that is already God’s, i.e. “creation” might be redeemed through one great act of love, despite our sinfulness and disbelief.  Did Jesus die for those who believed in him?  Or did he die for everyone, even those who placed the nails in his hands and lifted him on the cross?  If he didn’t die for everyone, then we might as well pack up and go home.  If the Cross was only for those who already believed and had their ducks in a row; we’re all done.  If it was just for the John 3:16 people, then there is no more to say.

I don’t know if we’ll ever meet the standards of belief set by John 3:16.  The text says, “Believe in him”.   I believe in God but the religious world run by fallible people keeps moving the belief goal post.   Beliefs change depending on whose Pope, President, or Bishop.  John 3:16, when it becomes a man manipulated benchmark, creates an unreachable standard.

But, if what happened on Good Friday was for John 3:16-17 people, an event where love proceeds belief, where condemnation wasn’t the reason for the season, then the Good News still matters to people like you and me.  I can keep going.  There are songs to sing and prayers to pray.  There is hope.   Amen to that.

Richard Lowell Bryant