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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Honest Advent: Is It Possible To Read John 3:16 Without Penal Substitution?

A fan at a sports game holds a sign that says "John 3:16". Image source.
Today's Honest Advent reading is John 3:16-21:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
John 3:16, probably the most well-known verse in the whole bible. And back when I was an evangelical, there was one obvious meaning for this passage: God so loved the world, so he sent Jesus to die to save us. Because without Jesus, we were all going to hell. Because we are all such bad sinners- all of us, every person in the world- no one is good, we all deserve hell. So if we believe in Jesus, we get saved from hell, but if we don't believe, then we go to hell.

The "salvation" I learned in church was penal substitution, where humans all deserve punishment from God, but Jesus takes the punishment instead and then God's cool with us, as long as we believe in Jesus correctly. I believed that was "the gospel," and I interpreted everything in the bible through this lens. In other words, verses that seemed to agree with penal substitution were the most important verses in the bible, and verses that contradicted it were "unclear passages" where I need to go find an apologetics expert to explain why those verses don't actually say what they say.

So there's John 3:16, which, in that ideology, "clearly says" everyone deserves to go to hell, but we can get out of it by believing in Jesus- Jesus takes the punishment for us. And right now, maybe for the first time, I'm wondering if there's any other way to read it. "Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." Like, what else could that possibly mean besides "the default for humans is hell and condemnation, and the only way out is by believing certain things about Jesus"?

I'm just going to leave this as an open question; I don't have an answer right now. I would like to hear what y'all think about it. (Ugh, pretty sure my comment section is still having problems loading though...) I notice that this passage from John 3 does not "clearly say" any of that stuff, but I haven't put enough thought into this to come up with an alternate interpretation.

And even if there's no way to interpret it besides that awful "gospel", that doesn't really bother me. I don't really care that much about this passage. There are other bible passages that contradict it, such as John 5:29 ("those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned") and Matthew 16:27 ("he will reward each person according to what they have done"). Those passages "clearly say" that God's reward or condemnation is based on what we do, not whether we believe certain things about Jesus. For me, those passages are the important ones, and John 3:16 is one of those "unclear passages" we can ignore. (Don't ever let a Christian tell you they don't ignore any bible verses.)

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