Explanation(s) or references from Swedenborg's works:
Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 51
Heaven and Hell 129
Interaction of the Soul and Body 6
By Rev. Malcolm G. Smith
I remember being in Grade 8 at a public high school in South Africa, and going to Religious Education class. The teacher had us memorise John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
She explained that this was a very important verse in the Bible because it showed how God loves us and how important it is to believe in Jesus because people who don’t believe in Jesus can’t go to heaven. That’s when I started arguing with her.
“What about all the millions of Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists? Doesn't God love them? Why won’t He save them?”
Our argument went round and round and neither of us really got anywhere. But one thing did come from this: from then on I didn’t really like the John 3:16 verse, because to me it had this taint of being a passage that was used as proof of this harmful picture of how God and salvation worked.
Here's how I saw it:
This whole story seemed to be about God the Father and God the Son as two separate people talking to each other in heaven. God the Father said that He was going to destroy the world because of people’s sin. God the Son said, “No, don’t do that. I’ll go down there and die on the cross to take the punishment for their sins.” Somehow that was supposed to have made God the Father happy. So now whoever believes in the Son of God gets a free pass to salvation because He died on the cross.
John 3:16 had those associations for me, so I was always a bit uncomfortable with it. That brought me to study it more carefully. In reality, it’s a beautiful and important teaching about God’s love and how He saves us. Here, I want to put it in its proper context and offer what I believe is a useful way to understand this verse.
--- Just Keep Reading a Little Bit ---
We’re going to be going into some detail, thinking carefully about the meaning of individual words. We’re going to look at some context to understand what is meant by perishing, and by the Son of God, and by believing in His name. In case all of that detail doesn't stick in your mind or you can’t recall it the next time you run into this verse and a false interpretation of it, just remember this basic rule: just keep reading. This is true when you are trying to understand the meaning of any verse in the Bible: read what comes next; and read what came before. It will give you a much better understanding of the meaning of an individual verse.
In this case, we want to understand John 3:16, so let's read John 3:17 and beyond.
John 3:16-21 (NKJV).
3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
3:17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
Too often these verses are used to condemn people - to exclude them from heaven and the group of people that God loves. We know that "God alone knows the hearts of all the children of men" (1 Kings 8:39) and that the judgment of someone’s ultimate spiritual state is way beyond our ability to know.
The whole point of these verses is about how God did not send His Son into the world to condemn people but to save them. Now, the very next verse does describe people who are condemned but pay close attention to what is said in the following verses about the people who are condemned:
3:18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
3:19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
3:20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
3:21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
What is meant by condemnation and believing in Jesus’ name? The way this is often used is to say, “See? The Bible says that those who don’t believe that Jesus died for them are condemned.” But it actually says is that a person is condemned “because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Believing in the name... what does that mean? Verse 19 helps us understand. “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light…” Are people condemned because they had a certain theological understanding? No! They are condemned “because their deeds were evil.” The people who are not saved are those who are actively practicing evil and hating the light that would expose what they’re doing as being wrong.
To believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God is the opposite of that. What does the name of Jesus bring to mind? Love, mercy, standing for what’s right, being willing to lay down His life for the sake of others. To believe in the name of Jesus is to be all about living those same things. There is a salvation inherent in that, just as there is a condemnation inherent in doing evil.
So, the first step in understanding what John 3:16 is about is to just read a little further on. It becomes clear that the goal is for everyone to be saved and that the deciding factor in whether a person can be saved or not is not just a matter of what they’ve said with their mouth, or what intellectual ideas they have in their memory: it’s about the person’s overall focus and direction of their life towards good or evil.
--- Look at What Came Before ---
We’ve looked at what comes after John 3:16 and that was helpful. It’s also helpful to look at what came before. It's a story about Nicodemus. Here's the passage from John 3:1-8 (NKJV).
1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Do you see Nicodemus battling to understand what Jesus is talking about? Why is he struggling? He’s thinking literally. He thinks Jesus is saying that he has to go back into his mother’s womb in order to be born again and see the kingdom of God. It’s pretty easy for us to see that Jesus is not talking about physical birth but is talking about spiritual rebirth.
An interesting little detail is that the Greek word used here for being born again is anothen, which can also mean "from above." It could be translated this way: Jesus said, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
This echoes the language from John 1 where it says that to the people who received Him, "He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (12-13).
This is what Jesus is talking about—being born from above, spiritually, with a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone—a heart of empathy and compassion instead of criticism and hatred. Nicodemus doesn't get it because he thinks Jesus is speaking literally. But, in fact, Jesus is communicating spiritual ideas through natural ideas, by analogy and symbolism, because He knows that if He tried to teach us these important truths directly we would understand even less (see Secrets of Heaven 8783).
This is why Jesus then says to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
We also need to think spiritually to understand. The reason I bring all this up is to demonstrate that this is how Jesus is operating: He’s communicating crucially important spiritual ideas clothed in natural concepts. It’s really easy to slip into being like Nicodemus and think that He’s talking just about those natural things and so miss the point. When Jesus talks about loving darkness instead of the light, He’s not just talking about people’s preferences about lighting. When Jesus talks about people perishing or having everlasting life, He’s not saying that people who believe in Him will never physically die.
So when Jesus talks about God giving His only begotten Son or sending His Son into the world, is He talking literally about God being a person who has a Son who is another person that He gives and sends places? Later in the Gospel of John Jesus is talking to His disciples and says, in John 16:25-30 (NKJV):
25 "These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father.
26 In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you;
27 for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.
28 I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father."
29 His disciples said to Him, "See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!
30 Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God."
He just told them that He’s using figurative language and not telling them plainly about the Father - but they don't get it: they think He’s speaking to them plainly already. In the New Church we believe that Jesus fulfilled His promise to speak to us plainly about the Father through the teachings of the New Church written down by Emanuel Swedenborg. There is a lot written in the teachings of the New Church about all the details of understanding how the Trinity works, but here’s one example of a plain explanation of how it works:
True Christianity 163 (Rose translation):
"1. There is a divine Trinity, which is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
2. These three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are three essential components of one God. They are one the way our soul, our body, and the things we do are one.
3. This Trinity did not exist before the world was created. It developed after the world was created, when God became flesh. It came into existence in the Lord God the Redeemer and Saviour Jesus Christ."
This all leads to a different understanding of the first part of John 3:16.
In this passage, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….”, God means the Divine soul of God that came into the world in human form as Jesus Christ. This then explains why it matters to believe in Jesus Christ.
True Christianity 370:3 (Chadwick translation, modified): "This is because the Lord our Saviour is Jehovah the Father himself in human form; for Jehovah came down and became a person, so that He could approach people and people could approach Him, thus establishing a link, and by the link give people salvation and everlasting life. For when God became a person, and so a person also became God, then by adapting Himself suitably He could approach people, and be linked with them as a person God and a God person."
He came all the way down to our level, to a level where we naturally minded human beings could get it. We could get that God is real and loving and present doing things in this world. If we can understand Him and what He’s teaching us and take up our cross and follow Him, then He can lift us up.
This brings us to the last section of John 3 that we should look at to understand John 3:16, i.e the verses that come right before it. This will be a chance to explore the last and most crucial question about this verse: What about all the millions of Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and people of other faiths that don’t know about or don’t believe in the teachings about Jesus Christ?
Here are the verses, from John 3:14-16 (NKJV):
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Working backwards, it's saying that people can have everlasting life if they believe in the only begotten Son who is the same as the Son of Man, who must be lifted up, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
Let’s unpack this; it's a pretty dense set of ideas. First, let’s read the story about Moses and the serpent in the wilderness. It's found in Numbers 21:4-9 (NKJV):
4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way.
5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”
6 So Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.
7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against Jehovah and against you; pray to Jehovah that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 Then Jehovah said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
In this story, and in the story in the gospel of John, there are people who perish and people who survive. In fact, in both cases, everyone is going to perish until something changes. In the Moses story, the people think the manna from heaven that they've been given is worthless. They want to go back to slavery in Egypt, and fiery serpents come and start biting them and killing them.
In John Jesus says right at the beginning of the chapter “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. If we haven’t been born again then we are born of fleshly inclinations and the selfish will of man which is only interested in ourselves which leads easily on to practicing evil and hating the light. We've all been bitten by those fiery serpents of controlling others, looking down on others, getting revenge, using people. In the Moses story some people are then saved. That can give us an idea of who can have eternal life
through the Son of God. In the Moses story the people realise that they have sinned against God spoken against Moses. They go and acknowledge this and then Jehovah gives them a way to not perish, even if they have been bitten by a serpent. How? They can look at the bronze serpent that has been put on a pole.
In John 3:21 it describes good people who do the truth and come to the light. In that light it is clearly seen that a person's deeds have been done in God (3:22). It seems clear that, if God could save the Children of Israel, who were constantly disobeying, because they came to Him and acknowledged their sins, then He can also save sincere Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists who do the truth and come to the light as best they can (see Secrets of Heaven 4211:3). If anyone does that, they are looking at that bronze serpent, i.e. acknowledging that they need help from God to deal with the bite of the serpent in their lives.
In Christianity we can have a fuller understanding of how the Lord Jesus Christ does that. He can help us deal with the serpent in our lives because He came down to our level and took on all of our weakness and sinful nature through his mother Mary and then He raised it up by successfully conquering in each temptation. We can also look to His example.
Non-Christians don’t understand that, but if they are sincere then their works have been done in God because they are coming to the light as best they can and living according to what God teaches. Later in John, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21).
If a person is trying not do all the selfish things they’re inclined to do because God says not to and because that would harm their neighbour, then they are demonstrating their love for God and so will receive love from God and will gradually come to see God as He truly is - Human and Divine - in the life after death if not before.
John 3:16 is an important verse in the Bible because it’s describing high stakes: perishing eternally or having everlasting life. If you read it carefully, in context, it offers a loving picture of God and salvation. To summarise this New Church perspective on John 3:16, I’m going to end with a passage from the teachings of the New Church that puts it all in a nutshell. There are a few times in the teachings of the New Church when Swedenborg directly addresses the reader. This is one of those instances. I love the directness that it brings. It's from True Christianity 484:2 (Chadwick translation):
"My friend, shun evil and do good, and believe in the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul, and the Lord will love you, and give you love so that you can act, and faith so that you can believe. Then you will be impelled by love to do good, and by faith, which is trust, to believe. And if you persevere in this, you will be linked with Him and He with you, and this forever; and this is the essence of salvation and everlasting life."