A Short, Provocative Question about John 3:16

John 3:16 is probably the best known Bible verse in America because of banners citing it at sporting events. It’s up there with “judge not, lest ye be judged” always quoted completely out of context.

 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

My question is inspired by the great B.B. Warfield’s sermon, “God’s Immeasurable Love.” As always, my usual caveat pertains. I never read these authors as an academic or pastor with the idea of quoting them or citing them; I read them to know how best to live. Therefore, my memory may be off. To go back and find passages that I read decades ago would use up too much time and be an obstacle to my blogging. So my younger friends will have to check these things out for themselves.

Here is the question: Why do we not believe that “the world” that God so loved is the creation rather than all the inhabitants of the world or some from every people group or the anti-God, demonic world system that John does refer to often? Why can’t “the world” just be the created world?

Some interpreters seek to highlight the immensity of God’s love by emphasizing the immensity of the object of His love: all the human beings in the world. This raises unanswerable questions almost immediately. What about all those who ultimately turn out never to entrust themselves over to Jesus Christ and are damned? Does God love them in the same way that He loves those who do believe? Does this apply to all human beings who have lived, are living, and will live? How does this apply to those terrible, idolatrous nations in the past that God so hated and raged against through most of His prophets, except, of course, Jonah? Did He love them and hate them at the same time? And, did they have an opportunity to be saved? And, inevitably, the question: “What about those who have never heard?”

Other interpreters will argue that God does love every human being in the world and everyone is benefited by the gift of Jesus Christ in ways short of actually receiving eternal life. I, frankly, do not understand these arguments nor do I have the patience to try to work them out. Jesus came to save sinners. Salvation from sin is the only benefit that matters–as it leads to a life in fellowship with God, under His smile, God’s “shining face” and “lifted countenance” of the Aaronic Blessing.

Others will argue that God loves every inhabitant of the world in the sense that He has given Jesus as the only name “under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Act 4:12) That is, God so loved the world that He offered salvation to every human in the world so that they might be saved through Him. This could be the “universal redemption” view of the Arminian, but it could also be close to what a good Calvinist such as Andrew Fuller believed; Christ’s death is sufficient for all. He would not have had to suffer any more than He actually did suffer in order to save just one more person. This interpretation beautifully connects the first clause with the pronoun of the second, “whoever.” Often times that little pronoun has brought me great comfort. The sufficiency of the death of Christ as well as the truth of Christ’s promises form the warrant for the “free offer of the gospel,” freeing the Calvinist from the claim that he cannot offer Christ freely to everyone.

The alternative that says that “the world” refers to some from every tribe, tongue, and nation–some from every people group–is perhaps a more common Calvinist interpretation. Recognizing that God does not save all, though He could, God must have a higher priority. If salvation were God’s highest priority, then we must either become Universalists, or redefine God’s attributes to limit His ability to infallibly effectuate His will. He must either lack foreknowledge or lack omnipotence. We might say He’s omnicompetent, learning quickly from what He does not know, but He lacks the power or knowledge to overcome the hindrances to effectuating His will.

If salvation is not God’s highest priority, something else is. It may be to preserve the autonomous free will of human beings. God commits Himself not to violate human free will, though perhaps He could. One might even combine this interpretation with those in which God’s attributes are limited, except that here God has voluntarily limited His use of foreknowledge and omnipotence in order to more fully preserve the free will of human beings. I will not address this view here except to say that autonomous free will is a philosophical construct that does not exist in the real world. I refer readers to Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will or Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise on Free Will.

That something else must be God’s own glory. God is somehow more glorified, particularly His grace, when some are saved and some are not. Paul argues that God’s priority is that His purpose according to His own election must stand. Humanity’s freedom is not God’s priority; God’s own glorious freedom is.

An excellent alternative interprets “the world” to refer to the anti-God, demonic “world-system.” It has the advantage of being very consistent with John’s usage elsewhere, best exemplified in 1 John 2: 15, 16:

  15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
(1 John 2:15-16 NASB; 1995 update)

That God prohibits us from doing something He does Himself should not argue against this interpretation. He expressly forbids any human judge from justifying the guilty, yet that is at the center of Christian belief, God declares the guilty righteous on account of Christ and by His grace.

This interpretation extols the immensity of God’s love by contrasting the great value of God’s gift, His own Son, with the hostility, demerit, and corruption of the recipient of that gift. Of course, the ultimate recipients of this gift is not some abstract entity but the indifferent, unaware, and themselves hostile captives of this world system. If my basic question has no merit, then this is my view.

But back to my basic question: Why can’t “the world” just be the created world? The created order. The creation.

Doesn’t Romans 8:18-25 teach us that the destiny of the creation is dependent upon the destiny of humanity? When the first humans sinned, God cursed the ground, subjecting it to futility. It became subject to the same degeneration and corruption that humans are. The creation itself now longs for the final fulfillment of the divine promises to humanity: when corruptible human bodies are finally and fully redeemed, that is, when human bodies are raised from the dead, then the creation itself  enters into its new freedom from corruption, too. But this happens after humans have found their new perfect freedom even from the presence of sin and all its effects.

Wasn’t God’s indictment of the human heart post-flood (Gen 8:21) exactly the same as His indictment of it pre-flood?(Gen 6:5) How then can God refrain from destroying humans and the entire created order? Only because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reconciliation God effected through Christ’s person and work is cosmic, applying to heavens and earth, “and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of the cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20) The heavens and the earth are united together under the headship of Christ (Eph 1:10), heaven descends to the earth so that the two become one, and the created order is saved! It is transformed, purified by a heavenly conflagration, but it is saved! There will be continuity between the new heavens and the new earth with the old just as there is also a continuity between our new resurrected bodies and our old ones, and yet they will all be new, far greater than anything we could ever imagine.

The destiny of the new heavens and the new earth logically hinges on there being a new humanity to populate this new created order. The created order is saved because people are saved, given eternal life to live in a new heaven and a new earth. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” Paul says in 1 Cor 15: 50, but transformed, resurrected bodies can.  So, why can’t God’s love be for His own created order in John 3:16, which He then actually does save through Jesus Christ?

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