John 3:16 (Should God Send People to Hell for Not Believing Certain Things?)

Should God send people to hell for failing to believe certain things? Some will point to John 3:16,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 (NRSV)

Some object that God cannot be very loving if failure to believe results in punishment. Does the punishment fit the crime? However, John 3:16 will help us respond to the objection.

Before we get to 3:16, it helps to look at verses 1-15 where we are introduced to Nicodemus. Being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus would have believed certain things about the way things are. He was no doubt well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and was looking forward to the coming Kingdom of God. He would have held onto certain beliefs about who would enter the Kingdom and how. You enter this kingdom by being born into the right family, the Jewish family, and doing the right thing, keeping the Jewish law.

Jesus challenges Nicodemus on his beliefs about these things:

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” John 3:3 (NRSV)

Being born into the right family is not what is important for the Kingdom, but rather “being born from above”, or “born again”.  Nicodemus takes the latter meaning of the term but Jesus is referring to the same idea we were introduced to in John 1:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-13 (NRSV emphasis added)

To boil this down to essentials, you will see God’s Kingdom, not because you were born into the right family, but because of God’s work in you no matter what family you were originally born into. Jesus continues:

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8 (NRSV)

Nicodemus would have known where he, as a Jewish person ,came from; Jewish parents. However, with Kingdom people, you do not know where they come from. In other words,  a Kingdom person can be from any background or nation, as long as God is working in them. Nicodemus had certain beliefs about the Kingdom, but Jesus challenged him on them.

Jesus goes on to challenge Nicodemus on his beliefs about who he, Jesus himself, really is. Nicodemus already believes certain things about Jesus:

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” John 3:2 (NRSV)

Jesus challenges Nicodemus to go deeper than that:

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Jesus is not just a prophet with God’s presence, but the Son of Man coming from God. Nicodemus would likely have had Daniel 7 going through his mind at this point. He also would have been thinking of the passage of Scripture from Numbers where Moses is instructed to lift up a serpent so that everyone who looked to it could be healed from the consequence of their sin. The inference here is subtle, but important; namely, that Jesus is not like Moses, but greater than Moses. While Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus is the One lifted up, meaning that he was to be crucified as a means of healing. Jesus is the One through whom healing comes, the One through whom we receive forgiveness for our rebellion against God. Which brings us to verse 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NRSV)

Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to move from belief that something is true, to trust in Someone. Nicodemus believed certain things, namely that you enter into the Kingdom first by being born into the right family. Jesus tells him that anyone can enter the Kingdom by trusting that God has done the best thing.

What does this have to do with our objection: “should people go to hell for not believing certain things”?

Even when I know where I am going, I like using my iPhone’s Maps voice guidance on Highway 401. It shows me the traffic and has occasionally led me off the highway in order to rescue me from an upcoming traffic mess. Now suppose I don’t listen to the voice guidance thinking that I know better. When I slow to a stop, would I then ask my phone why it sent me into a traffic jam? I chose that route, and I chose to trust my own judgement rather than trust my phone which offered a better path. God does not send people to hell for failing to believe certain things. People choose a path that leads to death and separation from God. When God offers forgiveness and a better path, they choose to not trust Him. Being separated from God for eternity is not punishment for disbelief. It is the natural consequence of a life of walking away from God. It is sin, not disbelief, that separates us from God. Eternal life is not about believing certain things, it is about trusting God. It is about trusting that God has dealt with our separation from Him through Jesus at the cross. It is trusting that through His grace, we are welcomed as children, born from above.

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To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and LOVE

(This is the final sermon in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

When we are going for a concise statement about what we are about as a church, why does love make the cut? In fact love does not just make the cut:

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV) 13

Love is the “greatest of these”! Love makes the cut and is the greatest because love is central to Jesus. We often connect 1st Corinthians 13 and its message of love with romance and weddings. However, we ought to connect it with Jesus.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NRSV)

Though Jesus could and did work many wonderful miracles, if he had not love, where would we be? We would be in trouble! We would be dead in our sin. While love might seem like a luxury to some, it is essential to the follower of Jesus, because it is essential to who Jesus is.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry in preaching at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spoke about love, and in doing so, spoke about Jesus:

 . . . This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it; he died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the well-being of the world, for us. That’s what love is.

Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial and, in so doing, become redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives. And it can change this world. (The Most Rev. Michael Curry)

When we are told to “pick up your cross and follow”, we should not have in mind the idea of being weak in the will to live, but strong in the will to love.

So how do we walk with Jesus in love and help others do the same?

First, we define love as a decision and then we decide to love at every opportunity. Faced with a crucial decision, Jesus decided to love:

He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Mark 14:36 (NRSV)

Many sermons, I’m sure, have been preached on the obedience of Jesus to the Father in this prayer at Gethsemane. But it was not just obedience to the Father. It was love for you. Jesus made the crucial decision to love, and that has changed everything. Love as a series of decisions can change many a relationship, between marriage partners, within family or friends, and of course even between enemies.

Second, we love by growing into a loving character which reflects that of Jesus. When you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus, you don’t get the impression you are reading about an impatient, or unkind man who happened to make some loving decisions. Or an envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude man who insisted on his own way apart from a few decisions to love. Rather, you get the impression that Paul had Jesus in mind when he wrote about love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NRSV)

In meeting Jesus in the Gospels you get the impression that love was central to his character. It still is! When people meet Jesus in the Gospels, then meet us, is it a huge contrast in character?

The best way to help others walk with Jesus in love, is to be walking with Jesus in love ourselves. But what if you feel far from being a person characterized by love? Then remember the Bible says

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

It does not say “the result of my hard work is love”, but the “fruit of the Spirit is love.” Indeed, just as love is the “greatest of these”, love is the very first fruit. You can be and do whatever God calls you to be and do, including love and be loving. He calls you to love. He calls us as a church family to help people, to the glory of God, walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love. Our very first step is to pray!

To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, HOPE . . .

(This is part five in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping PeopleWalk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

We threw out the anchor, but nothing changed. At the age of thirteen it was my first year as a sailor in an old wooden sailboat which we bought with everything needed including an anchor. Except that it wasn’t really an anchor. More of a tin of beans filled with concrete and a hook. We threw it out as a last attempt in too strong a breeze for inexperienced sailors. It didn’t help. Yes, we remembered to tie a rope to it, but it didn’t help. It was not a good anchor.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . ” Hebrews 6:19 (NRSV)

The Bible describes hope in Jesus as a good anchor. But is it? Are there other anchors, or even better anchors, for our souls?

Can science be an anchor for the soul? On the one hand science provides good reason for hope. Having a son with Type 1 diabetes, I am very hopeful that a cure will be found someday. I am also hopeful that the technology will get better while scientists work toward that cure. My hope in both these things won’t be realized without scientists doing their thing! On the other hand, hope in science cannot be an anchor for our souls for at least two reasons.

First, nothing kills hope like what we learn from scientific discovery. Centuries of scientific observation tells us that we will not be alive for very long. Even as we attempt to extend our lives through better medical care, scientists tell us that the universe will not always be life permitting. Ultimately there is no hope for humanity if science is all you can base your hope on.

But more importantly, science cannot tell us everything about everything. Science has its limits. For example, scientists cannot teach us the facts of history. As a scientist, if you knew nothing about airplanes, you could, by observation, figure out how they work. However, you will never know about the many people, engineers, designers, and test pilots for example, who were behind the evolution of the airplane. Scientists can tell us a lot about how things work, but we rely on historians to teach us about the who behind things, the creators throughout history.

Science cannot teach us about things beyond the reach of the telescope, microscope, or any other instrument used to “observe” things. It cannot discover spiritual realities. Going to a scientist to learn about spiritual realities is like going to an auto-mechanic for heart surgery. Sure, the mechanic may know something about the heart, but heart surgery is not her or his expertise. Going to science to learn everything about reality is like buying a house off the internet based only on photos of the outside. There is much that can be learned from those photos, but there is so much more to learn. Science provides too narrow a view. There is so much more that cannot be seen or measured. Science cannot be a good anchor for the soul, for it is far too limited in the truths it can discover.

So religion is the anchor for our souls, right? Well, not so fast. Perhaps I might start my own religion. Let me begin with the promise that you will live forever if you give me $1000. Will you buy in? Why not? You know you will die and I will be $1000 richer! Placing your hope in my made-up religion is unreasonable. Placing our hope in any made-up religion is unreasonable. Every man-made religion, even though it may contain elements of truth, is not going to be reliably true in the things that really matter. The religious leader may point to things the scientist could never discover. But the religious leader may be far from the truth in what he thinks and says. Mere religion cannot be a good anchor for our souls, for it can be unglued from reality.

In what can we anchor our souls if neither religion, nor science, provide good anchors? The question turns out to be not “in what” but “in Whom?” Hope in Jesus Christ provides a good anchor for our souls for it is grounded in realities that science cannot discover, and reality religion cannot reasonably point to.

Hope in Christ is grounded in realities that cannot be observed, and which therefore scientists could never discover through science alone. There is no hope of finding just the right camera or instrument to be able to see God. But God has revealed Himself to us throughout history, to the patriarchs, people, and prophets of Israel, then supremely though Jesus. Through scientific discovery we may infer the presence of a creator, but we cannot discover the truth about the fall of humanity and God’s rescue operation. However, God can reveal it.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. John 1:18 (NLT)

But how do we know that all this Jesus-talk is not just more made-up religion divorced from reality? Unlike man-made religion, hope in Christ is grounded in realities that have been observed. It is based on real events experienced and observed by real people, many people. For example;

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

The call to trust in Jesus is not a call to believe what one man claims to be true without providing any evidence for its truthfulness. It is a call to trust what many eyewitnesses were testifying to and willing to die for. It is a call to trust that the New Testament exists for good reason, not because a few people were trying to create a religion that would get them killed, but because so many people were responding to the events around Jesus, including his resurrection. It is a call to trust the reality of God as experienced through His presence as recorded in the Bible. It is a call to study history. There is a long history of God revealing Himself and people experiencing Him.

Our hope in Christ is also a hope that neither science nor religion could provide:

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever . . . Hebrews 6:19-20 (NRSV)

The talk about a curtain, inner shrine, and high priest relates to Old Testament symbolism around the presence of God. The temple, the “Most Holy Place” within the temple, and priesthood all symbolized God’s desire to be with people, but also the impossibility of a sinful people being able to approach, and so be fully with, a holy God. So there was a sacred space and a whole lot of rigmarole to teach people about holiness and the Holy One. Enter Jesus, who being God the Son, is the only One Who could dwell fully in the presence of the Father. He became our “high priest”, meaning that He is the mediator between ourselves and God. Through His death and resurrection Jesus did what religion could never do. He also did for us what we will never be able to do despite the wonderful advancements being made through science. He reconciled sinful people to a holy God. Neither science, nor religion, can do that.

As a church we are called to help people walk with Jesus in hope. We do that best by living as people of hope, anchoring our hope in Jesus while always being ready to say why:

. . . you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)