It’s the verse that shows up in the oddest of places. But does it produce even an ounce of conviction when displayed in the West today? When this passage appears, it’s likened to someone pulling the trigger on a colt revolver loaded with blanks. From billboards to greetings cards; T-shirts to football games, John 3:16 is, without question, among the most overused and undervalued passages in the entire New Testament.

I am not suggesting that John 3:16 is cliché in and of itself. Rather, that the original force behind the text has been lost in a sea of familiarity.

john316
It’s the verse that shows up in the oddest of places. But does it produce even an ounce of conviction when displayed in the West today? When this passage appears, it’s likened to someone pulling the trigger on a colt revolver loaded with blanks. From billboards to greetings cards; T-shirts to football games, John 3:16 is, without question, among the most overused and undervalued passages in the entire New Testament.

I am not suggesting that John 3:16 is cliché in and of itself. Rather, that the original force behind the text has been lost in a sea of familiarity. Although it may be overused to the point of inoculation, there is another aspect longing to be revealed, which is the subject matter of this conversation. But before revealing a radical re-translation, let’s look at the traditional reading of this passage:

For God so loved that world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Gr. ζωή αἰώνιον) [1]

There is nothing false in this rendering of the text. So, I have no argument there as far as translation goes. However, our understanding of this word usage lacks luster given the evolution of language. It seems emerging generations are increasingly less and less captivated by life after death. That is not to say that they are disinterested all together, but that God is redeeming creation now, and is inviting His church into the story of recreation. This is the heartbeat of God’s stirring among emerging generations. It is this worldview that is unleashing the church to a greater imagination of what could be rather than waiting for Jesus to descend on a cloud, validating one’s pre-tribulation eschatology.

One of the greatest tragedies in Western Christianity has been her obsession of the afterlife to the exclusion of this one. Even the language “afterlife” can be confusing as it naturally renders this one to “beforelife” and that cannot possibly be more false. I’ve come across more book titles and Sunday morning topics this year devoted to Heaven than I can remember in the last decade combined.

With this in mind, permit me to offer a new way of reading the John 3:16 text—a way, I trust, that will help us re-imagine the full thrust of the text and redeem it from the shackles of cliché. The following articulation of the text I believe is not only within the bounds of proper exegesis, but also awakens the senses to view this passage as imminent rather than distant, here now rather than there then, active rather than passive.

For God so loved that world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have the life of the age to come (Gr. ζωή αἰώνιον).[2]

I offer this alternative not as nuance, but as an utter shift in current thinking. The first translation (everlasting life) leads the reader to believe in God’s proactive love for the purpose of one cashing in on another life at the conclusion of the one at hand. It is an alternative landscape suggesting that Jesus came not only for humanity’s future but also for humanity’s present. This previous way is entirely transactional and promotes this life as a kind of waiting room.  Further, that brand of atrophic thinking spawns passivity, consumerism and Gnostic values[3].

However, what I am suggesting is that God’s love, received in a believer, is a reality that not only promises life, life and more life for the age to come, but is about pulling the gravity of the future eschaton into reality today. God’s love, through the Son, is literally the agent that empowers a believer to live supernaturally in the life at hand.

Further, I would go so far to suggest that this is what sanctification entirely consists of—pulling the future eschaton into today more and more each day. John states in his Gospel that the life eternal is not about what happens to you upon death (although life upon death is certainly part of the package), but is knowing God and embracing Jesus[4]. Eternal life has begun. Act like it. Be transformed.

So, next time you see a ridiculous fan waiving “John 3:16” while watching the Detroit Lions lose to  ____________ (fill in the blank, any opponent will do), be reminded that life eternal is a present, ongoing reality that has begun in this life and will guide us safely into the next.

[1] ESV

[2] See Borg’s, Heart of Christianity

[3] See 2 Thessalonians 3 for Paul’s perspective on the issue at hand

[5] John 17:3