John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the Bible. In the familiar form in which I memorized it more than sixty years ago: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (KJV).
For many Christians, this verse is the most concise summary of the Christian gospel. "John 3:16" often appears on homemade signs held up by fans behind the goal posts as football teams attempt to kick a field goal or the point after a touchdown.
It is easy to understand why. Understood within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity, it expresses the heart of what the heaven-and-hell framework affirms:
For God so loved the world: This expresses a main Christian conviction that God loves the world. It is how the rest of the verse is understood that gives it its distinctive meaning within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity.
That he gave his only Son (or in some translations, his one and only son): This is understood to mean both that Jesus is the only Son of God and that God gave him to die for the sins of the world. The "giving of the Son" means that Jesus died in our place, so that we can be forgiven.
So that everyone who believes in him: What we need to do is to believe in Jesus as God's only son and as the one who died for us. This is the path of salvation.
May not perish but may have eternal life: The consequence of believing in Jesus is survival of death and everlasting life, meaning heaven.
To say the obvious, note how this understanding of the verse sounds the main themes of the heaven-and-hell Christian framework: we are saved (that is, get to go heaven) by believing that Jesus is the only son of God, who died for our sins. Notice also how this puts a condition on the opening line "For God so loved the world"; namely, the love of God is conditional. Though God loves the world, only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. In extreme form (not all that uncommon), the verse means that God loves you, but God will send you to hell and eternal torment if you don't believe in Jesus. But all of this is a significant misunderstanding of what John 3:16 means in the context of John's Gospel.
For God so loved the world: In John, as in the New Testament generally, world has two quite different meanings. One meaning is positive: the world is the world created by God-the whole of creation. The other meaning is negative: the world is "this world," meaning the humanly created world of cultures with their domination systems. In John and in Paul, "this world" rejected Jesus. But God loves the divinely created world-not just you and me, not just Christians, not just people, but the whole of creation.
That he gave his only Son: John's Gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice; indeed, none of the Gospels do. The giving of the Son in John refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily to the death of Jesus. How much does God love the world? So much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.
So that everyone who believes in him: The premodern rather than modern meaning of believe is intended. In this verse, as in the Bible generally, believe does not mean believing theological claims about Jesus, but beloving Jesus, giving one's heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. This is the way into new life.
May not perish but may have eternal life: Eternal life is commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death. But in John's Gospel, it is a present experience. The Greek words translated into English as eternal life mean "the life of the age to come." Within John's theology, this is still future and to be hoped for. But it is also present, something that can be known, experienced now. Consider John 17:3: "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Note the present tense. This is eternal life (the life of the age to come); and its content is knowing God and Jesus. To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come.
Thus in John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God as known in Jesus, in the incarnation, and entering into "the life of the age to come" now. It is not about people going to hell because they don't believe. It is about the path into life with God now.
From Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored. Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Borg. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.