The Problems of John 3:16
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 (NIV)
This is perhaps one of Christianity’s most referenced verses from the Bible. It’s so popular that even many non-Christians can recite this passage from memory without error. However, as oft-repeated as this passage is, it’s quite difficult to ignore the glaring issues it raises in regards to the theological beliefs of mainstream Christianity.
This is an ancient Christological heresy which entails the Son and the Spirit being subordinate in nature and being to the Father. Many Christians today would argue that this passage does not reflect subordinationism, because it refers to functional subordinationism and purpose, not to nature and being. However, it should be noted that if God is all-powerful, and if the three persons of the Godhead are equally God, then the excuse of purpose is thrown out the window. At this point, it would mean that one of the three persons has inherently, more authority than the others and thus this directly refers to the nature and being of God. As such, the strawman argument of purpose is a purposeful distraction from this core Christological problem.
It is quite strange to see the act of murder as an act born out of love. In this scenario, God who has in the past forgiven sins without need for sacrifice and due to prayer, somehow necessitates the death of an innocent man to forgive the sins of His own creation. The salvation doctrine here is not consistent:
May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. – Psalm 141:2.
Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” – Hosea 14:1-2.
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14.
The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him. – Proverbs 15:8.
A Christian may argue that sin requires justice, which necessitates punishment. However this argument is invalid on several fronts. To begin with, it has already been established that in lieu of sacrifices, God forgives sins through prayer as documented above. Secondly, God is the one who has ultimately been sinned against and it is His prerogative to determine what justifies the forgiveness of sin, in this and many other cases this is manifested in the form of repentance and prayer. As humans, we do not get to decide what justifies our forgiveness, in the same way that we do not get to decide what is moral and immoral. In all of these decisions, God has the ultimate say. In light of this, it seems as though in attempting to claim that Christ must die for sins, as most Christians argue, then they are not arguing from a position of love but one of circumstance. Many would argue that Christ was the only sinless man and as such, he was the perfect sacrifice (this is foregoing the false belief that the Passover Lamb sacrifice was meant to forgive all sins – it wasn’t). However, it should be noted that if he was the only sinless man, then the only reason he was sacrificed (I prefer the term murder), was out of necessity, he was the only one at that time that fulfilled that role. We must also ask, if Christ is God and he truly did love the world, why did he have to be sent? Why not come of his own volition? As such, love is truly not in the equation.
God Apart From Christ
One of the more interesting occurrences in this passage is the positioning of Christ in relation to God.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.
Christ is spoken of as being apart from God. It’s God who does the sending. However, if Christ is God, why doesn’t the passage read as:
For God so loved the world that he gave himself.
Why is the personhood of Christ and that of God, spoken as if they were two distinct beings? It is God that loves the world, not Christ. It is God that sends Christ, not Christ who sends himself. This structure clearly indicates that Christ is not only distinct from God, but that they are two beings wherein one is subordinate to the other. In other words, this passage fundamentally demonstrates the incoherent beliefs of Christianity. Many Christians gladly repeat this slogan as a representation of their core beliefs, but very few of them have ever put a pittance of time into considering the theological challenges that this passage presents. It also needs to be asked, why doesn’t the passage read as follows:
For Christ so loved the world that he gave himself.
The proper reading represents Christ as the object of the sentence and not the subject. As such, it demonstrates a case where God is apart from Christ and Christ is apart from God. Such phraseology is prominent throughout the Johannine Gospel, we find another case here:
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. – John 17:3 (NIV)
Again, Christ is represented and spoken of as being apart from God. There is only One True God, and on the other hand there is Christ. In fact, the passage is better read as:
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah.
In this more accurate reading, there are two subjects, God, and then Jesus who is the Messiah. The Messiah qualifies who Jesus is, in this case – not God. Therefore, the language used both in John 3:16 and John 17:3 are not reflective of modern Christian beliefs, but rather illustrate the very distinction between the Jesus the Messiah and His Master, God.
Given the popularity of John 3:16, and its lack of study by Christians, I encourage Muslims to use this verse as a point from which we can encourage Christians to examine their beliefs critically. If you’re a Christian and you are now being made aware of the problems of this passage, then I encourage you to discuss them with a Church Elder or a learned Christian, followed by conversation with a Muslim. Understanding this verse and its consequences will drastically reshape a Christian’s theology and for Muslims, it will at the least, help us understand the crisis of faith that most Christians experience when they actively begin to read the Bible.
and Allah knows best.