What’s the deal with John 3:16?

I was reading the CNN Religion blog entry on Religious companies other than Chick-Fil-A and couldn’t help but notice that “John 3:16” is cited as a part of the packaging for two different companies on this list.

I find this interesting, since, so much has been written about this one biblical verse. (A quick search on Amazon yields more than 36,000 matches just in their books department.)

It is a common criticism of all religions, that they all answer questions that only they ask. The only people who ask how to get into heaven, are those who are taught that heaven is a place where you want to go. There’s an ancient African myth — I don’t know all the details — where heaven is a place where someone is sent as a punishment for a year. He gets pelted with rain when it rains, the sun burns his hair, and (I love this) the stars spend all of their time criticizing him for his shortcomings.

(David Fletcher of the Reasonable Doubts show is somewhat of an expert on this topic… He talks about it in a recent episode.)

This answering of questions that only the religion asks, is not unique to “western” religions by any means. If the Christian or Muslim asks how to get into heaven, the Hindu will ask how to be reincarnated into a better caste.

The way I see it, the New Testament as a whole covers two very high-level topics:
1. the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, complete with parables, sermons, and general directives as to how to live a good life. Love thy neighbor, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, and so on…
2. the divinity of Jesus, his death, the opening up of heaven and end-times prophesies.

John 3:16 is one of the quintessential lines about the death of Jesus, an attempt to justify a tale filled with horrific violence that is, quite frankly, the stuff of nightmares. (And that’s true even for those who haven’t seen a particular movie from a few years ago. I’ve hit on this particular item before when I reviewed that movie.

I have often cited the lesson of the parable of the prodigal son as an example of a great lesson about human nature and being honest with ourselves. This is the part of Christianity that, quite frankly, needs to be accentuated. Be good, be honest with yourself, be a better person than your enemies, and at least try to help people more than you hurt them.

But all of the talk of Jesus’s death, spending three days in hell before being resurrected and going up to heaven strikes me as disingenuous. There are far too many gods born of a virgin who died and spent three days in some underworld before ascending into paradise. And, to be blunt, any focus on this aspect of the greater story does little more than detract from the good stuff.

As a biblical passage, someone started showing up at football games holding up a sign that read, simply, “John 3:16” back in the 70s. He never hurt anyone unless you count people who were sitting behind him and couldn’t see through his sign. But of all biblical passages, I should think that this line has one of the least amount of importance in terms of actually living a good life.

I have two young children. As anyone with kids can attest, there are times when they deserve some degree of punishment. Depending upon the severity of the “sin”, punishment can range from time-outs, not getting dinner, no TV, being sent to their room, making them do things they don’t want to do, or maybe even (in rare circumstances) spanking. One thing that’s undoubtedly true, though, is that my children only get punished for their own transgressions. While I’m sure this isn’t a universal truth, I do not punish my children with anything more than a time-out or help to clean up a mess if there is any doubt whatsoever who is responsible for doing whatever happened.

(My sister often complains about having gotten punished for getting into a cookie jar on top of the refrigerator in an incident I no longer remember, but either my brother or I climbed up on a chair to get to the cookie jar. She was the only one tall enough at the time to reach the jar. I’m not going to repeat that same mistake.)

So literally allowing your child to be tortured and killed — out of “love” no less — because of the transgressions of other people (including complete strangers) strikes me as an outrageous punishment. At the very least, it is not justice.

Feel free to disagree with me on this point, but if you do, I can promise you one thing: you’re not going to sell me on the value of your religion if you think John 3:16 has even a modicum of importance in how to live your life.

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3 responses to “What’s the deal with John 3:16?

  1. I just recently found out that Chick Fil-A is a Christian company and doesn’t open on Sundays because of their religious views. I was surprised by this. I guess I admire people taking their sabbath seriously but I don’t think corporations are people. I don’t care if they don’t open on Sundays (I’m not eating there anyway), but I am uncomfortable with any company who’s owners put their personal religious beliefs into company policy. I think they have a right to; I just don’t like it.

    I think that there should be no law against company owners working their personal beliefs into how they run their company. If a particular company policy ends up infringing upon people’s civil rights, the company owner should not be allowed to continue enforcing their policy. There should be no special rules for religions or religiously inspired policy.

    Thanks for posting the link to the article about other religious companies. It’s handy (if a bit disturbing).

    As for John 3:16- ever since I actually thought about it as a teenager, I’ve always resented the fact that so much of what the church I grew up chooses to emphasize is clearly designed to inspire feelings of guilt, shame and sence of oweing some sort of debt to their God (a debt that seems impossible to repay with anything less than absolute self loathing and a life of misery).

    I hate his guilt-mingering when it comes from religious institutions. I shrug it off a bit because I understand that it’s a religion’s job to inform it’s members how to feel about their place in the world. I can’t shrug it off when a privately owned company does it. It’s obnoxious and I fear that it leads to abuse of power. It’s awful and I won’t willingly give any of my money to a company that does it.

  2. Yeah, I have always had a problem with the whole God-as-murderer concept. I consider myself a Christian, but in a very non-traditional way – God as that which is transcendent/the ground of all being, Jesus as a human very filled with this transcendent energy…in other words, a lot of theologians might find my views valid, but no fundamentalists and a lot of more moderate Christians would say I don’t fit the definition. And a lot of atheists wonder why I don’t consider myself an atheist. The best I can say is that some of the things that seem like very small points to others feel like important distinctions in my own life.

    When my son had his Coming of Age, he told me beforehand that he realized he was an atheist. Then he asked, “What, are you disappointed now?” I said, “Of course not! You took a lot of time to think deeply about important things, and I am so proud of you.” I actually felt pretty bad that he’d thought there was a possibility of disappointing me by being himself.

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