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John 3:16: The Simplest Verse in the Bible, Right?

john 3 16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Christians tout John 3:16 as the simplest verse in the Bible. They revel in the simplicity of its message. It is often the first Bible verse children are taught to memorize.

Is John 3:16 really the simplest verse in the Bible?  What if we looked at John 3:16 through the lens of the plethora of theological beliefs within the Christian church?

We would first have to settle who wrote the gospel of John in general, and John 3:16 in particular. We know chapter and verse numbers were added fifteen centuries after the writing of John. There’s a lot of debate about who wrote John, when it was written, and whether it should even be considered a gospel or a part of the canon of Christian scripture.

Once we settle the textual legitimacy issue, we would then have to decide who is actually doing the speaking in John 3:16. The author of John? Jesus? Did the author actually hear Jesus speak these words? Is John 3:16 a verbatim quote of what Jesus said?

Now to the verse.

For God

Right away we are forced to decide which God the Bible is talking about. Christianity is hardly unified on the God question. Witness a Baptist and an Apostolic fight over whether the Trinity is taught in the Bible. Is God one? Is God three in one?

So Loved the World

It would seem that this part of the verse is pretty straight forward. God loves the world. World means God loves everyone. However, as millions of Calvinists will quickly tell you, all doesn’t necessarily mean all, and world doesn’t necessarily mean world. First, you have to take the verse and push it through the Calvinist sieve and then you can interpret John 3:16 correctly. World doesn’t mean everyone. It means out of every kindred, tribe, and tongue, God has people he loves and people he intends to save. In other words, God doesn’t savingly love everyone. It is right there in the verse, can’t YOU see it?

At about this point Calvinists launch into a discussion about the difference between God’s love for everyone (common grace) and the love he has for those he has chosen from before the foundation of the world. Of course, Arminians have a far different view of the scope of God’s love and grace. Let the never-ending debate begin.

That He Gave His only Begotten Son

We will assume that son means Jesus. This raises an issue right away, an issue about which many Christians have fumed over the years. Was Jesus always the son of God? One side adamantly says yes. The other side says he became the son and there was a time when he wasn’t the son.

Then we have to deal with the only son issue. Did God have more sons or daughters? As Mormonism becomes a mainstream Christian religion, what about their belief that Lucifer (the devil, Satan) is Jesus’ brother?

The next issue we have to deal is “how” Jesus was begotten. Did Jesus have a sperm-donating father?  If the Holy Spirit “begat” Jesus, how did that happen? Did God have sex with Mary? Virgin birth? “What a laugher,” many liberal Christians say. Everyone knows virgins can’t be pregnant. Besides, the word “virgin” means young woman. Liberals and Fundamentalists battle back and forth, each group certain their view is correct.

And there’s the whole consent issue. Did Mary consent to the Holy Ghost having sex with her? Did Mary have a choice in the matter?

That Whosoever Believeth in Him

Whosoever. Once again does this refer to everyone? No matter who you are, where you are, if you believe in Jesus you will have everlasting life? What about reprobates? Does “whosoever” apply to them? The Calvinist – – the party of the exclusion — says “whosoever” doesn’t mean everyone. Only the elect will savingly believe in Jesus. Everyone else, even if they wanted to, cannot savingly believe in Jesus. If you are not elect, predestined, chosen by God, you are headed for an eternity in the Lake of Fire. God decided before you were even born that you would burn forever.

What does it mean to believe? What do we have to believe? Here is where the whole issue becomes every sect for itself. Every flavor of Christian ice cream has its own take on what it means to believe and what it is a person must believe to be saved. Even among churches of the same denomination, there are differences about what it means to believe and what one must believe to be saved.

Should not Perish

What does it mean to perish? Death? First or second death? Hell? Lake of Fire? Purgatory? Eternal punishment? Temporary punishment? Annihilation?

But Have Everlasting Life

When it comes to life after death, all Christians believe that they will go to Heaven after they die. No matter what road they take, what theology they have, every sect/church believes everlasting life is the prize for those who believe.  Though . . . I do remember a debate among preachers about the difference between eternal life and everlasting life. It goes something like . . .

Here’s my point.  Even the simplest verse in the Bible can be interpreted different ways. Each interpreter believes his interpretation to be the correct one. The truth is, there is no such thing as Biblical truth. All we have are sects/churches/pastors/individuals, each saying their interpretation is the truth. Armed with study Bibles, concordances, and dictionaries, many Christians believe they are ready to emphatically tell anyone who will listen exactly what the Bible teaches.

Imagine a person who has never heard about any of the religions of the world. He has lived his life in isolation. One day he comes upon an inscription on a cave wall that says:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

What conclusions would he come to? Would he naturally come to the conclusions I mentioned above? Not likely. Perhaps he would start a religion. What is the likelihood that it would resemble any of the Christian sects? Once again, not likely.

This is why I don’t involve myself in long debates or discussions about the Bible. Such discussions become like ten students looking at a Monet, each giving their own interpretation. Then the teacher says,NO! NO! NO!, all of you are wrong. The picture is saying ________________.

After all, the Bible does say, Let every man be persuaded in his own mind . . .


Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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    How can anyone call that the simplest verse in the Bible? Genesis 10:24 is much simpler and way more straight-forward:

    Arphaxad was the father of Shelah,

    and Shelah the father of Eber.

    Or pick any other of what I call “the begats” straight forward, simple, and stone boring.

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    “Then the teacher says, NO NO NO all of you are wrong. The picture is saying ________________.” Which if there were a god, I can easily imagine that’s what they might say to all the different sects. On the other hand, god not taking the time to tell everyone what the “picture is saying” is just another good example of why his existence is doubtful. With eternal consequences in the balance it is awfully mean of god to not make the instructions clearer, purposely dull some folks understanding, etc.

    I really appreciate you, Bruce!!

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    Bruce G., you are the devil: You have dragged poor Monet into this mess! God says what God says and God says that what God says is what God says and that is the end of it!
    Is it any wonder Jesus said, “Oh what the hell, hang me up'” with a father like God?
    If I wasn’t so busy today putting in the carrots, I would explain. Why did you quit the church? You only gave it, what, about half your life! Fool, only one or two more years might have given you a good spiritual pension to ease you along through your years… But ohhhh no, you had to question and question and feeeeeel things. Sheesh.

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    Not so simple, after all.
    I, too, was pondering this verse the other day. Used to be, it meant that God loved us so much that he sacrificed his only begotten son.
    But, wait! DID He do such a thing? NO! He did not. He GAVE his son to be killed, yes, but it’s not like if you or I were to lose a child to death. After all, God’s son was only temporarily unavailable. After descending into Hell, he came back, right? What the hell sort of sacrifice is THAT?
    When one of us loses a child, that’s it.
    The whole damn thing is a joke.

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    There is also the part that “God so loved the world he gave his only son” Wouldn’t that be like a fireman looking at a burning building and saying “I love the people in there so much, hey George go in there and sacrifice yourself to save them” In that case it wouldn’t be God we loved all, it would actually be the son. God was just the one that ordered the son to do the sacrifice and then took the credit afterwards.

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      In Mormon theology, Lucifer, the first born brother of Jesus, was first asked to volunteer and lay down his life as a blood sacrifice for all of mankind, just as God’s subcontractor John Calvin laid it out for God’s consideration in his pre-birth construction plan. Lucifer refused to volunteer, and this pissed God off something awful and got Lucifer a demotion to “buck private, Kicked out of Heaven, and on the way to the Lake of Fire. Then God asked for another one of his sons to volunteer for the ultimate sacrifice laid out in John Calvin’s construction proposal. Sure enough, Just like John Milton says in “Paradise Lost,” Jesus steps forward and proudly says: “I shall go!!!” Not like there was any pressure and this was all truly voluntary.

      Well,,,okay…maybe I did not lay it out perfectly—but it supposedly went something like that. I will now stand by for Brian to heap upon me his usual angry excoriation.

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    Hey Bruce. As a former fundie, how would you respond to this debate trick that a fundie once used on me. It went something like this:

    “John 3:16. Okay. You say 100 different humans have 100 different understandings of that verse. But will you at least give me this much. Please give me that when God spoke those words that He and He alone knew what they meant because he was the speaker at the time and that there is only that one meaning that He meant that is truly correct. Therefore, there cannot be 100 different meanings of that verse. Ninety-nine of them absolutely have to be wrong, and the only one that is right is the one God originally meant. Well, there you are!!! My fundie church, and my church alone in all the Earth, knows that one thing that God originally meant. You see. Once you are truly saved and become a “true” Christian, God lifts the blinders from your eyes by the power of the Holy Spirit. As you run your eyes across each verse in the Bible, the Holy Spirit instantly reveals to you the original, one, and only meaning that God had for each verse. That is why we—and we alone—know for absolute certain that our understanding of each scripture in the Bible is the correct one–and it cannot possibly be wrong—absolutely impossible.”

    I once visited a website reserved for discussions between Christian fundamentalist pastors. You could only enter the exchange if you were one. However, all readers could view what these pastors were writing to each other. This was way back around 1999 when the Internet was still young and not nearly as complex and sophisticated as it is now. I cannot recall the name of this early website, and it may not exist anymore. Here is the thing that surprised me so much though. These fundie preachers, to whom the Holy Spirit had given perfect discernment of scripture, all had different ideas about what various scriptures meant and how fundie preachers ought to behave in public in response to those scriptures. It was bizarre. These fundie preachers behaved with each other like vicious thugs in the nastiest barroom brawl I had ever seen. I am talking mean, spiteful, straight-razor-toting viciousness with words of the worst possible kind. It was so intense, so powerful, so incredibly divisive, and so utterly bizarre that I wondered if an arm and hand holding a switchblade knife might surge out from my computer screen and slash my face. This is where I first learned that the fundie claim that we—and we alone—have the truth—because God had only one scripture meaning—and the Holy Spirit revealed it to us and us alone because we are Spirited-inhabited fundies—WAS PURE BULLSHIT.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      It is impossible to debate people who think like this. Their minds are shut off from any sort of challenge to their beliefs. Take someone who believes that only the KJV is the Word of God. He will see how many verses are in the NIV, noticing that there are less words than in the KJV. There ya have it, the NIV is a false Bible because it takes away from the Word of God. People who think like this set up a false standard and judge everything according to that standard. And Fundamentalists are not the only people who think this way. We all can do this if we aren’t careful. We must always be open to new data, knowing that none of us possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,

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    Steve Ruis

    And these convoluted interpretations are from the same people who brought you “objective morality” (as opposed to the atheistic relativistic or subjective moralities). An objective morality is one that doesn’t involve personal interpretation. And only Christians have it (because their god is real and all of those others are not).

    Does not all of the above point out that there is nothing beyond the human ability to interpret.

    And my response to John 3:16 is it shows the whole thing was a sham. So god creates this Jesus, who later turns out to be god himself, but let’s not complicate things just yet. So, he creates this baby … wait, this god is perfectly adept at creating full adult humans (e.g. Adam, e.g. Eve), so why is he baby making? Just what does Jesus have to gain from spending 30 years on Earth as a human being. He gets to learn what shitting one’s pants feels like? What masturbating feels like? He gets to accept all of the indignities children are treated to? It seems an all-knowing god shouldn’t need any instruction, but, hey, what do I know?

    So, this Jesus character conspires to get accused of sedition/treason, so he will suffer through a crucifixion, even though he is a god and immortal and therefore cannot really die. But they go through the mummery show anyway and Jesus “dies” and after two days pops up alive! Amazing! (A sham … was all planned out ahead of time.) Hey, if I had a guaranteed “Get Out of Death” card, I might go through that process, too. (Well, if paid handsomely.)

    This gospel we call “John” has Jesus wandering around Jerusalem for 40 days after his “resurrection.” He draws crowds! And creates much gossip! And you mean to tell me that the ruthless Romans with their extensive spy networks get no word of this? If this were to have actually happened, after a few hours said miracle man would have been scooped up and nailed up again, this time under guard until there was nothing left for the crows to pick off of his bones.

    John is the worst of the gospels as it contradicts the others over and over and makes outrageous god claims none of the others make. This is, of course, why “John” is the favorite gospel of evangelicals.

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    If I didn’t know the back story, would I automatically assume from this one verse that a deity gave his only son to die? Not necessarily. Maybe he gave him to the world as a priest, or a leader, or a teacher. I don’t know that I would automatically assume death. If I didn’t know the back story, I would probably shrug and walk away. If my interest happened to be piqued, I would probably think the actual story was pretty ludicrous and then walk away.

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    And of course, there is a huge debate on which version of the Bible to use. And anyone who has studied Greek or any other biblical languages know that there are translation imperfections. Huh…how about that?

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    MJ Lisbeth

    For Doug so loved his country that he gave his only begotten son….

    When I was an altar boy, I served at the funeral of someone who got slaughtered in Vietnam. He was the only son (I assume “only begotten) of a man who, I learned later, told his son that he had to choose between “doing his duty” or losing his family.

    How is “loving” “the world,” one’s country, or anything else so vague, a rationale for sacrificing one’s only son (or daughter)?.

    I tried to understand. And to believe. I really did.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser