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_ This is for Kristin.
I remember the first time I heard John 3: 16. I was 12. I was at Methodist Church camp and a counselor explained to me it was THE scripture: 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.
I remember the emotional and intellectual reaction I immediately had, God didn’t need to do that, as my well meaning camp counselor explained that Jesus died on a cross so that I could go to heaven. I remember wondering why God would need to kill someone else on my behalf. I wanted desperately to have a deeper relationship with God, because I truly loved God. John 3:16 was supposed to make everything clear to me, it was supposed to throw me fully into God’s arms, it was supposed to mark me as one of God’s saved. Instead the detailed explanation my camp counselor offered of dripping blood, crushed bones, and collapsing lungs repelled me.
It has been a long and winding journey since that summer afternoon in a musty chapel at Finley Lake. I am proud of my 12-year-old self for knowing God didn’t need any blood to love me. And I am deeply indebted to the many theologians, biblical historians, and others who along the journey offered me an antidote for John 3:16.
Let me attempt to lay out the theology behind John 3:16*. Simply, it’s about atonement. And just what is that? According to some, it is the reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the life and death of Jesus. It implies that Jesus’ sole purpose was to save humanity. This is why Jesus is referred to by some as a savior.
Those who tag John 3:16 on bridges and overpasses have been specifically taught substitutionary atonement or sacrificial atonement. And how is that different from the above definition of atonement? It asserts that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinful humanity. He was punished for our sins, in our place.
Are you ready for this? Because it’s sick! This dominant theological view implies that God was hungry for revenge, because humanity had failed God over and over again. God could only forgive humanity—make things right between us and God—through a punishment so severe it ended in a gory, blood soaked death on an instrument of torture, the cross. Does this turn your stomach like mine? This violent view asserts that God and humanity could never be in relationship with one another unless God got blood, plain and simple.
I flatly reject John 3:16. I vehemently oppose this concept of God. It is not true that God could only love me if beloved Jesus died a brutal death. I believe John 3:16 glorifies violence and casts God as a child abuser. I’ve marked John 3:16 out in my bible.
Instead, I have been made at-one-with-God because God’s endless grace has called out to me my entire life, like a mother calling their child inside for dinner at the end of the day. I have been made at-one-with-God because it was God who knit me together in my mother’s womb and this God has never left me. My God, the God Jesus calls out to as Abba (Aramaic for daddy) is as tender as my father was each evening as I crawled onto his lap as a child. My God does not hold a belt, waiting to whip me for my day’s transgressions. Nor does God hold a belt that he used to whip someone else for my transgressions. No, God loves me regardless and I am free to wrap myself in God’s divine embrace always.
So why the cross? Why was Jesus crucified? That’s for another blog. Stay tuned. And yes, you have permission to cross John 3:16 out of your Bible. You belong in the Christian community even if you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. Maybe you belong in the Christian community because you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. All that blood on the cross was sickening and had nothing to do with you. I promise you, you belong.
*I am not and do not want to be a professional theologian. If you need more information about theories of atonement or the historical emergence of atonement theology in the western church—contact me! I would be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.