Question on John 3:36

In John 3:36, we read this:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them.
How are we to read this statement? A lot depends on the lens through which we look. If it's a theology of separation, this verse might be interpreted as indicating that God stands separate from and in wrath against all people *until* the moment they believe in Jesus, at which point God enters their lives (for the first time), stops being wrathful toward them, and grants them eternal life.

But is that interpretation justified? We would say no, because it is inconsistent with what Scripture tells us about who God is, as revealed to us in the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. According to that revelation---reading this verse through that lens---rather than separate from sinners, God is a friend of sinners; God is Immanuel---God with us and for us, the God of love who, in the person of Jesus, died for us, forgiving and accepting us and so reconciling us to himself.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is to this God, revealed in Jesus Christ, that John bears witness in his Gospel:
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
"But," one might reply, "doesn't John 3:36 along with John 3:18 imply that a person *remains condemned* by God *until* they believe"?  Here we must be careful not to misunderstand the point John is making. Throughout his Gospel, John makes it clear that God's action on our behalf *precedes* our personal belief. We don't cause salvation to occur by believing. Rather, what John is telling us is that we receive (and John uses the word "see" as a metaphor for this receiving) what is already true when we believe. John likens this believing to *illumination*---to having our eyes opened to the light (as in John 3:20-21). A person who does not believe cannot see the light that is already present, and thus they remain in darkness (in terms of their personal experience).

By believing, their eyes are then opened---they now see what was already there. To not believe is to deny what is there and thus to cut oneself off from its benefits. Though God has forgiven, accepted and included me in his life and love in Jesus, if I don't believe (and thus receive) it, I don't experience the benefits.

The "light" that is present with all humans, by the Spirit, is Jesus himself (John 1:4, 9). Unfortunately, not all "see" and thus embrace and so benefit from this light, this Jesus. But to say that some do not benefit, is not the same as saying that God condemns those people and remains separate from them, in a state of wrath toward them. Quite the contrary! In love, God sent his Son to die for all in order to forgive and accept all, in Christ. Of course, not all know that this has happened for them (and all humanity) and some who know, have rejected that truth. However, *all* are invited to reciprocate---to live into the gift God has, already, given them in Christ (see John 1:12).

In all this, we are seeking to do what Christ's apostles were careful to do in their writings (including John in his Gospel)---establish all aspects of salvation in Jesus, not in our action (including our believing). Following their example, we seek to uphold the truth of the gospel that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has indeed already taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The gospel invitation then is to believe (to "see" in John's terminology) this good news---not to obtain forgiveness by believing, but to *experience* our forgiveness through now opened eyes.

As Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). Here to "have" is not to receive what one did not have before, but to possess/experience/receive---grab hold of what was there all along. In that profound experience, which might come suddenly, or over a period of time, one is "born again" ("born from above" is the alternate translation). John thus summarizes the purpose for his Gospel:
That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31).
To "have life" is not to be given something new, but to possess/see/experience/lay hold of, what was granted to all humanity 2,000 years ago through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What was universally (objectively) given, must be personally (subjectively)  experienced/received. It is toward that end that Jesus, through the Spirit, now labors, and invites the church to participate as co-laborers with him, for the sake of the world.

[Updated on 9/18/2019]


Pastor Jonathan said…
Very well said! This is what it means to do Christ-centered interpretation of the Bible instead of human-centered interpretation.

I'm presently progressing (I hope!) through a paradigm shift in my thinking. I've always been a believer in the "theology of separation" (as you put it); first from an Arminian, Southern Baptist perspective and now (for the past 15+ years) from a Calvinistic (though not strict modern Calvinism) Reformed position. Just to be clear, however, the church I presently attend teaches a theology of reconciliation--that the purpose of God is to recover intimate relationship with us and to reconcile all things to Himself in Christ. He has not called us to rule-keeping (religion) but to relationship. We are trying to get people out of thinking religiously and to start thinking relationally.

Having said that, as I progress with this new paradigm shift of the theology of inclusion (I'm assuming this is how you would put it); as I progress in this way of thinking, there are many passages (especially from the OT) that I find difficult to reconcile with this new (for me) perspective. And this John passage (especially this verse) is one of them.

I appreciate this post (and hope you do others like it) and find myself agreeing with what you are saying...but. I must be missing where you have explained what this wrath of God is that abides on the "unbeliever". I've read it through a couple of times and I'm still not getting it.

Could you and/or Jonathan (and anyone else) clarify what this wrath of God is that remains on the person who rejects Christ? This still sounds to me like the wrath of God is an active disposition towards all those who reject His Son.

Thanks for your patience.

Pastor Jonathan said…
Here's what I would say:
Everything in the universe has to be defined in the light of who Jesus is. He is the Father's Son in whom all people are adopted as children of the Father.
Therefore, whatever word pictures are used in the Bible to speak of God's wrath - a King, a thunder storm, a fire, etc. - the ultimate definition of "wrath" must be the wrath of a Father. All other images of wrath must be interpreted in the light of the Father/Son relationship of the Trinity which is shared with humanity in Jesus.
The wrath of a Father is always against anything which would take his children from him. So, if I see my 6-year old playing with a snake I am going to destroy that snake in my wrath to protect my beloved son. If my son believes that I hate him and am out to get him he may interpret my wrath as hatred of him and not understand that it is my wrath against the snake which would destroy him.
I think this is where belief is so important. Because The Son lives with us as the man Jesus Christ we are all the adopted and beloved children of the Father. But the snake has lied to us and told us the Father hates us because of our sin. Who will we believe? The truth is that we are not under the wrath of the Father - the snake is. If we believe this truth then we no longer experience life thinking that we are objects of wrath. If, however, we don't believe this truth then we think that we are under wrath and we live as though we are - fearful of God and hiding in the bushes like Adam and Eve.
This is also why it is so important that we stay focused on Jesus. The message of the Church to the world is not "God is angry at for your sins but you can appease him by repenting." The message of the Church to the world is a message about Jesus: "In Jesus Christ the Father has destroyed the sin that would have destroyed you. Repent and believe the truth that Jesus has made you the adopted, forgiven child of his Father."
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your very important question Great Googly Moddly! (love that name!). What a vital question it is. And thanks Pastor Jonathan for your clear and insightful answer. I agree with all you say.

Scripture testifies to us that "God is love." So just as Jonathan says that God's wrath must always be understood in the context of God the Father relating to all people as his dear children, so too must we understand that God's wrath is an expression of his love, not of something else.

It is sometimes stated that God's wrath is an expression of his *justice* which is then seen as somehow distinct from his love. But again, this idea rails against what Scripture claims - that there is one God and that God, who is Father, Son and Spirit is love.

This is saying far more than saying that "God is loving." Certainly he is that, but it is saying that God in his very nature is love. He is a communion (community) of love of the Father-Son-Spirit. And God does (love) what God is (love).

Sadly, to uphold the idea that God acts in wrath against humanity, the idea is posited that God the Father is wrathful, while God the Son (Jesus) is loving and tender, "a friend of sinners." In following this tact, we now posited a split (duality) in the mind/heart of God.

We should be reminded here that there is no such split. Moreover, we should remember that the God of the Old Testament is revealed in the New to be the pre-incarnate Son of God. Thus we understand that the one who Created and Sustains ALL humanity (and all the cosmos), is the same One who, in love for us all, becomes flesh, suffers and dies for us.

Thus God's wrath, must be seen as being "played out" in the greatest act of self-sacrificial love that every occurred.

As Jonathan so aptly notes, God's wrath is against evil and sin - all that hurts his beloved children. And he goes to the uttermost to destroy that evil and sin for the saving of all his children.
Jonathan and Ted,

Thanks for the responses. I appreciate your help here. I think I understand what your are saying and will begin trying to think along these lines when reading the Scripture.

I've been asking around (most recently at Baxter's blog) about whether or not there are any theological/doctrinal works from this perspective that deal with difficult Old Testament passages. I have a library full of books from authors in the Reformed tradition that approach the Scripture from a different perspective (obviously); a perspective that, as Baxter says, has been passed down from many generations of "Western" thought that has caused us to misunderstand the Scripture.

Can you direct me to any modern works that deal with the Old Testament (specifically) and Biblical Theology/Dogmatics from this theology of inclusion?

Thanks again,

Ted Johnston said…
Hi Jason,

You asked for recommendations on some books that deal with the Old Testament and Biblical Theology -Dogmatics from the perspective of a theology of inclusion.

A couple of books that address the Old Testament are "Genesis, the Movie" by Robert Farrar Capon and "The Great Amen of the Great I-Am" by John Emory McKenna. Also, chapter 5 in "How to Read T.F. Torrance" by Elmer Colyer is helpful.

With regard to systematic theology and dogmatics, I recommend "Invitation to Theology" by Michael Jinkins.
Thanks Ted,

I've been asking around on other blogs as well for book and theologian recommendations and I appreciate your input.

The Jinkins book looks interesting. I haven't heard of McKenna or Capon, so I'll check their material out--thanks. I've listened to Colyer on the "You're Included" podcast and have really enjoyed him (as well as Chris Kettler and Gerrit Dawson); so I'll be looking to get all of their books as well.

Again, thanks for the help. I hope we begin to see an influx of Biblical Theological studies, Systematic Theological studies and Dogmatic/Doctrinal theological material from Trinitarian Theolgians soon. If we need to re-read our Old Testaments (especially) in the light of Trinitarian Theology (as opposed to Arminian and Reformed Theology) to understand God correctly, and I believe that this what many Trinitarian Theologians are saying, then I hope we would see more books devoted Biblical Theology in the line of Vos, Clowney, Goldsworthy, etc. but, of course, from a Trinitarian perspective instead of a Reformed perspective.

I've been loving listening to and reading Baxter Kruger (I've been sharing his books with my wife and we've been having some great conversations!), but his material seems geared for more "general" audiences than theological academia.

These books and authors that you mentioned seem like they will be a good start for me so, again, thanks.


BTW--are you the Ted Johnston that has a "You're Included" interview on podcast? If so, I'm in the middle of listening to it and had a question for you. If not, I'll check other "Ted Johnstons".
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Jason,

I am the Ted Johnston interviewed in one of the "You're Included" videos.

Also, I might mention that Robert T. Walker has done some great editing of the lectures of Thomas F. Torrance in compiling a two volume systematic theology. The first volume is titled, "Incarnation, the Person and Life of Christ" and the second volume is titled "Atonement, the Person and Work of Christ." Both are now available through under the authorship of Thomas F. Torrance and Robert T. Walker.
I noticed that there were "3" who disagreed with this post. I think it would be interesting and beneficial for those who "disagree" to go ahead and comment as to why they disagree. Only in this way can we continue to refine our understanding of these great truths of the Gospel.

I encourage those who disagree with this post (or any post) to explain...not in order to argue, but in order to help us all grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Personally, I would enjoy some back-and-forth if it helps me to know my Lord and Savior better.

Ted Johnston said…
I say "ditto" to Jason's request for comments that both agree and disagree in respectful dialog.

I encourage both kinds of comments and ideas for new topics. Feel free to email them directly to me, or through a posting directly to Blogger - which comes to me as moderator. The only posts I don't allow are those that take pot-shots at individual people, or address issues that are not directly related to the issue at hand.
Robert Moores said…
Unless I misunderstand this interpretation, it seems like you can "experience these benefits" by believing in basically anything, if you really believe it.

Let's say I believe that a stone monument in my backyard is the source of all life, and that if I kiss it every morning before breakfast I will have everlasting life in Heaven after my body dies. In every other way, my beliefs mirror the virtues of Christianity - I believe in love and compassion - but the one difference is that I believe the only way to the Kingdom is through my stone monument.

In life on Earth, will I not experience the same joy of everlasting life as a believer in Christ? And since the gift of everlasting life offered by Christ is, as you say, "already there", then won't I still be granted everlasting life in Heaven, perhaps feeling a bit silly once I discover that my rock never actually meant anything, but all in all no worse off for believing in *it* rather than in Christ?

It seems to me, and I mean this with utmost respect and curiosity, that what you are saying here essentially cuts the head from Christianity. What "benefits" does one fail to experience by not believing in Christ, if everlasting life is still there for one anyway? How can I have gone so far wrong in my understanding of your words?
Ted Johnston said…
Rather than "cutting the head from Christianity," it is my belief that the understanding articulated here puts the head squarely where it belongs, namely on the finished work of Jesus.

What I see you wrestling with (and I'm glad you are!) is how the benefits of what Jesus has done for all are now available to all, yet some do not experience them. But that is precisely John's point - what one does not believe in, one does not "possess" (or, said another way, we appropriate what has been given by accepting it as our own). The problem with some of the traditional views is that they imply that the gift is not given *until* we believe. But that idea puts the proverbial cart before the horse, and thus "cuts the head from Christianity" (to borrow your term.

It's really a matter of sequence and priority isn't it. As the original post says, we must be very careful to locate everything pertaining to our salvation in Christ, not in our own merit or works.
christyvoelkel said…
Thank you for working through this. I too am on a similar journey as that of Jason, and while it is a true joy to work through Scripture afresh, it is also comforting and inspiring to know that others too trod this path with wisdom and grace.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your comment Christy. And may your journey with Jesus be richly rewarding as you share in his knowledge of the Father in the power of the Spirit.
Unknown said…
ike Whittaker Consider and memorize the following illustration, which a friend of mine had used for many years, so you can understand the difference between condemnation and conviction and quickly recognize them. Condemnation and conviction are like cousins. What do we know about cousins? Sometimes they look alike, maybe even talk alike; but do they have the same father? No, cousins do not have the same father! Condemnations father is the devil who wants to render us ineffective by paralyzing us. Convictions father is the Holy Spirit who wants to move us to action so that we can be all that the Father had purposed us to be.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Mike,
I agree, in principle, with this statement. Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us to the truth (which includes a conviction of our sinfulness, leading to the spiritual discipline of confession) is an important part of the outworking of God's grace in our life. But that conviction, never destroys (as does condemnation), rather it leads to growth in Christ-likeness.
Anonymous said…
Sorry going back to the original answer, are you saying that no one goes to hell? Just trying to get my head round this, the likes of people that have committed evil acts and not repented and accepted Christ as Lord and Saviour will be in heaven, like Hitler, rapists n murderers?
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your comment anonymous. You are wrestling with a key issue. As I said in the original answer, "From God's perspective, all people are his dearly loved children. Of course, not all know this, and some who know reject this truth." It is personal rejection of this truth that places a person in their own self-appointed place of alienation from God (what we refer to as "hell"). So I am not saying that no one goes to hell. However I am saying that God condemns no one, for, in Christ, he has forgiven them. Thinking along these lines, C.S. Lewis, in his book, "The Great Divorce" wrote (and I paraphrase here), that "hell is a place with a door that is locked from the inside." For more about the topic of hell, you can use the Google search function on this blog and do a search for the word "hell" and that will take you to several other posts that address this topic.
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them." How are we to understand this statement?

To me this scripture seems to be stating the obvious? Jesus is the light. If a person rejects the light he/she walks in darkness, where there is no safety. Without Christ, people are in hell. That hell, however, is a result of ignorance and not that it is imposed by God. I suppose the scripture that clarifies this view is Hosea 4:6, where we are shown that people perish, as a result of lacking knowledge. In Jesus, it is clear that God loves sinners. His desire is to see people repenting and receiving light. This has got nothing to do with him being vengeful, as hell is a result of ignorance.

However, there is nothing wrong with translating that hell as God's vengeance. God is the author of the law of cause and effect, which cannot be changed. He takes full responsibility for the unchangeable law of cause and effect. But the greatest enemy of humanity is ignorance, as, through the prophet Hosea God states that those who reject knowledge he also rejects them (Hosea 4:6). Grace is in abundance, but there is nothing God can do for those deliberately rejecting it.
Drew said…
I just came across this thread after googling for a better understanding of John 3:36. But as for recommendations, Greg Boyd wrote a book called Cross Vision that deals with the Old Testament portraits of a violet God very well.