Rewriting St. John
Recently I’ve frequently had to pass someone’s door with a biblical quotation pinned to it that irritates, if not offends, me every time:
“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” (John 3, 16).
I can’t of course object to anyone putting up something that is meaningful to that person, and I have to admit that the particular verse is beautiful in its simplicity. The trouble is that there is barely a word in it that I believe—at least without qualification. Thus I tried rewriting it so as to reflect my own beliefs, which turned out to be extraordinarily difficult.
What is it that I object to?
The sentence, first, ignores all of creation except for this world. Once human beings thought they were the centre of everything, but we now know that this isn’t true and that there is an enormous universe consisting of billions upon billions not just of stars but of galaxies, and possibly of other universes too. In such a multiplicity of creation, why would God love only one world? To express the magnificence of God we have, rather, to see Him as standing behind everything. This, however, leads to the question, not so much of “God’s” existence, but of what we mean by “God”—and for this reason I have on occasion preferred to use the only handy synonym I can find: “The Holy” (as suggested by thelogian John Dominic Crossan).
Of course, when we think of our “relationship” with God, we cannot do so in the abstract, and so we personify “Him” as a human father, although we know full well that God is neither male nor female. But this is only a personification for our convenience, which doesn’t reflect any particular reality. But—to come to my second objection—the sentence I have quoted implies that God is indeed a father making a sacrifice by giving us “His Son,” whom, like any human father, he must love more than others. Surely this is nonsense, particularly since “God” knows that “His Son” will return to “Him.”
Third, what is meant by a pre-existing “only begotten son”? How indeed can he have been begotten “in heaven”? If we are all “sons” (or “children”) of God—as is found in the Bible too (Genesis 6, 2-4; Job 1, 6 and 2, 1, besides other references in the New Testament )—this just doesn’t make sense, although it of course relates to the specifically Christian doctrine of the virgin birth, which I am certainly not alone in questioning.
Going on from there—always mindful of the magnifence of God behind all existence—I needed to change the sentence to reflect a greater inclusivity, for why should we limit it only to Christian doctrine and on this particular earth? There have been other individuals, including women and even other gods, in various religions, all of which ask the same basic questions about the meaning and purpose of life. I have also tried to avoid “sexist” language, although, because of the limitations of English, this often turned out to be impossible without clumsy circumlocutions: to cope with this I have on occasion used quotation marks for “God,” “He/Him,” and for other words that need closer definition.
The second part of the sentence reads “So that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Again, what does this mean? Believe in “God” or in “his son”? At all events, “whosoever believeth in him” is highly self-congratulatory (“We believe and others don’t.”) And what of those millions of people in the roughly hundred thousand years on earth before the coming of Christ? What of human ancestors, for where does “mankind” begin as distinct from other hominids and what, too, is the distinction between “human” and “animals,” equally a part of this universe? I believe that all “will have everlasting life” and that, like Christ, all have “pre-existed.” Believe in reincarnation or not, to me the concept makes sense.
There is also the whole question of the provenance of the Bible, which we know many respected theologians question (particularly St. John’s gospel) in that it is unsupported by outside evidence. Those who have a simplistic belief in the Bible’s inerrancy should try reconciling the many contradictions within it, let alone exploring the actual meaning of some of the words in the society for whom it was written—not to mention the proven mistranslations.
To rewrite the biblical verse so that it adheres to what I myself believe, while keeping to the admirable simplicity of the original, was not easy. I certainly found I could not express all of my views, which I have written about in detail elsewhere, within one sentence. At least, though, I finally arrived at something I could accept. Purely for myself and for anyone else who finds it helpful (and many will not agree), I came up with the following:
“For the power of all universes revealed itself (on this earth) as love, through the example of those individuals who remind us that the holy within ourselves and all creation will never perish but has lived, and will live, eternally.”