O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

The Problem with John 3:16

I got to know Shawn Smucker a few months back when he interviewed me for his blog around the time O Me of Little Faith released. Shawn’s a good guy and a fellow writer (he’s written two books) and he’s in the middle of a year in which he’s not watching TV.

Maybe it’s the lack of stimulus from the TV abstinence, but Shawn’s been exploring some fascinating issues lately on the blog — including one several days ago about how democracy makes being a Christian easy.


john316.jpgToday he asks a big question about John 3:16, which is the one verse almost all Christians know. For many, it’s the be-all, end-all of our faith. It’s the first Bible verse we ever memorized. (Maybe it’s the last one we ever memorized, too.)

NIV: “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 first memorized this verse in the King James: “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.”

Shawn writes:

If you ask any Christian to give you the verse in the Bible that best explains the Gospel, they will probably tell you John 3:16. And don’t get me wrong: it is a beautiful verse that tells an amazing story.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the verse, but I think there is something wrong with how we have elevated it above every other verse in the Bible. Do we really believe it’s possible to take one verse and use it to explain something as complex as the line between perishing and eternal life? If one verse can adequately explain that, then why do we have the rest of the Bible?


For many Christians, their spiritual lives are built upon the foundation of John 3:16. It may be the verse that first drew them to God or convinced them of God’s love. It’s a verse about salvation, and about the gift of God. It’s inspiring. But because it emphasizes belief above all else, Shawn suggests, it leaves a lot out, too. It says nothing about a changed life, or about serving the world around us, or about what happens when belief wavers.

John 3:16 emphasizes who’s in and who’s out in terms of “eternal life.” It’s a good barometer verse. Noting this, Shawn asks a provocative question:

What would contemporary Christian culture look like it we rallied around a different verse?


(He suggests John 3:17 — the verse which comes right afterward: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” What if our key verse reminded us not of the necessity of spoken belief, but that it was our job to love rather than judge people?)

I think Shawn has posed a fascinating question, and I’ve been thinking about it since reading his post this morning. So I thought I’d open up the question to you:

Are you satisfied with John 3:16 as the verse in the Bible that best explains the message of the Gospel? If so, why?

If not, what verse (or passage) would you propose take its place?

Comments read comments(8)
post a comment
Adam Whitley

posted September 8, 2010 at 11:04 am

I always saw this verse as the foundation the gospel rests on. It’s central to the gospel, but not the whole gospel.

report abuse


posted September 8, 2010 at 11:04 am

Matthew 22:36-40. Okay, so it’s four verses, but every bit as succinct and pithy as John 3:16.

report abuse

Matt @ The Church of No People

posted September 8, 2010 at 11:13 am

It’s a good verse, but you’re right, it leaves out a lot. Like what does it mean to believe? There’s plenty of verses that make it clear that belief means ACTION! But then we get into a big mess over saved by grace and whatnot. What if we rallied around Micah 6:8 where we are told that God requires that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him? That’s actually a lot more descriptive, but it doesn’t make the cut because Jesus didn’t say it.

report abuse


posted September 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

using john 3:16 as the be all and end all of christian life troubles me.
if you have ever taught pre-school sunday school you have used the little “story in a box” to teach the bible story…. many, many christians never get beyond the pre-school story in a box or beyond john 3:16 to look at the whole bible.
i wish i could think of an alternate. i do like the idea of using john 3:17 as suggested. you know, i also kind of like the verses after that whole titus 2 woman thing (starting at verse 11)…
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

report abuse

Charlie Chang

posted September 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm

How about John 11:25? “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
That verse or the passage when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
It’s crazy how we make Christianity harder than need be and enforce rules.

report abuse

shawn smucker

posted September 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Thanks everyone for your thoughts on this. I’ve been trying to look very deliberately at the things I believe and then track back to which scriptures were used to back up those ideas. I think it’s so important that we don’t just consume the isolated verses and ideas that are presented to us, but that we really dig into the stories and contexts of those scriptures.
If you get a chance read John 3 in its entirety sometime. The story of Nicodemus sneaking up to talk to Jesus at night gives a great setting for that old Sunday School verse.
Thanks again!

report abuse


posted September 11, 2010 at 7:19 pm

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his word, as he seems to some, but he is waiting in mercy for you, not desiring the destruction of any, but that all may be turned from their evil ways.

report abuse

Ron Stimphil

posted October 7, 2013 at 11:44 pm

John 3:16 is the worst-translated (interpreted) verse in the English Bible (as well as other translations). The adverb “so” is misunderstood to mean “so much” (degree) when in fact it means “in this way” (manner). In that verse, YHWH has chosen to define his love for humanity, firs emphasizing what He does not want to happen (that we perish), before He tells us what He really wants (spending eternal life with Him in Heaven). It is so peculiar that very few have mentioned that fact. Check it out. By the way, John reiterates the thought in 1 John 4:9.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting O Me Of Little Faith. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent ...

posted 2:25:22pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Farewell, O Me of Little Faith
You said you had a big announcement coming today. What is it? The announcement is this: Right now you are reading the final post on this blog. Ever. Ever? Ever. So you're shutting this blog down? Well, I'm going to stop writing ...

posted 6:11:49am Jun. 01, 2011 | read full post »

My Introvert Interview
On Monday, author Adam McHugh delivered a guest post about the "snarling 8-headed monster" of the writing process. Today I return the favor -- sort of -- via an interview at his blog, Introverted Church. We talk about how my introverted ...

posted 3:05:36pm May. 25, 2011 | read full post »

Harold Camping: "Invisible Judgment Day"
When the rapture didn't occur as predicted on May 21, 2011, Harold Camping had a few options. Here is how he could have responded to the failed prediction, in descending levels of crazy: 1. He could announce that he was wrong. This is the ...

posted 9:06:24am May. 24, 2011 | read full post »

The Phases of Writing (Adam McHugh)
If you've ever felt out of place among all the exciting, expressive, emotional enthusiasm of a contemporary church service...or an evangelist's demands that you need to constantly be sharing your faith boldly to strangers...if it simply wipes ...

posted 7:46:00am May. 23, 2011 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.