Why John 3:16 Isn’t About The Crucifixion

Why John 3:16 Isn’t About The Crucifixion November 6, 2018

In preparation for an upcoming online debate about PSA [Penal Substitutionary Atonement] Theory, I started wondering whether or not Jesus, or any of the Gospel authors, specifically communicated the Gospel as being about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, or to appease the wrath of God, etc.


In the process of exploring this question, I started with John 3:16 because, growing up, I had always equated it with the crucifixion. However, I realized that this entire conversation has nothing to do with the crucifixion, nor does it even mention the death of Jesus at all.


Here’s what the verse actually says:


For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”


Now, I think most of the time we have been told to read the word “gave” in this sentence to mean that “God laid Jesus down on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world and sacrificed Him for us.”


But, quite obviously, it does not say any such thing.


What it says is that God loved the world. He loved the world so much that he gave us Jesus and that if anyone would trust in him, and his teachings, he would live and not die.


I’ve also started to realize that whenever Jesus talks about “eternal life” or “will not perish”, he is not talking about the afterlife, or about what happens to us after we die.


In a very practical way, John 3:16 is a verse about how those who follow the path of Jesus will escape the coming destruction of Jerusalem and live beyond that event.


Here’s the deal: Jesus showed up as the promised Messiah at a time when the Jewish people were seeking a violent, revolutionary hero who would lead the uprising against their Roman oppressors. Instead, Jesus tells them to repent of this desire for violent revolution and warns them that if they live by the sword they will all die by the sword. He teaches them to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and seek to overcome evil with good.


The promise, then, that Jesus makes is that they will have life that extends beyond the end of the age [that is, the end of the Jewish age], if they follow His teachings. If they refuse, then they will be slaughtered along with the destruction of the Temple, the end of the daily sacrifice, and the death of the Jewish Priesthood. [Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to those who rejected the message and path of Jesus].


So, the promise of John 3:16 is that those who trust in Jesus [that’s what the word “believe” really means], and put his teachings into practice, will not reap the fruit of rebellion [which is death], but survive the end of the age which Jesus promises will come within a single generation.


Forty years later, that prediction came to pass.


And, just as Jesus promised, those who followed the Way of Christ, escaped the “wrath of God” – which was simply the reaping of a harvest of rebellion against Rome – and the Christians who were in Jerusalem fled to the city of Peleg months before the Roman army surrounded the city and began to lay siege to it.


In this way, the promise of John 3:16 was fulfilled: Those who put their trust in the Way of Christ – which was to love their enemies, bless those who cursed them, and do good to those who hated them – escaped the horror of AD 70. They did not perish but inherited life beyond the end of the age [or “eternal life” that extended beyond the present age].


Jesus never communicated the Gospel as saying a prayer so you could go to heaven when you die, or as a human sacrifice that would appease the wrath of God. What Jesus said the Gospel was is simply this: “Change your way of thinking! The Kingdom of God is here, right now! You can live under the rule and reign of God today. No need to wait until you’re dead. The Good News is for your life now, not for after you die.” [See


Here are just a few examples from Scripture:

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matt 9:35)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom..” (Matt 4:23)


Jesus taught this Gospel, and so did the Disciples, and the Apostles, including Paul and Peter and Philip, etc.


Why are we teaching any other Gospel than this one?

That’s a great question. (And another blog post).


Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. 

His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho.

BONUS: Want to unlock exclusive content including blog articles, short stories, music, podcasts, videos and more? Visit my Patreon page.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • What _ Oh, you’ve made me reach for my bible; a John MacArthur Study Bible does’nt speak of the crucifiction, so?

  • Iain Lovejoy

    One trouble with this analysis is that the passage talks expressly about saving the whole world not just Israel or Jerusalem, so it can’t realistically be about warning the inhabitants of Jerusalem to flee to Peleg when the Romans come. Jesus does prophesy the destruction of Israel, most particularly in a mini-apocalypse in Mark, but it’s hard to see how he can be talking about that here.
    A further problem is verse 15, which describes the way that Jesus saves to the serpent raised up by Moses so that those bitten by snakes could look on it and be healed. This is not a description of the salvation of a nation or group, but of individuals who look to Moses’ serpent / Jesus and are healed of their own individual injuries.
    I agree absolutely that when Jesus refers to God’s kingdom coming he is referring to it coming here, not to some country club for believers in the sky, and that an eternal / lasting life starts here on earth, rather than as a retirement plan when we die. What I disagree with is trying to make this passage something that it is not.
    Saying faith in Jesus gives eternal life is not the same thing as saying a declaration of belief in Jesus gets you a free pass to heaven. Without trying to distort this passage into being about escaping the siege of Jerusalem (when it plainly isn’t) there is nothing here to support PSA. The model of atonement this particular passage most fits is the “moral example” concept: we are to look to Jesus’s example in life and, yes, death and trust in him and follow him, and we will be saved and (here and now on Earth while doing so) have eternal life.

  • Matthew

    I´m wondering what proponents of this kind of theology believe happens after death.
    What did Jesus mean when he said “Today you will be with me in paradise.”?

  • Kevin Curtis

    Interesting interpretation, but doesn’t address scriptural quotes on “everlasting life” or “my Father’s house has many rooms” or the resurrection. A somewhat secular Jesus warning his followers to avoid conflict with Rome doesn’t seem like the kind of Prophet so many of his closest disciples would willingly die horrible deaths for. I once heard the bible referred to as ” a book of many stories and some of them are true.” Believers and doubters tend to choose the passages that most speak to their hearts and heads. Regardless of what we believe about an afterlife, Jesus example of compassion, inclusion, peace, humility, healing and forgiveness is a worthy one to emulate.

  • jekylldoc

    I agree that the confinement of John 3:16’s implications to a promised survival of the Jewish War is too restrictive, especially given that it is found in John’s Gospel and we have reason to believe that was written after the war. I expect it meant some kind of life “on the eternal plane” or “in the realm of eternal things” that Jesus and the gospel writer were familiar with. It’s quite possible that this was understood as moving on to a purer form after death, where we are “neither married nor given in marriage,” but John’s understanding is clearly that one lives that kind of life here on earth due to the breaking in of God’s “alternative” approach.

    Jesus’ startling lack of an explanation of Substitutiary Atonement is only startling because the church’s power play told everyone that story as a way to claim power over our eternal soul and its destiny, in the form of “the means of grace,” and then the Reformation responded by accepting that form of the question but denying the church’s power over it. Wrong question. Jesus clearly preached transformation and a new way of life here on earth, also known as the Kingdom of God. Grace is the means of transformation – no more and no less.

  • jekylldoc

    Well, as a proponent of this kind of theology, I can tell you I haven’t worried in many decades about what happens after death. I am instead interested in the glimpses of the Kingdom I have had here on earth, and the astonishing way my life takes on a quality of meaning when I give it over to the welfare of others.

  • Matthew


  • Matthew

    I have real problems with how many corners of the church understand “means of grace”. Why restrict God´s grace? Is this even possible?

    That said, how do you personally understand what seems to be a stark difference between the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus preached and the Gospel that Paul preached, like that of the cross and Christ crucified?


  • Iain Lovejoy

    In the New Testament what chiefly happens after death is resurrection; it’s unequivocal about that. What it is a little vague about is what happens in the interim. There are plenty of references (including your one) to being kept safe with God in paradise, and other references to correction and punishment of wrongdoers as well.

  • John

    The word for eternal is used many other times in the NT and by Jesus and seems to refer to eternal/everlasting life. Why would Jesus refer to perishing in a soon to be event but counter that event with a reference eternal reference? Avoid temporal and gain eternal, is that how you read it?

  • jekylldoc

    I don’t think there is any incompatibility between the Gospel of the Kingdom and Paul’s Gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. A crucified Messiah or Savior was a tough message to swallow. But if you think about what martyrdom means (willingness to die for the truth, even if we are not willing to kill for it) it is a kind of logical conclusion to the notion that our inner state is what God cares about and works with.

    Jesus recognized (in my view) that God was not seeking to establish by force some compulsion for people to do right by each other. So a real Messiah would be a martyr (a witness, if we translate the Greek) willing, like the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah, to be wounded for our wrongs. To move the love of the band of friends up to a political level by the astonishing act of confronting the Romans with his kingship so that as Messiah he would be “defeated”. (And then God provided the resurrection as vindication.) What stronger statement could be made that “the Kingdom of God is within you.”? And that faithfulness to true godly values is the path to transformation?

    Paul’s entry point on all this is his vision of the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road, except that he had seen another martyr die with forgiveness on his lips, according to Acts. He seems to have seen the passion and resurrection as a means of salvation for the Gentiles, a drama so compelling, one might say, that it took the place of the Jewish devotion to Torah as a means of transformation.

    His interpretation in terms of the grace of God is a great gift to everyone, a transformative perspective in itself, but one following logically from God’s interest in our inner state rather than our outward compliance.

    That the news of Jesus would also lead to salvation of individuals and of the whole of creation is part of his message. He wasn’t one to do things by half measures, and so he didn’t expect God to, either. I think only later did the judgment messages get turned into an individualized salvation, all too convenient for the power play by the official church.

  • jekylldoc

    I understood the implication to be that by surviving the War and persecution, they would be living to see the Second Coming. Maybe sensible not to spell that out.

  • Widuran

    It is about the crucifixion and resurrection

    The Gospel

    John 3:16-18 English Standard Version (ESV)
    For God So Loved the World
    16 “For God so loved the world,[a] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

    Believe in the saving blood of Christ!

  • “Eternity” is a rather unfortunate translation based, not on the Greek, but Latin. Aeon is more accurately translated as an indefinite, yet long period of time, with a beginning and an end. “Age” is more acceptable. So Jesus is offering us Kingdom quality life. The emphasis on the type of life in contrast to the dead life of this aeon (age) rather than its duration.
    “To understand this better, we must know about the word “aeonios.” The Greek adjective “aeonios,” for which so many translations mistakenly use the word “eternal” is derived from the noun “aeon.” “Aeon” means “age” or “ages,” as in “the mystery which has been hid from ages and generations” (Col.1:26), or in “the ages to come” Eph.2:7. These ages are time periods having a beginning and an end. In the study of grammar, it is an indisputable law that an adjective can have no different or greater meaning than the noun from which it is derived. For example, the adjective “monthly” could only be derived from the noun “month,” not “hour,” “day,” or “week.” Aeonios life can only mean a life pertaining to an age or ages of time (Heb.1:3 Ampl.) because “aeonios” is derived from “aeon.” Hence, the misapplication of the word “eternal,” implying timelessness, when periods or portions of time are meant, obscures rather than proclaims God�s magnificent plans for man.” …”The fact is the New Testament has only one word which can truthfully be translated “eternal.” This is the Greek word “aidios” which is used only twice. Once it describes the Godhead. “For since the creation of the world God�s invisible qualities�His eternal (aidios) power and divine nature�have been clearly seen” Rom.1:20. The second time it describes the chains which hold rebellious angels until their day of judgment, “these he has kept in darkness; bound with everlasting (aidios) chains for judgment on the great day” Jude 6. These timeless, unchangeable chains will always be a symbol of the severity of God�s corrective measures. Apart from these two verses, there is no place in scripture where a word meaning eternal is to be found.”

  • Tim Ellison

    Nice. i think you are on to something.

  • Matthew

    Thanks so much. What is salvation in your view?

  • John Dekker

    I think you have wrenched John 3:16 out of its context. In verse 14, Jesus is clearly talking about his crucifixion: “the Son of Man be lifted up”. Verse 16 follows on from this – there is no good reason to insert a heading before verse 16, as some English translations do.

  • jekylldoc

    That’s a key question. The medieval church turned it into a question about going to heaven after we die, but the Messiah literature of Hellenic and Roman times understood salvation rather differently. The first question is what we are to be saved from. We tend to think that is from “the wages of sin”, because that is the transactional theology we were handed. But if you read the prophets and the NT with an open mind, it looks much more likely that we are to be saved from sin itself. I think Paul and other NT authors saw death as part of what we are to be saved from. The metaphorical implications of that are profound.

    But overall the lack of “shalom”, of peace and justice, is both in world systems and in internal turmoil. After all, domination systems are founded in our natural tendency to make pecking orders and to give decision power to the dominant and the aggressive. One could argue that science itself is a form of salvation, since it endorses fact rather than aggression as a source of right decision.

  • jekylldoc

    But what if Jesus’ crucifixion is a much broader and deeper event than the Substitutiary Atonement advocates have reduced it to? What if it is part of Jesus’ ministry, and of a piece with his teachings and his healings, rather than a side project that God sneaked in without explaining it? What if “sending God’s only born Son” is the context, and the crucifixion and its role in lifting someone up is one of several aspects of that context?

  • jekylldoc

    Wow! Thanks very much for this. Very revealing.

  • soter phile

    So it’s not enough to ignore Christ’s clear focus on his coming “hour” (i.e., the cross) throughout John…
    you’ve also got to make “eternal life” = “not eternal life”…
    and “giving” His only son = follow his example as ‘the way’…
    despite Jesus claiming to BE the “way, truth & life” (Jn.14:6)… and on and on…

    your exegetical gymnastics never cease to amaze.
    it’s very hard for God’s Word to change you when you’re so busy changing the Word.

  • Just-a-me

    Keith, first of all this is a very exciting way to understand what Jesus meant.

    “If they refuse, then they will be slaughtered along with the destruction of the Temple, the end of the daily sacrifice, and the death of the Jewish Priesthood. [Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to those who rejected the message and path of Jesus].”
    What does that say about the martyrs and other Christians who did not survive the Christian persecutions by Nero?

    What’s the point of surviving the end of the age of Judaism if thousands of those who witnessed this destruction were still going to die anyway?

    I mean Jesus preached eternal life; what hope is found by tortuously dying 1-3 decades after Jerusalem’s destruction?

  • The Mouse Avenger

    I’ve also started to realize that whenever Jesus talks about “eternal life” or “will not perish”, he is not talking about the afterlife, or about what happens to us after we die.

    I’m not so sure that Jesus wasn’t talking about those things….

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  • Alonzo

    Giles need to read John 3:16 in context. Isolating verse 16 from the preceding texts allows Giles to read into the text what it does not mean. John 3:14-15 clearly identifies the crucifixion, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also must the Son of man be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14). Giles obviously did not read the surrounding context.