John 3:16 is a big deal in the United States. It's been on bumper stickers since there were bumper stickers; it's printed discreetly on product packaging; it's displayed proudly at sporting events; and it serves as a stern warning to motorists on billboards along motorways. It's among the first things taught to first-year Sunday-school students, who will gladly recite it to you verbatim. If you ask a Christian why it's so important, they'll excitedly tell you it's the basis of the whole religion. It's the verse that frames the agreement at the core of Christianity: If you accept Jesus as your personal savior, you will survive your own death and spend eternity in paradise, where beautiful angels will stroke your hair and feed you chocolate and champagne. If you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior, you will still survive your own death, but go to hell, where the devil will spend eternity mistreating your genitals with a fondue fork. That's what they take it to mean, anyway, but is that what the verse actually says?
When the Gospel According to John opens it's been established that Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, is the prophesied messiah who will end the Roman occupation of Judea, vanquish the enemies of the Jewish people, and rule over all of Israel with his twelve disciples in gubernatorial roles, in the new paradise known as the 'Kingdom of God'. This is, of course, great news for the Jewish hoi polloi, who are not fans of foreign occupation, but a source of grinding consternation for the current Jewish leaders, who have been afforded a system of limited governance by the Roman regional governor and who, all things considered, don't have it all that bad. One such leader is a man named Nicodemus.
Early in the Book of John, after being baptized (1:29-34), Jesus attends an inadvertently dry wedding in Canaan, where, against his will but at his mom's request, he turns water into wine and ensures a good time is had by all (2:1-11). He then goes to Jerusalem, causes a bit of a scene at the temple, and performs a few more miracles at the passover meal. John doesn't address what these miracles are, but makes it clear that all seeing them are suitably impressed (2:13-23).
Nicodemus, evidently sizing up his competition, sidles up to Jesus one night and says, 'So, Rabbi, these miracles you've been doing — you can do them because you have God with you, right?' (3:1-2). And Jesus replies with a bit of a non-sequitur by saying, 'No one can be part of the new Roman-free Israel unless they're born again' (3:3). Nicodemus, who is evidently not accustomed to metaphors, becomes nonplussed. 'Are you suggesting,' he exclaims, 'I go to my mother and attempt a vaginal re-entry?' (3:4). 'No,' says Jesus. 'Don't be absurd. I'm saying get baptized. I got baptized; you need to get baptized; everybody needs to get baptized. It's a new rule' (3:5-15).
This is where Jesus hits Nicodemus with the big one—3:16. He tells Nicodemus he needs to be reborn because '...God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'
The Only Begotten Son
So there you have it. Jesus tells Nicodemus that belief is good for you and disbelief is really, really bad for you. This raises a question on which Nicodemus fails to ask for clarification: Belief in whom, exactly? He is likely still preoccupied with the notion of being physically born again, because although he is no doubt fond of his mother, even first-century Palestine has its limits. The subject of the sentence comprising 3:16 is, in the English translation, God, which makes all the pronouns pretty straightforward. 'For God so loved the world, that he [God] gave his [God] only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him [God] should not perish...etc.' This suggests that all Nicodemus need do is believe in God, which, being a Jewish leader, he obviously already does, and all will be right with the world.
Christians disagree with the grammatical structure of the sentence. They say Jesus, despite being a perfect being, messes up the pronouns and, for reasons unstated, is speaking in the third person. John 3:36 confirms this position: 'He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.'
Okay, fair enough, but for the sake of clarity, we need to modify and reissue John 3:16. We can call it John 3:16 Version 1.1. In Version 1.1, Jesus tells Nicodemus, 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in me, which shouldn't be hard for you to do since I'm sitting right here in front of you, should not perish, but have everlasting life.'
That clears up the grammar, but the problem with Version 1.1 is it contradicts the historical evidence we have about Jesus. Jesus never claimed divinity. He would be surprised and confused to learn he was the Son of God. That title was not officially assigned to him until the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325—a full three centuries after his death.
Until the Council at Nicea, Christians had a hard time agreeing on exactly who Jesus was. Some said he was just a guy who claimed he was going to end the Roman occupation of Judea but failed spectacularly to do so. Some claimed he was a guy who didn't overthrow the Roman government but became the adopted Son of God when he was resurrected from the dead. Some said he became the adopted Son of God when he was baptized, and all the talk about vanquishing the Romans and setting up a new kingdom was just deeply confusing metaphor. Others said that was right about the metaphor, but he actually became the adopted Son of God when he was born of a virgin—an impressive feat only a demigod could pull off. Still others said he was the actual Son of God and lived in heaven with God even before his birth. The Council at Nicea decided Jesus always was the Son of God and was, in fact, one with God and so existed with him at all times, even before creation, and was therefore begotten of him. This not only made everyone happy, it explained why God speaks in the plural in Genesis 1:26, when he says, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...'
The problem with the Council at Nicea as it pertains to John 3:16 is it guarantees Jesus never said anything about God having a son. This means we have to put the applicable pronoun back where it was and remove references to the Son. And so we have John 3:16 Version 2.0, where Jesus tells Nicodemus: 'For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' It's shorter, clearer, more succinct, and makes far more sense considering the whole conversation revolves around the importance of Jewish baptism.
Life and Death
The more keen-eyed among you will have noticed by now that in all our versions of John 3:16 so far there has been no mention of heaven or hell. You're absolutely right. There isn't—in any translation. John 3:17-21 talks about God's condemnation of those that don't believe and non-condemnation of those that do. If you don't believe in God (or Jesus, depending on your level of obstinance), you've earned God's condemnation. If you believe, there will be no condemnation for you. Well done.
The omission of heaven and hell from John 3:16 is very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of first-century Palestine. The idea of an afterlife was not common in that time and place. People worshiped gods to gain favor in their current and only life. They worshiped agriculture gods to ensure healthy crops; they worshiped fertility gods to ensure healthy children; and they worshiped thunder gods because thunder freaked them out and they wanted no part of it. One thing they did not do was worship gods presently to gain favor after they were already dead. There was no sense in it.
What John 3:16 actually says is—and we can call this Version 2.1 if you'd like—'For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life, and whosoever does not believeth in him, it stands to reason, will perish and will not have everlasting life.' Christians will argue that the condemnation in John 3:17-21 is not merely God's disapproval, but an allusion to being condemned to hell. Remember though, that only those who believe get eternal life. Those who do not believe can hardly spend eternity in hell if they don't get eternal life. And since heaven isn't even alluded to in John Chapter Three, we have to take Jesus' words at face value and accept he's telling Nicodemus that those who believe in God will live forever right here on Earth, presumably in the new Roman-free Israel, and the nonbelievers will all die.
A strange thing happens after Jesus lays this good news on Nicodemus, however: Everybody dies—even Jesus. There have been no verifiable instances of anyone born in the first century making it to the twenty-first century. One of two things is happening here: Either no one has ever believed in God, or we need to remove the life-and-death language from John 3:16 because it just isn't true. This brings us to John 3:16 Version 3.0, wherein Jesus says to Nicodemus he has to be baptized simply because, 'God loves the world.'
Jesus is on shaky ground when he claims God loves the world. The world is a pretty effed-up place. Here we are, two-thousand years after Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, and we still have war, famine, disease, and children crying in the dark. There have even been new developments since then. We also have road rage, country music, and identity theft. If Nicodemus could have known what the world was in for with God's love, he most certainly would have politely declined baptism, and may have even tried to literally return to the womb despite his squeamishness. Christians have an explanation for God's unpleasant love and it falls under the Mysterious-Ways umbrella. They argue God operates on a higher plane of existence, and his love is not human love, but something totally different that we humans are unable to understand. People may be able to accept such a proposition, but one thing they cannot do is apply the human label of 'love' to it because either way, it is definitely, unequivocally not love. We now have to draw a line through the 'love' part of John 3:16.
So what are we left with? What is the cornerstone of the Christian faith? What is the verse with the promise that gets two billion people out of bed each morning and keeps them worshiping? John 3:16 Version 4.0, the most accurate and verifiable version of the passage, is sadly nothing but the faint sound of chirping crickets.
The Nicodemean Postscript
Remember that poor, confused Nicodemus goes to Jesus for an answer to a simple question: Did Jesus have God with him? The reply he gets is, 'Get baptized,' which, in any context, is an unsatisfactory answer. This isn't the last we see of Nicodemus, though. Near the end of John, after Jesus is crucified by the Sanhedrin and the Roman regional governor for trying to incite insurrection, Joseph of Arimathea gets permission to remove Jesus' body from the cross and give it a proper Jewish burial (a dispensation never afforded any other crucified person and so wildly unlikely to have happened). Joseph brings Nicodemus with him to help. Nicodemus arrives at the cross, dragging a surprising 100 pounds of perfumed ointment behind him and, looking up at Jesus' broken, bloody, and very dead body, finally gets his answer (19:38-40).
So the story has a happy ending.