James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Teddington (London), where he is training to be a vicar in the Church of England. For James and his wife Lois, lockdown in London was improved by the arrival of their daughter, Galilee, who just learned to clap.
“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.”—John 3:16
Christianity is simple, isn’t it?
After all, don’t Bible bits like John 3:16 show that all you need to do to be a Christian is to believe in God now and then you’ll go to heaven (good place) rather than hell (bad place) when you die? Isn’t Christianity basically a kind of divine life-insurance that mostly affects my (hopefully distant) future?
Well, in short, the answer is amazingly yes! And also definitely no.
You see, John 3:16 explains that the wonderful news of Jesus starts with the truth that anyone who trusts Jesus need not be lost to death but can live forever. And never must we lose sight of what a wonderful truth that is.
Christianity is never less than avoiding hell. But I want to suggest that it is so much more.
In fact, reducing the good news of Jesus to the point that it only has one real consequence is dangerous, because you end up throwing out so many of the incredible gifts that God really offers.
Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t let you do that.
John’s gospel doesn’t let you do that.
Even John 3:16 doesn’t let you do that.
If we live like avoiding hell is the only important truth in Christianity (what I’m going to affectionately name “GOOHF faith”), then here are just a couple of things that John 3:16 shows we’ve thrown out.
“For God so loved the world…”
If “GOOHF” is true, then Christianity is individualistic at best and deeply selfish at worst. After all, heaven is all about me and my comfort, right? Jesus died for me and that needn’t concern anyone else.
And, while we’re at it, why go to church? The only thing I have in common with that lot is that they, too, have bought into the same insurance. I have as much in common with them as I do with other people who get their jeans in H&M. Well done them. Splendid choice. Leave me alone.
Happily, this kind of individualism is not actually an option for the Christian. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world. His purposes in sending Jesus were not to flatter your individualism, but were cosmic in scale: He came so that the whole world might have a chance of eternal life—that’s all kinds of people, of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds.
And out of this multitude of people, God builds a Church family. As London vicar John Stott wrote, “For His purpose . . . is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build His church.”
Christianity is not just about you but is about all people everywhere; they need to have the same chance you had. And it’s not just about dodging hell, either—it means belonging to the new community that God is building in Jesus. It means loving, welcoming, and accepting all those others who believe in Jesus.
For God so loved the world.
“…that he gave his one and only Son…”
If you’re a GOOHF believer, then you’ve already acknowledged that God gave you Jesus—after all, He’s the guy that you need to get to heaven. And that’s about as far as it goes, really, because once Jesus has died for you, He has ceased being useful to you.
Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t merely talk about Jesus in the past tense, as someone who has done everyone a grand service in the past. Jesus is also someone who occupies the present tense—He is the risen Lord who continues to love, build, and shape His people by the power of His Holy Spirit.
And it doesn’t even end there!
GOOHF believers already know that heaven is the place where Christians get to experience the very best that this universe has to offer. And what is the most precious thing to Christians? Is it not the One the Bible refers to as the author and perfecter of their faith?
Indeed, the Bible says that at the end of time, the new mankind of the church will find its rightful place around the throne of Jesus, worshiping Him passionately forever. Heaven is less about a comfortable place for you to retire, and much more a place where you will meet the most important person in your life.
Has it ever occurred to you that one day, you won’t have to read your Bible to see what Jesus is like? At the end of it all, you’ll be able to see Him face to face!
And if that doesn’t excite you, you’ve missed the point of the Christian faith, because Jesus is not the means to an end—He is the point of it all.
“…that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Christianity is anything but an insurance guarantee that doesn’t affect your present. Rather, when you decide to follow Jesus, there’s not one aspect of your past, present, or future that will remain unchanged, not one iota of your instinct, priorities, and character that will not be revolutionized beyond recognition, and not one part of your future that will not belong to Him. Eternal life always starts immediately.
It’s uncomfortable stuff, isn’t it? All of a sudden, Christianity becomes costly! How on earth, you must be wondering, can this be worth it?
Well, later on in John’s gospel, Jesus defines eternal life as this: Knowing the Father and the Son He has sent. That’s it. He means that there is simply nothing better than knowing and being known by the One who created this whole universe, who lovingly placed the stars where they are, and who thought of you before anyone else had.
Why is GOOHF faith ultimately lacking? Because it neglects to mention the incredible truth that you were made to know and follow the loving God of everything, and to be known by Him in return.
And that is why it’s not as good as the real thing too.