Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Are there problems with John 3:16?

By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

In an article on John 3:16, Sami Zaatari does his best to raise some doubts and questions concerning the meaning of the verse. (See here.) He quotes the verse several times as follows from an article of mine in the attempt to mock God’s love. Sami forgot to mention a reference to the article I wrote and in which I quoted the verse. (I presume it is this one.) Here is the verse: "God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die." (John 3:16 CEV) However, Sami quotes the King James Version which is 400 years old rather than modern translations and he changes the translation deliberately as we shall see later.

Sami raises the question of truth in these words:

This indeed is a huge step in one's life to convert to the faith of Christianity, hence the step must not be blindly taken, rather the one who is seeking the truth must first examine the evidence and then see if it is the truth.

I am glad to agree with Sami on this statement. However, I cannot help but wonder what kind of evidence Sami presents for converting to Islam. What is the truth about Mohammed? Is the character of Mohammed free of all sin and crimes? What is the truth about ethics in Islam? What is the truth about the Qur’an in its many versions? Are these issues set forth to the prospective convert? What is the truth about jihad against non-Muslims? What is the truth about honor killings?

Sami begins:

For starters, there is nothing about universal love in this verse; the verse is being general, and not specific. The verse says for God loved the WORLD, it doesn't say God loved EVERYONE, or God loved EVERYONE ON EARTH, rather it says God loves the world, a general claim, not a specific claim which refutes the false myth that this verse proves that God loves everybody.

Question: Are you from another world or planet? Are you not included in this world? The verse declares such a love for the world that whosoever believes – an act of personal commitment to Jesus Christ – will have eternal life. What is the difference between universal love and general love? Are there people who are in the world that are not included in the statement, “God loves the world.” What people are not included in “God loves the world”? If you admit that the verse is general, and not specific, who then is excluded? This makes no sense. If you want a specific application, the list would encompass the whole of mankind. Mankind and the world are synonymous.

The dictionary (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) defines general as: “1, involving, applicable to, or affecting the whole, 2, involving, relating to, or applicable to every member of a class, kind, or group.” The term universal is defined as: “1. Including or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception.” If you have a general declaration of love for all, you don’t need a specific declaration.

I suspect that real problem for Sami is that the God of the Bible loves the world. The deity of the Qur’an only loves the Muslims, the submitters. The fact that God loves and comes in the person of the Son is humiliating to the Muslim mind. The fact is that Allah does not love the world, but pronounces jihad against non-Muslims, either to submit to dhimmitude, or convert to Islam, or be killed. This seems to me to be the reason Sami wants a “specific” reference to the love of God – namely Allah loves only Muslims who are obedient. The forgiveness of sinners is a difficult concept for Muslims to grasp, but that is what John 3:16 is all about.

Sami is beating the air trying to come up with a limited definition for John 3:16.

For an example Sami related the following;

For instance if I say I love animals, it is a general claim, but it doesn't mean I like every specific type of animal, such as a pig, I don't like pigs. Or if I say I love food, which I indeed do, I love food very much, but I don't like lasagna! So as you can see, I am being general in my claim, not specific. The same with this passage, when God says he loves the world it is a general claim, not an absaloute (sic) and specific claim that he loves us all.

Sami gives an exception to his love of food, lasagna. But it is good to know that Sami is not God and the verse does not give exceptions. Sami wants to make exceptions in the text, but there are none. Over and over, the New Testament affirms God’s desire that all people come to Him.

The Lord isn't slow about keeping his promises, as some people think he is. In fact, God is patient, because he wants everyone to turn from sin and no one to be lost. (2 Peter 3:9 CEV)

There are no exceptions in which God rules out the possibility of their being loved by Him. The terrible thing is that humans reject His love and if His love is rejected there is no place for their future other than away from God, in hell.

Sami then turns to indictment:

Now as a truth seeker I am compelled to ask my Christian missionary friends this question. Why have you lied to me for so long? Why have you constantly used this verse as a proof that God loves EVERYONE including ME when the verse doesn't teach that? How can I trust anything you say now when you lie to me about this verse and give a false meaning to myself and billions of others?

Sami, you have not proven a lie! You have only presumed it. The World and Everyone in it are the same. You are trying to distort the passage to make it seem wrong. The words about God loving the World include everyone in it in all generations, even you!!! You have been distorting Christianity all along and you have been mocking it and fighting against it, and you do not understand it, and if you did you would have become a follower of Christ a long time ago.

You are trying to build a case on a foundation that does not exist. The so-called “lie” is in your mind, not in the Scripture verse.

Sami turns then to an interesting maneuver.

Christians claim that God sent his son for us. Yet since we have established the fact that the verse is general, and not specific, it also means that Jesus was generally sent for the world, and that he wasn't SPECIFICALLY sent for EVERYONE.

Sami, you are reasoning like a sausage. If the verse is general and not specific then Jesus was sent for everyone.

Surprisingly, Sami strays into theology,

What this means is that this verse teaches LIMITED ATONEMENT, meaning the son was not sent to save us all, but for some people only! So how can a Christian use this verse as a proof for me when I might not be included in one of these saved persons?! As far as I'm concerned I could be a human whom God doesn't like, and a person whom the son was not sent for.

Sami omits so much of the story we have to fill in some of the details. Let’s look first at the beginning of the Gospel of John:

The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world. The Word was in the world, but no one knew him, though God had made the world with his Word. He came into his own world, but his own nation did not welcome him. Yet some people accepted him and put their faith in him. So he gave them the right to be the children of God. They were not God's children by nature or because of any human desires. God himself was the one who made them his children. The Word became a human being and lived here with us. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us. (John 1:9-14 CEV)

The universal appeal of John’s gospel, both here in chapter one, and in chapter 3 is based on God’s love and man’s response. There is no limited atonement in these verses. The idea of a limited atonement is a construct coming from John Calvin and others following him. Moreover, the real issue is the response of people – will you believe and receive Christ as Lord of your life? There is no distinction between a general claim of God’s love and a specific claim of God’s love. God’s love is without qualifications to anyone who will receive it.

There is hope for you, Sami, as long as you are breathing. If you are damned it is your own doing, not God’s desire. His love for you continues even when you are rebelling against Him. “Whosoever will…” still includes you. Your problem is not a theological debate about predestination and free will, but that you are mocking the Gospel and actively distorting the meaning of simple and straight-forward statements in the Bible. The invitation of this verse includes you, and all Muslims, and all who seek to belittle it for whatever reason. It is only your own rejection of God’s offer by which you exclude yourself.

Sami then quotes a passage from Charles Spurgeon who declared that “all” does not mean all.

I don’t think quoting Spurgeon is helping you. For example, Sami quotes the use of the Greek word “pas” to show that it does not include “all.” One example is that “all” Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear John the Baptist. So it is concluded that really not all went, there were lots of people did not go.

Spurgeon is right in saying that not everyone went and it is a figure of speech used to imply a large number of people went, but many did not. In contrast, there is a word of Jesus in which all certainly means “all.” At the end of the gospel of Matthew we have these words:

Jesus came to them and said: I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth! Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world. (Matthew 28:18-20 CEV)

“The people of all nations” leaves nobody out. Sami, you are not left out. The invitation to become a disciple of Christ is still here. The word “make” in the verse is teaching, enrolling, instructing, it is not a word of force or coercion.

The Gospel of Luke ends with a similar charge:

Jesus “said to them, "This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48 GNB)

I think that the phrase, “all nations” is pretty revealing.

Moreover, the missionary did not lie to you. You merely picked up a particular theological expression and try to use it as a weapon rather than studying the New Testament to see if what is said was true. Moreover, you must put your trust in the New Testament, not anyone coming along saying this or that.

Next Sami raises the issue of God sending his Son…

Okay, I see many more problems now. God loves some of so much so he sends his son?! Why didn't he send himself? The only LOGICAL explanation and conclusion one can reach is that God is a coward. I don't mean to sound offensive, but the fact is this, no Father sends his son to do his hard and dangerous work for himself. A father doesn't put his son in harm's way, but he takes the harm and pain of his son so his son doesn't have to suffer.

First, we have to correct the limited assumption that God love some of us only. That is not faithful to the Scriptures. If you persist in this error you are headed for an unloving God, a biased being who chooses favorites and rejects others. This is more like Allah than the idea of God in the New Testament. In Islam no one knows what Allah is going to do. Not so here.

Second, you must realize what you are asking. You require God to come. If God came without the incarnation you and I would not live. God is holy and his holiness would kill us sinners. Moreover, the Infinite God would be so great that you could not comprehend Him. God’s love is expressed in a way that we can understand, being like us in a body, but being God in our presence.

Third, God did not come in his Infinity to keep the world from dying. He is not a coward.

Fourth, the Apostle Paul describes it as follows:

Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new. God has done it all! He sent Christ to make peace between himself and us, and he has given us the work of making peace between himself and others. What we mean is that God was in Christ, offering peace and forgiveness to the people of this world. And he has given us the work of sharing his message about peace. We were sent to speak for Christ, and God is begging you to listen to our message. We speak for Christ and sincerely ask you to make peace with God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 CEV)

So, the bottom line is that God was in Christ in the most profound way even when we speak of the Son and the Father.

Perhaps you could ask the same question with reference to Allah and Mohammed? Why did not Allah come instead of sending a prophet? Is Allah a coward? Can Allah really reveal himself, not just commands?

Sami moves on to the issue of “begotten” in the verse.

Secondly, what is your Bible trying to say when it says God has a BEGOTTEN son of God? If the term son of God is not meant to be taken literally then why is a literal word of offspring through sexual intercourse being used? There are 2 solutions to this, either your God physically had sex with a lady to have Jesus, hence he is called BEGOTTEN. Or someone lied and made this up, and if someone did lie, then your book isn't from God, and it is all doubtful.

There is an interesting twist that has taken place here. The translation that I used was the Contemporary English Version and my original quote was from it. (See here.)

However, Sami introduced a different version, probably the King James Version, to introduce the word “begotten” to suggest that God had a consort for the birth of Jesus. Most modern translations do not use the word “begotten” rather the phrase “unique” or “only” Son. The issue of “begotten” is a red herring for Muslims and they use it to mislead people, attempting to smear Christianity.

Although Sami can hardly be ignorant of the various articles on this issue that we have had on Answering Islam for many years (e.g, 1, 2), he is not interested in understanding the meaning of the verse but only in abusing the formulation in an outdated translation for polemical purposes.

It should be underlined that the Greek text has not changed, nor been corrupted as Muslim claim, but our understanding of the words have deepened and been clarified. There are

Reasons why monogenes should not be translated as “only begotten”:

The word monogenes also appears elsewhere in the New Testament:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only [monogenes] son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. — Hebrews 11:17-19 (NIV)

The same Greek word monogenes appears here Hebrews 11 as in John 3:16. To say Isaac was Abraham’s only-begotten son would make no sense since according to the Bible, Abraham begat Ishmael as well as Isaac. But monogenes meaning "one of a kind", "one and only", or "unique" would fit because Isaac was special and it was through Isaac that Yahweh would bless the world, not through Ishmael. Abraham's wife, Sarah, was too old to have a child but she nevertheless became pregnant and bore Isaac.” (Source)

The reason that Jesus is unique, one of a kind, is his message: “I am the way, the truth, and the life!” Jesus answered. “Without me, no one can go to the Father.” (John 14:6 CEV) Whether Sami or you or I go to heaven or hell it is up to us. God has already acted and dealt with the humanly impenetrable barrier, our sin. The way is provided for all of us. If you ignore the way, or insult the provider what is there left to be said?

Sami draws out his misunderstanding of the issue:

Since there can't be any lies in the Bible as Christians tell me, I am forced to come to the first conclusion, that your God literally had sex to beget Jesus his son. This now makes me ask, who did God sleep with? Mary? It must have been her since she is the mother of Jesus, Catholics who are the majority of Christians call Mary the mother of God. So Mary is the mother of Jesus, God is the father of Jesus, Jesus is the begotten son, therefore we have God and Mary having sex to beget Jesus, hence he is called the begotten son of God.

Did the Son of God exist before the birth of Jesus? Absolutely! This involves the whole issue of the nature of God being Trinitarian. God the Father has been a father from eternity. The Son of God has been a son from eternity. Moreover, the Holy Spirit exists from eternity. So how did the birth of Jesus take place? If Sami would read the Bible, rather than Muslim propaganda, he would find the answer.

One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee with a message for a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph from the family of King David. The angel greeted Mary and said, "You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you." Mary was confused by the angel's words and wondered what they meant. Then the angel told Mary, "Don't be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end." Mary asked the angel, "How can this happen? I am not married!" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God's power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God. Your relative Elizabeth is also going to have a son, even though she is old. No one thought she could ever have a baby, but in three months she will have a son. Nothing is impossible for God!" Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant! Let it happen as you have said." And the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38 CEV)

It is ironic that Muslims believe that Allah can say, “Be” and it happens, but in the case of Mary the word of the angel is rejected. The power of the Spirit coming over her has nothing to do with physical sex. It is the power of God in the virgin birth. It is strange that the Qur’an affirms the virgin birth of Jesus, but Sami insults the Qur’an and Christianity by implying God going to bed with Mary. The Qur’an affirms the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Moving along Sami has some unusual reasoning:

So if I accept the Son, meaning Jesus, and sincerely believe in him, then I get eternal life! Now what if I don't accept the FATHER? What happens? It seems nothing; I found a loop hole it seems! The verse clearly says that I must believe IN THE SON to have eternal life, it doesn't say I must believe in the son AND the father! It just says I must accept the son!

On top of that, the verse says nothing about the Holy Spirit; the verse doesn't say you must believe in the Son AND the Father AND the Holy Spirit! So why do I need the Father if I don't even have to accept him? I guess I should just disregard both him and the Holy Spirit and just take the Son.

The story goes around that Mark Twain was once reading the Bible and the reason for his reading was he was looking for loop holes. Sami seems to be looking for loop holes as well. But the answer to his question is found in the Gospel of John.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life!" Jesus answered. "Without me, no one can go to the Father. If you had known me, you would have known the Father. But from now on, you do know him, and you have seen him." Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father. That is all we need." Jesus replied: "Philip, I have been with you for a long time. Don't you know who I am? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. How can you ask me to show you the Father? Don't you believe that I am one with the Father and that the Father is one with me? What I say isn't said on my own. The Father who lives in me does these things. Have faith in me when I say that the Father is one with me and that I am one with the Father. Or else have faith in me simply because of the things I do. I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father. Ask me, and I will do whatever you ask. This way the Son will bring honor to the Father." (John 14:6-13)

Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help you and always be with you. The Spirit will show you what is true. The people of this world cannot accept the Spirit, because they don't see or know him. But you know the Spirit, who is with you and will keep on living in you. I won't leave you like orphans. I will come back to you. In a little while the people of this world won't be able to see me, but you will see me. And because I live, you will live. Then you will know that I am one with the Father. You will know that you are one with me, and I am one with you. If you love me, you will do what I have said, and my Father will love you. I will also love you and show you what I am like. The other Judas, not Judas Iscariot, then spoke up and asked, "Lord, what do you mean by saying that you will show us what you are like, but you will not show the people of this world?" Jesus replied: If anyone loves me, they will obey me. Then my Father will love them, and we will come to them and live in them. But anyone who doesn't love me, won't obey me. What they have heard me say doesn't really come from me, but from the Father who sent me. I have told you these things while I am still with you. But the Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you.” (John 14:16-26 CEV)

Sami would probably want to raise the usual Muslim reply that the Holy Spirit refers to Mohammed. However, the Holy Spirit was to be given to the disciples of Jesus and the record of Acts shows the reality of that promise. The Holy Spirit was not delayed for 600 years to the time of Mohammed. Such a conclusion is senseless.

So, in the words of a song, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t reject the Father and have the Son, nor can you reject the Son and have the Father.

In reality I wonder how many Muslim men think about Allah at all. The emphasis on martyrdom and the reward of 72 virgins raises questions about the real nature of Allah and really knowing him. Is there any regard for Allah at all? Is it a matter of doing what is thought to be his will in hopes of the virgins?

Sami concludes:

So I have read and examined John 3:16, I have seen no truth in it, nothing special, nothing that made me say wow this is the truth! All I saw was confusion, insults, and mockery to God. If this is meant to be THE verse for Christianity, then I really don't know what to say

And Allah Knows Best!

This is not a correct observation. Sami, you distorted the issue. And the mockery came only from your side. You quoted an old version of the verse creating a false objection. You created false distinctions between general and specific allowing that general does not cover all. You made a mockery of God by deliberately ignoring the Christian Gospels in your charges. You even mock the Qur’an in the process.

Your conclusion, “And Allah knows best!” reminds me of a phrase that occurs over again in The Life of Mohammed by Ibn Ishaq. A story is narrated and then there is a conclusion relating to its accuracy, “But God knows what the truth is.” In this case, Sami has raised questions and given his answers, but God knows what the truth is and it does not seem to be what Sami is proposing.

One last comment about God’s love. Love requires a response. If a man tells a woman he loves her he is anticipating a response, i.e. that she responds to his love. In their responses to each other there is a commitment to one another. God’s love also requires a response. God loves you, will you respond to Him?

John 3:16 is followed by some serious implications:

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them! No one who has faith in God's Son will be condemned. But everyone who doesn't have faith in him has already been condemned for not having faith in God's only Son. The light has come into the world, and people who do evil things are judged guilty because they love the dark more than the light. People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done. But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do. (John 3:17-21CEV)

Nevertheless, Sami, I do pray for you almost daily. My prayer is that you have an experience with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the beloved of the Father, that you know now his gift of everlasting life.