John 3:16 (Part 3) (12/4/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. We’ve spent the last few weeks with that amazing passage from John’s gospel. We’ve talked about what it means to say that God loves the world. We’ve tried to plumb the phrase “Only begotten Son” for meaning. And we’ve considered what it means to believe in Jesus; whether belief in Jesus is about thinking certain things about how Jesus came into the world and how he left it, or whether belief in Jesus involves a way of life.
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Today we conclude our examination of John 3:16 by turning to the subject of eternal life. The author of the Gospel of John was a mystic. If we don’t start with that fact in mind, we will get nowhere in our study of his gospel. And that mysticism plays itself out in the real world in a very tangible way. It changes the way we approach life itself.
We talked last week about what it means, in John’s theology, to believe in Jesus. This belief in Jesus is what leads to eternal life, but for John, you don’t enter into eternal life by reciting from some card, “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, was physically resurrected, and shed blood to atone for my sins.” No, to gain eternal life, which is the result of belief in Jesus, one must make a faithful commitment to God that you are willing to lose everything, even your own life, for the sake of the type of love displayed by Jesus. That is belief in Jesus. It is an unconditional surrender of one’s selfishness in order to serve the greater good.
Eternal life is probably the most difficult subject in all theology. John 3:16 gives us a clue about eternal life by telling us that the alternative to eternal life is to perish. Those who believe will not perish but will have eternal life. And we understand the idea of perishing clearly enough. A materialistic view of the world tells us that human beings are animals who live for a limited amount of time and are then no more. They perish.
To get our minds around eternal life we have to try to understand eternity. Most theologians tell us that the human mind is not capable of understanding eternity. You and me—we have these brains, these minds, that help us grasp and shape reality, and our brains work in a certain way. Even quantum physicists, who claim there are eleven dimensions, say that they do not understand all those dimensions. The mathematics simply points them toward that theory. A large group of physicists, using different methods and theories, have all come to the conclusion that there seems to be eleven dimensions to reality. Beyond that, the universe continues to mystify them.
That is because we human beings have minds that perceive reality in four dimensions: height, width, depth, and time. We have no choice. It’s the way we are made. We study the world around us with human minds, which use those four dimensions to make sense of things. In the world of quantum physics, as we attempt to understand what it means to have an eleven dimensional universe, most of the ideas we use to make sense of things disappear. Concepts important to us no longer exist, concepts like up and down, near and far, left and right. There isn’t even before and after.
Do you have a headache yet? You should. The quantum physicists are the first to say that anybody—including themselves—who claims to understand the world of quantum physics is delusional. It is beyond the grasp of the human mind.
So why do I bring it up? To point to the fact that theological musings about eternity are not just flights of fancy with no scientific backing. If we think we have things all figured out with our tools of science—tools used to measure, weigh and monitor the workings of a four-dimensional universe—we are lying to ourselves. Science itself admits a haunting fact. We are all squarely in the middle of a mystery that we do not begin to understand. That is why quantum physicists so often become religious mystics. I again recommend to you Ken Wilber’s book, Quantum Questions. That book contains the mystical writings of the 20th Century’s greatest scientific thinkers: Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Planck, Einstein, and Eddington, among others. It is an amazing thing to see these brilliant thinkers stand in awe before the mystery we call God.
Eternal life. A subject beyond the grasp of our minds. But that concept stands at the very center of our faith: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everybody who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.
When I decided to tackle this subject in a sermon—the concept of eternal life—I knew the resource I would use to help me. William Placher is an excellent theologian and the author of many books. I do not recommend them, because Placher is unapologetic about his use of densely theological language. He makes no attempt to write for a broad audience. However, in his book entitled Narratives of a Vulnerable God, he provides the finest overview of the concept of eternity that I have ever found.
I cannot stress enough that this is not something that one would expect to understand by listening to the words of a sermon. The subject, by definition, cannot be fully understood by the human mind. But Placher does a great job of providing some parameters for our thinking on the subject, at least giving us a starting place for contemplating that which nobody can fully grasp.
Placher writes there are three general ways to think about eternity. In one definition, eternity means endless time, just like the time we experience now, but extending infinitely in both directions, past and future. Another definition claims eternity is the opposite of the first answer. Eternity is not endless time, but no time at all—the absence of time. A third definition of eternity is, quote, “perfect possession, all at once, of limitless life.”
Let’s go over those three ideas. The first idea is probably the most popular, and certainly the easiest way of thinking about eternity. Eternity is endless time. Many view eternal life as a simple continuation of life in this world after the death of one’s body. It is as if a person reaches a wall at the end of our days in this world, and simply appears on the other side of that wall, with the continuation of the life one had here in this lifetime.
This way of thinking about eternity envisions time as a straight line, extending forever into the future, and we are on that line. One moment follows the next, and moment after moment after moment we move forward along that line. Forever. Of course, this idea of eternal life has some real problems. If our death in this world is just a bump in time we sort of leap over, does that mean we continue to age in the afterlife?
Does aging stop after death? Okay, if a man dies when he is 30 and his son lives to be 80, is the son 50 years older than his father when he gets to heaven? There are lots of problems with thinking about eternity as endless time in a geometric straight line. That is why many have postulated another way of thinking about eternity, opposite from, the first. Eternity is not endless time, but rather timelessness.
St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that God alone is eternal, and God can be thought of as the center of a circle. Time flows along the circumference of the circle, and God, standing in the center apart from time itself, is equally close to every point in time. God, the eternal, can see every moment that ever has or ever will exist. God has the same relationship with every moment of time, but is not “in” time.
This theory also has plenty of problems. The fact that creation does indeed have a past and a future makes it difficult to envision time as going in a circle. Time has a sense of direction: past, present, future. Other theologians have argued that the God described by Aquinas can in no way be personal. Aquinas’s God would be the God of Greek philosophy and not the God Jesus pointed to—the God with whom we can be in relationship.
A third way of thinking about eternity, actually the classical definition of eternity, rejects both the notion of endless time and timelessness. This definition was first put forth by Boethius (bo-EE-thee-us) fifteen hundred years ago. He wrote, “Eternity is a perfect possession all at once of limitless life.”
With this definition, eternal life is a way of living in time. The first thing we have to acknowledge is that time is not some external reality that imposes itself on our human experience. Time is not time until it is experienced. Perhaps St. Augustine said it best: “It is in my own mind that I measure time.” And 1600 years later the quantum physicists say yes!
The way we measure time leaves us ill at ease. It makes us feel anxious—what Kierkegaard called “a sickness unto death.” We cannot bring our past, present and future into a unified whole. We have regrets about the past, anxieties about the future, which is getting shorter and shorter, and we find the present to be a complete mystery. We cannot grasp it. We can only measure and reason over the impressions the past has made on our consciousness. Once we acknowledge the present it is already in the past.
Is there an answer to this way of experiencing time? Is there a way of living a life in which the past, present and future are reconciled in the present moment, leaving us in total peace as we experience the eternal? This, according to Placher, is the way Jesus lived. Past, present and future existed in his life without conflict, and he possessed the whole of life every moment of his life. And that is the third way of envisioning eternal life: life lived in the eternal now, with past and future reconciled and not at odds with one another.
Let’s get back to the Gospel of John. John the mystic. John who saw the world differently than you and I. John saw eternity in every moment. He saw the world as constantly springing forth from the eternal. The eternal is not something that lies in the future, although it certainly encompasses the future. The eternal is before, during and after time. Every moment is a moment when the eternal is right there, for those with eyes to see. And John believed that a life lived in the presence of Jesus; a life anchored on belief in Jesus; a life based on the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; a life unconditionally surrendered to God’s love through the teachings of Jesus; John believed this was the doorway to the eternal.
Eternal life is not something to be entered into upon death. Eternal life is to be entered now. That is why John’s gospel is often compared to Zen Buddhism. In Zen, nirvana is the equivalent of eternal life. When Buddha was asked by some of his puzzled students why he sometimes spoke of nirvana as if it were something in the present, and other times spoke as if it were in the future, Buddha said, “It is both. It is present because it begins here, and future because after death it expands into far greater being than we can know now, into the best that is conceivable.”
And so it is for eternal life with John. We can experience it here and now, although we experience it in a limited and imperfect way. But it is also future, because it will ultimately widen into a fullness of glory that we cannot begin to comprehend. But we usually are blind to the presence of eternal life. All of our compulsions, all the impulses within our earthly nature pull us away from eternal life.
I attended a conference at which William Placher spoke several years ago. He said his favorite metaphor for eternal life is the symphony. Our lives are each a symphony, played out a single note at a time. When we think of a particular symphony, say Beethoven’s ninth, we have a moment when we grasp the whole thing. Every moment of the symphony is united into a whole we call Beethoven’s ninth. Eternal life is the uniting of everything we are, and every moment we live, in a unified and harmonious whole that exists forever in the mind of God.
We cannot enter into that harmony of past, present and future—into eternal life—if we are chasing after our earthly desires. We cannot enter into eternal life if we self-righteously judge others. We cannot enter into eternal life if we horde wealth and store up our treasures on earth. We cannot enter into eternal life if we let selfish desire of any kind stand in the way of love, and peace, and mercy.
Of course, if we were able to put all those things aside, we would truly be following Jesus. To follow Jesus with that level of sincerity would require a remarkable commitment to God. It would require unconditional belief in everything Jesus said, and in everything Jesus stood for. It would require, in John’s language, “belief” in Jesus.
That’s why we should never reduce “belief in Jesus” down to some simple statement regarding how he came into the world, or for that matter, how he left it. Belief in Jesus is too important, and too dangerous, to be reduced to empty platitudes written on the back of some card that asks, “Have you been saved?”
But while the risks of belief are great, the rewards are beyond comprehension. The rewards for belief in Jesus are a life filled with meaning and purpose; a life that takes seed in our time-bound world, and blossoms into eternity.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everybody who believed in him may not perish but may have eternal life.