Thomas Jay Oord, renowned theologian, philosopher and author, reflects upon the iconic verse John 3:16 and the meaning of God’s love for the whole of creation.
The way we interpret the Bible makes a difference. I’ve been reflecting on my past biblical interpretation in light of environmental concerns and animal care.
One of the best-loved verses of Scripture — and one many Christians memorized at an early age — is John 3:16. Here is the version I learned as a kid:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
The Good Life Here and Now
For many years, I’ve been focusing on the final sections of this famous biblical passage. I’ve been telling my students that “eternal life” isn’t primarily about never-ending existence after bodily death. Instead, it’s primarily about abundant life here and now.
For a number of reasons, I believe the “eternal life” God gives has much more to do with a high quality of life than a long quantity of life. “Believing” in Jesus (which I think has much more to do with following his way of love than affirming correct doctrines) leads to the good life here and now. Believing in Jesus first and foremost means living a life of love.
I still believe in the afterlife. I’m not saying that salvation — the good life — is ONLY about this life here and now. But I think Jesus’ PRIMARY intent was that we seek a high quality of life in our present existence.
God Loves All Creation
Perhaps the context of John 3:16 that prompted me to interpret it as being exclusively about humans. Jesus is speaking with a scholar who asks what it means to be “born again.”
In response to the born-again question, Jesus says God loves THE WORLD. He could have said, “For God so loved humans that he gave…” Instead, Jesus’ talks about the whole cosmos, all creation, the whole kit and caboodle. That includes not only humans but other animals, birds, fish, insects, dirt, clouds, etc.
It’s amazing when you think about it!
The end of the passage, admittedly, seems to apply only to those creatures capable of “believing in him.” I’m open to many kinds of animals being capable of some measure of belief. But I admit I can’t understand what it would mean for dirt to believe! And that leads me to…
This line of reasoning brings me naturally to an enigmatic passage in St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Romans 8:19 says, “Creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” A bit later in the passage, Paul says, “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
Paul seems to make a connection between the hope of creation and human action. In Romans 8:22, he says, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Humans have also been groaning, but they are “first fruits of the Spirit.” They have enjoyed some goodness, but we humans “await eagerly… the redemption of our bodies.”
As I interpret it, our redemption seems tied, in some way, to the redemption of all creation. All creation groans. But human creations have some taste of the goodness of the Spirit.
Paul puts it more plainly in his letter to the Church in Colossae. It was God’s good pleasure, through Christ, to “reconcile all things to Himself…whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20-21). Paul’s vision here is cosmic, not humans only.
What We Do Affects God’s Redemption Plans
Adding all of this together (and a host of biblical passages I will not address here) leads me to think that…
- God loves all creation,
- Our believing/living in response to God’s love can lead to a good life,
- God wants the good life for all creation, some of which is groaning in frustration, and
- What we do — our believing/living — affects God’s work for the good of all.
That’s at least the rationale I find convincing these days. Now I’m working on the ways I can join with God in loving creation. This includes loving humans but also all other creatures.
I’m not entirely sure what love for all creation should entail. For sure, that includes my being kind to animals. It means being environmentally and ecologically wise.
But I’m working on what else it might mean.
Professor Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. Oord is an award-winning author, and he has written or edited more than twenty books. For more information on his work, check out his website.