A Nihilist Reads John 3:16: Part I
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This verse, maybe more than any other, is most often quoted as the Evangel, the Good News. God the Father gave His only Son over to a particularly gruesome and ignominious death. Of course, the story continues with the Resurrection and the Redemption of all humankind, and in true Christian fashion everyone lives happily every after. As to who is included in everyone along with the when & how of that happily ever after, that depends on the flavor of Christianity under consideration.
The happily ever after part doesn’t interest me here. God gave his only begotten Son. The Son is also known in the New Testament as the Paschal Lamb. God gave his only begotten Son to be sacrificed. As more of the world becomes urbanized and food, especially meat, is industrialized, it is easy to avoid the fact that obtaining meat was a more lurid fact of life than it is for us urbanites shopping at Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, or Walmart. Having grown up on a farm, as a boy I was expected to clean fish, wring chickens’ necks, help my father dress deer, and once we butchered a large sow. It is the physicality of an animal’s inflicted death that is casually ignored in telling the Easter story. There is blood, fear, and a desperate and eventually failed struggle not to die.
Those deaths were at least for food. Growing up on a farm, there were other animal deaths. Sensitive readers may wish to skip the following paragraph.
Being poor and rural, we did not have either financial or physical access to veterinary services. We had dogs. As the oldest and as a boy, it fell on me to kill any puppies that we could not find homes for. My father made it clear that ‘softness’ would be harshly punished. His preferred method of discipline was to thrash us with his belt. In my case, when (it was never if) I started crying, he would tell me that he would stop when I stopped crying. Sometimes that didn’t happen until we were both exhausted. The rationale for killing our puppies was that we couldn’t take care of them, and they would grow up wild. Packs of wild dogs are dangerous to children and sometimes even to adults. This was the conventional wisdom. My choice was either I could avoid a beating and the puppies would die, or his belt and the puppies would die anyway. The usual method was to bash their heads against a telephone pole. I came for them when they were a couple of months old, after we had had time to play with them, and even give them names. Usually, their deaths were quick and merciful compared to alternatives, such as drowning. Their corpses were disposed of in a pit for dead chickens. The Pit had a concrete slab on top with a block with a handle through which carcasses could be dropped. In the last litter I killed, one puppy did not die for over day and a half. The way that I know this is because he whimpered for that long in the pit. Even though I could hear his whimpers, there was nothing I could do to bring a quick end. I don’t remember his name, or even if this puppy was a “he.” Those whimpers troubled me at the time, and they still leave me uneasy almost 40 years later.
I told this story not because I wish to present myself as a victim, nor because I relish the gruesome details. I did so to drive the point home that an animal’s death is likely to be unpleasant, inhumane, and brutal. Of course, it is true that the sacrificial death of animals according to prescribed Jewish ritual procedure was more humane, in being quicker and more efficient. Death by crucifixion is not like that. It takes several days for the crucified to die of a combination of exhaustion and asphyxiation. Death by crucifixion is “slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally ‘out of crucifying’), gruesome, humiliating, and public” [Wikipedia, Crucifixion].
All too often, Christians, especially of the evangelical persuasion, blithely overlook and ignore the ugliness of Golgotha. God the Father told the Son, go become flesh. Did the Son know once he became flesh what His Father had planned? Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Did the human Jesus know how gruesome his fate would be? If he did know, then for those of us not gifted with faith and the overwhelming need to believe that this madman is different, he was just some poor soul suffering from religious delusions that got himself taken seriously.
A more interesting possibility would be that he was aware of his divinity, but ignorant of his worldly fate, the rationale being that an essential part of humanity is ignorance of the circumstances of one’s death. This would at least explain “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34) without resorting to absurd theological hocus-pocus.
In contemporary US culture and public life the Fightin’ Jesus of Revelations is preferred to the Suffering Jesus, to the Lamb of God. Given the predilection of many of my countrypeople for avarice and happy endings, it is hardly surprising that the ugliness, the humiliation, and the scandal of the Crucifixion would be ignored.
I find this verse, so beloved of so many Christians, disquieting, to put it mildly. Christians are supposed to imitate Jesus, in fact “Christian” means “of Christ,” as in belonging to Christ, as a slave belongs to his master. God commands, the Son obeys [rather than playing denominational favorites I recommend googling “what does Christian mean” and reading several definitions and explanations]. In this verse, there is absolutely no indication that the Son was given a say about his Incarnation or his eventual worldly fate. The Father presumes that the Son will obey without question. The Son is denied agency, or more damningly he is given agency in order to resign from exercising his God-given agency. It is a devil’s bargain to be given something on the condition that it not be used. The Son is pure obedience. If God would presume this of his only begotten Son, how can any of the Son’s property be so sure of a kinder fate?
John 3:16 does not present God’s Love for the world as a selling point. I’m not sure why anyone would think it would be.