Jesus came to save us from a stressful, performance-based life that we might live the abundant life freely and lightly.
Yes, we are saved from the system of “doing in order to become”, so that we are free to live in the present moment that is free from shame and guilt, in which we simply enjoy the unconditional divine love of our heavenly Father. We live knowing we are already favoured, blessed with every spiritual blessing, and victorious and successful.
“Wait a minute,” a christian might say. “Didn’t Jesus come to save us from hell?”
Yes, Jesus talked about hell, but it is not the kind of hell that many evangelical christians think. Interestingly, Jesus spoke about hell mainly to the Pharisees when He used the word ‘gehenna’ to describe the suffering they would go through in their conscience during the impending destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Roman army in AD66-70.
Besides, Pharisees were not atheists – they did believe in God, except they were blinded and misguided to have believed in the kind of God made in their own image, thinking that He is someone who is judgmental and vindictive and petty.
So it’s a far cry from today’s popular thinking that atheists and other non-christians are going to “hell” for failing to believe in Jesus or confessing Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. How far off we are from what the scriptures actually say when we do not take into account their historical context and audience relevance.
“Ok,” someone might venture, “but aren’t we also saved from God’s wrath?”
This is what I used to believe, having been taught in institutional churches before. I’ve learnt that the phrase “God’s wrath” is used figuratively in the Jewish apocalyptic language.
There are two ways I look at it – firstly, with a fallen mindset, a person may think God is angry with him or her, but it is actually a result of feeling alienated from God – the guilty conscience is the one that seems to represent God’s anger. This is nothing more than the accuser of the brethren in action – Satan is not a physical entity or angel, unlike what traditional christianity teaches, but a figurative word to describe that part of our human make-up that makes us feel guilty and condemned. He is the accusing voice that “goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”, trying to fool us into thinking God is distant and angry with us, when all the while God is already one with us because in Him, we live and move and have our being. It’s up to us to realise that.
Secondly, when “God’s wrath” was mentioned in the New Testament, it was in reference to the impending judgment day on Israel in AD70, marked by the destruction of the temple, which would signify the end of the old covenant age (not the end of the world or the physical earth). The unbelieving Jews, who refused to depart from religion and rituals, would then suffer condemnation in their minds, mistakenly thinking that God was angry with them by sending the Roman army to attack them.
This is what Jesus meant by “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish (or become lost) but have eternal life (knowing the one true God). For God did not send His Son to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
The Pharisees and unbelieving Jews were already condemned because they did not believe Jesus is the revelation of God as their heavenly Father, nor did they believe Jesus is their true identity.
How were they condemned? In their conscience. The condemnation is in the mind – as long as people continue to experience guilt and shame by relying on religion and rituals and good works to make themselves right with God, they remain lost and blinded and condemned.
This is what Jesus meant by “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness (ignorance) rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
The Pharisees would rather hide behind religion and make themselves look good and holy and pious by their law-keeping, and remain in spiritual darkness, doing evil deeds (also known as dead works, which are religious works done to become more righteous), than to come into the light and see themselves standing on equal ground with other people in terms of their favour and acceptance with God.
Therefore, contrary to mainstream christian teachings, the words “perish” and “condemnation” in John 3:16-21 has nothing to do with a physical torture chamber in the afterlife (which many christians commonly equate with hell) reserved for unbelievers and sinners, who are commonly thought to be atheists, agnostics, buddhists, muslims, jews, hindus and other non-christians. In the proper context at that time and age, Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, and His words need to be interpreted in that light.
Finally, what about the popular notion of “God’s wrath being poured on Jesus when He was hanging on the cross to punish Him on our behalf for bearing our sins”? Well, this post is getting too long, so for an introduction to the discussion on the “penal substitution” view of the cross and the trinitarian view of the cross, this post would suffice for now.
[Post updated on 9 June 2011]
“Was What I Taught In Australia Biblical?” by Steve McVey
“Another look at John 3:16-21 – Jesus was addressing religiosity” (Video message)