“God so loved the world that He gave up His only Son …”(John 3:16). So begins our gospel this Sunday. Even many non-Christians know the words of the message communicated when they see a banner hanging over the railing at a baseball or football game reading “JOHN 3:16”. This verse, possibly the most quoted verse of the entire New Testament, contains the very core of both Jesus’ identity and mission. Verse 17 continues this beautiful straight-forward statement of Jesus’ mission thus: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” But verse 18 introduces a rather discordant note: “Whoever does not believe has already been condemned” How literally should that statement be taken? What is the correct way to interpret this and other scripture texts?
Two questions of interpretation raised by this text are as follows: Is it sufficient to merely “believe” to avoid eternal condemnation? Are all people who do not believe in Jesus automatically condemned? While many evangelical Christians would say “yes” to both questions, the Catholic Church would respond “NO” to both. Fr Dempsey writes on this as follows:
“The reasoning is stated most clearly in paragraphs 14 through 16 of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” promulgated during the Second Vatican Council on November 21st, 1964. We believe Christians will be judged not merely on belief (if that is understood as mere intellectual assent) but on faith (which is a response of the whole person to God, including our actions). We also believe that God’s judgment will not hold people responsible for not following a belief structure with which they are not familiar or have never heard in a convincing way. Individuals will be judged according to how they have followed what they believe about God and God’s will. Whether or not they know Jesus Christ personally, it will be his grace which allows them to enter into eternal glory.”
On this feast of the Holy Trinity, let us remind ourselves that the whole plan of God’s activity, as Father, Son and Spirit in our world and in our history tends always towards us sharing eternal happiness with him. “God desires everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4)