2.5 John -- Nicodemus, cont.
3. "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son" (Jn 3:18).
Just as salvation is open to one and all without distinction, so is condemnation. But the standard of judgment has changed, even from Jesus' own message in the Synoptics. In Luke, when the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him,
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live" (Lk 10:26-28).
For John, it is no longer obedience to the Law, or even the Great Commandment, that brings life. It is not primarily a matter of "do this", but of believing. It is to believe that Jesus is God's Son, and to receive rebirth in the Holy Spirit. Or, John might have said that the Great Commandment is to believe in Jesus Christ.
Now this gets very intricate, and John walks a tightrope. Even though God's primary attitude to the world and its inhabitants is love, there is still a judgment. God's Love does not dissolve His wrath, as universalists believe. But God's judgment is not based on traditional religious morality (ie. the Law). John elaborates:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light (Jn 3:19-21).
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (Jn 3:36).
According to John 3, the coming of Jesus, who is light and truth, exposes the hearts of men. Men who reject Jesus show that their deeds are evil, people who believe in him are righteous. So the judgment of God is justified on two grounds -- the evil deeds, and the hatred of the light, which is the same as not believing in the name of God's Son. But this doesn't sound right.
The problem with this entire conversation with Nicodemus is that there is a missing element. John records Jesus' words about the necessity of being born again, but it seems as if that occurs only if and when the Spirit chooses to move upon a soul ("the wind blows wherever it pleases"). According to John, righteous people will be drawn to Jesus, as light to Light, but those who love darkness reject him. Yet in reality, most of the people who were drawn to Jesus were unworthy people whose lives were full of evil deeds, but who 1. repented of these deeds, and 2. believed that Jesus had the power to forgive sins because he was the Son of God. Therefore, the missing element in the conversation with Nicodemus is the necessity of personal repentance.
And on the other hand, there were many "good" people, law-abiding Jews, who rejected the Messiah. How can John call their deeds evil, especially compared with those of outright sinners and Gentiles who decided to "come into the light" by believing in Jesus? The clue is in the phrase "whoever does not believe stands condemned already" (Jn 3:18). What this means is that instead of the traditional Jewish separation of humanity into two groups -- righteous and defiled -- these two groups do not exist for John. John is introducing a new concept in the theory of salvation: all men are already condemned, they are all in darkness before the light comes to them. But God throws them a lifeline (in Jesus), and any man, Jew or Gentile, immoral or saintly, may take hold of this lifeline and receive life. Likewise, any man may reject the lifeline and enjoy worldly pleasures or be satisfied with his own moral goodness. Salvation is no longer a matter of adherence to a sacred behavior code backed up by sacrifices and holy days. The coming of Jesus forces every man to make a decision -- either to repent, believe in Jesus and be born again of the Spirit, or reject the light and the lifeline. This choice is illustrated in the very next chapter.