‘Where the soul of man never dies’ – Johnny Cash with June, Helen and Anita Carter

John 3 [NRSV] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i]

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

1“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 

When I saw John 3:16 was in one of the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, my heart sank. Don’t get me wrong — I know it’s a beloved bible verse that has brought comfort to many people over the years, many of them smarter and more spiritual than I am. But I first understood it as a kind of clobber text, a way of letting everybody know if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can’t be saved. And I’ve had a hard time getting over that.

A clobber text? Mostly we hear the term when people dredge up a bible verse to “clobber” their LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. It’s a form of proof texting, of taking a passage of scripture out of context to prove a point, and it’s probably been around since the first religious texts were written down 2,500 years ago.

Richard Goode, a lecturer in theology at England’s Newman University in Birmingham, England, says on the university website that “clobber texts” were “originally associated in relation to the homosexual debate,” and they got that name because “they are known to deliver the knockout blow in a debate, thereby rendering the opposing side speechless.” They’re meant to shut down discussion.

“Follow any theological argument,” Goode adds, “whether that be abortion, sexual orientation, or female ministry (and countless others) and you will quickly begin to recognise each side’s favourite ‘clobber texts’.”

I don’t recall anybody actually landing a knockout blow with John 3:16, but growing up down South during the 1950s, it was one of the verses you’d hear expounded by sidewalk preachers on the old Market Square in Knoxville or over 500-watt daytime-only radio stations. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In other words, Jesus Saves. I’d even see it spray-painted on the rock faces above U.S. 25-70 between Knoxville and Asheville, N.C.

Another exhortation I’d see painted on the rocks said “Prepare to Meet God.” On some of those hairpin curves between Knoxville and Asheville, it was a sheer drop-off down to the Pigeon River gorge below. Take your eyes off the road, I figured, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

I also remember John 3:16 as one of the verses that came up when we’d read a bible passage aloud in home room at school — a required activity in my county high school — and there was a general atmosphere of mandated evangelical religiosity that gave me an obvious target for teenage rebellion.

I’m not holding myself up as a model of teenage probity, and I don’t think there was anything intrinsically awful about the religiosity of the 1950s (other than the obvious failure to maintain the separation of church and state, which I believe was remedied later by act of the Tennessee legislature). But it left me ill-disposed to deal with John 3:16 in a Zoom discussion of Sunday’s gospel reading.

So it was a bit of a relief to go online and learn that Karoline M. Lewis, who holds an endowed chair in biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, doesn’t think much of it either.

“John 3:16,” she says on Luther Seminary’s Working Preacher website for, well, for working preachers preparing sermons on the assigned texts for the day. “Perhaps the most well-known Bible verse and yet also one of the most destructive — an assertion of exclusion rather than one of God’s abundant love. A verse that sends people to hell rather than voice God’s extravagant grace.”

Lewis, who writes a column titled “Dear Working Preacher,” suggests John 3:16 be read together with John 3:17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Jesus Saves, again, but this time with a different inflection. Something I can almost see myself spray-painting on the rocks above a highway cut in the North Carolina mountains.

Lewis adds something else I still need to be reminded of.

“God loves the world is not a theory for salvation,” she says. “It is specific. Particular. As particular as the incarnation itself. God loves a Samaritan woman. God loves a man paralyzed his entire life. God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship.”

So all those signs, or miracles, in John aren’t just proofs of divinity. At least not to me. The whole discussion of high Christology in the gospel of John is way above my pay grade, anyway. But love, that I can understand. Well, “understand” isn’t the right word. Instead, I guess I can feel it at work in the world. That’s not quite the right word either, but it’s closer.

Another term I think is a little shopworn is “eternal life” or “everlasting life.” Growing up, it just seemed awfully distant to me. In church on Sundays we’d recite from the Episcopal prayer book that we believed Jesus was “true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” Believe it? I didn’t even know what it meant! When we recited the Nicene Creed, I figured I’d better not let God catch me saying I believed something when I didn’t, so I’d cross my fingers with the assurance God would understand and let me off the hook.

But there was something else in the prayer book that did make sense to me. When the Ten Commandments weren’t read aloud (which was usually the case), we’d hear:

THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

And it was the one thing that stood out most clearly in my mind. (Still is.) But I didn’t notice a whole lot of that out in the popular culture.

It seemed more like the sidewalk preachers and old-time gospel hours on the radio were all about getting into heaven when you died. And the way you did that was all about not doing certain things — not drinking, not dancing, not playing cards, and … not teaching evolution in the public schools. (I am not making this up.) A perfect target for teenage rebellion.

Later, when I was in my 30s, I made my peace with a lot of what I’d rebelled against. For a while I was active in the ecumenical inner-city Epworth ministry in Knoxville. We met in the repurposed Fort Sanders Presbyterian Church (now the Laurel Theater) at 17th and Laurel off the University of Tennessee campus. We had some old Cokesbury hymnals in a storage room, and at services we sang from mimeographed sheets about the crossing over Jordan’s stormy banks and meeting loved ones in the sweet bye and bye. Or this, which I also learned at Epworth:

Dear friends there’ll be no sad farewells
There’ll be no tear-dimmed eyes
Where all is peace and joy and love
And the soul of man never dies

When I sing this chorus, I may not actually believe it like I believe water is wet because I have empirical evidence for it when I’m washing the dishes. but I take comfort in it.

The bible is full of stories I may not have empirical evidence for, but I take comfort in them anyway. It comforts me to think that God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, or that God haggled with Lot over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or that God finally brought Jonah around to God’s way of thinking, and spared the people of Nineveh, and also many animals. Or that God sent God’s only-begotten son to show us how to love and how to live.

Another story: Sometime around 1980 Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Carter sisters Helen and Anita gathered in what looks like a repurposed church building, or a TV studio in Nashville decorated to look like a church, to sing “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.” (See video embedded above.) And you could tell by watching them, a spirit of love came down and filled that TV studio while they were singing. There was even a Christmas tree in the background, witnessing to the incarnation.

More testimony to my belief the incarnation happened more than once.

Maybe it happened in Ninevah when God sent Jonah to save the people of Ninevah, who, as God tells us, “cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals.” Maybe it happened in that Nashville TV studio with Johnny Cash and the Carter family. Maybe it happens whenever God calls us to do God’s work.

So let’s just say I came to this week’s Zoom session on the pericopes for Lent IV with mixed emotions.

One thing I learned from our discussion was this — everlasting life isn’t just in Canaan’s land where the soul of man (and woman) never dies, it’s not just pie in the sky by and by. The word we translate as “eternal” or “everlasting” in New Testament Greek is aiónios, which, like most words, has a range of meanings. Strong’s Concordance, a standard reference that’s been around since 1890, has this:

Original Word: αἰώνιος, ία, ιον
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: aiónios
Phonetic Spelling: (ahee-o’-nee-os)
Definition: agelong, eternal
Usage: age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.

As a linguistics nerd, I feel compelled to point out it comes from the same Greek root as our English word “eon,” and its etymology traces all the way back to a proto-Indo-European root *aiw- “vital force, life, long life, eternity.” (I guess you could say it’s been around forever. As have egregious puns.) But I was more interested in this idea that it’s “contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.” It can happen now, but it comes with an extended warranty.

So I did a couple of Google searches. (I may have mentioned this before — I Google everything.) And, sure enough, Wikipedia has a page titled “Eternal life (Christianity).” It’s as good an explanation of what’s going on in John as I’ve seen anywhere:

In New Testament theology, in addition to “life” (zoe, i.e. ζωὴ in Greek), there is also a promised spiritual life sometimes described by the adjective eternal (aionios i.e. αἰώνιος in Greek) but other times simply referred to as “life”.[7][15] In both John and Paul the possibility of attaining eternal life and avoiding the wrath of God is dependent on believing in Jesus, the Son of God.

But “believing” doesn’t mean intellectual assent to a proposition. (I don’t have to cross my fingers anymore when I say the creed in church.) Wikipedia goes on:

For John abiding in Christ involves love for one another, as in John 15:9-17, and John 5:24. The existence of divine love in believers, then facilitates the influence of the gospel on the world, and lead to widespread salvation.[7]1 John 3:14 then manifests “the already but not yet” acquisition of eternal life by referring to the acquisition of eternal life as a once for all (ephapax) event, and the role of love in attaining it: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death”, somewhat reminiscent of the words of Jesus in John 5:24.[16]

So at the end of the day, I think it’s still very simple: Love God, love your neighbor. But keep your eyes on the road.

Works Cited

Richard Goode, “Weaponising Romans 13,” Bible Research Today, June 16, 2018 [Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception, Newman University, Birmingham University, UK]  https://bibleresearchtoday.com/tag/clobber-texting/.

Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher: John 3:16,” Working Preacher, March 5, 2017 https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/john-316.

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