14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.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. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
For too long, many of us in the American church have aided and abetted injustice by means of a docetic gospel. A docetic gospel promises nothing but escape to a better world for those who believe in Jesus. John 3:16 is its most likely banner.
I call this gospel “docetic” because it has something in common with an ancient heresy called “Docetism.” Docetism held that the humanity of Christ was only an appearance. The church rejected this view, in part because it seemed to limit the effects of Christ’s redemptive work.
As Gregory of Nazianzus noted of a later controversy, “that which Christ has not assumed, He has not healed” (Epistle 101). Gregory’s point was that if Christ did not become fully human, then he cannot have healed our full humanity. Docetism suggests, in Gregory’s words, that God in Jesus took on a “portraiture of humanity,” but not our “whole nature.”
A docetic gospel, like docetic Christology, offers a partial and incomplete salvation, because it is addressed to only one aspect of our humanity: that is, our souls. A docetic gospel, in its most extreme form, would tell us that humanity is nothing but a mass of individual souls faced with a drastic choice between heaven and hell.
The individual choice of the individual soul is the docetic gospel’s most basic theological category. Everything else is subordinated to this theme. The church is a collection of individuals on their way to heaven. The eschaton consists in a judgment in which the decisions of individual souls for or against Christ are the only relevant feature.
Christology tells us how Christ paid the price so that souls wouldn’t have to go to hell. And creation, including our very bodies, is a mere stage for the drama of individuals’ choices for or against Christ. Analogously (let the reader understand), this gospel can think of economic and political realities only in terms of abstract individual choices, for this is its primary operative category.
A docetic gospel has nothing to say, then, when the poor are blamed for their condition. How convenient for empires of all kinds! For when their policies leave the poor to suffer without healthcare, without employment, without justice, and without earthly hope, the gospel follows willingly.
And when, in our own American empire, black bodies are incarcerated at alarming rates and effectively denied citizenship, the gospel does not object. This gospel has no way of conceptualizing human beings other than as isolated individual actors. All it can say is that oppressed individuals should have chosen differently or, perhaps, that they are unfortunate.
A docetic gospel has nothing to say when multinational corporations dominate local economies and employment. What a boon for executives and investors! For when corporations exploit the labor and lives of human beings, the gospel stands by approvingly, like Saul at the stoning of Stephen.
If individuals do not like their employment conditions, the gospel teaches that they should find another job or hope for Jesus’ return. But it cannot speak to the injustice of these conditions, for it can see only individuals and their decisions, abstracted from all social and economic context.
A docetic gospel has nothing to say when financial gain motivates the development of deadly weapons and their availability throughout the world. How blessed, then, are Lockheed Martin and the National Rifle Association! For when children are killed at home and abroad, the gospel sees no institutional culpability. It can only wring its hands and offer its regrets. At least we can hope that those children are now in heaven and, perhaps, that individuals with weapons will choose differently in the future.
A docetic gospel has nothing to say about the destruction and degradation of the planet and its non-human inhabitants. What a fortunate coincidence for ExxonMobil, Tyson, and Monsanto! For when we wreak sickening cruelties on other creatures, decimate habitats through mountaintop removal, or deplete the soil with industrial agriculture, the gospel is too busy saving souls to notice. None of those useful animals or expendable ecosystems are going to heaven, anyway. They are theological non-entities.
Thank God that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a docetic gospel. Thank God that Jesus Christ took on a full human nature, so that our entire human nature could be healed. That human nature is fundamentally embodied. It is inherently related to and embedded in the rest of creation, from which it cannot be separated.
That is why Isaiah does not preach of our future escape from the world, but of a future when, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). That is why the Apocalypse of John does not speak only of the destruction of the world, but of “a new heaven and a new earth” of which it can be said, “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:2, 5). That is why the Epistle to the Romans affirms that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Most of us understand what it means to struggle for personal holiness on our individual journeys through life, trusting but not knowing quite how that struggle will contribute to our future transformation. The future redemption of all creation means that, in a similar way, we must struggle now for justice, peace, and well-being in all aspects of society and for all creation, even if we do not know exactly how that struggle will contribute to creation’s final eschatological liberation.
How, then, are we to understand this week’s gospel reading, which seems to proclaim a docetic gospel? In order to recover a non-docetic reading of John 3:16, we need to read it in the context of the rest of the book of John and in light of its connection to the story of Moses’ bronze serpent.
It is perhaps common to understand the difference between these passages as a matter of timing. The Israelites were saved immediately from the poisonous serpents. We will be saved from hell in the future. But this is not what John means by “eternal life.”
For John, eternal life is a present possibility. The transition from death to life takes place here and now for those who believe in Jesus: “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24; also see 1 Timothy 6:12; 1 John 1:1-2; 3:15; 5:11-13). The non-docetic gospel of John affirms the real possibility of eternal life in this life.
Eternal life consists in knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ” whom God sent (17:3). That knowledge is available now (10:14; 14:7, 17; 17:25). Thus, when John says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15), the comparison is quite direct. In both cases, the immediate result is gaining life and avoiding perishing, as John 3:16 famously puts it.
And if the comparison with Moses’ serpent is taken seriously, eternal life must be embodied life, even though it cannot be reduced to mere biological survival. The church has preserved this insight in its tendency to understand eternal life in John 6:54 eucharistically: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” This statement suggests that eternal life is, somehow, mediated physically.
Like John’s gospel, this week’s reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians affirms that life is available to us now. Death has to do with the disordered condition of our bodies (2:1-3) and being “made alive together with Christ” (2:5) is something that happens in the present.
Through our incorporation with Israel into the one body of Christ (2:11-22), we participate now in the power that granted resurrected life to Christ’s human body (1:19-20). This new life in the present can only be understood to include our own bodies, too. As Paul affirms in the Epistle to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).
The non-docetic gospel of Jesus Christ means that the church must preach not just of what will happen in the future, but of the life available presently through the power that raised the body of Jesus from the dead. To the extent that our own bodies participate in that life, so may and must the entire created order participate in that life. For our bodies are nothing if not inextricable members of the rest of creation.
As such, they are foretastes of the liberation that will eventually be realized for all creation (Romans 8:21). That liberation includes not only the physical realities of which human life is part, but social and economic realities, too. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that all of creation, bound up as it is with human bodies and human lives, is subject to Christ and healed by Christ (see Ephesians 1:10, 20-23; Colossians 1:16-20). It is our task to live out the reality of that gospel by anticipating in the present the future restoration of all things. For that future restoration, we can already say now, “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalms 107:1).