Any honest look at the hallmark verses of Christian faith has to start with John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." We think that this verse hinges on "so loved" or on "only Son" or perhaps on "shall not perish," maybe even "eternal life." But the power and the truth of this verse hinges on this one little word:
Belief, particularly as it pertains to Christian belief, is something we don't understand very well. It's because we're living in a world that has diminished belief to a simple, one-time profession of faith. "Oh yes, I believe...just in case this whole thing goes south and I need a way out of Hell." We pray the prayer, but we go on sinning, just as Paul told us not to do.
See, the problem is that belief is not an intellectual practice. It's not just agreeing in our minds that something is, or may be, true. It's not being willing to say, "Yes, I can buy into that" or "That seems plausible." Belief is an experience, and it is necessarily transformative. It engages us, and then it changes us.
Think about the evidences of belief in the Gospels. The people were constantly hounding Jesus to show them another sign. Perform another miracle. Do something else for them. They needed to experience first-hand His power. They needed to be witnesses before they could ever be believers. Even at the Cross, the Roman soldiers were not convinced there was anything special about this Jesus. Until, that is, they saw how He died. Then, all of a sudden, they're sure He is the Son of God. You have to experience Jesus before you can believe in Him. You can't just think He kind of, sort of, or even really sounds good. That's never been enough.
And then, you have to be changed by Him. James says plainly that faith without works is dead. Paul says that we have not been saved (believed in Him) just so that we can go on sinning. That's not how any of this works.
But what if you can't believe? What if you just can't believe? There is a story in the Gospels of this happening - a man comes to Jesus. He experiences Jesus. He wants to be changed, wants to believe all of this, but he cries out - I believe, help my unbelief! Who among us doesn't have these moments?
This is the haunting of John 3:17, the verse that puts 3:16 in context. Verse 17 condemns the man who does not believe, who does not truly believe - that is, who is not changed by his experience of Jesus.
The kind of unbelief that we see in the Gospel story just cited - that's not what verse 17 is talking about. It's not talking about those of us who are earnestly trying to believe, who are engaged with the Gospel, who are open to being changed. It's talking more about the thief on the cross, the one who refuses to believe.
There are two thieves with Jesus when He is crucified - one on His left, one on His right. And one cries out about Him being the Son of God and begs for mercy. He is changed by his experience of Jesus. The other thief tells him to shut up and stop bothering the guy. He is not changed by his experience of Jesus. It is this kind of unbelief that is condemned, the kind that can look Jesus right in the eye and decide He's not worth changing for. It's the idea that not all who cry, "Lord, Lord" will be received in Heaven - not all who know what His name is know what His name means. They have not been changed by Him.
Which brings us back to belief - not some intellectual exercise, not some measly, simple, just-in-case prayer, but a life-changing experience of Jesus. The question of John 3:16 is not whether God so loves His world; we know that He does. It's not whether there is eternal life; we know that there is. It's not whether there is a Son, sent to save; we know this is true.
The question of John 3:16 hinges on this one little word. The question is: do you believe? Truly believe?