“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in the eye black under Tim Tebow’s eyes. At some point, everyone in America has probably looked up this verse.
I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through at least one chapter of scripture.
We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite.
And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance – even of their scandal.
The word for world here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.
We hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father?
And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, we let children starve to death. We slaughter them before they’re born. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs. The ruler of this world is the devil (cf. John 12:31, 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.
St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world.” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on. So, when we say that God loves the world are we saying that he loves these things? That he loves the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out? God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses. And we must carefully consider what is meant.
Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites.
It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos.
Cosmos means order – and in this order, there’s a union and not an opposition between spirit and matter. It is a disordered world, a fallen world, which rends the spiritual and the physical asunder. The cosmos as God creates it is both at the same time.
The Lord creates and loves the cosmos. The cosmos is all people and it is also all creation. It is the whole universe. Certainly we human beings have a primary place in the created universe but there’s more to it than just us. When we were created in the order of things, we were put in the garden as the gardeners. We were put in the cosmos as the stewards of that order.
But we have disordered this order. Not only do our sins cause personal harm but also cosmological harm. Our disordered acts hurt us, hurt each other and even hurt the cosmos. Our sins break our lives apart in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t see. I think entropy itself, like death itself, has its ultimate origin in sin.
Now, in the way that we experience things, death has become so much a part of the order of things that it seems necessary and even good.
A naturalist can well observe all the good that comes out of death. The dead bodies of animals fertilize the plants. Growth comes out of decay. Good comes out of evil. Things cannot live, in the order that we know, unless there is death. We ourselves live and feed on the death of other living things – plants and animals. How can I say that it is not a part of the created order – that death is unnatural?
Death is a part of the cosmos that we know and experience, but we know and experience the cosmos in fallenness. Yes, good comes out of death. The greatest good comes out of the greatest death – the death of Jesus. God enters into this cosmos, which he loves, which is fallen and wounded, and he becomes a part of it himself, and it wounds him.
We often repeat that God becomes man, which is the whole basis of our salvation. A corollary of this is that the creator becomes the creation. Here is a surprise and a paradox – two things being at once while seeming to contradict. Divinity by nature is uncreated, humanity created, and so Jesus, both divine and human, is both creator and creation.
So not only is humanity saved, redeemed, glorified, brought into unity with God by this, but so is the cosmos. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.
Death is what we’re being saved from. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.
And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. God is even where God is not.
God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is of the cosmos. God loves the world.
The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about the world. We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world.
All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.
The cross unifies opposites. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar. The divine and the human intersected and made one. Heaven is brought down to earth. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, unified. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign.
by John Russell, 2007
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange.