“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 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.”
It is hardly surprising that these verses are amongst the best loved in Scripture. They answer our deepest fears with the assurance of God’s immense and costly love. They contain the promise of salvation and eternal life. They provide comfort to those who believe already whilst inviting those who do not to make a response of faith. They are helpful to pastors and evangelists in equal measure.
Indeed, they are so familiar that we can imagine that we know exactly what they mean, but as ever, shifting our perspective to a ‘Green’ one provokes new questions. Who exactly is being saved? Is salvation limited to people or is the non-human creation included? This is not a trivial question but one which will have an effect on how we preach, how we view the natural world and our response to the challenges of the climate emergency.
The verses can be read very exclusively - only those who believe will be saved. This rules out the non-human creation, since only people have the capacity to believe. It also rules out those of other faiths and no faith, those with limited cognitive function and those who are too young to have a concept of belief. Whilst the passage is clear that those who believe will not perish - does it actually say that everyone and everything else will? I'm not so sure.
On the other hand, when set in the context of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus, these verses are inclusive, expanding the scope of salvation. The use of the word ‘world’ is telling and it is used no less than four times in these few sentences. God loves the world, the Son is sent to the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. For someone like Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had been taught that salvation was for the Jews alone, and only law-abiding Jews at that, this would have demanded a radical rethink.
For us, a similar leap may be demanded, to permit our understanding to be broadened to include not just humanity but the non-human creation. I accept that it’s perfectly possible to read these verses as if they refer exclusively to people. The Greek word ‘Kosmos' has a spectrum of meanings ranging from ‘the human family’ to ‘the entire created order’. However, I find it difficult to imagine that of all the wonders He created and declared to be good, God only wishes to save humanity. Or that God made a covenant with the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals after the flood,(Gen 9:10) only to see them perish, or that trees, sunsets, dogs and mountains have no place in the Kingdom.
My take is that when Scripture says God loves the world – it means the world – all of it. As such the world cannot be somewhere we leave behind when we are saved. We must be saved together with the natural world not from it. It is also inconceivable that God sees it as disposable. Creation cannot merely be a playground for human beings to enjoy or a storehouse for them to plunder. God's beloved world is not something to be used and discarded but to be respected and cherished. For if God so loves the world – shouldn’t we?