Faith as Trust: Reading John 3:16 before the Enlightenment

And just as Mōüsēs lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the son of mankind be lifted up, so that whoever trusts in him can have life for all time. This is in fact how much god loved the world: he gave the only son born to him, so that everyone who trusted in him wouldn’t be annihilated, but would have life for all time.God, you see, didn’t send the son into the world to judge the world, but so the world could be rescued through him. Whoever trusts him isn’t judged; but whoever doesn’t trust in him has been judged already, because he didn’t trust in the name of the only son born to god.—John 3:14-19 in The Gospels, a New Translation by Sarah Ruden

This year, I have been thoroughly enjoying the New Testament in a new translation by scholar and classicist Sarah Ruden. Almost everything about the translation makes me uncomfortable. The language is sparse and strange, and the translation uses unfamiliar names for people we are all familiar with, like Loukus, Iōannēs, and Iēsous instead of Luke, John, and Jesus. This all makes it seem like the New Testament is a work from a foreign culture whose values, beliefs, and core assumptions about the world are fundamentally different from ours in ways that we don’t entirely understand.

This, of course, is the point. The New Testament is weird. It is from a different culture. And modern translations that try to smooth over the strangeness cause us to miss, not just the meaning of the text, but the way that the text means.

One problem that this kind of translation addresses, though I’m not sure it can ever be addressed sufficiently, is the problem of bringing post-Enlightenment assumptions to pre-Enlightenment texts. We all do this because we can’t do otherwise. We don’t know how to think without activating our Enlightenment understanding of such things as truth, evidence, history, fact, and fiction. When somebody says, for example, that it does not matter to the Book of John whether or not Christ turned water to wine at a wedding in Cana, we have an extremely difficult time thinking of anything other than, “that can’t be true because it would mean the Bible is false.”

When we think such things, we are subjecting the text to a dichotomy that did not exist for its writers or its original readers. The gospels are not documentary histories or biographies. These are not genre categories that anybody in the ancient world would have understood. The chemical properties of wine and the physics of walking on water are modern concerns. These narratives in the New Testament are doing other things than the same narratives would be doing in a modern story.

All of this is the preface to what I really want to talk about, which is faith. It is only since the Enlightenment that people have defined “faith” (or “belief”) as the affirmation of something’s existence (and, therefore, the opposite of faith as doubt or disbelief). This dichotomy would not have even made sense to the people of Christ’s day. It’s not that not believing in a particular God was impossible. There were atheists even then. But announcing one’s belief in a deity was neither necessary nor sufficient. Religion was about what people did; it had almost nothing to do with formally acknowledging the existence of any particular god.

It is, therefore, an interpretive error to read the various King James translations of pistis (πίστις)—which include both “faith” and “belief”—as something like “acknowledging the fact of something’s existence.” That simply isn’t a possible reading of the text in its original context. The better English equivalents of the word are “trust” and “confidence.” We have faith in something, or someone, when we have confidence in its/their promises, or when we feel that it has the desire and ability to do the thing that we want done.

The uber-famous passage in John 3:16—without which hand-made signs at football games might never have existed—shows why this is important. Here it is in both the KJV and the NIV translations

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 KJV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)

To the post-Enlightenment mind, both of these versions of the text seem to propose a transaction: those who acknowledge the belief that Jesus is the Son of God will be rewarded with eternal life. Those who fail to acknowledge this will be punished with something that can be described as “perishing.”

This reading has given rise to a doctrine among some that one is “saved” through a formal confession of faith—an acknowledgment that we are powerless to save ourselves, that Jesus is the Son of God and that only through him can we be saved. Once this confession is made, salvation is assured. Those who do not so confess, or who profess belief in some other deity or deities, spends eternity in hell being tortured by the omni-benevolent God of Love. Eternal salvation and eternal damnation all ride on the spin of a roulette wheel. Those who guess the right god get it all.

I will hold in abeyance the question of whether or not this doctrine is correct and simply say that it would have been impossible to read John 3:16, or any other passage from the New Testament, in this way in the first Christian Century. It is a reading that relies entirely on a post-Enlightenment conception that belief and disbelief are orientations toward claims of fact.

This is why I like the way that Ruden renders the text (and the verses that follow it):

This is in fact how much god loved the world: he gave the only son born to him, so that everyone who trusted in him wouldn’t be annihilated, but would have life for all time.God, you see, didn’t send the son into the world to judge the world, but so the world could be rescued through him. Whoever trusts him isn’t judged; but whoever doesn’t trust in him has been judged already, because he didn’t trust in the name of the only son born to god.

What I find most important here is not just that she uses “trust” instead of “believe,” but that this formulation can be read as a constitutive rather than a transactional statement—not that people who believe in Jesus get rewarded with eternal life, but that trusting in Jesus creates the conditions that make eternal life possible.

To understand how this works, we have to understand the many ways that confidence and trust create the very conditions that justify them. Look at money. We now live in a society for which money has become entirely intangible. The small amount of coin and paper currency doesn’t begin to cover the wealth that people have. Money is simply the record of a promise that most people have confidence in. The amount of confidence determines the stability of the money supply. When people lose confidence in the promises behind their money, the money loses its value. Confidence creates value.

Or look at traffic signals. When I see a green light, I know that I can proceed through the intersection and probably not get killed, because I have confidence that the government has correctly configured the lights so that other people have red lights, and I have confidence that the people with a red light will stop. Traffic lights don’t create safe intersections; people’s trust creates safe intersections. If people stopped trusting the signals, or the other people, and just moved through the intersection whenever they felt like it, it would no longer be safe.

This, I think, is what John is trying to describe in his third chapter—but really in his whole book. God’s Kingdom is constituted by the faith of those who build it—not by abstract belief in the existence of Jesus Christ, but confidence that we can build the Kingdom by following the instructions that Jesus left behind, which largely involve loving God and loving each other. These things build the Kingdom of God because they are what the Kingdom of God means. And they create eternal life (rather than eternal suffering) because a group of people who love God and love each other is simply how “eternal life” works.


  1. Amen

  2. birdertyler says:

    Thank you for sharing this Michael. That last paragraph is a keeper for my personal notes. I’m definitely adding this to my already too ambitious list of books I’ll read someday. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of trusting Jesus and His new covenant and finding room for the temple. I’ve been finding glimpses of answers myself, particularly from 2Nephi chapter 25 – not the “all we can do” part, which I think is largely misused, but the relationship Nephi and his people had with the law of Moses. But I remain a bit lost there though, so I’ll pose the question: Does our temple worship show a lack of trust in the Son, or the opposite? And how?

  3. Michael – I’m sorry that I don’t comment on your wonderful posts. But I want you to know how much your writings have influenced my thinking. Thank you for taking the time and effort to educate and uplift so many of us!

  4. Michael, you know that I like this, am grateful for it, and agree in almost all respects.

    However, I don’t think you can really “hold in abeyance the question of whether or not this doctrine is correct.” Because I strongly suspect that people who come to this discussion with a firm belief in an after-life with a hell and a purgatory and many mansions in which we earn a place, will find something different (than you do) in the verses in John no matter the translation or presentation, and without regard to how a first century CE reader would have heard it. I don’t think it’s just a matter of post-Enlightenment thinking or presentism or cultural differences, but also a fundamental theological question. Is the Kingdom of God a peopled place in the hereafter, or a society and a place to build here on earth in real time?

  5. My comment is prompted by christiankimball’s observation.

    I’ll suggest a way to draw on Latter-day scripture in teaching the idea of faith as trust, and the idea that we must be collaborators with God in creating his kingdom both on earth and in heaven. I won’t pretend that this will be obvious to everyone, but I think it might be meaningful to some people.

    There is an important thread in Joseph Smith’s writings that suggests a continuity between conditions in this life and in the life to come.

    For example, the verse in Doctrine and Covenants Section 130: “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”

    If we follow this thought, it makes sense to believe that the conditions for a kingdom of God in the afterlife are an extension of—or build upon—the conditions for a happy society in this life. What is necessary for creating a Zion here will also be necessary there. Though “eternal glory” will add something essential in the afterlife, the foundation of the kingdom of God is a particular type of sociality—one that expresses trust and love—both in this life and in the next.

  6. Love that traffic lights analogy!

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