By Spencer D Gear PhD
Do you think that it is possible for people to argue over the meaning of ‘the world’? Yep! I was engaged in such a discussion on an Internet forum where world was made to mean other than world.
What’s the meaning of ‘world’ in John 3:16?
This is probably the best known verse in the whole of the Bible for evangelical Christians. Many regard it as a summary of the Gospel message. It states: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (ESV).
Calvinists often make ‘world’ in John 3:16 not mean the total world of all people. Here’s a sample from Calvinists on a leading Christian forum on the subject, ‘John 3:16 – is it important what the average Joe understands by ‘world’?’
‘What matters is what the Apostle John intended not what the reader understands. It is the duty of any reader to pay attention to context and try to understand what John meant. It is intellectually dishonest and lazy to take his words (or any words) at face value and assume a surface-level meaning’.
‘Of the 10+ uses of "world" that John uses in his writings, why did you pick that one?’
‘I guess you misunderstood the question. Of the 10+ uses of "world" that John uses in his writings, you chose the one that means every person who’s every lived. Why is that?’
I asked this Calvinist:
1) Would you please document where those 10+ meanings of ‘world’ are found in John’s Gospel?
2) Would you please document from a Greek lexicon there are 10+ meanings of ‘world’ in the Gospel of John?
How to avoid answering the question
This person’s immediate response was: ‘No. But if you’d like to, go ahead’. Do you see what he was doing? He was the one who made the claim of 10+ meanings of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel, but he doesn’t want to provide the evidence. He wants me to do the hard work for him. I won’t fall for that trick. It’s his responsibility to provide the evidence for the claim he is making.
How should I reply to him? ‘Why are you prepared to assert that there are 10+ meanings of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel and not be prepared to demonstrate where they are in John’s Gospel and how those 10 different meanings are defined by a leading Greek lexicon? If you are not prepared to document them, it becomes your assertion with no proof.’ His retort was, ‘I’m sorry that you think John only uses one definition for "world" in his writings. How did you determine which one John uses?’ My reply to this lie about my position was: ‘Not once have I ever said that. It is your false accusation against me. Please withdraw that statement against me immediately’.
He continued his avoidance of providing the 10+ definitions of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel: ‘So if [you] don’t believe that, then why do you need a list of definitions?’ I continued: ‘I asked you to remove your false statement against me. Why have you not removed your false statement and given me a red herring fallacy here? When will you remove this false statement about my view of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel?’
There was more and more avoidance from this Calvinist: ‘On what basis did I know that it was a false statement? It sure seemed true when I said it. You are free to refute it. When you do, however, please explain why you needed me to provide definitions’. My response was to repeat what I’d raised previously:
It was a false statement by you against me because I have never ever stated that there is only one meaning of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel. Thus your statement about my one meaning of ‘world’ was an invention.
You need to provide definitions because so far you have only made assertions that ‘world’ has 10+ meanings in John’s Gospel. You have not demonstrated this to be true. Please provide the evidence that I have asked.
He came back with further goading of me: ‘If you honestly believe that John only uses one definition for "world" in his writings, I’ll provide you a link to the various examples’. At this point I reported him to the moderators for his going against the rules of the Forum with his goading of me. To goad means, ‘to prick or drive with, or as if with, a goad; prod; incite’ (dictionary.com).
Further tactics for not answering questions
This fellow (and he has done this a number of times to other people and me on various topics) uses a standard tactic when he doesn’t want to answer my question. He changes topics. This is called a red herring logical fallacy.
This is how he did it:
Oz (me): ‘When will you quit your goading me with your repetition of a false statement about my view of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel?’
Hamm (my Calvinistic opponent): ‘Do you believe that John uses more than one definition for "world" in his writings? If so, how many definitions does he use?’
Notice what he did. He did not answer my question about when he was going to quit goading me by a false statement about my view of ‘world’ in John’s Gospel. He got back to what he wanted to talk about: Do you believe that John uses only one definition of ‘world’? I have denied it post after post, but this is what he did when he didn’t want to answer my questions of him re goading me.
Watch for this tactic by people in debate and conversation. What is a red herring logical fallacy? The Nizkor Project describes it as:
Also Known as: Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase.
A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to "win" an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.
The discussion on the forum was closed by a moderator who considered the discussion ‘is getting more and more toxic’.
Let’s check out a couple of commentators
What would a leading Calvinistic commentator say that the meaning of ‘world’ is in John 3:16?
(D A Carson, courtesy Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
D A Carson is a Calvinist and his commentary on John’s Gospel describes the meaning of ‘world’:
‘It is atypical for John to speak of God’s love for the world, but this truth is therefore made to stand out as all the more wonderful. Jews were familiar with the truth that God loved the children of Israel; here God’s love is not restricted by race. Even so, God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad; that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’; cf. notes on 1:9). The world is so wicked that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love it or anything in it (1 Jn. 2:15-17). There is no contradiction between the prohibition and the fact that God does love it. Christians are not to love the world with the selfish love of participation; God loves the world with the self-less costly love of redemption’ (Carson 1991:205, emphasis in original).
So God’s love is not restricted to one particular group of people, according to Carson, but God’s love is admired because the world is so wicked but God loves it with the costly love of redemption. So Carson is interpreting ‘world’ to mean the whole world of wickedness.
Carson’s comments on John 1:9 are:
‘If the phrase "coming into the world" is understood to be masculine and attached to "every man", then we must translate this verse as in NIV fn. [footnote]: "This was the true light that gives light to every man who comes into the world" (similarly AV). If this is the correct rendering, then there is nothing here or in v. 10 that requires us to go beyond the illumination granted to the entire race in the Word’s creative activity (cf. vv. 4-5). This view is reinforced by a common rabbinic expression, "all who come into the world", used to describe "every man". But that expression is always plural; the construction here is singular. It is best to take "coming into the world" as a neuter form attached to "light", adopting the translation of NIV: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. The most convincing support for this rendering is the fact that "coming into the world" or being sent into the world is in this Gospel repeatedly predicated of him who is the Word. Moreover the peculiar Greek syntax this translation presupposes is a common feature of John’s style (cf. 1;28; 2:6; 3:23; 10:40; 11;1; 13:23; 18:18, 25). What this means is that in this verse it is the Word, the light, that is coming into the world, in some act distinct from creation. If incarnation is not spelled out as forcefully as in v. 14, it is the same special visitation that is in view. Few could read the Fourth Gospel for the second time without recognizing that the coming of the Word into the world, described in the Prologue, is northing other than the sending of the Son into the world, described in the rest of the book’ (Carson 1991:121-122).
In his explanation of the meaning of ‘world’ in John 3:16, Carson referred back to commentary on John 1:9 where Carson emphasises that ‘world’ means that Jesus’ coming into the world to be a light was to be a light ‘to every man’ (i.e. to every human being), ‘the entire race’, and ‘than the sending of the Son into the world, described in the rest of the book’.
So D A Carson, a Calvinist, regards ‘world’ in John 3:16 as ‘God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad; that is the customary connotation of kosmos’. So how much of the world is so bad that God’s love needs to send a Saviour? The whole wicked world – every person in the world.
(Leon Morris, courtesy Wikipedia)
Leading Greek exegete and commentator, the late Leon Morris, in his commentary on John 3:16 wrote:
‘God loved "the world"…. The Jew was ready enough to think of God as loving Israel, but no passage appears to be cited in which any Jewish writer maintains that God loved the world. It is a distinctively Christian idea that God’s love is wide enough to embrace all mankind. His love is not confined to any national group or any spiritual elite. It is a love which proceeds from the fact that He is love (I John 4:8, 16). It is His nature to love. He loves men because He is the kind of God He is. John tells us that His love is shown in the gift of His Son’ (Morris 1971:229).
That is as clear as crystal for Leon Morris: ‘God’s love is wide enough to embrace all mankind. His love is not confined to any national group or any spiritual elite’. All human beings are included in God’s love articulated in John 3:16.
Some Calvinists on this Christian forum want to distort the meaning of ‘world’ to comply with their narrow version of God’s atonement – limited atonement. When God ‘gave his only begotten son’ (John 3:16) to die as an atonement, it was based on God’s love for the whole world – every person in the world. This does not teach universalism (all will be saved) but God’s love extending to every human being so that when he sent his Son to die on the cross, it made provision of salvation for the whole world.
We know this as it is confirmed in:
- I John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (ESV),
- Titus 2:11, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’, and
- 2 Peter 3:9, ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’.
Carson, D A 1991. The gospel according to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Morris, L 1971. The gospel according to John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Ibid., Skala#4.
 Ibid., Hammster#7.
 Ibid., Hammster#85.
 Ibid., OzSpen#89.
 Ibid., Hammster#90.
 Ibid., Hammster#97.
 Ibid., OzSpen#98.
 Ibid., Hammster#100.
 Ibid., Hammster#
 Ibid., Hammster#106.
Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 18 November 2015.