John 3:16 and Grace

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Year B) – Second Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-2; Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21. This series appears each Wednesday.

Photography © by Andy Coan

The Heart of the Gospel

As the camera pans the crowd at a football game, you see a few fans holding up the sign.  It simply says, “John 3:16.”

For years, evangelical Protestants have extolled this little bible verse as the heart of the Gospel.  In their minds, if you only have a moment to tell people something about the Christian faith, this is the Scripture to quote: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whosoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark letter on evangelization, confirmed that this verse, from Sunday’s gospel, is indeed is the central theme of the entire bible.

So then comes the million dollar question – how could a loving God ever send anyone to hell?

The answer is very simple.  He doesn’t.

Oh, hell certainly exists, alright.  We see its crowded waiting room here on earth and can, if we observe closely; get some insight as to why its occupants are sitting there.

War certainly comes close to being hell on earth, especially when you happen to be on the losing side.  Armed conflict is always nasty.  But in the ancient world, despite the low level of technology, war was often total.  When a city resisted a conquering army, it was made an example to neighboring towns.  Jerusalem, for example, was razed to the ground by the Babylonians.  The pride and joy of Israel, Solomon’s temple, was reduced to a heap of rubble, civilians as well as soldiers put to the sword, and a few lucky ones led into exile.

Did God bring this hellish fate upon them?  Not in the least.  He actually sent messengers to tell them how to prevent such tragedy.  Jeremiah warned Jerusalem to repent and offer no resistance to the invaders.  Their response?  They imprisoned him.  Through stubborn and foolish arrogance, they brought their fate crashing down upon their own heads, much to God’s dismay.

Eternal punishment comes in exactly the same way.  None are in hell except those who choose to be.  “The judgment is this–the light came into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of the light (John 3:19).  Why would anyone walk away from the light?  Perhaps because they don’t like what they see as they emerge from the shadows.  Maybe because they don’t want anyone else to see them are they really are.  They’d rather keep up the charade that they are good people and can fend for themselves, thank you very much.  That they’ve always done what’s right and deserve to be appreciated, even applauded, by God and everyone else.

At the moment of death, the choice for light or darkness becomes final and irrevocable.  But before that time, God is waiting for us to turn to him.  He is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4).  He shines his light on our sins and brokenness not to humiliate us, but to irradiate the vermin that infects us and to clear up our blotchy complexion.  All we need is the courage to face the truth about ourselves and rejoice in his merciful love which accepts us no matter what we’ve done or who we are.  All we need is to be willing to say “sorry” and “thanks.”  For we can do nothing to earn his favor – it comes to us as a pure, undeserved gift, as Ephesians tells us in Sunday’s second reading.

But God can’t give us his mercy if we don’t ask for it.  And if we insist of “pulling our own weight,” and getting from God what’s coming to us, he’ll do as we request.  Jesus offers us a share in what He deserves from our heavenly Father.  I think I’d opt for that rather than what I deserve!

Lent is a time to remember that we live by the mercy of God, and to renew our determination that the grace that he has so generously lavished upon us will not be received in vain.

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article, Dr D’Ambrosia. We all need to be more aware of how the sinful choices we make can lead to dire consequences, and be ever mindful of the love and mercy God extends to us in this life.
    I think perhaps that Hell is the greatest evidence of the dignity that God extends to mankind: He honors our free will.

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