“Fixing John 3:16”—500 Years After the Reformation

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.

The most famous verse in the Bible is broken.

What the Bible says is not the problem, of course. But—and here’s the scandal—the message of John 3:16 has been dramatically changed.

What’s actually broken is the popular understanding of the verse. It turns out, this towering text has been widely and wildly misunderstood. For a long, long, time.

That’s quite a problem! And it’s not going to just fix itself. According to a growing number of Bible scholars and teachers around the world, something must be done to set the record straight.

What better year to do so than 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?! The Reformation reminds us that we can sometimes get the Bible wrong, yet still get things back on track when we do.

But what have we gotten wrong for so long, exactly? Glad you asked.

It’s not “For God so loved the world.” That part’s pretty straightforward.

And it’s not “that he gave his only begotten Son,” which refers to Jesus.

It’s not even “that whosoever believeth in him,” although Christians haven’t always seen eye to eye on that.

It’s the rest of it. The part about going to Heaven and Hell. Or at least, that’s what we’ve been told it says. We’ve been told that “perish” means “going to Hell,” while “everlasting life” means “going to Heaven.” And we’ve been told that this is what the rest of the Bible is saying too.

These are very powerful ideas. But they’re wrong. That’s just not what the verse is saying.

Don’t misunderstand: Heaven is real, and Hell is real. But we need to think about them differently. Only then can we read what John 3:16 plainly says, and what other misunderstood Bible verses plainly say.

And what is that, you ask? Look again.

Perish means perish. And everlasting life means everlasting life.

Still not seeing it? Well, there’s nothing strange or confusing going on. Everlasting life means that your life will be everlasting. And if that’s true, then clearly “perish” can’t involve everlasting life as well—they are presented as two alternatives! Jesus says a similar thing in John 10:28. He says “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

How then can “perish” refer to going away to a place where people keep on living forever? How can it suggest a Hell of eternal torment, where in order to be tormented, someone must have everlasting life?

Think about what we always mean when we say that someone has perished. We don’t mean that they got sick, and became unable to function normally. Instead, we mean that they die.

Or a tree. So long as the tree lives, we would never say that it has “perished.” It might be “perishing” while still alive, but this still points to its pending death. When we’re talking about something living, “perish” always points to death.

That’s the clear alternative to life in John 3:16. Not living torment.

Jesus is not talking about going to some other place here at all. He’s not saying that everyone lives forever, and therefore some people will go somewhere to be happy, while others will go somewhere else to lead miserable lives. Incredibly, that is what most people have thought.

Instead, Jesus is saying that either a person will ultimately die, or they will ultimately live forever.

Jesus was sent into the world to do something very profound, as the rest of the gospel explains. He came to die for our sins, so that we might live. He died in the place of sinners, so that ultimately we don’t have to die (perish!), which is the penalty for our sins (see Romans 6:23). So it’s quite simple: death is defeated on the Cross by Jesus dying on the cross (and returning to life three days later). That’s why the most famous verse in the Bible speaks about life and death, instead of different ways to experience everlasting life.

Other things Jesus said make it clear that this is certainly what he taught. For example, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Or in Luke 20:36, where he teaches that those who will be found worthy as God’s children “cannot die anymore” after they are resurrected.

Finally, consider what Jesus is saying in John 6:47-51.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

Does this sound like eternal life is about happiness and the alternative is about sadness? We can dress this idea up in more sophisticated language, but that’s basically what the traditional ideas of Heaven and Hell amount to. Or, does it sound instead like eternal life is about living forever, while the alternative is about missing out on this?

Incredibly, the most well-known verse in the Bible has indeed been misunderstood. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the topics of Hell and eternal life. This should concern all Christians. It’s up to us to keep talking about it. And it’s up to all of us to fix it—starting with John 3:16.


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  • Keith Melton

    How does this affect salvation?

    • Désiré Rusovsky

      It’s affecting the way we understand salvation.

    • Peter Grice

      Hi Keith. It means that believers are saved from sin and death (not eternal torment), and saved to everlasting life with God. It means that the saved will receive the gift of immortality (see Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:54; 2 Timothy 1:10), while the unsaved will ultimately be destroyed body and soul (Matthew 10:28).

      • Keith Melton

        So, you in no way think the misunderstanding of 3:16 in this regards excludes people from being saved.

        • Peter Grice

          That’s right. The article presents the error as simply a mistake and a misunderstanding.

  • Wade

    Keith Melton, Good Morning Sir! This is not a salvation issue, in as much as, believing hell is eternal or not, does not determine if you are “saved” or “not”. However, it is a very important issue for a couple of really good reasons. First, the “traditional view” of hell (being eternal torment) slanders the very character of God. The traditional view teaches doctrine that is incompatible with the God of Scripture. Second, there will be those who will not come to faith because the “traditional view” they are being presented with is not reconcilable to the God of Scripture. There are numerous “former atheist” who only came to Christ once they heard the truth on this issue, that being, that God is offering Life or Death, NOT, eternal life or eternal conscience torment. I am 47 years old, when I was 12, I took issue with the Gospel message being taught to me….that of Eternal life in heaven or eternal punishment in hell. For 35 years I was tormented with this doctrine. Then I found Conditional Immortality, the truth! and the truth has set me free!

    • ajc

      Yay Wade when you were 12 smart kid ajc

  • LP Dion

    Garcin: So one has to live with one’s eyes open all the time?
    (Demonic) Valet: To live, did you say?
    Garcin: Don’t let’s quibble over words. With one’s eyes open. Forever.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit.

  • Stephen Martin

    So you believe God does not torment people endlessly but He torments them unto extinction. This still falls short in the character department seeing that He is sovereign and could save them if He wanted to.

    • Peter Grice

      But they don’t want to. By the way, we don’t say that final punishment is to be tormented unto extinction; rather, it is being deprived of everlasting life.

      • Stephen Martin

        So mankind’s wants are sovereign over God’s wants? Sorry, I don’t buy that logic. Saul of Tarsus did not want to, but he found that God’s want trumped his wants.

        • Peter Grice

          Actually, the account reveals that Saul was obedient to his instruction (Acts 26:19), implying choice. In 1 Corinthians 15:8 he describes his encounter as “abnormal,” so there is no good reason to assume it is normative.

          God does not want all to be saved without them coming to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. His will on this matter is conditional—not subordinate to human will, but willingly compatible with it.

          But this is a rabbit rail, because nothing in the article raises this issue of concern to universalists, or the sovereignty vs. free will debate.

          • Stephen Martin

            Sure, I see where Saul’s obedience came through his being arrested by Jesus. My thinking was more along the lines of him hearing the Gospel by those that witnessed to him, the elders of Jerusalem, etc. In hearing the Gospel he did not respond nor give any heed to the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the witnesses he was persecuting. Being knocked to the ground I am sure changed his perspective and he began making the right choices, But not before.
            And I agree, God does not want all to be saved without them coming to repentance, and because he is sovereign and all merciful his goodness is able to fulfill his desires by bringing men to repentance as he did Saul, who was a vessel of wrath made a vessel of honor through God’s sovereignty and will. I believe it is the act of God upon the human heart which makes man compatible to His will. Until then, man is at enmity with God. God initiates the reconciliation which He made possible through the Cross of Christ.
            Sorry if I created a rabbit trail, my apologies, somehow it just resonated with me to express myself. Thanks for your forbearance.

          • Peter Grice

            Thanks for the gracious response. Glad the article resonated with you. Blessings!

    • Wade

      Yes, I will never understand the “whys”. Why does God have such a problem with sin? Why does He require atonement? Why can’t EVERYONE just be reconciled unto Him and we all live happily ever after? And there are plenty of other “whys” out there to be sure. For me, every other why could be placed on one side of the scale, with Eternal Conscience Torment being placed all by itself on the opposite side and ECT would send all the others flying through the air…..it had that much weight.

      • Stephen Martin

        I don’t think it is rocket science. It is quite simple. God desires all to be saved and he gets what he wants. It is man that has confused his justice with human vengeance. Col. 1:15-20 Rom. 11:36

        • Peter Grice

          Conditionalism is perfectly compatible with those texts. 2 Thessalonians 1:8 refers directly to theophanic divine vengeance (see our articles on this text if you’re interested).

          God’s will on this is not “simple.” See John Peckham’s comprehensive study, “The Love of God: A Canonical Model.”

          But again, this is a rabbit trail, because nothing in the article raises this issue of concern to universalists.

          • Stephen Martin

            Thanks for your replies. I will look for the articles

    • Webb Mealy

      Stephen, I respect your motivation 100%. Suppose, as a thought experiment, you imagine that you had a dream in which you had a conversation with God that went like this:

      Stephen: God, I don’t understand how you, the God who is Love, could create beings that you knew would never turn from their wicked ways and live. Do you not love all you create?

      God: I certainly do. I loved these so much that I chose to give them a taste of life, even though I knew they would ultimately spit it out.

      (This meditation based on Isa. 57:14-21)

      • Stephen Martin

        I would say my major problem with your meditation is that it is not drawn through Paul’s revelation. You are not the Apostle to establish our understanding of the Gospel. (Post death burial resurrection of the Lord Jesus) The task was given to Paul. Therefore any reading of the Scriptures which contradicts his Gospel, (particularly his statements which speak of the finality of God’s will and his, (Paul’s) own testimony of being arrested by Jesus when he himself was a child of wrath), I refuse.

        • Webb Mealy

          I love Paul, and I also love John and Peter, both of whom were also called to preach the gospel and explain the gospel to the nations. I think the clearest revelation of all as to the final disposition of the unrepentant (those whom God loves, but who stubbornly refuse not only to love God but who also set themselves in resolute enmity with those who do do love God) comes from John–or rather, from the Revelation of the resurrected Lord Jesus himself. Literary techniques (biblical cross references) in Revelation convince me that Isa. 24:21-23; 26:10-11; 27:1-5; 66:21-25; Rev. 19:19-21; 20:1-3; 20:7-10 are to be read concordantly, which is to say, John, through his allusions to Isaiah (e.g. Rev. 20:1 || Isa. 27:1; Rev. 20:8-9 || Isa. 26:10-11) is telling us that he understands what he is seeing as the same thing that God showed Isaiah about the final disposition of the unrepentant. The good news, amidst the sorrow of knowing that the lost will be lost, is that God, to the very last second, is still holding out peace and reconciliation (Isa. 27:5 || 57:19-21).

          • Stephen Martin

            I think you give John too much credit in presuming he understood all he saw. He didn’t even know Jesus was worthy to open the sealed book. John was disposed to fall down and worship the angel who showed him those things more than once!
            A reading of Paul reveals that such ignorance and actions could never have been attributed to Paul!

          • Webb Mealy

            I appreciate your passion about this, but pitting one apostle against another is not a way to advance mutual understanding (1 Cor. 1:12). Have you thoughtfully–and, ideally, prayerfully–read the passages I recommended to you, considering whether they ought to be read in context of one another? If so, what is your current understanding of the relationship between Isa. 26:10-11; 27:1-5; Rev. 20:1-3, 7-10, and of the meaning of Isa. 26:10-11; 27:1-5; Rev. 20:7-10?

          • Stephen Martin

            Your reaction in thinking I am “pitting one apostle against another” fails to grasp the significance of what I wrote. To think that Paul’s superior revelations, received during his lifetime, somehow “pits” him against John, whose revelation did not come for many years after Paul, fails to comprehend the chronology of God’s workings in them as two different men. Paul had the full revelation of the consummation of the ages as Paul wrote them to us; not if symbols but in plain speech. He used very specific conclusionary statements. If our interpretation of John’s revelation at Patmos contradicts those statements by Paul, then it is such an interpretation that pit’s John against Paul. I’ll stay with Paul. Even if on the surface, it appears John contradicts him. Or anyone else for that matter.

            As to Isa. 26:10-11.. The lake of fire is not showing the wicked favor. Remember, they have been resurrected. God’s dealing with them is not according to Isaiah’s day.
            The “lake of fire” is a severe judgment, but never the less, must lead to Paul’s conclusion of the ages. 1 Cor. 15,
            They have no Millennium favor, for that time has passed. Their torment is for the ages of ages, that is the last age before end of all the ages.
            I am fully convinced that Paul taught the reconciliation of all things, in Col. 1 Eph 1. Rom. 5, and other discourses. Of course there are tensions with other verse by “other” apostles, but, Paul’s claims, (and having met the ascended glorified Christ, which none of the others had), to my mind solidifies the outcome of any interpretation, it must coincide with Paul’s eschatology. In that respect, “He’s the Man”!

          • Webb Mealy

            A couple of comments. 1. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13, “We know in part, and we prophesy in part.” He includes himself in that statement. Elevating him to the status of both having the full and “plain” revelation of the ascended Jesus Christ and being the only one gifted with such revelation contradicts his own testimony. 2. The “favor” shown to the wicked in Isa. 26:10, when interpreted by Rev. 20:1-10, is the favor of resurrection–which they do not deserve any more than they deserved to be created in the first place. What they do with this gift of resurrection life is indicated in 26:11 || 27:1-5 || Rev. 20:7-10.

            If it is your position that some beings will be punished as resurrected ones “for the ages of the ages” but will finally be reconciled to God, based on your reading of 1 Cor. 15 and Col. 1, I respect that. I understand that for some, the statements of universal reconciliation ring so strongly that nothing else can ever undermine them.

          • Stephen Martin

            True, Paul did say that, but we cannot seal Paul’s testimony with that one verse Brother. Paul’s ministry and revelation did not stop when he wrote to the Corinthians. We often do not consider there was a timeline to his ministry which began on the Damascus Road and did not end until shortly after he wrote 2 Timothy.

            He also says to the Corinthians “…but, according as it hath been written, ‘What eye did not see, and ear did not hear, and upon the heart of man came not up, what God did prepare for those loving Him –’but to us did God reveal them through His Spirit, for the Spirit all things doth search, even the depths of God,…”
            Then later in Ephesians 1:9 he said this,

            “…having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself,…”

            It appears evident to me, The “now we know in part” was not a prohibition on knowing more as we grow in grace and knowledge, and, I believe Paul and the Spirit in him did not stop searching the deep secrets of God.

            Finishing up his statement in Eph. 1:9 + he continues

            “…in regard to the dispensation of the fulness of the times, to bring into one the whole in the Christ, both the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth — in him;…)

            I see a progression in his understanding.

            Also we read in Colossians 1:25

            “…of which I — I did become a ministrant according to the dispensation of God, that was given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God,..”

            The word for fulfil means to “fill up” make full, or “complete”. Paul completed the revelation of Christ concerning us long before John went to Patmos. That is why I said John falling down in front of the angel to worship him is something Paul would not have done, His revelation had already placed such action as error. When John weeps when he thought “no man worthy”. it is not something Paul would have done. His revelation and teaching made it very plain Jesus was worthy. Paul’s high Christology, (which he communicated in plain language) preceded John’s Patmos visions.
            John was not a student of Paul, And John evidently was in Asia which Paul testified had turned from him.

  • Lorenzo Heighway

    I would be interested to hear what Chris Date says about this verse, from a Calvinist perspective. For Calvinists, “the world” is not as straightforward as some of us think.

    • Peter Grice

      Yes, that is a point of disagreement in the wider Christian world. But it’s not something we deal with at Rethinking Hell, as nothing of evangelical conditionalism is affected either way.

      • Lorenzo Heighway

        OK will not pursue that line on here.

    • Travis Matthew Finley

      This verse is not the playground for Calvin and Armnius. It has nothing to do with personal soteriology.

      • Lorenzo Heighway

        I guess you did not see my last response. But yes, that verse has everything to do with personal soteriology.

    • travieso

      By “cosmos” Jesus means Israel. It’s clear from John 1:10,11 who his own are. J316 is not about not going to hell. It’s about not coming under condemnation on the new age, in the kingdom.

    • ajc

      Calvin was a monster who hurt and killed people. Who would want any association with him.

  • John

    Great article. I am grateful to have been freed from the fear of being a part of the ECT community for over 45 years having over the past 3 years come to the truth of conditional immortality.

    I believe that many people have been held back from accepting the good news of the Gospel from the misinterpreted scriptures that are used to support ECT. Thank you for the work that you are doing to bring this truth to light.

    jta – Alabama

    • Peter Grice

      Thanks, John! Yes I think that’s right, and one part of it is surely people’s confusion over hearing certain statements such as John 3:16 and Romans 6:23 yet having them explained differently to what they sound like they’re saying.

  • Travis Matthew Finley

    Here’s an interesting question: perish when? What would be the context or Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was talking about? (hint: it’s not the end of time!)

  • Travis Matthew Finley

    Here’s an interesting question: perish when?
    How would Nicodemus have understood the context of Jesus’ words? (Hint: it’s not about the end of time)

  • Jim O

    Thank you for this article, Peter. How sadly ironic that the best known verse in evangelicalism is consistently misread. I count it as a personal shame that I was guilty of the same error for many decades. Last year a devotional magazine I respect had a series of short articles on the phrases of Jn 3:16. Of course they took the traditional approach. Their other fault, in my opinion, was to pass over the “For” at the start. Looking back to the preceding verses compounds the difficulties in pretending that “perish” means something other than its obvious meaning.

    All of you at RH are doing great work in righting the ship.

    • Peter Grice

      Thanks for your encouragement, Jim! Yes, the preceding verses are very important context. Something to unpack during the campaign…

  • Eric

    I am surprised no one used the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 to rebut this line of reasoning. 19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
    20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
    21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
    22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried,
    23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
    24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
    25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.
    26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
    27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house-
    28 for I have five brothers-so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
    29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
    30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
    31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” – Luke 16:19-31

    • Peter Grice

      Hi Eric. It’s not clear what you’re trying to rebut, or how you think it’s supposed to succeed. For instance, the article points out that Jesus said any follower of his will “not die… he will live forever.” Are you trying to disagree with this? Hopefully not, but either way, it’s not rebutted.

      Are you trying to say that the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a parable, and thus should be taken literally? If so, that needs to be argued, not assumed, as some scholars take it to be a parable. There are many reasons not to take it literally. For example, souls don’t have tongues.

      Even if it is to be taken literally, the rich man is going to leave the place he’s in. Nothing in the passage says he will be there forever. His brothers are still alive, and he himself is going to be resurrected. The scene is the intermediate state, and if taken literally it simply doesn’t contradict the idea that he will finally be destroyed.

  • Adela New

    In Luke 13:3, 5 Jesus equates the fate of those who do not repent to that of the Galileans Pilate martyred and the eighteen that died in the Tower of Siloam incident by saying they would “likewise perish” (using the same word for perish as John 3:16). Clearly he is speaking of destruction through death–not eternal torment. And by death, I mean the normal definition of death–not the twisted, made-up definition of death that only traditionalists employ. They even advocate the torture of language!

    (By the way, good response to the Lazarus and the Rich Man non sequitur: “It’s not clear what you’re trying to rebut, or how you think it’s supposed to succeed.” Classic).

    • Peter Grice

      Hi Adela! You’re right. And to those who think he only spoke there of ordinary death, such as in the Fall of Jerusalem, it is still the case that by “perish” he clearly meant death, and not merely “lost” in the sense of sheep or “ruined” in the sense of wineskins. Torturous language indeed!

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