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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