Perish the Thought, Part 2: More Challenges to the Traditionalist Reading of John 3:16

 

For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him
should not perish
but have eternal life.

–John 3:16

 

In my article Perish the Thought: How John 6 and 11 Challenge the Traditionalist Reading of John 3:16,1Darren J. Clark, “Perish the Thought: How John 6 and 11 Challenge the Traditionalist Reading of John 3:16,http://rethinkinghell.com/2019/06/14/perish-the-thought-john-3-16/. I demonstrate that John 3:16’s phraseology of “eternal life” and “perish” teaches that only believers will live forever, while all others will die. I examine John 6 and 11 to strengthen my exegesis of John 3:16 because those are two sections in the narrative where Jesus explains further what he meant to convey in that famous verse.2All citations in English will be from the ESV, unless otherwise indicated. In those chapters Jesus speaks about the kind of life believers will be given, and simply employs the same language he uses in surrounding contexts to refer to ordinary life and death (John 6:49-51, 58; 11:25-26). For John 3 and John 6 I show that Jesus drew from historical and tangible examples from the Israelite experience of being protected from death (John 3:14-16 cf. Num 21:4-9; John 6:22-59 cf. Exod 16:16-21). I also explain how Jesus’ terms “eternal life” and “perish” relate to the death and resurrection of Lazarus in John 11.

The purpose of this current article is to provide a supplementary argument to fortify my previous argument about what Jesus meant in John 6:49-51 and 11:25-26, where he taught that believers will not die. In particular, I have in mind the use of the verb ἀποθνήσκω (“to die”) as it is used in John 6:50 and 11:26. I will then demonstrate how this impacts our reading of two similar statements made by Jesus, in similar contexts in John’s narrative.

In order to ensure that this study is conducted according to accepted principles of exegesis, I will follow the procedure for word studies as outlined by Gordon Fee, one of the preeminent scholars in the field of NT exegesis in our day. According to Fee,3Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed., Kindle ed. (Westminster John Knox Press: 2002), Kindle locations 1846-2142.  the steps for studying the meaning of words in the NT includes the following:

  1. Identify the key word in a passage that requires further study. This includes any word which might be ambiguous, be repeated, or emerge as a motif in the section or book, or which might have taken on a technical meaning in the context in which it is being studied.
  2. Establish the range of meaning for that word. This involves understanding the history of the word, including how it was used historically, in contemporary extra-biblical documents, and in the NT itself to obtain familiarity with the ways a word was used. The most important part of this step is to identify whether the author of the passage under discussion typically uses the word with a range of meaning.Fee notes that the best way to gain an understanding of the range of meaning of a word is to use the best available lexicon, which is BDAG,4Walter Baur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Walter Baur, (University of Chicago Press: 2000).  and a good concordance. BDAG will give the interpreter a picture of how the word was used in biblical and extra-biblical literature both before and during the time the document being exegeted was written. For purposes of this article, I used BDAG and an online tool from Tyndale House at stepbible.org, which can be used to search the NT for its usages of a given Greek term.
  3. Examine the context of the passage itself to determine which particular meaning is intended within the word’s broader range. This is the most critical part of a word study and one that Fee is careful to emphasize with the following statement:

    In any piece of literature, words are the basic building blocks for conveying meaning. In exegesis it is especially important to remember that words function in a context. Therefore, although any given word may have a broad or narrow range of meaning, the aim of word study in exegesis is to try to understand as precisely as possible what the author was trying to convey by his use of this word in this context.5Fee, New Testament Exegesis, Kindle locations, 1846-1852.

    I have already completed this task in Part 1 of this series, which I recommend reading before this one. In that article I followed the procedure outlined by Fee, but I left out some insights due to space limitations. By way of supplement that article here, I will discuss how my investigation of the possible meanings of ἀποθνήσκω helped lead me to my conclusions.

When I was researching for Part 1, I consulted the lexicon BDAG (commonly regarded as the preeminent lexicon available) for its entry on ἀποθνήσκω. I noted that this term doesn’t have the same full range of meaning evident in some other words used in the Bible. BDAG defines ἀποθνήσκω as “to cease to have vital functions, whether at an earthly or transcendent level, die.6Walter Baur, A Greek-English Lexicon, 211. BDAG also lists a less common meaning as, “the prospect of death or realization of mortality, be about to die, face death, be mortal,” but since this derives from the first definition, we are not dealing with a new meaning that poses any difficulty for a conditionalist exegete. So, according to BDAG, irrespective of how ἀποθνήσκω is being used, what is in view is the idea of dying with the sense of having all vital functions cease.

Since then I have used the stepbible.org resource to double check the uses of ἀποθνήσκω, noting that the verb is used 111 times.7The results of the search for ἀποθνήσκω can be found here, https://www.stepbible.org/?q=strong=G0599|version=ESV|version=SBLG&options=VGUVNH&display=INTERLEAVED&qFilter=G0599, though it should be noted that while the StepBible search indicates that there are 114 uses of the verb in the NT I could verify only 111 of them. Of those uses of ἀποθνήσκω, 92 denote the ordinary death of plants (John 12:24 [twice]; 1 Cor 15:36), animals (Matt 8:32; Rev 16:3), people (Matt 9:24; 22:24, 27; 26:35; Mark 5:35, 39; 9:26; 12:19, 20, 21, 22; Luke 8:42, 52, 53; 16:22 [twice]; 20:28, 29, 31, 32, 36; John 4:47, 49; 6:49, 58; 8:21, 24 [twice], 52, 53 [twice]; 11:14, 16, 21, 25, 32, 37; 21:23 [twice]; Acts 7:4; 9:37; 21:13; 25:11; Rom 5:15;8The typical traditionalist understanding of spiritual dying in the sense of separation from God makes very little sense in the context of Romans 5, where the reversal of death found in Christ brings “much more” (Rom 5:9, 10, 15, 17). If death is simply separation from God, and this is the kind of death that is reversed by Christ, then how can there be “much more”? It seems far better to admit that death here refers to ordinary death resulting from the spread of sin (a similar point pictured in Gen 4:1-6:7 where the spread of humankind meant also the spread of sin into the world, so much so that God eventually determined to destroy all mankind), and the reversal of that death to enable the saved to experience the “much more” of being in close relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 7:2, 3, 9-109There is a debate in Pauline scholarship as to whether Paul is conveying personal experience. Of those who do not think that Paul is speaking of his own experience, the two most common positions are that he is speaking from the vantage point of either Adamic humanity as a whole or else the Israelites and their experience with the law. Both readings can find support in the context in Romans. I am currently of the view that the first option is the most likely, since Paul’s “I was once alive apart from the law…” (Rom 7:9) is an odd way to characterize the Israelite experience prior to receiving the law, which was really part and parcel of their becoming a people that God. Additionally, in the Pentateuch the law was introduced because of Israelite sin. Either way, ordinary death is in view. Under the Law, the penalty was the destruction of the Israelites (Deut 6:15), while the disobedience in Eden resulted in their actual death. For a defence of this see Peter Grice’s “Warned of Sins Wages A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23”, http://rethinkinghell.com/2017/11/08/warned-of-sins-wages-a-concise-explanation-of-death-in-genesis-217-and-romans-623/, accessed 14th November, 2019.; 14:7, 8 [three times]; 1 Cor 9:15; 15:22, 32; Phil 1:21; Heb 9:27; 10:28; 11:4, 13, 21; 11:37; Rev 8:9, 11; 9:6; 14:13), and Jesus (Mark 15:44; John 11:50, 51; 12:33; 18:14, 32; 19:7; Rom 5:6, 7 [twice], 8; 7:6:9, 10 [twice]; 8:34; 14:9, 15; 1 Cor 8:11; 15:3; Gal 2:21; 1 Thes 4:14; 5:10).

In addition, there are three instances when ἀποθνήσκω is used to express a sense of mortality (1 Cor 15:31; 2 Cor 6:9; Heb 7:8). I realize that this is a lot of detail for the reader to work through, but I wanted to begin my analysis by noting the sheer volume of instances where ἀποθνήσκω is used with its normal sense of the cessation of vital functions.

Of the other uses of ἀποθνήσκω, the word is used metaphorically to speak of dying to sin (Rom 6:2, 710In the immediate context Paul is using a metaphor from the common practice of slavery. In that context ordinary death ended the bondage of a slave to the master. C.f. Craig Keener, Romans, Kindle ed. (Cascade Books: 2009), Kindle locations, 2840-2848. In Romans 5:21, Paul characterised sin as something that reigns over sinners. The point being made by Paul in 6:7 is that since believers have died with Christ, they have died to sin, so are no longer in bondage to it. This turns on the normal meaning of ἀποθνήσκω in Romans 6:7.; 7:611The slavery metaphor noted above in Romans 6:7 is in play in 7:6.), of a church that is dying (Rev 3:2), of being as dead as an unfruitful and uprooted tree (Jude 1212Jude 1:12 reads, “… fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted.” The fruitlessness of the trees points to the idea that the still-standing trees are dead in the ordinary sense, and these dead trees are then uprooted. It is a way of emphasizing that the trees are really dead. Even if the fruitlessness is viewed as a spiritual kind of death, this goes hand in hand with the ordinary death of the one in this state. As a tree not bearing fruit is killed by being uprooted, so also the one who does not bear fruit will be killed (uprooted). As Peter Davids explains, “The ‘uprooted’ is in the final emphatic position in the sentence, indicating the judgment awaiting those who now show by their fruit that they are really ‘dead.’ So certain is their ‘uprooting’ that Jude can use an aorist participle, that is, a Greek tense that shows that he is viewing the event of their judgment as an accomplished act.” Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Kindle ed., (William B. Eerdmans Publishing:2006), Kindle Locations 1198-1200.), or of having died to the law (Gal 2:19). Although these uses are applied metaphorically, they still rely on the basic meaning of ἀποθνήσκω as given in BDAG.

There are a few texts in which Paul uses ἀποθνήσκω in contexts where he has in mind his incorporated soteriology. In Paul’s writings, Christ, like Adam, is a representative head of humanity.13Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, (IVP Academic: 2001), 158. There has been significant debate over the exact meaning of the terminology Paul uses to express this idea,14For instance, one of the most common prepositional phrases he uses, “in Christ,” has been interpreted as conveying a mystical idea of being actually located in the space of Christ, while others who reject this have still maintained that there is some kind of spiritual element to believers participation in and with Christ. For helpful discussions of the larger debate see James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ: The Vital Elements of St Paul’s Religion, (Hodder and Stoughton: 1935), 147-203; Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 156-159; Mark A. Seifrid, “in Christ”, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Olive Tree electronic edition, (Intervarsity Press: 1993), no pages given. with much focus falling on the prepositional phrase “in Christ.” 15The phrase “in Christ” is by no means the only way Paul expresses his corporate soteriology. The phrase itself is used by Paul in several ways, and not always to speak of the corporate connection between believers and Christ. See, Michael Parsons, ‘“In Christ” in Paul,’ in Vox Evangelica, vol 18, (1988), 25-44, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/vox/vol18/in-christ_parsons.pdf, accessed 16 November, 2019.The point I wish to make here is that Paul uses this idea to express the notion that whatever happened to Christ can also be said to have happened to those who believe in him. Just as Christ died and was resurrected, so too those who are “in” him are considered in some manner to have died and to have been resurrected from death (Rom 6:3-9). This even extends to the idea that just as Christ has ascended to a position of honour and authority (Eph 1:20-22), so also believers are considered in some manner to be there with him even now (Eph 2:5-6).

At first this all might seem like a purely spiritual affair, but for Paul Christ did in fact die in the normal sense, which is that which believers participate in (c.f. Rom 6:3-4)–his death is our death. This union of believers in the death-resurrection-ascension of Christ is how Paul explains that they are people who can already live as if they are living in the eschaton. Just as in the next age death and sin will no longer afflict the believer, so also sin and death have actually been defeated in their lives now (Rom 6:7-14). For Paul, this all turns on the idea of ordinary death, and it tells us that he used ἀποθνήσκω with its normal meaning as listed by BDAG (Rom 6:8; 2 Cor 5:14 [twice], 15 [twice]; Col 2:20; 3:3). It also tells us that when Paul says those who live according to the flesh will die (Rom 8:13), he has in mind a fate that includes ordinary death.

According to BDAG and my own analysis of the evidence, ἀποθνήσκω has a stark lack of range of meaning. Where the word is used metaphorically or in theologically rich contexts, the one meaning of the word, “to cease to have vital functions, whether at an earthly or transcendent level, die,” is used to express the writers’ thoughts.

Even if the reader is not entirely convinced of my analysis of the uses of ἀποθνήσκω in these contexts, it should be noted that where it is used in the narratives of the four Gospels and Acts, it is always used with reference to ordinary death. That means that in the NT narratives, except for John 6:50 and 11:26, the verb ἀποθνήσκω is never used in any way that would suggest the authors had any thing other than ordinary death in mind. Due to space limitations, I will not discuss each of these uses of the verb in the Synoptics and Acts, so will leave it for the reader to check the references above.

*****

In my previous article I had only enough space to investigate the uses of ἀποθνήσκω in the immediate contexts of John 6:50 and 11:26. From this point on, I will focus on how John uses this verb in his whole Gospel, and how this relates to his uses in John 6:50 and 11:26.

John uses ἀποθνήσκω 26 times throughout his narrative, and does so several times with reference to the death of Jesus.

On some occasions, ἀποθνήσκω is used in simple statements that Jesus would indeed die, whether it be from the lips of the Jewish authorities (John 11:50-51 [twice]; 19:7), or the narrator of the Gospel (John 18:32).

At other times when Jesus speaks of the deeper theological significance of his death, he does so while using ἀποθνήσκω with its normal meaning, and without any metaphorical embellishments. Throughout his narrative, John has presented Jesus as one who possesses the glory of God (John 1:14)16For a discussion on how John is alluding to the OT belief that God’s glory dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle (c.f. Ex 40:34) see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev ed., (William B. Eerdmans: 1995), 91-92. which is revealed through the various signs he performed (John 2:11), and presents Jesus’ death as an event that also reveals Jesus’ glory (John 7:39; 11:4; 12:16). Christ’s glorification on the cross is a theologically rich theme in John, which he evokes in John 12:23 when he has Jesus speaking of the imminence of the time when he would be glorified. However, Jesus immediately clarifies that this does not imply he cannot actually die, for he employs an analogy from a dying seed in John 12:24.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies [ἀποθνήσκω], it remains alone; but if it dies [ἀποθνήσκω], it bears much fruit.

Most commentators on John’s Gospel recognize that Jesus is using a common belief held in the agrarian society of his day. People believed that seeds died when sown into the ground, so John is using this to make his point about his own death.17For instance, see Robert H. Mounce, John, Kindle ed., (Zondervan Academic: 2007), Kindle Locations 6232-6235, who wrote, “Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that life comes through death. In the agricultural world it is obvious that unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains what it is— a single kernel. But if it dies, it produces “many seeds,” i.e., many other kernels of wheat. It is only through the death of one that the life of many can be achieved. Despite the profound theology evident in the glory-glorification theme in John, and the metaphorical nature of verse 24, John is still using ἀποθνήσκω with its normal meaning of “to cease to have vital functions.”

A similar observation can be made in John 12:32-33, where Jesus describes his death as the means by which he draws people to himself:

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die [ἀποθνήσκω].

The reason Jesus emphasizes this can be seen in the next verse:

So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34)

There is ample evidence in John’s Gospel that one of his purposes was to address various misconceptions about the long awaited Messiah, and to show that Jesus is this person (John 1:20, 45, 49; 3:28-29; 4:25-26, 29, 42; 5:45-46; 6:15; 7:26-27, 31, 40-43; 10:24; 11:27; 20:31)18Morris, The Gospel According to John, 149. In John 12:32-34, John is addressing the common belief that the true Messiah would live forever.19Morris, The Gospel According to John, 532, notes that the Pentateuch does not mention a Messiah who will live forever, but suggests that Psalm 89:36; 110: 4; Isaiah 9:7; and, Daniel 7:14 might have been what the crowd had in mind. In any case, this belief was widely held in Judaism in general. Despite his Christology that Jesus is God and has the very glory of God dwelling in him (John 1:14), John makes no effort to dispel any misconception that Jesus would in fact die on the cross (cf. John 18:32). This illustrates the point that we cannot assume that John must be using a modified “spiritual” meaning of ἀποθνήσκω just because he is addressing significant theological concerns throughout his narrative.

The rest of the uses of ἀποθνήσκω in John are mundane. He uses the verb with reference to the death of a young boy (John 4:47-49), the Pharisees (8:21, 24 [twice]), Abraham (8:52, 53a), the prophets (8:52b), and twice when addressing a misconception that the Beloved Disciple would not die (21:23).

This brings us to the use of ἀποθνήσκω in contexts where Jesus explains his own significance as the one who brings eternal life to those who believe in him. In my first article, I discussed how in chapter 6 Jesus draws on the Israelite experience in the wilderness when God provided them with manna to sustain them. When John uses ἀποθνήσκω of the Israelites, there is no doubt that he has in mind the lexical meaning of the word:

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died [ἀποθνήσκω].” (John 6:49)

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died [ἀποθνήσκω]. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58)

Jesus’ clear point is that the manna did not sustain them forever, so they still had to die. As far as I am aware, no traditionalist commentator quibbles with the use of ἀποθνήσκω in these verses. For instance, D. A. Carson comments on John 6:49,

Now one further aspect of that contrast is developed: the manna in the wilderness, heaven-sent though it was, and useful for sustaining natural life under desert conditions, could not bestow eternal life. The proof is irrefutable: all the Fathers died.20D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 1991), Kindle locations 5967-5974.

Likewise, J. Ramsay Michaels writes,

All Jesus is claiming explicitly is that manna could not sustain the people indefinitely. They died, as everyone must, even Abraham and the prophets. The implication is that his hearers, “the Jews” now questioning him, will die as well. Only later will he call it “dying in their sins” (see 8:21, 24).21J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 2010), Kindle locations 7513-7521.

In fact, of the seventeen commentaries on John’s Gospel that I own, all read ἀποθνήσκω with its normal meaning as it is used of the ancients Israelites in John 6:49 and 58.

In John 11 Jesus uses ἀποθνήσκω in the context of a prolonged discussion about the death and resurrection of Lazarus. The uses of this verb occur in the following verses:

Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,” (v14)

So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v 16)

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v 32)

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (v 37)

Most commentators interpret Thomas’ exhortation to his fellow disciples in verse 16 as a call to die with Jesus. However, all commentators read the use of ἀποθνήσκω in these four verses with its normal lexical meaning supplied by BDAG. I have already noted that ἀποθνήσκω is used consistently throughout the rest of the NT with its standard lexical meaning of “to cease to have vital functions, whether at an earthly or transcendent level, die,” and it is clear that no Johannine scholar disputes that ἀποθνήσκω is used with its lexical meaning throughout John’s Gospel.

This word study has revealed that when the verb ἀποθνήσκω is used throughout the NT, it always has the same lexical meaning. We know that in all the uses of the word in the narratives of the NT, it is never used in any way to indicate a spiritualized or new technical meaning being developed by the author. We know that John himself used the word with its standard meaning frequently throughout his Gospel. There is no debate as to the meaning of ἀποθνήσκω in John and it simply does not have a range of meaning that could make a word ambiguous in any given context.

The only pushback that a traditionalist can make is that John is using ἀποθνήσκω in John 6:50 and 11:26 is some metaphorical way. For instance, in Louw-Nida’s lexicon, it is argued that,

In Jn 6:50 ἀποθνήσκω must be understood in a spiritual rather than in a strictly literal sense. This bold figurative language is characteristic of the Gospel of John and should not be eliminated, though in some languages a strictly literal translation may be understood only in a literal sense and thus lead to misinterpretation. In some instances, therefore, it may be necessary to suggest the metaphorical significance…22Louw-Nida, s.v. “ἀποθνήσκω, θνήσκω, θάνατος”.

Yet even used metaphorically, ἀποθνήσκω would still maintain its standard lexical meaning. Moreover, as I have shown in my previous article, the contexts of John 6:50 and 11:26 show that John is not using the verb in any way indicating John had a spiritualized use of the word in mind. After reading many commentaries on John, I can say that the tendency towards a spiritualized reading of ἀποθνήσκω in John 6:50 and 11:26 apparently flows from theological convictions regarding the traditional view of hell, as well as a misunderstanding of John’s eschatology. With respect to this second point, traditionalist exegetes often seem to assume an over-realized eschatological perspective whenever John has Jesus stating that believers will never die, which has led them to over-analyse and posit a spiritualized reading of ἀποθνήσκω in those contexts. However, as Gordon Fee cautions,

It is possible to make too much of the use of specific words in a context. Biblical authors, like ourselves, did not always carefully choose all their words because they were fraught with significance. Sometimes words were chosen simply because they were already available to the author with his intended meaning.23Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis, Kindle locations 1861-1869.

As I show in my previous article, John’s narrative exhibits an inaugurated eschatology, and in the contexts in which Jesus makes those statements, he provides every indication that he used ἀποθνήσκω in an ordinary (non-metaphorical and non-spiritualized) way. We can, therefore, be completely confident that when John uses ἀποθνήσκω in John 6:50 and 11:26 he had in mind its normal meaning.

I realize that many readers will think that I have gone overboard with this word study of ἀποθνήσκω since the BDAG definition would have been sufficient to do the job. Yet I am keen to demonstrate that when John wanted to describe the final fate of unbelievers, he used a word that can have no other meaning than its normal lexical definition of “to cease to have vital functions, to die.” This will be important for the next phase of my study, which deals with other contested words like θάνατος (death) and ἀπόλλυμι (to destroy), since I wish to demonstrate that John uses ἀποθνήσκω at certain junctures in ways suggesting that he saw it as synonymous with those other terms.

*****

As I have been studying the language of John’s narrative, I have noticed that he uses a distinct construction, or combination of words, that stands behind the clause “shall never die” in John 11:26. The Greek phraseology is οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. As far as I can ascertain, the combination of the double negative οὐ μὴ (not, not) and εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (lit. “into the age,” widely regarded in NT scholarship as meaning “forever”) is used six times by John and once by Paul. In 1 Corinthians 8:13, where Paul clarifies that he would not wish to cause others to stumble over the issue of meat sacrificed to idols, he states, “I will never eat meat” (οὐ μὴ φάγω κρέα εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). The Greek here has the same construction of οὐ μὴ, with εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. David Garland considers this a case of hyperbole,24David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Kindle ed., (Baker Academic: 2003), Kindle locations, 9094-9095. which is very plausible considering that the subject is only meat offered to idols, and Paul likely would have eaten other meat. The construction is also used in John 13:8, where Peter tells Jesus, “You will never wash my feet” (Οὐ μὴ νίψῃς μου τοὺς πόδας εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). Edward Klink notes that the addition of εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα to οὐ μὴ is ironic since “what Jesus is doing (and explaining) is actually effective ‘in all eternity’.” 25Edward W. Klink III, John, Kindle ed., (Zondervan: 2016), Kindle locations, 15947-15956.

In the other places, John employs this construction in contexts where he is discussing the truth that only believers receive eternal life. In my previous article I discussed the use of this construction in John 11:25-26,

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die [οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα]. Do you believe this?”

We can see that the οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction is used to express the truth that those believing in Jesus will never die. As I discussed in my previous article, we know that Jesus has in mind that believers would live forever in the eschaton because of the flow of thought throughout verses 25-26. In particular, Jesus is saying that though believers die they will be resurrected (v 25), and as living and believing people will never die again. This places Jesus’ statement in verse 26 after the resurrection of believers, so that the declaration that they will not die again has to do with life in the eschaton. We know that Jesus has in mind ordinary death (the loss of life where all vital functions cease), since he is using ἀποθνήσκω, the same word he uses to speak to ordinary death throughout his Gospel.

This is of great value for understanding the remaining uses of the construction in John. First, in John 4:5-15 Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman beside a well and uses the drawing of water to teach her about his own significance as one who gives eternal life. In verses 13-14 he tells her,

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever [οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα]. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction is used with the verb for “to thirst” (διψάω) to emphasise that the kind of water given by Jesus will sustain the woman forever. It is tempting to spiritualize this statement in a way that understands eternal life as having to do with the quality of life experienced by believers. However, the analogy drawn between normal water that is unable to permanently quench our thirst, and the water provided by Christ, hinges on the idea that one needs to drink water in order to avoid ordinary death. This and the use of the οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction means that John had in mind the idea of never dying an ordinary death again–the same idea expressed in 11:26.

Then, in John 8:51-52 the construction appears twice when Jesus says,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death [θάνατον οὐ μὴ θεωρήσῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα].” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death [οὐ μὴ γεύσηται θανάτου εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα].’”

In context, Jesus has just emphasized that he is the light of life (8:12), and then debated the validity of his testimony with the Pharisees and Jews (8:13-58). They refuse to believe him, and as he defends himself he affirms the necessity of believing in him or else they would die in their sins (8:24). There is significant overlap here with what Jesus says elsewhere when teaching on the theme of eternal life (c.f. John 3:14-16; ch 6 and 11). It is of note that whereas he use ἀποθνήσκω in 11:25-26, he uses the word θάνατος in 8:51-52.26There does not seem to be any significance with the change in vocabulary between the word θεωρέω (“to see”) in verse 51 and γεύω (“to taste”) in verse 52, so they are being used synonymously. The point is that Jesus is using the οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction, and that informs us that he is using θάνατος with reference to ordinary death as he does with ἀποθνήσκω in chapter 11.

Finally, John 10:28 has the same construction, but this time uses the much-contested word, ἀπόλλυμι (“to destroy”). The verse reads as follows,

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish [οὐ μὴ ἀπόλωνται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα] and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

In my previous article I discussed how Jesus’ use of the OT in John 3:14-16 supports the argument that ἀπόλλυμι refers to perishing with the sense of dying an ordinary death. This is reinforced by the fact that in 10:28, ἀπόλλυμι is used instead of ἀποθνήσκω, as per 11:26. The οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction tells us that the two verbs are being used synonymously. Since we know that ἀποθνήσκω can only refer to ordinary death, we can be certain that ἀπόλλυμι does as well.

In conclusion, the value of undertaking the initial word study on ἀποθνήσκω was that I was able to verify that this verb lacks any range of meaning that could be used by John to express the idea of death in terms of being alive yet not in relationship with God. The verb itself just refers to ordinary death, the cessation of all vital functions, and that is how John consistently uses it throughout his narrative, including in John 11:26 where the flow of thought bears this out. We know that he employed a specific syntactical construction, οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα in that verse. One of the ways exegetes ascertain the meaning of words in any piece of literature is to note how and where words are used synonymously, by examining the use of specific syntactical constructions as they are used throughout the same work. As it turns out, when the οὐ μὴ … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα construction is used by John in contexts where he is speaking about the implications of not obtaining eternal life, he uses words like ἀπόλλυμι (to destroy, ruin, kill) and θάνατος (death) to express the same idea that is present with ἀποθνήσκω. Therefore, we have very strong evidence that when John used θάνατος in John 8:52 where Jesus declares “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death (θάνατος),” he was not speaking of death as a kind of spiritual death. Likewise, we have very strong evidence that when ἀπόλλυμι is used in John 10:28 in the statement “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish (ἀπόλλυμι),” this verb cannot mean anything other than “to die.” This would exclude the typical traditionalist understanding of ἀπόλλυμι as referring to the ruining of unbelievers in a way that does not end in their death. So in the final analysis, we have one more very good reason to think that ἀπόλλυμι as it is used in John 3:16 means “to kill,” in the same sense carried by ἀποθνήσκω in John 11:26. That being so, we have another very good reason to think that John 3:16 plainly teaches Conditional Immortality: “eternal life” really does refer to living forever, and the only way to live forever and not perish is to believe in Jesus. The typical traditionalist exegesis of John 3:16 as referring to the quality of existence with or without God simply flies in the face of the evidence available in John’s Gospel itself, and should be abandoned entirely.

*****

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1. Darren J. Clark, “Perish the Thought: How John 6 and 11 Challenge the Traditionalist Reading of John 3:16,http://rethinkinghell.com/2019/06/14/perish-the-thought-john-3-16/.
2. All citations in English will be from the ESV, unless otherwise indicated.
3. Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed., Kindle ed. (Westminster John Knox Press: 2002), Kindle locations 1846-2142.
4. Walter Baur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Walter Baur, (University of Chicago Press: 2000).
5. Fee, New Testament Exegesis, Kindle locations, 1846-1852.
6. Walter Baur, A Greek-English Lexicon, 211.
7. The results of the search for ἀποθνήσκω can be found here, https://www.stepbible.org/?q=strong=G0599|version=ESV|version=SBLG&options=VGUVNH&display=INTERLEAVED&qFilter=G0599, though it should be noted that while the StepBible search indicates that there are 114 uses of the verb in the NT I could verify only 111 of them.
8. The typical traditionalist understanding of spiritual dying in the sense of separation from God makes very little sense in the context of Romans 5, where the reversal of death found in Christ brings “much more” (Rom 5:9, 10, 15, 17). If death is simply separation from God, and this is the kind of death that is reversed by Christ, then how can there be “much more”? It seems far better to admit that death here refers to ordinary death resulting from the spread of sin (a similar point pictured in Gen 4:1-6:7 where the spread of humankind meant also the spread of sin into the world, so much so that God eventually determined to destroy all mankind), and the reversal of that death to enable the saved to experience the “much more” of being in close relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
9. There is a debate in Pauline scholarship as to whether Paul is conveying personal experience. Of those who do not think that Paul is speaking of his own experience, the two most common positions are that he is speaking from the vantage point of either Adamic humanity as a whole or else the Israelites and their experience with the law. Both readings can find support in the context in Romans. I am currently of the view that the first option is the most likely, since Paul’s “I was once alive apart from the law…” (Rom 7:9) is an odd way to characterize the Israelite experience prior to receiving the law, which was really part and parcel of their becoming a people that God. Additionally, in the Pentateuch the law was introduced because of Israelite sin. Either way, ordinary death is in view. Under the Law, the penalty was the destruction of the Israelites (Deut 6:15), while the disobedience in Eden resulted in their actual death. For a defence of this see Peter Grice’s “Warned of Sins Wages A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23”, http://rethinkinghell.com/2017/11/08/warned-of-sins-wages-a-concise-explanation-of-death-in-genesis-217-and-romans-623/, accessed 14th November, 2019.
10. In the immediate context Paul is using a metaphor from the common practice of slavery. In that context ordinary death ended the bondage of a slave to the master. C.f. Craig Keener, Romans, Kindle ed. (Cascade Books: 2009), Kindle locations, 2840-2848. In Romans 5:21, Paul characterised sin as something that reigns over sinners. The point being made by Paul in 6:7 is that since believers have died with Christ, they have died to sin, so are no longer in bondage to it. This turns on the normal meaning of ἀποθνήσκω in Romans 6:7.
11. The slavery metaphor noted above in Romans 6:7 is in play in 7:6.
12. Jude 1:12 reads, “… fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted.” The fruitlessness of the trees points to the idea that the still-standing trees are dead in the ordinary sense, and these dead trees are then uprooted. It is a way of emphasizing that the trees are really dead. Even if the fruitlessness is viewed as a spiritual kind of death, this goes hand in hand with the ordinary death of the one in this state. As a tree not bearing fruit is killed by being uprooted, so also the one who does not bear fruit will be killed (uprooted). As Peter Davids explains, “The ‘uprooted’ is in the final emphatic position in the sentence, indicating the judgment awaiting those who now show by their fruit that they are really ‘dead.’ So certain is their ‘uprooting’ that Jude can use an aorist participle, that is, a Greek tense that shows that he is viewing the event of their judgment as an accomplished act.” Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Kindle ed., (William B. Eerdmans Publishing:2006), Kindle Locations 1198-1200.
13. Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, (IVP Academic: 2001), 158.
14. For instance, one of the most common prepositional phrases he uses, “in Christ,” has been interpreted as conveying a mystical idea of being actually located in the space of Christ, while others who reject this have still maintained that there is some kind of spiritual element to believers participation in and with Christ. For helpful discussions of the larger debate see James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ: The Vital Elements of St Paul’s Religion, (Hodder and Stoughton: 1935), 147-203; Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 156-159; Mark A. Seifrid, “in Christ”, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Olive Tree electronic edition, (Intervarsity Press: 1993), no pages given.
15. The phrase “in Christ” is by no means the only way Paul expresses his corporate soteriology. The phrase itself is used by Paul in several ways, and not always to speak of the corporate connection between believers and Christ. See, Michael Parsons, ‘“In Christ” in Paul,’ in Vox Evangelica, vol 18, (1988), 25-44, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/vox/vol18/in-christ_parsons.pdf, accessed 16 November, 2019.
16. For a discussion on how John is alluding to the OT belief that God’s glory dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle (c.f. Ex 40:34) see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev ed., (William B. Eerdmans: 1995), 91-92.
17. For instance, see Robert H. Mounce, John, Kindle ed., (Zondervan Academic: 2007), Kindle Locations 6232-6235, who wrote, “Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that life comes through death. In the agricultural world it is obvious that unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains what it is— a single kernel. But if it dies, it produces “many seeds,” i.e., many other kernels of wheat. It is only through the death of one that the life of many can be achieved.
18. Morris, The Gospel According to John, 149.
19. Morris, The Gospel According to John, 532, notes that the Pentateuch does not mention a Messiah who will live forever, but suggests that Psalm 89:36; 110: 4; Isaiah 9:7; and, Daniel 7:14 might have been what the crowd had in mind. In any case, this belief was widely held in Judaism in general.
20. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 1991), Kindle locations 5967-5974.
21. J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 2010), Kindle locations 7513-7521.
22. Louw-Nida, s.v. “ἀποθνήσκω, θνήσκω, θάνατος”.
23. Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis, Kindle locations 1861-1869.
24. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Kindle ed., (Baker Academic: 2003), Kindle locations, 9094-9095.
25. Edward W. Klink III, John, Kindle ed., (Zondervan: 2016), Kindle locations, 15947-15956.
26. There does not seem to be any significance with the change in vocabulary between the word θεωρέω (“to see”) in verse 51 and γεύω (“to taste”) in verse 52, so they are being used synonymously.
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