This is possibly one of the most easily quoted verses in all of the Bible, but what does it actually mean? Much of the verse seems fairly straight forward.
God loves the world (yes, all of it).
God gave his only Son for this.
We are to have faith in the Son, Jesus.
After this, the waters can be a bit muddy. I’ve known this verse as long as I can remember, but always repressed one major point of contention—“…shall not perish but have everlasting (or eternal depending on which translation is used) life.”
Many have quoted this often but have never stopped to consider what it means. This verse is often used as a bludgeon to beat others with in saying, “You better believe in Jesus (just like I say) or you’re going to burn in hell for all of eternity.”
Is that what this verse is actually saying?
First, if we take the common interpretation, as far as the area of the U.S. where I live, we already have a major contradiction—perishing vs eternal life. Considering the common English view of these two concepts, we could only conclude two fates—total and complete destruction and living forever. Technically, however, this verse is wielded to state both fates will have “everlasting” life, one will just be tormented while the other isn’t. This stance contradicts itself. In other words, if that is our stance, the verse would more read—“shall not be in everlasting torment but have everlasting life in heaven.” This is not what the verse says and would have to be heavily twisted (as it tends to be) if we try to force that meaning on it.
So what could this mean?
Looking at the Greek, the word ἀπόληται is used 7 times in this form, and a total of 92 times in various other forms. Of the seven, it is used either as lose/be lost (John 6:12 and Matt 5:29 – varies based on different translations) or perish. The same word can have a drastically different meaning depending on context. Just a few other passages where this word is used as lost/lose are (not to get too inundated on this)—Matt 10:39, 10:42, 15:24 (lost sheep), 16:25, 18:11. We see in these verses why lost would be used instead of perish. For example, “I come only for the perished sheep of Israel.” This only makes sense when we consider that Jesus was speaking of a spiritual state in which he came to rectify. Many in Israel were in a perished/lost/dead state spiritually. Those who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah would remain in that state.
Likewise, it seems our popular translations of John 3:16 are based on the traditional value assigned to this word and not its’ actual meaning. A better understanding might be—“…should not be lost but have everlasting life.”
However, there’s still the contention of everlasting life. So far, the actual verse seems to state an either/or scenario. A person could either be lost/perish or have everlasting life, but not both as is commonly upheld. As stated before, the standard view is that everyone will have some form of everlasting life, it just depends where.
So the next question is, what does everlasting life mean? Going back to the concordance references, the word everlasting can have a varied meaning depending on context. That is, it’s an adjective that has meaning depending on what it is modifying. Here, it is modifying “life.” Everlasting life would be life that exists in it’s most abundant state—that is, in relationship with Father, through Jesus, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
A better way to explain it, as Jesus states:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.—John 10:10
So, what would the traditional threat of John 3:16 actually mean to our culture if it were expressed as the original audience (Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel—3:1, 10) would have understood? “Those with faith in Jesus will not remain lost, but shall live to the fullest, now and forever.”
This is the personal conclusion I’ve come to studying the context of this verse. As always, if this isn’t relevant to your personal walk with Jesus, feel free to toss it aside.