It has been well said that John 3:16 could be called, “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” “The Golden Text of the Bible,” “The ‘Good News’ in Brief” and other such descriptive phrases. These kinds of statements are true and can be taken at face value, deservedly so. Titles such as these are justified by the verse’s total summation of God’s final plan for his human creatures. So complete is this summation, as has been stated often, that if all the rest of the Bible were totally destroyed, and only this particular verse left intact, right there is enough salvation for the entire world, and adequate information on the final destiny of all humanity.
This passage could also be known by another name: “A Keystone Verse of Conditional Immortality.” This name is justified by a simple but thorough examination of the verse itself. It is demonstrably clear that those who accept Christ as Messiah and conduct their lives accordingly, will be given eternal life and will not suffer the “perishing” of the “second death” of other Scripture references (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 12-15; 21:8). And what of those who do not accept this offer? They are also specifically addressed in this verse, not by name but by direct comparison, and in just as complete and deep a manner as the accepters are, though most readers apparently fail to observe this fact. The message is clear that those who accept the poured-out love from God through his Son, and who live accordingly, will have eternal life. Those who do the opposite will get the opposite: no eternal life. So, though John 3:16 is not normally used as a proof text for conditional immortality, it can be, and should be.
Some critics might say that the verse does not specifically name the unbelievers as non-recipients of eternal life, and that one cannot debate from silence to present a valid, legal argument, for or against any issue. True enough, one cannot argue from absolute silence on a matter, or on something that is not clearly stated, unless by direct comparison of the wording, one can detect a clear meaning for one of only two possibilities (in this case, the two are “with” or “without” eternal life). So then, if one of the two possibilities is very specifically defined (believers do not perish, but receive eternal life), then the non-believers are excluded from that possibility by not being named in what is more than an inference or a supposition, but is an obvious, logical deduction.
The word “eternal” αἰώνιος (aiōnios), as used here, carries a primary, and almost singular, meaning of “everlasting.” That is, once a given thing is announced and put in place, it will never change but will “last forever,” forever in that state. Those who believe and accept the death of Christ in their place, will have future lives that will last forever, while those who do not believe and do not accept, will “perish,” and have no future lives, and that will also be final and last forever. The word used for “perish” is the term ἀπόλλυμι (appollumi), and like the other John 3:16 terms, bears distinctive and unequivocal meaning. The Strongest Strong’s says that ἀπόλλυμι denotes “destroy,” “to kill” (by taking a life), “cause to lose” (especially a life), and “to die or perish.” So it is clear that a cessation of living is what is meant, not a continuation of it somehow through a detachable spirit-self, referred to as an “immortal soul” that leaves the body and lives on though the body dies.
The two possible final dispositions and destinations for human beings are both delineated with precision and exactness by logical connection and deduction. This is done through what could be called “oppositional equivalency.” Life is the opposite of death. If one receives living forever (being given eternal life) for accepting the grace of God through repentance and salvation, then it follows that one should receive being dead forever (being given eternal death, or perhaps better stated, being dead for eternity) for not accepting the grace of God through repentance and salvation.
In this logical sequence, life and death in the Bible are mutually exclusive but mutually suitable. There is perfect alignment of these resulting conditions as they are 180 degrees apart, just as the causes of their being are. Nothing could be fairer or more honest. Such could be expected of a Holy God. All sin must be done away with, utterly consumed, absolutely destroyed, including Satan and his cohorts, and that will be in the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10-15; 21:8) following judgment day. This destruction will be final and permanently so. The two outcomes of accepting or rejecting Christ are equal in application and duration: Both are eternal (once pronounced at judgment), with persons sentenced to life forever or to death forever. The reward or punishment is pronounced as final and will never change: It is an eternal condition. But, many onlookers confuse the word “punishment” with “punishing.” The latter term is not in God’s plan for eternity, but the first one is. Once the “second death” punishment for sin is pronounced and carried out, that will never change and becomes eternally fixed and set. Of course, the “second death” is now required because the resurrection from the “first death” brings life back into all bodies, and those who are given eternal life will, of necessity, live on (and keep this new life forever) and those who are not given eternal life will have to die the second and final time in the fire of final destruction (Rev. 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). The wages of sin must be paid, or God is a liar (Rom. 6:23). Since accepting the death of Christ on the cross pays the penalty for believers (the absolute atonement; the “At-one-ment”) their debt is settled and they do not have to die a second time. However, since unbelievers do not accept the death of Christ as payment, their debt still exists and each person so found indebted will have to pay his or her own debt, which is the personal, second death of Rom 6:23. That same reference, once more, grants the opposite to those who accept and follow Christ, life for eternity.
While it is true that time, place and circumstances are not totally filled in by John 3:16 (as that is done by other Scriptures such as 1 Cor. 15; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 2:8-12), there is no doubt that all believers/accepters will have eternal life; all non-believers/rejecters will not. Both will have an “everlasting” fate once instituted at judgment following the resurrection. One group (believers) will have a sentence of life placed upon them that will last forever afterwards. The other group (non-believers) will have a sentence of death placed upon them that will last forever afterwards. These two results are permanent and therefore will remain forever just that way, or, “be everlasting” in result.
If some of the foregoing seems a bit repetitious, it none-the-less serves to underscore the importance of having a clear understanding of John 3:16 and other supporting Scriptures. The biblical information on immortality and eternal life has been over-read, over-quoted, under-explored and woefully misunderstood.
It seems that every denomination or sect even remotely connected to Christianity claims to “know” the truth on these matters. Many of these groups can all quote passages such as John 3:16, but cannot give substantive answers as to fuller meanings of them. Quoting surface Scriptures is an act of opinion as to what is meant. But, studying Scripture deeply (as advised in 2 Tim. 2:15), creates opinion solidified and informed by fact, which renders not an opinion only, but truth. A given verse may seem to say a particular thing, but translator biases, preconceived notions brought to bear by readers, the musings and imaginations of secular theorists, inadequate study of original or source documents by scholars and ignorance of root word meanings in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic languages, all contribute to misinterpretations, and can actually render diametrically opposed meanings as to what is actually recorded.
Another source of confusion arises through the popular and highly esteemed writings of non-Biblical authors. Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Plato, Dante and the whole of Greek and Roman myths concerning the gods and religious themes have not helped, but have added a layer of fictional veneer that greatly disguises any truth beneath. While these, and other authors like them, have great standing in the at-large literary canon, just being literary-canon-included does not make them first-rank theologians. Since by definition, most of literature is fictional, one would not expect from such writers a clear separation of fact from fiction, but rather a weaving together of the two to give the writing cache and a sense of realism. According to literary experts, good fiction must be believable, so writers join the two in an unholy alliance that can lead to serious distortion of Biblical concepts. (Think Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” or Dante’s “Inferno,” for example, or the entire genre of so-called, “historical” novels.) Less inquiring minds do not make the attempt at separation of fact from fiction, and wholesale error can thus creep in to be promulgated as deep, truthful insight, as is precisely the case with “immortality of the soul” via Socrates, Plato, many others, and later, Greek Christians in general.
If turned loose by practical preaching and emphasized in daily living, John 3:16 can solve once and for all the question of who has eternal life in their futures following the resurrection, and who does not. It cannot be made plainer that eternal life is conditional and based solely upon a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The rejection of him is eternal death with the same definitions used for eternal life. Life and death, for believer and unbeliever respectively, will be just what it says: lasting for all eternity in both cases, one as life, the other as death. John 3:16 is not often (if ever) used to present conditional immortality, but once more, it should be. After all, it is a “keystone verse” to that understanding.
To more completely comprehend this miniature summation of the great and grand gospel truth in John 3:16, one needs but to search more deeply into what is actually contained there: Those who accept the invitation to “believe” in the offering of the sinless life of Christ for the sins of the world, and who accept that for themselves on an individual basis will be given life for eternity; rejecters will not be so gifted. God so loved the lost world of humanity that he gave his Son as the perfect sin offering through his death on the cross. Sins have to be paid for in some manner. Those who say that “sin does not pay,” are perhaps unfamiliar with Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” Sin does pay, but look at what it pays! Sin brings death. The word translated “death” used here θάνατος (thanatos) has a primary meaning (in its simplest terms), as the cessation of life, consciousness, and any awareness of being. There is no way to stretch the meaning of this discrete noun to include any sort of “aliveness,” by whatever name it may be called, including that of an “immortal soul” that does not die, though it is said the body does. Death here is death: “dead” is “dead absolutely” (Ps. 115:17; Eccl. 9:5-6, 10). That is precisely the debt Christ paid on the cross: His life (a perfect, sinless one) for the sins of the world. His one death met the Romans 6:23 requirement, and atoned for all sins as the perfect sin offering, as no other death could. That debt is now fully paid for all who will accept the eternal life it affords.
Consider again the word “perish” as that which John 3:16 assigns to non-believers. The Greek word used here is ἀπόλλυμι, which has already been discussed at the beginning of this treatise, but bears some reiteration just now for emphasis. Ἀπόλλυμι has a primary meaning of cessation of all life, and when the variations and secondary meanings are taken into account, it means “to destroy utterly,” or “fully,” “to cause to perish,” “to come to an end,” and “to be finally ruined and destroyed.” Nowhere does this term allow for a partial dying of an individual with some person-portion still living on that cannot die. Ἀπόλλυμι is actually a stronger form of the term ὄλλυμι (ollumi), which itself means “to end life,” “bring to naught,” “cause to perish” and “put to death.” Multiple Scriptures use this very strong word unabashedly (Matt. 10:28; 21:41; 22:7; Luke 13:3-5; 17:27-30; John 10:28; Rom. 2:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:15-16; 4:3; 2 Peter 3:9).
The overall approach to Scriptural interpretation should be one of taking its words at face value in their simplest, elemental forms and meanings in their original languages, not meanings assigned to them to make them fit into an already-conceived doctrine. This latter process becomes an idea, however far-fetched, hunting for a proof-text. It is the act of first believing something and afterwards finding (bending or forcing) a Scriptural source of accommodation. This then, becomes not the logical result of “seeing it and then believing it,” but is the illogical result of “believing it and then seeing it,” no matter how wrong this latter “believing/seeing” may be. This process is one of wanting to believe something, coming to believe that something and then finding support for that something, even if it isn’t there!
It would seem that very unambiguous Bible verses such as John 3:15 (companion verse to John 3:16) and John 3:36 would lay to rest any issues concerning who will eventually gain “eternal” life, and who will eventually receive “eternal” death. However, persons with preconceived notions held tenaciously are not looking for alternatives to what they already believe, but rather, are searching for further support for those conceptions.
The twisting of words to garner desired meanings smacks of the erroneous effort in the literary world a few decades ago called “deconstructionism.” This concept taught that words have meanings only to the person who hears or reads them. It does not matter what the speaker or the writer intended, the meaning is outside his or her purview. The obvious fallacy here is that the author/speaker had a meaning in mind and chose words to deliver that, so there was an original meaning intended, even if not communicated perfectly, or if miscomprehended. If meaning is in the receiver only, trying to communicate anything to another person is a lost cause from the start because any meaning can be transduced and manufactured on the reception end: “I know what he said, but I know what he meant.” Perhaps what “he” said is exactly what “he” meant! The meaning intended is the genuine message, not what may be wrung out of it, wrought upon it, or written into it. Original intent using original meanings cannot be ignored or truth suffers.
So, trying to take a word like “death” (in its primary and elemental meaning, remember), and make it mean that only a part of a human being dies at “death” because there is an immortal part that does not, flies into the face of the original, elemental and assigned definition. And when the “second death” terminology is added, confusion should be cleared up as to what the eternal punishment of all sin, unrepentant sinners and Satan with his troop, is to be. Popular would-be-theologians may be sincere, but they can be sincerely wrong. “What does the Bible say?” is the question to be asked.
Dr. R.F. Weymouth, the eminent Greek scholar and Bible translator, had this to say about “everlasting torment” for the wicked from a just God: “My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses signifying “destroy,” or “destruction,” are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.” 1 John 5:12 slams the door on all such bogus notions as Dr. Weymouth is pointing out by undergirding John 3:16 with these words, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God, hath not life.” Period. John 3:16 as a Keystone Verse supporting the arch of conditional immortality is in place, and holds.
A Selected Bibliography
- Atkinson, Basil F.C. Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death as They Are Revealed in the Scriptures. Taunton, England, UK: The Phoenix Press (published privately). No date (1920s?). Print.
- Crouse, Moses C. Modern Discussions of Man’s Immortality. Boston: Advent Christian Publication Society, Inc. 1950. Print.
- Dickenson, Curtis. Man and His Destiny. Lubbock, Texas: privately published. No date (1960s?). Print.
- Froom, Le Roy Edwin. The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers. The Conflict of the Ages Over the Nature and Destiny of Man. Washington, DC. 1966. Print.
- KJV Reference Bible. Holman Bible Publishers: Nashville. 1996. Print.
- Strong, James (Rev. John R. Kolenberger III and James A. Swanson. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Zondervon: Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2001. Print.
- Wenham, John. “The Case for Conditional Immortality” (in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1992. Print).
- Weymouth, Richard F (as cited in Dickenson, above).
By Dr. Bob Hughes
(Dr. Bob Hughes is pastor of Pembroke Advent Christian Church in Pembroke, Ga.)