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John 3:14-16 (ESV):

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.

  • What does "perish" mean in this context?
  • When does that happen?
  • How long does it take for a person to "perish"?

Related: What exactly does it mean for a soul to be destroyed in gehenna? Matthew 10:28

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  • According to Matthew 7:21 and 25:11 there are four words missing after the words “and believes in him”. Namely the words: “and serves him well”. May 1, 2022 at 4:07

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What does "perish" mean in this context?

"Perish" is described as the fate opposite "eternal life".

Eternal life is defined by Jesus:

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

To perish would then be (or at the very least include) not knowing God. I make the case in this post that eternal life is as described by Dr. Jason Carroll:

Eternal life is a life that is both endless in duration and godlike in quality

The opposite end of the spectrum is directly described by Paul:

Such people will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction by being separated from the Lord's presence and from his glorious power (2 Thess 1:9)

The penalty of eternal destruction is to be separated from God.

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When does that happen?

Permanent separation from God is the second death, described as coming after judgment (see Rev. 20:12-15).

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How long does it take for a person to "perish"?

We are not told (note that annihilationism does not have an answer to this question either).

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Conclusion

This verse is unlikely to move the needle either way in a discussion of annihilationism--the juxtaposition of life & death is to be found in many passages of scripture, not just this one.

Those who see the second death as annihilation will read John 3:16 this way as well; those who see death as a separation will read John 3:16 that way as well.

  • For a Biblical basis for death as separation, my thoughts here.
  • For a review of the evidence that the early Patristic writers--including a Bishop taught by the man who wrote John 3:16--believed in post-mortal consciousness, my thoughts here.
  • For an explicit defense of death as separation by a grandson-in-the-faith of John (Irenaeus), see here.
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  • Great answer, thank you. Also, one might add that seeing as John used the snake in the wilderness illustratively, life and death might be seen as the spiritual equivalent of living and dying in the wilderness, namely crossing the Jordan into the land supplied by God, I.e. eternal life, or dying, grumbling, in the wilderness, which I take it would mean perishing spiritually. Have given ‘Mosaic/Aaronic life’ a lot of thought; not so much Mosaic death.
    – user36337
    May 1, 2022 at 11:25
  • @User76451 "seeing as John used the snake in the wilderness illustratively" John did simply use that account for illustrative purposes. He typified the account, and said "AS Moses lifted up in the serpent... so must the Son of man be lifted up". The "as" signifies in the same way. If John is saying that Jesus saves us from spiritually perishing, then his use of the account in Num. 21:4-9 makes no sense. The Son of man is not lifted up AS the serpent was, because the former saves us from "spiritually perishing" while the latter from actual perishing! The type-antitype is then pointless.
    – Rajesh
    May 1, 2022 at 17:46
  • The exact category of the illustration is fuddling my mind slightly… But yes, the grumbling Israelites were physically saved, but only those who made it out of the wilderness wandering a alive made it through to the promised land… So although the salvation through the raised snake was physical, it carries a spiritual meaning for us due to the spiritual significance of rescue from Egypt and crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. Does that make a point or run unnecessary rings around yours? 😅
    – user36337
    May 1, 2022 at 19:48
  • Ah, ok. No I would disagree as the type (physical perishing) is indeed typical of the antitype (spiritual perishing), surely?
    – user36337
    May 1, 2022 at 19:52
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    @User76451 "I would disagree as the type (physical perishing) is indeed typical of the antitype (spiritual perishing), surely?" The type is not "physical perishing". The type is the situation/event. Every Israelite who was bitten by a serpent that looked upon the bronze serpent was saved from death(the snakebite was a fatal illness); every single person who is a sinful human that looks to Jesus and believes in Him will be saved from death(sin is a fatal illness). But, what type of "death" is in question? The type informs us about the antitype(that's why John typifies the account).
    – Rajesh
    May 2, 2022 at 14:37
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Analysis of ἀπόλλυμι:

We'll analyze the Greek word translated as "perish" first. The word is ἀπόλλυμι (Strong's G622), pronounced apollumi. Its primary meaning is "to destroy", "to kill", "to perish", "to lose (one's life)", "to demolish" or "wipe out". Essentially, it refers to the termination of life, and this is how it is mainly used in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 2:13; 8:25; 10:39; 12:14; 16:25; 21:41; 22:7; 26:52; 27:20; Mark 3:6; 4:38; 8:35; 9:22; 11:8; 12:9; Luke 6:9; 8:24; 9:24, 25; 11:51; 13:3; 5; 33; 15:17; 17:27; 29; 33; 19:47; 20:16; John 6:39; 10:10; 11:50; 12:25; 18:14; Acts 5:37; 1 Cor. 10:9, 10; 15:18; 2 Pet. 3:6; Jude 5; 11), as well as in the Septuagint (e.g. Gen. 18:28; 19:13; 20:4; Exo. 19:24; Lev 26:38; 41; Num. 16:33; 21:29, 30; Deut. 4:6; 8:19, 20; 11:4; 17; Josh 11:14; 23:13; 2 Kings 10:19; 13:7; Job 3:11; 4:9; Psa. 9:3; 5; 49:10; Isa 13:9; 11; 14:20; 22; 25; 34:2; 60:12; Jer. 44:12; 46:8; 48:8; Ezek. 28:10; 31:17; 32:12, 13; 33:28; Dan. 2:12; 18; 24; Zeph. 2:5; 13). However, ἀπόλλυμι can have other meanings than dying/killing. In traditional interpretations of John 3:16, it is purported that the word carries with it one of these alternative denotations, rather than the usual meaning of "to die". Would such an interpretation have any basis? Before that, let's examine the other meanings of ἀπόλλυμι.

The occurrences of ἀπόλλυμι in the NT where the word definitively refers to something other than perishing or being destroyed are Matt. 5:29, 30; 10:42; Mark 9:41; Luke 15:8, 9; 21:18; John 6:12; Acts 27:34; 2 John 1:8, where it refers to losing an item such as a body part, a reward, a coin, or a piece of food, Matt. 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37; John 6:27; 1 Pet. 1:7, where it refers to things such as food, gold, or wineskins being physically ruined such that they are unusable or worthless, Heb. 1:11; Jas. 1:11; Rev 18:14, where it refers to something passing away or perishing such that it no longer exists, such as the beauty of a flower when it withers, the heavens and earth, or the luxuries of Babylon, and 1 Cor 1:19, where it refers to the supposed wisdom of those in the world who are considered by themselves and by others to be wise and knowledgeable being proved by God to be fraudulent and counterfeit; a perverted simulacrum of authentic wisdom.


Defenders of eternal conscious punishment (ECP) mainly utilize Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37, and John 6:27 to support their doctrine. Just as a reminder, the doctrine teaches that whenever the Bible refers to the final destruction of the wicked, it is referring to them being banished from God's presence whereupon they will endure some form of physical and/or spiritual torment for eternity in everlasting bodies (not as disembodied spirits, but as living, material beings); basically, the final judgement of the iniquitous is one where they are separated from God and His love and remain alive forever in torment. This is what they would have ἀπόλλυμι refer to in John 3:16. Do the verses above allow the word to carry such a meaning in John 3:16? No.

First off, traditionalists say that as the wineskins or food are ruined and made worthless, so the wicked in hell will be. I'm not sure how this translates to them remaining alive forever separated from God in torment. That doesn't follow. Not to mention that in the verses above, the wineskins and food are physically (not spiritually) ruined. The wineskins exploded and all the wine poured out, and food rots and decays, even to the point that it has fully decomposed. Imagine anything like that happening to a human. You would not think that they would stay alive forever conscious, would you? But according to the doctrine of ECP, those in hell do, and the sort of ruination they experience is not the physical kind that the wineskins or food undergo, but spiritual in the sense that they are deprived of all love from God and left purposeless. But ἀπόλλυμι is not at all used in such a manner in the given verses, all this notwithstanding that the word refers to inanimate objects, not living entities like humans.

In almost all of the instances in the NT where the subject of ἀπόλλυμι is a living being such as a person, it unequivocally carries the meaning of death and destruction, the kind whereby the organism's life ends. There are no instances where it conclusively does not refer to death when the subject is a person. Some point to Luke 15:24; 32, Romans 14:15, and 1 Corinthians 8:11 for examples of this. But these verses are not indisputable examples of such a use of ἀπόλλυμι. The latter two verses can be interpreted as saying that we "destroy" our fellow brother in the sense that we, through our actions, cause them to lose faith in Christ, the one who died for them, and be condemned to destruction. Of course, it could also be talking about making our brother spiritually frail or weakening their faith, rather than causing them to lose salvation. The verses are not unambiguous.

And as for Luke 15:24; 32, you may think that this one is definitive, as the prodigal son did not die. While that's true, had he not returned to his father, he would have. A terrible famine had arisen (v.14), and the son had become malnourished and was starving (v.16-17), which is why he saw no choice but to return to his father, because he knew what awaited him if he did not, namely, death. So, the son, in being "lost" (ἀπόλλυμι), that is, separated from his father, was doomed to die. This is one of the points of this parable (as well as the one in verses 3-7 of the same chapter, as sheep without a shepherd cannot survive, cf. Ezekiel 34:1-8); without God, we are destined to perish, as only He can sustain our lives. Hence, ἀπόλλυμι in Luke 15:24; 32 is not disconnected from the concept of dying.


To conclude, based solely on an analysis of the meanings and usages of the word ἀπόλλυμι, it is highly implausible that the word means anything other than physically perishing in John 3:16. We established that the predominant use of ἀπόλλυμι is to denote death, that is, the loss of life, especially when the subject is human beings.

Whenever it has a different meaning such as "to be ruined" or "to pass away", it is with reference to nonliving entities and not sentient organisms like humans, though even if such a meaning were to be present in John 3:16, it is certainly more likely to signify the destruction (privation of life) of those condemned than of their severance from God whereby they are rendered without purpose and remain for eternity in torment. In fact, such a use of ἀπόλλυμι cannot unambiguously be found anywhere, not in the New Testament, the Septuagint, or in any extrabiblical literature. However, the meaning of "perishing" or "killing" is found abundantly.

And finally, even in the rare instances where ἀπόλλυμι does not unequivocally mean the death of a person despite them being the subject (Luke 15:24; 32, Rom. 14:15, and 1 Cor. 8:11), it may still be interpreted to carry with it the notion of dying, especially in Luke 15:24; 32, where the son being "lost" meant that he was going to die from hunger. But we have yet to consider the most important factor in determining the meaning of ἀπόλλυμι in John 3:16, namely, the context of the verse.

Analysis of the context:

[John 3:14-17] And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes will have eternal life in Him. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him. (NASB)

John starts off by alluding to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness, and analogizes that account to the Son of Man being "lifted up", because everyone that believes in Him "will not perish, but have eternal life". John typifies the episode at Numbers 21:4-9, meaning it prefigures the Son of Man being elevated upon the cross. How does it do this? Several ways. First, it symbolizes the love and mercy of God that is encapsulated within Christ's death on the cross.

In Numbers 21, the Israelites, while on a journey around the land of Edom, had become impatient and started to speak against Yahweh and Moses (v.4-5), and so as punishment, God sent serpents to bite the people so that they would die (v.6). But the people had repented (v.7), and so, in an act of grace, God provided a way for them to be delivered from their judgment, which is the death that would have been inflicted upon them by the snakes. He told Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole so that all who gazed upon it would live and avoid dying from the snakebites (v.8-9). And so it is with the Son of God.

Because of our sin, we are worthy of death, and thus God would be just to inflict that penalty upon us. Negligence and violation of God's commandments engenders death (Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:17-19; Rom. 1:28-32; 6:21-23; 8:13; Gal. 6:8; Jas. 1:15). Indeed, sin is a fatal illness, but thankfully, God has provided a cure. Though we have merited judgment, God, in the boundless love and mercy that is intrinsic to His character, has provided a way for all those who are remorseful at heart to escape the rightful consequences of their sin in His Son. This is what John 3:15-17 says; "everyone who believes will have eternal life in Him... for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son... so that the world might be saved through Him". God gave humanity His Son as a means of salvation, so that we may be delivered from judgment, as the Israelites were.

Of course, like them, we must be repentant and have faith in God. They regretted what they had done and asked Moses to pray to God because they trusted He could save them. All who beheld the bronze serpent did so because they had faith that God could rescue them from death. And so we repent and trust in Jesus, in His death on the cross, and that He alone can save and redeem us.

And might I point out that the death the Israelites would have experienced due to the snakebites was ordinary death, i.e. the cessation of life. It was not separation from God and His love nor torment of any kind. Hence, there is no reason to think that the perishing John speaks about is qualitatively divergent from the perishing the Israelites endured, such that it actually means living for eternity in torment and separation from God, never to die. Such a notion is found absolutely nowhere in the context, and it would be absurd to impose it, especially when John had just reminded us of the account in Numbers 21, where the only death that occurred was the physical kind.

The only difference between the life and death in Numbers 21 and the life and death we receive based on whether or not we believed in God's Son is a quantitative one; in the former, the life and death are temporary, while in the latter, they are they are permanent and unending. There is no indication of a qualitative difference, especially not one as major as the one suggested by ECP proponents, where those who perish actually live forever in hell. Indeed, the comparison would lose most of its force and appear even ridiculous. And so, taking everything we have discussed into account, it is unreasonable to say that "perish" in John 3:16 denotes anything other than dying, i.e. being deprived of life.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jesse
    Dec 26, 2022 at 1:47
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Whatever one makes of the verb ἀπόλλυμι, John 3:16 paints it as the opposite of eternal life.

Both BDB and Thayer both list several meanings for ἀπόλλυμι, but both agree that in John 3:16 it means to perish, destroy utterly, be ruined, etc. It is similar that same meaning in other places such as:

  • Matt 8:25 - And having approached, they awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us, we are perishing!" (ie, dying in this case). See also Mark 4:38, Luke 8:24.
  • Matt 26:52 - Then Jesus says to him, "Return your sword into its place; for all those having taken the sword, will perish by the sword.
  • Luke 15:17 - But having come to himself, he was saying, 'How many of my father's hired servants have abundance of bread, but here I am perishing with hunger?
  • 1 Cor 10:9 - Neither should we test the Christ, as some of them tested, and were destroyed by serpents.
  • 1 Cor 10:10 - Neither are you to grumble, as some of them grumbled, and perished by the Destroyer.
  • John 11:50 - nor do you consider that it is profitable for you that one man should die for the people, and the whole nation should not perish."
  • Acts 5:37 - After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and drew away people after him. He too perished, and all his followers were scattered.
  • 2 Peter 3:9 - The Lord does not delay the promise, as some esteem slowness, but is patient toward you, not willing for any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

... and so forth. ἀπόλλυμι refers to eternal death when in contradistinction with eternal life. The Bible does not say how long this takes (assuming it occurs in gehenna). See Matt 10:28.

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    A straightforward and highly based interpretation of John 3:16. Good job! +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Mar 15, 2022 at 4:01
  • Your bulleted list of references very helpful - it seems to me that you could replace the word "perish" with dying/die/kill without any change in meaning, which makes me think that "perish" in John 3:16 indeed refers to death. And then, if you remove the word "eternal" from John 3:16, you see a natural contrast between the words "life" and "death": For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not die but have life. Reading the verse like that, at least for me, seems a little more decipherable.
    – jmrah
    Jan 19 at 3:04
  • @jmrah - that is true and I agree but I do like not changing the text of the Bible as we have it. The word is "perish, destroy utterly" not die and the word "eternal" is there.
    – Dottard
    Jan 19 at 3:07
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“Life” here means indwelling of God in human hearts, which is impossible without humans overcoming sin, i.e. crucifying the “flesh” (Gal. 5:24) so that Christ starts living in human hearts (Gal. 2:20) transfiguring them to the “new men” (Eph. 4:25), “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:27).

To give an analogy: as a kid Leo Messi was discovered to have been given a talent of playing ⚽️. Now his life is football, and unless he is taken by sponsors to a sports section, good coaches etc. then he will perish as a football player, as the sports superstar, while continuing existing as a mediocrity, a chemist Leo Messi, or a taxi-driver Leo Messi - what a ridicule!

Similarly we would perish for divine life in Christ, that is to say, be deprived of life and salvific working of Christ in our hearts unless He became man being sent by the Father from the realm of Eternity of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without this new life, the transfigurative work of Christ in our hearts that enables us to become sons of God (John 1:12), we shall still continue to exist and live, even after our biological life ends, the unrepented soul will continue life and existence, but in a perished way, that is to say, as deprived of being blissfully bathed in uncreated divine grace, for any modality of life is like death, like perishing, in comparison with the divine life in Christ.

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