John 3:16

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

ESV: "should not/me apoletai".

New American Bible: "might not".

NASB 1995: "shall not".

Douay-Rheims & Good News: "may not".

New American Standard Bible: "will not".

should not-should/ought. "Drivers should be careful. That nail should do the trick".

might not- This could be that not perishing is made possible. "We took money that we might [it was possible to] buy food".

shall not/will not-Not perishing is definitely going to happen to those who believe.

may not-"may" like "might" may be one thing making another possible. "I may drive a car as I have a licence". Not necessarily definite, "I may go to the shops but I may not".

Another question on this site looks at "perish".

  • Distinguishing between the optative and the subjunctive mood will, I hope, be part of this study. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 6 at 14:02

3 Answers 3


According to Bill Mounce, the meaning of “me apoletai” in Jn 3:16 is best represented by shall not/will not.

The normal definition of the subjunctive is that it is the mood of what may or might be. It is one step removed from reality (as opposed to the optative, which is two steps removed from reality, describing what we wish would be). Wallace defines the subjunctive as representing “the verbal action (or state) as uncertain but probable” (page 461), clarifying that it is not the mood of uncertainty (which is the optative) but of probability.

So is Jesus saying that it is probable that those who believe in him will not perish? I hope not. I believe there is no uncertainty that his gift of righteousness through our faith secures our future salvation, which of course it does…

ινα introduces a purpose clause. The clause is not stating what is but rather the purpose of something. There is your one step removed from reality, from what is. God gave his only Son on the cross, and the purpose of that giving is so that (i.e., purpose) those who believe in him will most certainly not perish. Because it is a purpose clause, it cannot be in the indicative. It is not stating what is (in the sense of the indicative) but rather is stating the purpose of something – Mounce 2011, Should or Will Perish (John 3:16)

Mounce rejects the idea that the subjunctive mood of “apoletai” implies the existence of any uncertainty: “That God gave his son is a fact. That the purpose of giving his Son was so that believers will most certainly have eternal life.” Personally, I do not see how knowing the cause or purpose of something guarantees the result, except in the case, as it is here, where the purposes are God’s. Indeed, if we consider Jn 3:16 purely from the perspective of God’s love and saving action, then I can see why there is no room for uncertainty or doubt (cf Jn 10:28, Rom 1:16).

However, the subject within the ινα clause in Jn 3:16 is not God but man. The grammatical construction of the clause introduces the element of human agency. The active form of the word apollumi (Strong’s 622) means to destroy or to lose, and its middle usage of “apoletai” in Jn 3:16 can be construed to mean “to lose or destroy oneself” or “to let oneself be destroyed.” Here, the human subject/agent is also the one who is affected by the action.

To see whether the subjunctive of “apoletai” in Jn 3:16 is present only as a function of the purpose clause, I thought it helpful to see how the same word is conjugated in Jn 10:28.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish (apoletai, 622, V-ASM-3S) but have everlasting life – Jn 3:16 NKJV

And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish (apolōntai, 622, V-ASM-3P); neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. – Jn 10:28

Though it is translated in English with the word “shall”, “apolontai” in Jn 10:28 is also in the subjunctive mood despite the absence of the purpose clause. The similar construction of the verbs in both verses supports my theory that the subjunctive, and with it the sense of uncertainty or probability, is inherent to what is being conveyed in Jn 3:16 and not just there as a function of the purpose clause.

Beyond grammar and translation, I believe that where there is an element of human agency, there is going to be some degree of uncertainty or doubt. Applying this thought to John 10:28, we could say that while no one can snatch the sheep out of God’s hand, there remains the possibility that the sheep can become lost on their own (cf Col 1:23, Heb 2:1, 1 Cor 1:32, etc.). What then of Jn 3:16? Given the above considerations, while I completely understand the logic behind translations that convey the certainty of God’s purposes with “will” and “shall”, my preference is for those that capture the uncertainty of human agency with “may” or “might.”

  • Thanks+1. For better or for worse my present take is: You say "the uncertainty of human agency". For me, we do not know who will have eternal life so yes there is uncertainty. But God knows everything and for Him there is no uncertainty. He knows who will believe and have eternal life; the Father sent His Son that this was enabled/could happen. Your answer deals with technicalities in the clearest way I have seen.
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 11 at 12:01
  • I agree with you, though God has given us free will, nothing can happen outside of his knowledge. There is also the certainty that nothing can separate us from God's redemptive love (cf Rom 8).
    – Nhi
    Apr 12 at 19:14

First, we should note that the verb ἀπόληται is aorist subjunctive middle voice - an impossible sense to convey in English. However with some explanation, it is possible to gain some of the meaning intended.

  1. Middle Voice

First I note that the voice is "middle" meaning that the action of the verb is performed upon the speaker. That is, the verse is saying that those who believe in "Him", ie, God's only Son, will not destroy themselves; or at least, cause themselves to be destroyed/perish.

That is, not believing in Jesus, results in the destruction of the person. Put another way, each unbelieving person will be responsible for their own eternal perishing.

  1. Subjunctive mood

In Daniel Wallace's "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics" (GGBB), page 462, we have this helpful series of remarks:

Descriptions of the subjunctive and optative moods in standard grammars tacitly assume that the optative was still in full flower in the koine period. But it was dying out. The reason is that it was too subtle for people acquiring Greek as a second language to grasp fully. ... in the NT there are 1858 subjunctives and 70 optatives - a ratio of 27:1! This simple statistic reflects the fact that in the Hellenistic era the subjunctive is encroaching on the use of the optative.

All this makes our task trickier! On the same page, GGBB goes on to say,

On the other hand, sometimes the subjunctive acts like a future indicative. The two morpho-syntactic categories are really quite similar (and perhaps derive from the same root). in independent clauses, for example, the subjunctive cannot be said to express "probability."

Then on page 474 of GGBB, Wallace gives this analysis of John 3:16 -

τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

He gave his only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life

The fact that the subjunctive is all but required after ἵνα does not, of course, argue for uncertainty as to the fate of the believer. This fact is obvious, not from this text, but from the use of μὴ in John 10:28 and 11:26, as well as the general theological contours of the gospel of John.

[Emphasis and bolding etc, as per original GGBB.] I agree.

From all of this, we conclude that John's use of the aorist subjunctive in John 3:16 is essentially equivalent here to a future indicative. Thus, we read Jesus' statement as one of future fact based on conditional conjunction ἵνα (hina = "so that") - if a person does not believe, then that person will be responsible for their own perishing.

APPENDIX - Eternal Fate

It is possible to see the personal responsibility of the righteous and wicked in specific prophecies of the second coming of Jesus:

The Righteous:

Isa 25:9 - It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

The Wicked:

Rev 6:15-17 - Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the commanders, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and free man hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they said to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of Their wrath has come, and who is able to withstand it?”

Note that the wicked request death and destruction and the righteous are filled with joy at the appearing of Jesus.


The question is more related to English than Greek. It is about the modern shift in the usage of the modal verbs should and might. In old times, "should" was used in conditional subjunctives just as would and might are. Might is used to convey the conditional aspect in modern English, not the lesser possibility. All: may, should, might, would, could can be used in such subjunctives equally, according to preference. The words by themselves don't convey certainty. The future tense "will" and "shall" are definitely wrong for a strict literature translation of the subjunctives. You can ask about this on ell.stackexchange.

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