By Spencer D Gear
This verse in the New Revised Standard Version states, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16 NRSV).
Some other translations of the verse are:
Revised Standard Version: ‘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 RSV)
English Standard Version: ‘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 ESV)
New American Standard Bible: ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16 NASB).
New International Version: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16 NIV).
New Living Translation: ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16 NLT).
NET Bible: ‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16 NET).
Translation of the verbs makes the difference
Notice the contrast in translation of the verbs in these three translations: RSV, NRSV and ESV. The NRSV and ESV are based on the RSV, but notice the differences in verbal translations in the second half of the verse:
RSV: ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’;
ESV: ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’;
NRSV: ‘everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’;
What are the meanings of the NT Greek verbs in John 3:16b?
1. NRSV, ‘believes’ = Greek pisteuwn = masculine, nominative, singular, present participle of pisteuw. Because it is the present tense of the verb it is accurately translated as ‘believes’ or ‘continues to believe’. The latter translation emphasizes the continuous action of the present tense of the verb. So, all of the above translations, including the RSV, ESV and NRSV, are accurate in their translation of this verb as ‘believes’.
2. NRSV, ‘may not perish’ (me, meaning not, is the negative accompanying the verb). The Greek verb is apoletai = third person, singular, 2nd aorist tense, subjunctive mood of the verb, apollumi = may not perish (with the negative) as this is the function of the subjunctive mood. This verb is contained in a purpose clause beginning with hina. The Greek aorist tense means point action; Then the negative, me, is used with the aorist subjunctive, it ‘generally denotes a command not to begin an action…. Commands and exhortations (whether expressed by Subjunctive or Imperative) have an element of doubt, since they refer to the future and they may or may not be followed’ (Wenham 1965:166, emphasis in original). In English, ‘the subjunctive expresses thought or wish rather than an actual fact’ (Wenham 1965:12). Therefore, the NRSV translation, ‘may not perish’ and the ESV and RSV translations of ‘should not perish’ are both acceptable as translations with the negative.
3. NRSV, ‘may have’ = Greek eche = third person, singular, present, subjunctive verb, of echw. Greek grammarian, A. T. Robertson, stated that the subjunctive mood ‘is the mood of doubt, of hesitation, of proposal, of prohibition, of anticipation, of expectation, of brooding hope, of imperious will’ (1934:928). However Robertson also admits, after his survey of Greek grammarians and their views of the subjunctive, that ‘the grammarians lead us [on] a merry dance with the subjunctive’ (1934:927). Here’s the problem with the NRSV’s translation of the present tense, subjunctive mood:
4. Machen (1923:128, 131), a Greek grammarian, has stated that while aorist and present are the only tenses used with the subjunctive mood, ‘the present subjunctive does not necessarily refer to present time…. [but] refers to it as continuing or as being repeated’. However, when associated with the conjunction, hina, meaning ‘in order that’ (as in John 3:16), ‘ordinarily it is impossible to bring out the difference in an English translation’ (Machen 1923:131). In John 3:16, the literal meaning would be ‘they may have eternal life’, but this is NOT a good translation as it is impossible to translate as such. Therefore, it seems strange that the NRSV has translated as ‘may have eternal life’ instead of the expected ‘have eternal life’. Any translator wanting to convey the continuous action of present tense, surely would not use ‘may have’ as a translation that accurately gives the understanding from the Greek.
5. The meaning of John 3:16 is conveyed later in that same chapter, in John 3:36, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (ESV). In 1 John 5:12, we have a parallel meaning by the same author, John: ‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life’ (ESV).
The main difference in John 3:16b between the NRSV’s translation of the last verb and the other translations cited above, is that the NRSV does not accurately convey the present tense meaning of eche, the present subjunctive of the verb.
With the NRSV’s kind of translation, using the subjunctive mood, it indicates that eternal life is not being experienced in a continuous action. It is only potential with the NRSV translation.
This is a serious theological issue. Can Christians experience eternal life as a continuing reality when they experience it in the future? The common teaching of biblical Christianity is that the Christian life is experienced in the NOW and continues through death as it refers to eternal life that never ends (unless there is apostasy) – but that’s another topic. For discussion of that latter topic, see my article, ‘Once saved, always saved or once saved, lost again: An exposition of Hebrews 6:4-8‘.
Machen, J G 1923. New Testament Greek for beginners. Toronto, Ontario: The Macmillan Company.
Robertson, A T 1934. A grammar of the Greek New Testament in the light of historical research. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Wenham, J W 1965. The elements of New Testament Greek. London: Cambridge University Press.
 This ‘e’ is the transliteration of the Greek letter of the alphabet, eta. Since this html page will not accept the usual transliteration of eta, I have resorted to the use of e, which is the normal transliteration of the Greek letter epsilon.
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 20 February 2017.