“Not perish but have eternal life.” What I thought this meant as a child was that I had to believe in Jesus if I wanted to go to heaven, not hell. But that’s not what it says.
In fact, the Gospel of John never mentions hell (geenna). It talks about heaven quite a bit, but it doesn’t say people go there. Rather, it’s God who comes to us. God’s Spirit comes from heaven (1:32). Jesus is sent to us from heaven (3:27, 31). Jesus is the bread come down from heaven (6:31-58), and heaven’s voice affirms him (12:28).
Angels move between heaven and earth (1:51), but humans don’t. Jesus is unique, the only one who goes to heaven:
John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s the context of John 3:16. It doesn’t say that all humans live forever (whether in heaven or hell). We’ve imported those ideas into the text. So what does John mean by contrasting perishing and having eternal life?
Perishing means to be ruined, to rot, to die. Remember that time you went away for several weeks and returned to find the fruit you left in the crisper was no longer fruit? It perished.
John uses the word perish (apollymai) exactly like that. After feeding the 5000, Jesus asked the disciples to collect the leftovers so nothing perished (6:12).
He pushed the food analogy further:
John 6:27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.
Long ago when humanity declared independence from God, we found ourselves disconnected from our life source. God had breathed his life into the dust, but without God’s breath we’re only dust. God formed us from the ground, but independent of God we fall back into the ground the way an apple falls from the tree and perishes in the dirt:
Genesis 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
That’s how God explained it. That’s perishing.
But God has not left us to perish in the dust. He took on our form, and joined us in the dust (1:14). The rulers of his day declared that it was better for him to die than for the whole people to perish (11:50). That’s why the rebellious world killed God’s anointed ruler, rejecting the gift God sent to make peace with the world.
But God did not leave his Son to rot in the grave (Acts 2:31). He overpowered death. He has eternal life. He gives eternal life to those who trust his leadership, recognizing the authority of his name.
Good news! Those who trust him don’t perish like everything else in a corrupted world. Those who rely on his authority as the one sent from heaven to restore the world have his undying resurrection life. Under his reign, the rot stops. God’s world doesn’t perish; it’s preserved.
As I write, I smell banana bread cooking. The bananas were going brown, and we didn’t want them to perish. We’ll enjoy them for lunch, but we can’t make them last forever. God can. Our heavenly sovereign sent his Son to a world in decay, so that those who give him allegiance would not perish but participate in his resurrection reign.