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)

What is the Roman Catholic way of interpreting John 3:16, the most popular verse in the Bible? What does the word "perish" mean?

  • 3
    The Catholic Church doesn't usually have official interpretations of individual scripture passages. Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 20:00
  • @Matthe is right in general, but there are footnotes to Catholic Bibles usccb.org/bible/john/3:16 that can illuminate things
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 22:17
  • @PeterTurner How do Catholics understand the word "perish" here? Does it mean physical death or Hell?
    – Mawia
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 3:30
  • 1
    It's strange for me to know that Catholics don't interpret John 3:16. I still can't believe it. With all the complex Catechisms, still there is no interpretation on this popular verse? Hard to believe. Maybe because you guys are not exploring enough. And the downvote? Nonsense.
    – Mawia
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 19:19
  • Looking at Thomas Aquinas is often a good place to start. He cites the verse seven times. On each occasion, the idea of God's love is the important aspect of the verse, not the perishing. This might be telling about the correct interpretation of the verse... Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 9:12

4 Answers 4


I can't answer for the Catholic interpretation of Perish in John 3:16, but I can give you the Catholic approach to reading the Bible and my opinion of that. It's all pretty obvious and doesn't help, but should shed light on why this is an unanswerable (yet good) question.

The four senses of scripture

  1. Literal

    John 3:16 literally means "shall not perish", the same way Jesus said to Peter later in the Book that the disciple whom He loved might live until He returns.

  2. Moral

    John 3:16 instructs the faithful just how much God the Father loves His children. If you love someone you will make the ultimate sacrifice for them.

  3. Metaphorical

    Perish could mean die a spiritual death as easily as it means die a physical death. To die in ones sins, would be a metaphorical interpretation of the word perish.

  4. Eternal

    Here's where perish means, suffer the fire of hell and that would be true too.

So, there's 4 legitimate ways of looking at the same piece of scripture neither of which negate the other, neither of which are authoritative.

  • 1
    Or, all of which are authoritative! Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 18:49
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    "It's all pretty obvious and doesn't help." I don't understand why you answered the question then. I also don't understand why three people think this was a good answer. This is a classic "I don't know, but here's something else" answer. You answered the question "What is the Catholic approach to interpreting Scripture?" Maybe tangentially related to this, but not helpful, by your own admission. All you have to do for this is quote one or two Catholic theologians on probably the single most popular verse in the entire Bible. But you choose to do this. I think you should just delete it.
    – user3961
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 19:37
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    @fredsbend there is no "Roman Catholic Interpretation" of John 3:16 or any other verse in the Bible. These are the official ways one can read scripture and the reading is obvious. As Chesterton wrote, the common man (i.e. the common sane Catholic) accepts the two truths and their apparent contradiction as facts.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 20:57
  • 1
    Do you not know of a single Catholic theologian who commented on John 3:16? Is commenting on Scripture not something Catholic theologian's do? What about quoting Scripture to make certain points? Surely Catholic Theologians do that.
    – user3961
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 22:20
  • 1
    I think the point being made is that this verse has probably the easiest code to crack in all of Scripture. God gave his Son = we gain eternal life. That's it. Nothing to heavyweight here. I take Peter saying that no matter how you spin the verse 4ways to Sunday (within context) you are going to get the meaning.
    – user5286
    Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 0:56

The simplest answer, Catholic or otherwise, given the context would be that the word "perish" here means hell.

The Catholic Church does not usually have official interpretations of individual scripture passages, Catholics view the bible as a whole. For example if you view this passage alone you can say that all you need is to believe in Jesus and you will not perish. But reading on in the same chapter (verse 36) we see "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him" This passage adds more meaning to John 3:16. Here obedience and faith play role in salvation.

Of course just because the Church does not have an official interpretation of each bible passage that doesn't mean that individual Catholics can't interpret the passages by themselves. As long as they stay withing the Catholic faith and using the four senses of scripture as outlined in answer by Peter Turner.

  • Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page and How we are different than other sites? Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 1:01

John 3:16 tells us that:

God gave His only begotten Son, Jesus, to live for us and die for our sins on the Cross (see also Romans 5:8)

  • We must believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life. The word “believe” means that we must commit our life to Him and follow Him as our Lord and our God.
  • Believing in Jesus means we will not “perish,” meaning we won’t spend all of our life and all eternity separated from the presence of God in hell.
  • When we turn our life over to Jesus by believing in Him, He gives us “everlasting life.” Everlasting life begins the moment you believe in Jesus and begin to follow Him, and it continues into heaven itself.

Let us not forget context. Much error can be avoided if we remember the context in which Scripture verses are written. John 3:16 is the continuation of Yeshua's conversation with Nicodemus that began in John 3:1. It is Pesach (Passover), and the conversation Yeshua and Nicodemus are having involves the nation of Israel. In John 3:3, Yeshua says, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God. The word "again" is G509, and it means "above", not "again". So, the verse should read, unless one is born from "above", he cannot see the Kingdom of Elohim (God). The phrase, "The Kingdom of Elohim" (God) is a reference to the Throne of David, the House of Jacob, which is the Kingdom of Elohim (Luke 1:32-33). Where is the site of David's throne? It is Jerusalem (I Chronicles 14-17).

In John 3:14, Yeshua mentions Moses and the serpent in the wilderness. Who was that story about--the nation of Israel. So, when Yeshua speaks of the world, in v.16, He refers to Israel. The word "world" is G2889. Yes, it does mean the world, as in the global world itself, but it also means an orderly arrangement, a region with borders; a territory. And in this case, it refers to Israel, since that is the territory Yeshua and Nicodemus were talking about. They were talking about Israel, not the world at large. The word "perish" is G622. It means destruction, but it also means to sever from its source. So, Elohim so loved Israel, that He gave Israel His Begotten Son (Yeshua is the Kinsmen Redeemer of Israel only), that whosoever IN ISRAEL, believeth in Him will not be severed from the nation of Israel, but will have everlasting life...

  • Hi, Welcome. Please mention which denomination interpretes this way. Let me remind you also that the question is asking for a Catholic perspective. If this is not a Catholic perspective, it will be deleted.
    – Mawia
    Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 16:57
  • Welcome to the site. As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 23:35
  • As a Catholic, I can vouch for the fact that no Catholic theologian would ever restrict John 3:16 to the nation of Israel. In the previous verse, he used Nehushtan as a type of Himself on the cross, so the context is actually not Israel but the new Israel, the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims continually throughout the gospels is "at hand"; in other words, the church, composed of "whosoever believeth in him".
    – King David
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 13:20

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