There is a beauty in familiar verses, in their timeless value, universal acceptance and continued reaffirmation. But such verses are risky: that the over familiarity that we may display actually undercut our ability to interpret these passages properly and fully. Herein I aim to exegete John 3, which contains perhaps the most well-known of all biblical verses: John 3:16. Here, I see the passage as providing a strong witness to the truth of annihilationism, if we allow the passage to speak for itself free from our presuppositions of what the Bible teaches about divine judgment. If we leave these presuppositions behind, I do not think that there can be any doubt as to what the text teaches: the God-breathed Scriptures are clear, a glorious truth.
Being born again
In John 3, Nicodemus is coming to see Jesus, to have a discussion. In doing so, Nicodemus, a well-respected Pharisee, comes “to Jesus at night” (John 3:2), to avoid being seen, and praises Jesus- “Rabbi we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you were doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). So how does Jesus respond to these kind words? Certainly not in a seeker-sensitive way, to try to make sure that Nicodemus stays. No, Jesus clarifies the situation: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3). After incredulity from Nicodemus, Jesus merely repeats himself, slightly differently: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and of Spirit.” (John 3:5)
As this is, I believe this, on its own, provides moderate support for annihilationism over torment. It is noted that one cannot enter or see the Kingdom of God unless one is born again. It is fair to note that Jesus does declare that the Kingdom of God, in many places, has arrived: “the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). But there are also signals that the Kingdom of God has not yet arrived- for example Luke 19:10-11, in the so-called “now and not yet” of the Kingdom. This paradox is a difficult question to unravel- but is partially irrelevant. What matters is that no one- literally none- can see the Kingdom of God “unless they are born again”. Now when the Kingdom comes in the future, the Biblical vision of eternity is glorious- where “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11) and bringing “all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). A nice description of the Kingdom of God is where Jesus is King. So in the New Heavens and the New Earth, the Kingdom of God is everywhere. But if the Kingdom of God is everywhere, and one cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born again, then this suggests that the unregenerate will not be around to see the Kingdom of God- or they will be dead. Where the unregenerate could be otherwise is a puzzle, since there doesn’t seem to be any room outside of the Kingdom of God in eternity. Possible answers could be given- but it coheres more simply with annihilationism, than torment.
Lifting up the snake
In John 3:14-15, Jesus continues: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him”. Here, we have a reference back to Numbers 21, wherein the Israelites, continuing to complain to God in spite of his continual grace, are subject to divine judgment, and many of them are killed. The response of God, when Moses prays for the people, is to lift up a bronze snake in the wilderness, and those who look up at the bronze snake live. Here Jesus applies such a text to himself- just as the bronze snake is lifted up, so the Son of Man (himself) must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Here the understanding of annihilationism permeates the text. God’s previous judgment, demonstrated on his people, is that not of torment, but death. By lifting up the snake in the wilderness, salvation comes and life with it, and life in the very sense of being alive. Equally, Jesus makes a reference to his own “being lifted up”- and this seems a clear reference to his own death, which serves as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We must note that penal substitutionary theory requires that death is the payment: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Those who are saved by this sacrifice, believing Christ, are given eternal life- a parallel with the life given to those who looked on the bronze snake. The text seems to be clear here.
Perish or live
Finally, we must look at the centrepiece of the text, John 3:16 itself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes may not perish, but have eternal life”. There are two options here: one perishes, or one has eternal life. These are the only options available, and a plain reading of “perish” is to mean death. In the context of the previous divine judgment on the Israelites, the natural reading of “perish” continues to be death- and the same with eternal life. Other interpretations, in my opinion, seem to be importing presuppositions external to the text and foreign to it, and to thus misread it. The exegesis here has aimed to be consistent and fair, and I’d hope that others would be able to do the same.