“Should Not” versus “Shall Not” —John 3:16 and the NIV

by Douglas Hoff


One translation is as good as another, right?  Well, not always.  Granted, each translation is the product of human activity.  As such, not one will be absolutely perfect.  That does not mean a person must doubt whether he actually has God’s word in his hands.  If the Bible student is using an accurate version, then he can know and obey God’s will.  The problem is that some translations take undue liberties with the scriptures.  A good example of this is found in John 3:16 in the New International Version.

Almost from its introduction the NIV has been known as having a Calvinistic slant on many passages.  In this version the beloved John 3:16 reads, “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.” Compare this with almost any other version like the original King James Version, the American Standard Version or the New King James Version.  There it reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16; ASV).

Is the difference between should not and shall not all that important?  Yes! Even the number of nouns (singular or plural) and tenses of verbs are important. Jesus affirmed the truth of the resurrection based on the present tense of the verb “am.” The scriptures records “I am the God the God of Abraham” long after the patriarch was buried (Matthew 22:32).  God did not employ the past tense “was” for that would indicate Abraham no longer existed.  Paul showed that the promise God made to Abraham included his seed — singular, not plural (Galatians 3:16).  Clearly, translators must employ care to accurately render such distinctions or the Bible will appear to contradict itself.  Such contradictions arise only because of a failure to rightly handle the living word.

How can we determine the proper wording for John 3:16? Is should or shall correct?  First, we ought to understand the distinction between these words in the English language.  Should indicates a duty or necessity.  Shall conveys a thing will definitely happen.  There is a difference between saying “I should do this” and “I shall do this.”  In the first case I am indicating I have an obligation. However, I may not follow through and perform it.  In the second case, I am stating I will perform the task.

Now, we need to understand what the original text means.  The Greek word may used in this verse indicates qualified negation.  To show absolute denial a different word, ook, would be used.  This is the absolute negative.  John 3:16 uses the Greek word indicating qualified negation, not the word showing absolute denial.  Thus, the proper translation is “should not.”  As if to reinforce this point, the Holy Spirit used a related word in John 3:15.  This verse reads, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Here, the Greek word hin’-ah may was employed.  It is closely related to the word may used in the next verse.  This word means “in order (or so) that not.”  Again, it is not showing an absolute but something that is conditional.

So, what does all this mean?  The NIV incorrectly used shall instead of should.  If a person believes Jesus is the Son of God, truly believes (in the Biblical sense of obeying), then that person should not perish.  However, with

free will, he may perish.  He will perish if he becomes unfaithful and dies in that condition.  If one used only the NIV he might believe in “once saved, always saved.”  That is what “shall not perish” means.