“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)
The question was brought up the other day, “What does it mean to perish?” Besides John 3:16 (quoted above) we also have 2 Peter 3:9 letting us know that it is not God’s will that anyone should perish. The verse says,”The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” But the question is: what does it actually mean to perish?
Saint Pope John Paul II (in his Apostolic Letter, SALVIFICI DOLORIS) has specifically addressed, in very sobering words, what it means to perish. In answering this question the Pope first says, “Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering. According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives his Son to ‘the world’ to free man from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering.” A few lines later the Pope specifically tells us what it means to perish. The Pope says:
“Man” perishes” when he loses “eternal life”. The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection” (no. 14).
What, then, does it mean to perish? It means to enter into the definite and never-ending suffering of hell caused by sin. The only liberation from this sin-driven eternal death is Jesus Christ. The Pope explains:
“Christ goes towards his Passion and death with full awareness of the mission that he has to fulfill precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life”. Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character” (no.16).
Our escape from the ravages of sin is the Merciful Love of God manifested through His son, Jesus Christ, who died and gave his life for us (see Galatians 2:20), so that we need “not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Let us, therefore, draw closer to the Lord.
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
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