From Koinonia Blog (biblical-theological conversations for the community of Christ)
We teach students in first year Greek that the subjunctive mood carries the idea of “should” or might.” But then they come to a verse like John 3:16 and read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that (ινα) whoever believes in him should (αποληται) not perish but have eternal life” (ESV).
The confusing part is that to some people’s mind, the “should” introduces an element of uncertainty. They “should” perish, but does that mean in fact they “will perish”?
The indicative mood is the mood of “reality.“ It is used to describe “what is.“ Of course, this is a simplistic definition, otherwise we could not lie or ask a question. Daniel Wallace is correct in his frequent assertion that the indicative mood is the mood of the portrayal of reality. It describes what we think “is,“ or what we want people to believe “is.“ Which, of course, is why we lie in the indicative.
The normal definition of the subjunctive is that it is the mood of what may or might be. It is one step removed from reality (as opposed to the optative, which is two steps removed from reality, describing what we wish would be). Wallace defines the subjunctive as representing “the verbal action (or state) as uncertain but probable” (page 461), clarifying that it is not the mood of uncertainty (which is the optative) but of probability.
So is Jesus saying that it is probably that those who believe in him will not perish?
I hope not. I believe there is no uncertainty that his gift of righteousness through our faith secures our future salvation, which of course it does.
This illustrates the problem of first year Greek and why we can’t be too simplistic in language. The older I get, the more complicated I realize language is.
ινα introduces a purpose clause. The clause is not stating what is but rather the purpose of something. There is your one step removed from reality, from what is. God gave his only Son on the cross, and the purpose of that giving is so that (i.e., purpose) those who believe in him will most certainly not perish. Because it is a purpose clause, it cannot be in the indicative. It is not stating what is (in the sense of the indicative) but rather is stating the purpose of something.
But that does not mean there is any uncertainly, any idea of probability or possibility. That God gave his son is a fact. That the purpose of giving his Son was so that believers will most certainly have eternal life. Which is why we must be careful in translating purpose clauses as if they were conditional.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill’s blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.