Translations Matter: Part Two

In part one of this series, we learned that the word “hell” occurs nowhere in the Bible. Hell is an English word mistakenly used to translate words like sheol, Gehenna, and Tartarus, none of which refers to an everlasting place of torture and punishment from which there is no hope of escape. The primary reason for people assuming  punishment in hell lasts forever is based on a mistranslation of the Greek word aionios. 

Those defending the everlasting torture of those in hell look to Matthew 25 for proof. At the end of Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment, the sheep (the righteous) are separated from the goats (the wicked). In verse 46, Jesus says about the wicked, “They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Or at least, that’s the way the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the verse. 

The King James Version (KJV) translates the verse differently: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.” The KJV has influenced people’s understanding of the Bible for four centuries. That translation was based in part on manuscripts available at that time. Today, we have much older and more dependable manuscripts. The KJV was influenced by the Geneva Bible and Wycliffe’s 14th century translation of Scripture. Wycliffe was dependent on the Latin Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible dating from the fourth century CE.) However, William Tyndale’s Bible translation (1522 and 1535 CE) perhaps had the greatest influence on the KJV. Although scholars differ in their perception of that influence, one estimate suggests that 83% of the KJV New Testament and 71% of the KJV Old Testament follows Tyndale’s translation. Tyndale’s Bible was the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts although it relied heavily on Jerome’s fourth century CE Latin Vulgate. 

What is interesting about the KJV translation of Matthew 25:46 is that the Greek word translated “everlasting” regarding the fate of the wicked is the same word translated “eternal” in reference to the fate of the righteous. The adjective in Greek is aionion (the accusative form of aionios). This adjective comes from the Greek noun aion and never means “everlasting” in the New Testament. Aion refers to a set period of time with certain characteristics. Our word “eon” comes from aion. An aion can refer to a short or long time. The most common duration to aion given by Greek and Jewish writers was one hundred years. The “punishment” inflicted on the goats is appropriate for the aion/the new age of God’s transfigured heaven and earth. Such “punishment” will be carried out in that new age and will correspond to the offenses of the wicked. However, the word does not mean “everlasting” as in “forever.” In Jesus parable of the unforgiving servant,” he says that the servant will endure the torture of his jailers “until he should pay all his debt,” until implying an end to his punishment. 

So, why does the KJV translate aionion “everlasting” when referring to the fate of the wicked and “eternal” regarding the fate of the righteous? I would suggest two reasons. The threat of everlasting torture in hell served both the church and the state in controlling the populations of Europe. In the imaginations of most European Christians, the church, supported by the strong arm of the state, held the keys of heaven and hell. Fear has always been a strong incentive to obey the authorities. 

Secondly, we can detect the influence of Augustine. Augustine was not proficient in Greek. He relied on Latin translations for the formulation of his theology. These translations (including the Latin Vulgate which Augustine used in his later years) translated aionios with the Latin eternum which does mean “everlasting.” Thus, Augustine assumed that hell was everlasting in duration with no hope of deliverance. The Greek Church Fathers who naturally spoke and understood Greek never made that mistake. They knew the meaning of aionios. It’s not by accident that most of the Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where Greek was the primary language, believed in universal salvation and understood “hell” as temporary in duration and remedial and restorative in nature. 

The Greek word translated in English as “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is kolasis. This noun is used elsewhere to refer to the “pruning” of a tree. One does not prune with the intention of destroying, harming, or punishing a tree. The pruning is done for the health and growth of the tree and to make it more productive. Kolasis would be better translated as “chastisement” or “discipline” instead of “punishment.” It emphasizes the remedial and corrective nature of judgment after death. 

A final observation regarding the mistaken notion of an everlasting hell in which one is punished forever with no hope of release involves the assumption that at death one’s ultimate destiny has been irrevocably sealed and not even God can change that fate. Such an assumption has never made any sense to me. In an engaging sermon, Clarence Jordan talked about a man who was seriously reconsidering the direction of his life. Perhaps he should consider the possibility of the existence of a God who loves him and could help him put his life back together. As the man is deep in thought, he ignores an oncoming train which crashes into his car killing him instantly. So, what does God say to such a tragedy? “I almost had that one, but the train beat me to him.” What kind of God, who loves in both life and death, could ever be content with the loss of a single beloved child? 

There is no reference in the Bible to any everlasting place of punishment and torture beyond death. That belief is based on horrible translations of Hebrew and Greek words. 

The Population Reference Bureau estimates that in the past 50,000 years over 108 billion human beings have lived on this earth. According to much American Christianity, the overwhelming majority of these humans are burning in hell, most of them for something they did not ever know about. If that’s good news, then I want to renegotiate my religious commitment. But fortunately, I don’t have to abandon my faith. There is no reference in the Bible to any everlasting place of punishment and torture beyond death. That belief is based on horrible translations of Hebrew and Greek words. 

God is love both now and forever. And love wins. In fact, according to the New Testament and the early church, in and through Christ, love has already won. Unconditional, indiscriminate, nonviolent, self-giving, and everlasting love casts out fear. There is no place for fear in the Christian faith, either regarding our fate or any other part of creation. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ we Augustinian Christians in the West must recover quickly, convincingly, and thoroughly. No one with sense or sensitivity can embrace a religion based on fear, much less the threats of everlasting torture. The Abba revealed in Jesus Christ deserves a better reputation than that. 

Yes, translations do matter, sometimes eternally so. 

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