Translations Matter: Part One

Most Christians are aware that the Bible was not originally written in English. The Hebrew Scriptures are written in Hebrew and a smattering of Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Greek with a few words in Aramaic. I am astounded by those who seem to think that the Bible was written in the English of King James I of England. Many claim that translation is “the infallible, inerrant Word of God.” Not only do they seem to be ignorant of the original languages of the Bible—they are not even aware that the KJV was published in several editions over the years with each edition differing in some way from the others. (There were five editions—1611, 1629, 1638, 1764, and 1769. The current KJV is based on the University Oxford edition of 1769.) But, as the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.”

All translators face the challenge of translating words and ideas from one language to another. Such difficulties include translating perspectives and assumptions of people speaking one language for people speaking a different language and living in a different culture. Often, a literal, word-for-word translation fails to communicate the meaning intended in the original language.

There are times, however, when translations fail miserably to capture the truth of certain words. The very meaning of those words can become lost in poor, distorted, or wrong translations. In this series, I want to mention several distortions found today in many English translations of the Bible which have had profoundly tragic consequences. 

The word “hell” is found nowhere in the Bible. (Our English word “hell” comes from the Old English hel referring to the nether world of the dead and first mentioned in 725 CE.) There is no mention of any kind of everlasting place of punishment and torture in any of the Scriptures. 

In some English translations, “hell” is used to translate Hebrew and Greek words, none of which refer to any kind of “concentration camp” where pain is inflicted for all eternity. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word sheol is translated hell in some versions. However, sheol is simply the place of the dead. For most of the Old Testament period, all people (the good, the bad, and the indifferent) went to sheol where shades of their former selves withered into oblivion. There was no hope for reward or fear of punishment after death. Only in the 2nd century BCE did the Jews begin to hope for resurrection. The only place we have a clear reference to such a hope is in the book of Daniel, chapter 12. 

In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), we are told that both the rich man and the beggar are in Hades. The Greek Hades, like sheol, was the abode of the dead. Some Jews in Jesus’ day believed that at death all people went to Hades where they awaited the resurrection and “final judgment.” Hades is not an everlasting hell. It’s simply a waiting station until resurrection and judgment. In the parable, Lazarus reclines at the banquet table of Abraham while the rich man is in torment suffering the consequences of the sins of the greed and detachment from his fellow humans during his life. We must remember that this is a parable, not a prediction regarding the reality of hell, much less a doctrinal account of the afterlife. (See my blog passage on this parable entitled Luke 16:19-31 “While the Gate Is Still Open.”)

In II Peter 2:4 we have a reference to Tartarus which many English versions translate as hell. Tartarus comes from Greek mythology and originally referred to the pit/prison in which the Titans were chained after Zeus and his lot became rulers of the universe. In II Peter, it refers to the place where the fallen angels are chained “until the judgment.” Its duration, therefore, is limited by the word “until” and it was never understood as a place of punishment for evil humans. 

The word in the Greek New Testament that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley outside of Jerusalem. Some biblical scholars suggest it was a garbage dump where rubbish rotted and was burned. Such a suggestion may be true. However, there is no proof for such a theory. We do know that the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) was an accursed place because of its history. In ancient Judah, it was a notorious place of idolatry where children were burned and sacrificed to the Moabite god Chemosh. King Josiah defiled the valley during his religious reform (See II Kings 23:10). 

However, there is another feature of Gehenna which serves as the background for Jesus’ use of the word. N. T. Wright, a conservative (but not fundamentalist) New Testament scholar, suggests that Jesus’ references to hell (Gehenna) reflect Jeremiah’s prophecies in which the Valley of Hinnom was where the bodies of Israelites would rot during and after the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE (See Jeremiah 7). If they continued their sinful, violent, and greedy paths, they would suffer the same fate IN THIS LIFE as the Israelites did in the destruction of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day. Such, indeed, was the fate of many Jews at the conclusion of the Great Jewish War of 66-70 CE. Josephus refers to the rotting corpses of Jews in the Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna. Although Jesus may have used Gehenna in ways which could have extended this threat to the afterlife (a possibility that is debated among scholars), there is no evidence that he assumed such a terrible fate was everlasting.

In Jesus’ day, the reality, nature, and endurance of Gehenna/hell were much debated among the Jews. Rabbis differed in their understanding of the nature and purpose of hell as well as how long hell must be endured for those assigned to such torment. Was the nature of such punishment retributive and punitive or remedial and redemptive? What happened to those after they had suffered appropriate punishment? Were they annihilated or allowed to join the righteous in God’s presence? There was no consensus on these questions among the rabbis of Jesus’ day. For example, ultra conservative Shammai, although perhaps thinking that the bulk of humanity would be ultimately lost, still saw hell as principally a place of purification for those who had been neither wicked nor good. The more liberal Hillel thought only a few humans were beyond ultimate salvation and that hell would be a place of final punishment and annihilation for those too depraved to be rescued from their sin. Rabbi Akiba (50-135 CE) believed no one could suffer in hell for more than twelve months. This limited view of hell’s punishment was continued by rabbis for centuries after Akiba. The assumption today that questions regarding the afterlife and hell were settled in first century Judaism is simply mistaken. There was a wide range of opinions. 

Neither was there a consensus among early Christians concerning such questions. Among the early church fathers we would find several different options such as an everlasting and hopeless endurance of the painful torment of the wicked; an appropriate time of punishment fitting the evil done after which the wicked would be annihilated; an appropriate time of punishment after which the wicked were given a chance to repent; a punishment designed to be redemptive and remedial in nature after which the wicked, thus purified, would be welcomed to enjoy an eternity with God and the righteous; and a universal reconciliation and redemption of all humans and all creation. (The church fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa even believed that Satan would be ultimately redeemed.) Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea during the 4th century CE, wrote that most Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire believed in universal salvation although he apparently rejected such a hope. However, his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, was one of the leading proponents of universal salvation. (Gregory was so widely respected and instrumental in establishing church creeds and doctrines that he received the title “Father of the Fathers.” Universalism was never condemned by the church councils. Those who maintain that Origen was condemned for universalism are mistaken. See Ilaria Ramelli’s research on Origen. Many Early Church Fathers believed in universal salvation. Among the more prominent were Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, Maximus the Confessor, and the young Augustine who with age became an infernalist.)

Some contemporary theologians and biblical scholars suggest that Paul believed that once God’s purposes for creation were finally achieved, there would be universal salvation. (See the following passages: Roman 5:18-19; I Corinthians 15:22; II Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; I Timothy 2:3-6; II Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; I Timothy 4:10. See also in the New Testament John 12:32; II Peter 3:9; John 3:17.) We find in I Corinthians 3:10-15 the suggestion that judgment and “punishment” are designed to be a type of purification whereby even those whose lives are characterized by evil “works” will be saved. “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only through fire.” (I have never heard a sermon which deals with this passage.) 

Of course, other passages may be quoted which appear to suggest a more determined and ultimately hopeless fate for those who do not embrace the Christian faith. But the Bible is not systematic theology. It is a record of people of faith trying to make sense of God’s presence and actions in the world. My point is simply this: for every passage one may quote confirming the finality of hell for non-believers, I can quote another passage(s) which presents a more compassionate option. In the final analysis, we must decide which is stronger—our human, puny capacity to subvert the will of God for our salvation or God’s infinite grace. I choose God’s grace to be the final word for each human being and each part of this beloved creation. Some may have to go through their “hells” before they are open to God’s healing and redeeming love. But if “hell” is remedial and redemptive in nature, there is ultimate hope for everyone—even for you and me. 

[Perceptive readers may have some questions and objections to what I have written above. Perhaps the next article in this series will address those concerns. 

Those interested in Christian universalism may want to read Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God and Robin Parry’s Evangelical Universalism. (Parry’s book is under the pseudonym of Gregory Macdonald.) Destined for Joy by Alvin Kimel is priceless. Nineteenth century Scottish preacher George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are incredibly insightful and persuasive. C. S. Lewis called MacDonald his “mentor.” MacDonald also influenced Mark Twain and J. R. R. Tolkien. The more ambitious reader may want to tackle David Bentley Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved. His arguments for universal salvation are irrefutable! I dare you to read his book.

Christian universalism is enjoying a worldwide resurgence, a revival which makes me joyful and hopeful for the church.] 

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