Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

As I wrote in my last post, whenever I had cause to explain or defend the idea of eternal conscious torment, I always relied on two foundational claims:

  1. that the unequivocal wording of Scripture teaches the eternal conscious torment of the lost.
  2. that this belief has been consistently held by the vast majority of the church throughout our history.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, both of these claims are weak, if not outrightly incorrect. We don’t have any evidence of an overwhelming consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 600 years of church history. (And a claim that the eternal conscious torment view was predominant in the early church is particularly suspect.) Significant, soundly orthodox Christian leaders have held other views of hell throughout the history of the church. In the last post, we took a closer look at the Greek word aionios and found that it does not mean “eternal,” but “pertaining to the age” or—in the context of the hell passages—“of the age to come.” So the hell passages that speak of “eternal fire” or “eternal punishment” are more accurately referring to the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come (and the life of the age to come). It’s obvious that this strongly diminishes the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. But are there any other passages that might explicitly teach this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures:

Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man

In discussions of hell, someone will almost always bring up this familiar story. So let’s take some time to think about it. First of all, we should note that the story Jesus tells has to do with Hades or “the grave.” This isn’t talking about the fate of the lost after the resurrection and judgment, so this actually tells us nothing about hell. But let’s consider it anyway.

Many would accept this story as either describing something that literally happened or at least a faithful explanation of the nature of the afterlife. But a great many Bible scholars would caution us about being too quick in how we interpret this story. Why? Because they understand the historical context. The story that Jesus tells is noticeably similar to a folk story that was common in the Jewish culture at that time, but with some striking differences. The way the story was commonly told, the rich man was invariably the hero. The Jewish people of that time typically associated wealth with the blessing and favor of God. So this was a moral tale intended to contrast the responsible, godly rich man with the lazy, sinful beggar. Jesus tells this familiar story but he turns it on its head. It’s Lazarus, the poor beggar, who enjoys the blessing of paradise after he dies, and it’s the rich man who experiences the anguish of judgment! This would have been a shocking reversal to the people hearing Jesus’ story—especially to the Pharisees.

Some would understand all of this, but yet insist that Jesus is still describing something that actually occurred. Why? Because he gives us the name of Lazarus. We don’t see any other place where Jesus includes someone’s name in a parable, so, the thinking goes, this must not be a parable. But, while it’s true that Jesus does name Lazarus, and this is unusual, this interpretation also misses the actual significance of Jesus giving us this name. What was the rich man’s name? Jesus never tells us. Think about that. This rich man would have occupied a place of prominence in his community and in the life of the Jewish people. But in this story the man dies nameless, just some generic rich guy, with no identity or legacy. But the person they would have thought of as a nameless, faceless, generic poor beggar—he is given a name, an identity. The contrast is dramatic and would have added to the shocking impact to those hearing the story.

But—others might say—surely Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it was intended to be a parable. Yet Jesus often included elements of parables that, though understandable, differed somewhat from actual reality. (Sowers wouldn’t have scattered their seed everywhere indiscriminately; no one would actually begin plowing and then not look where they were going, etc.) And it’s quite common for teachers to utilize folk tales that aren’t literally true as illustrations, as long as the people they’re teaching know they’re folk tales. Imagine a pastor in a church beginning a story with: “So, these three people die, and they each go to Saint Peter at the pearly gates . . .” Would anyone listening to this assume that this evangelical pastor is affirming the theological truth that when we die we’re each interviewed at the pearly gates by Saint Peter?! Of course not. They would understand the pastor was using a familiar scenario as an illustration to make a point. And Jesus was doing much the same thing.

If we’re supposed to understand this story as giving an accurate depiction of the afterlife, then we have more problems than the torment it describes. Let’s look at a couple of other details in the passage:

  • According to the story, heaven or paradise is characterized primarily by association with Abraham, and Abraham is somehow the key figure of authority there. Ask yourself this question: Does this emphasis of Abraham as the key figure best fit a biblical understanding of heaven or paradise, or does it fit much better with a first century Jewish folk understanding of heaven or paradise?
  • In this story, what determines who ends up on which side of the chasm? Jesus hasn’t died yet or been resurrected. So it has nothing to do with that. In fact, nothing is said about faith at all. Is this story teaching us that poor beggars all go to “heaven” and rich people all go to “hell”? Someone might respond: no, it has to do with the way they treated others. Okay, so that means their works determine whether they go to heaven or hell? Lazarus was saved because of his own righteousness?

No, if we try to understand this story as a literal depiction of hell for the purpose of preserving belief in eternal conscious torment, we end up with some very problematic theological baggage. It makes much more sense that Jesus was using a common folk story of the time to challenge the moral and spiritual assumptions of the people, just as a great many Bible scholars tell us. Regardless, as we observed above, this story is about Hades, not hell, so it doesn’t tell us anything directly about the fate of the lost after judgment.

Mark 9:43-48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”

In a passage where Jesus is speaking of Gehenna [for more background regarding Gehenna, see my previous post], Jesus quotes this reference from Isaiah. Strangely—even though there’s no other place in Scripture where “worm” is a metaphor for one’s soul or spirit—some would assume this worm is speaking of the immortal soul of the lost. This is even less plausible when we take the time to look at the verse Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24, where the passage is poetically describing the fate of those who would be judged, and what happens to their physical bodies. This passage in Isaiah is describing the decay and consumption of physical, mortal corpses, not spirits or souls. This is even more clear when we read this verse in Mark from a more current translation. For instance, the NLT renders this phrase: “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” When we look at this in context—especially going back to the section in Isaiah that Jesus is quoting—it’s difficult to read into this anyone’s immortal soul. It actually strengthens the interpretation that Jesus is following the same understanding of Gehenna we see consistently in the Old Testament, and using this to warn of the coming judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see this post). For a Jewish person to not be buried after death, but to have their corpse subjected to such a shameful end, would have been horrific.

But what of this unquenchable fire? The NASB translation of this in Isaiah 66:24 gives the sense of the Hebrew here: “And their fire will not be extinguished.” Let’s make sure we’re thinking about this according to the original context (to which Jesus was referring). Isaiah is speaking of the destruction of literal corpses that will horrify those who see what happens to these rebellious people. So are these corpses still being eaten by maggots somewhere today? Is this fire still consuming their bodies? No, it’s not. So, what is this saying? Simply that this is the judgment of God, and no one else can extinguish the fire of God’s judgment. It will burn until it accomplishes God’s will. It is “unquenchable,” not meaning that it will never go out, but that no one else can quench it. (If Captain Kirk begins an “unstoppable” auto-destruct sequence, that doesn’t mean it will go on forever, just that no one else can stop it!)

Daniel 12:2 “shame and everlasting disgrace”

Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.

This is a significant passage because it’s the only place in the Old Testament where we see an unambiguous reference to resurrection, bodies that were lying dead and buried being raised up. But it’s also often brought into the discussion of the nature of hell because of the mention of “everlasting disgrace” or contempt. That’s not quite a description of eternal conscious torment, but it is a distinction between “everlasting life” and “everlasting disgrace.” What are we to make of this?

I was interested to see that the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” here is the word olam. This caught my attention because I was already very familiar with this word. Long before I was doing serious study regarding the nature of hell, I wrote a blog post on Christians and the Old Covenant law. In the ensuing comment thread, the issue of the Sabbath became a point of contention. Some would quote a verse such as Exodus 31:16 (ESV):

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

You can see why some people would cite this verse. It clearly seems to be saying the observation of the Sabbath is a covenant that lasts forever. But I had to explain that the word olam—in a way that’s similar but not identical to the Greek word aionios—can be used to convey the meaning of “forever” but it’s primary meaning is closer to “lasting” or “perpetual.” This can be confirmed by referring to a Hebrew dictionary such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or one could just compare translations. For instance, the NIV translates Exodus 31:16 this way:

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.

The NET and NRSV read “perpetual covenant,” and the NASB and CSB render it “permanent covenant.”

This isn’t an isolated example. There are many references in the Old Testament law that were traditionally rendered “This shall be a statute forever,” that more current translations now more accurately clarify as a “perpetual law” or “permanent law.” We can see why the traditional rendering doesn’t make sense in passages such as Exodus 21:5-6 where a slave can decide he doesn’t want to be freed from his master but he “shall be his slave forever” (ESV). Will this slave actually be a slave to his master forever? Of course not. That’s why most current translations render this more accurately that this slave will serve his master “for life.” Another example is Genesis 49:26 where it speaks—depending on the translation—of either “the eternal hills” (are any hills eternal?), or of the “age-old” or “ancient” hills. This is also why we need to be careful with such passages as Isaiah 34:10 that says the smoke of Edom “shall go up forever” (ESV). Can we see the smoke of Edom still going up? No, we can’t. And translations such as the NET translate this word more accurately as the smoke “will ascend continually.”

The very most that could be said of this passage is that the context of the verse has to determine whether olam means eternal in that context. This would mean we can’t just assume a meaning of “eternal” or “everlasting” in Daniel 12:2—when the word most often means something else—and then use the passage to somehow prove that hell is eternal. That would be circular reasoning, assuming our understanding in the text to use the text to prove our understanding! It seems much more accurate to understand this verse as speaking of lasting or continual disgrace without specifying any final outcome.

Hebrews 9:27 “destined to die once and after that comes judgment”

When we’ve had group studies and discussions about the differing views of hell, someone will always bring up passages that explicitly mention hell or judgment—as if this disproves all other views and settles the issue. But we can’t forget that all of the views that evangelicals hold regarding the nature of hell include the judgment of God and a very real hell. Showing references to hell or judgment in Scripture doesn’t do anything to disprove any of the other views. (Just as showing that personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation doesn’t do anything to disprove the view of universal salvation, because evangelical universalists also insist that we must all be saved through faith in Christ.)

Some will use Hebrews 9:27 to argue that there’s no possible opportunity to be saved after death. Let’s look carefully at what the text actually says (and what it doesn’t say):

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment . . . 

Hopefully you can see the problem. This verse says that we’ll all die once. So this could be a good verse to counter something like reincarnation. And it also tells us that after death will come judgment. So far, so good. We all agree on this. But what happens after judgment? Is there any chance of repentance and restoration? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t address at all what happens after judgment. So if we try to use this passage to argue what happens—or can’t happen—after judgment, we’re reading this into the text. (This is what Bible scholars call “eisegesis,” reading our meaning into the text of Scripture rather than drawing it out from the text of Scripture, which is “exegesis.”) We’re so locked into the idea there’s no chance of salvation after death, that we’re shocked when we realize the Scriptures never clearly tell us this at all. To use this passage to teach one particular view of hell would be like saying that after conception comes the birth of the child—and this somehow confirms my views about parenting!

After looking at each of these Scripture passages, we have to conclude that none of them clearly teach the eternal conscious torment of the lost. So, is there anywhere the Bible explicitly and unambiguously articulates the idea of eternal conscious torment? I can’t find anyplace. Does this mean that hell is not eternal? Not necessarily. We still need to look at the broader theological arguments. But it does mean that my previous understanding that eternal conscious torment is an inescapable teaching from the clear and unequivocal wording of Scripture is simply not true. The case supporting eternal conscious torment from the explicit texts of Scripture is decidedly lacking. But is there actually a biblical case to be made that no one will be eternally lost, but that all will be reconciled to God and restored? We’ll begin looking at this next.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

As an evangelical pastor, there have been times I’ve had to explain, or even defend, hell. More precisely, I was explaining what I understood to be the biblical teaching of eternal conscious torment in hell. I didn’t do this because I loved the idea of endless punishment or because I was a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.” I did it because I felt I had to in order to be biblically faithful. On these occasions, I always fell back on what I saw as the two solid foundations of belief in an endless hell:

  1. the unequivocal wording of Scripture.
  2. the historical consensus of the church.

As we saw in the last post, it’s not really appropriate to speak of a consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 500 years of the life of the church. While, over time, universal salvation became a distinctly minority view, there continued to be Christian leaders and pastors who held this view throughout the history of the church. We didn’t have time to explore later Christian universalists such as the 17th century Puritan universalist Peter Sterry, men who were associated with George Whitefield who came to embrace universalism such as James Relly and John Murray, 18th century Baptist universalist Elhanan Winchester, or universalist authors such as Hannah Whitall Smith and George MacDonald.1 Again, these are just a sampling, but it seems clear the second point above is, at the very best, inconclusive.

But the wording of Scripture does seem to be unequivocal and inescapable. When addressing this issue, I always relied on the three passages I felt speak most clearly about the nature of hell. I would begin with Matthew 25:41-46, which uses the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (contrasted with “eternal life”):

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! . . .” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

I would go from this passage to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (CSB):

They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength . . .

And finally I would turn to the description in Revelation 14:9-11:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

It was hard to see how these passages could be even more clear. So when I first began hearing about an evangelical Christian form of universalism, I was curious how they would deal with such verses. When I heard the suggestion that the words “eternal” or “forever and ever” in these passages don’t actually mean eternal or forever and ever, I was immediately suspicious. That can be a way of skirting around the clear meaning of a text: Oh, what this really means is . . . My initial thought was that the people who believed this weren’t able to deal with these passages, so they were grasping at straws to explain them away.

But there were two things that didn’t let me dismiss this claim so easily. The first was my awareness that tradition does sometimes influence the choices of scholars translating the Bible. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 there’s no reason why the word poimenas (the plural form of poimen) is translated “pastors” except for tradition. Variations of this word are found 18 times in the New Testament; 17 of those times the word is translated “shepherd(s).” It’s only this one verse where the word “pastors” is used. The word ekklesia wasn’t a religious word at all in the first century, but a common one connoting an assembly or association of people, yet it’s usually translated “church.” Again, this is due to tradition. There are many other examples we could list. So it wouldn’t be unprecedented for tradition to influence the translation of certain words in these hell passages.

Along with this realization, I began to run across (without looking for them) comments by trusted, solidly conservative, evangelical scholars admitting that the Greek word for “eternal” or “forever” in these passages doesn’t actually mean eternal or forever. For instance, no less an authority than Greg Beale, in his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, has this to say:

Strictly speaking, even the expression “they will be tormented forever and ever” is figurative: eis tous aionas ton aionon literally can be rendered “unto the ages of the ages”; at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time. The context here and in the whole Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period . . . 2

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce consistently understood the word aionios in Scripture, usually translated “eternal,” to mean, not eternal, but “of the age (aion) to come.” 3 Our church was part of a conservative evangelical denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America. In the official theological exposition of the EFCA Statement of Faith, commenting on Matthew 25:41, 46, our theological leaders wrote: “It is true that the word translated ‘eternal’ here (aiōnios) means ‘pertaining to the age to come.’” 4 Both Beale and our denominational leaders go on to argue why the word should be understood as eternal in these contexts, and we’ll consider that argument later in this post. But you can understand why I was surprised to find theologically conservative stalwarts treating this seemingly unequivocal wording as . . . well . . . equivocal. And these were certainly not exceptions. It’s hard to find any reputable scholar arguing that the word in these passages unambiguously means “eternal.” Disturbingly, though, many then interpret the passage as if the meaning of “eternal” is certain. I needed to know more about the meaning of this word.

There’s a Greek word used in the New Testament (and in first century literature) that consistently connotes the meaning of “eternal.” That word is aidios. This word isn’t used in any of our hell passages above or anywhere the Scriptures are referring to the judgment of humanity. The word in question for us is aionios (and grammatical variations). The core of this word is the word aion, which is where we get our word eon. The essential meaning of the word in the first century was similar, typically translated “age.” Here are some familiar passages that use the word aion:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age . . .

Galatians 1:4

. . . when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 1:20-21

. . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:7

The word aionios is the adjective form of aion. As the evangelical scholars above acknowledge, the basic meaning of the adjective aionios is “of the age” or “pertaining to the age.” It can also be used descriptively to connote “age-long.” We see the word aionios translated this way in passages such as Romans 16:25:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .

The mystery wasn’t hidden for “eternities” past, but for long ages past. We also see the word translated similarly in 2 Timothy 1:9, which says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The ESV and NRSV both translate this as “before the ages began.”

Most evangelical scholars acknowledge that this word doesn’t mean eternal, but means “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Many, though, hedge this by saying this word doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or it may be translated differently. As part of her exhaustive study of early Christian leaders and their views of universal salvation, Ilaria Ramelli needed to determine precisely what this word meant to the people at that time. So she and David Konstan completed the most extensive and detailed study of this word to date. They published this research in a separate book, in which they conclude:

What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aionios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to Bible usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come [emphasis in original]. 5

I’m not aware of any major challenges to this incredibly comprehensive research. Ramelli and Konstan do show that the word aionios can acquire the meaning of eternal when, for instance, it’s used to describe God. This is much the same as we see when teachers use words such as “lasting” or “enduring” to refer to something that’s eternal. If I were to say: “Do you want to invest your life in what is temporary or what is lasting?” the word “lasting” here doesn’t mean eternal but, in the context of a specific sentence, it can be used to convey the meaning of eternal. We don’t take this meaning from the word itself, but from what it’s describing. So, when used for God, we can understand aionios as conveying the meaning of eternal in that specific context even if that’s not part of the definition of the word. But Ramelli and Konstan make clear that aionios does not mean “eternal.”

So explaining that the word aionios, used in the hell passages in Scripture, doesn’t actually mean eternal but instead means “pertaining to the age to come” isn’t some fringe view, but in harmony with the most current and most complete research into the meaning of the word. It also reflects what Greek-speaking Christians were specifically clarifying to their Latin-speaking brethren in the early church.6 This understanding is confirmed by current research, by ancient observation and by the reticence of non-universalist scholars to insist on eternal conscious torment in the hell passages based strictly on the meaning of this word. 

Drawing from all of this, it seems clear we should understand passages such as Matthew 25 to be referring to the life of the age to come and the fire or punishment of the age to come. This fits the meaning of the word as we’ve confirmed, and it fits the context. This means it would be inappropriate to use these passages to teach eternal conscious torment. But some might say (and I’ve said): “Wait a minute. Matthew 25 is speaking of both the punishment of the lost and the life we receive as believers in Christ. If the life is eternal, then the punishment must be as well. And if the punishment isn’t eternal, then neither is the life.”

At first this sounds very logical and convincing. But let’s consider this a bit more carefully. This verse is referring to both punishment and life, and it uses the same word to describe both. So whatever this word is saying about one it’s also saying about the other. It doesn’t mean that everything that’s true of one is also true of the other; it just means that whatever aionios means about punishment it also means about life. If aionios meant that the punishment is torment, then it would also be saying the life is torment; if aionios meant the punishment is eternal, it would also be saying the life is eternal. The question is what does the word mean. Since—as virtually everyone seems to be acknowledging—the word aionios in this verse means “of the age to come,” then this verse isn’t addressing the duration of either the punishment or the life at all. It’s not saying anything about how long either last; it’s saying something else entirely about both. This means that to insist that the punishment mentioned must be eternal because the life is eternal is simply erroneous, in the same way that to insist that the life mentioned must be torment because the punishment is torment would be erroneous. This verse is no more addressing the duration of either the punishment or life than it is their temperature

It’s completely understandable that non-scholars would make the kind of challenge we just considered. (By the way, we have many other passages that tell us the life to come is, in fact, never-ending. We don’t need this passage to establish this truth.) What’s alarming is to see respected scholars make the same kind of argument when they should recognize what poor reasoning this is and how specious is the argument. The word aionios doesn’t mean eternal (as most seem to agree). So it’s completely improper to import this meaning of “eternal” into this verse when it’s not what the Scripture is saying in this verse about either punishment or life. We want to humbly hear what the Word is saying to us.

What about the Revelation 14 passage? As Beale pointed out above, this would literally be rendered unto or into “the ages of ages.” This kind of phrase should be familiar to us from similar ones such as “the Holy of holies,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” etc. This was a familiar Hebrew way of indicating the ultimate example of something, not the duration of anything. (Remember, aionios doesn’t mean eternal, so repeating it in this phrase doesn’t somehow make it mean eternal or forever.) [I’m curious why the ESV includes a footnote for “forever and ever” in 1 Timothy 1:17 noting “Greek to the ages of ages” but not for this verse.] We also need to be careful in basing too much on the description of this verse because it is, as Beale also reminded us, highly figurative.

So what does all this mean? It means the passages in Scripture that are referring to “eternal” fire, punishment, etc., are actually speaking of the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come. This is what the word means, and I don’t find anyone really contesting that. It also means these verses aren’t telling us anything about the duration or final outcome of hell. Does this disprove the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, it doesn’t. Having a more clear understanding of these passages doesn’t necessarily mean the eternal conscious torment view of hell is wrong. But it does weaken the biblical case for this view considerably. What we’ve understood to be the unequivocal wording of Scripture is, at the very best, highly debatable, and, much more likely, it’s decidedly incorrect. This makes better sense of the number of Greek-speaking scholars and leaders in the early church who held views of hell other than eternal conscious torment (see the previous post). It’s difficult to understand how they could have done so if aionios meant “eternal.” So does this leave any biblical reasons for believing in an eternal hell? We’ll consider some other passages used to support this view in the next post.

  1. Robin A. Parry with Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
  2. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), Revelation 14:11.
  3. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 89; “Age” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 1:67.
  4. Evangelical Free Church of America, Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (Minneapolis, MN: Free Church Publications, 2011), 250. Greg Strand, “Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Strands of Thought, August 11, 2015, accessed October 15, 2021.
  5. Ilaria E. Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 238.
  6. Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 105.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Did you ever play the game ‘telephone’? That’s where you sit in a circle, and the first person whispers some nonsensical phrase to the next person, something like: “Sally sold all her shells.” Each person whispers it—only once!—to the next person until the phrase gets all the way around to the last one in the circle. Then they venture their best guess as to what they heard (“Sand your soles or else”?), and everyone gets a laugh at how badly the message got mangled.

It’s not unusual to hear people compare the way we’ve received our current Bible translations to this children’s game. But is this a fair comparison? Let’s think about this. What if the statement being repeated wasn’t a silly, meaningless phrase? What if it was a profound truth so important to the people repeating it they’d be willing to die for this belief? Would this improve the accuracy somewhat? And what if they wrote these truths down, and then others made new copies from these written accounts? Wouldn’t this make the end result more trustworthy? Maybe this children’s game isn’t really the best match for how the Bible has been passed down over the centuries.

Here’s another of the most commonly repeated, but erroneous, criticisms about the Bible:

What we have with the Bible are translations of translations of translations. How can we know what we’re reading is what they actually wrote?

These kinds of statements just reveal that most people don’t know much about the process of translating the Bible. Unless you read ancient Hebrew and Greek, you’re going to require a translation of Scripture in order to read it. Usually these translations are produced by teams of scholars who are skilled in both their knowledge of ancient languages and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They never begin with another translation of Scripture; they always begin with a careful study of the original languages used in the ancient manuscripts. So the statement highlighted above is simply wrong.

Is the process foolproof? No, it’s not. But scholars seek to ensure that this process—and the end result—are as free of error as possible. This isn’t just true for the study of the Bible, this is done for all important ancient works. A whole scientific field has developed because of the need for these kinds of studies: textual criticism. (This doesn’t mean critical in a negative, tear-it-apart kind of way, but an exacting, precise manner of studying ancient texts, including the Bible.) There are three criteria these scholars consider in determining how trustworthy an ancient document is:

1. How early is the oldest manuscript?

2. How many manuscripts do we have?

3. How much of the content is in doubt?

Let’s evaluate the New Testament using the same tests we’d use for any other ancient book:

How early is the oldest manuscript?
We don’t have any of the original, “first-edition” biblical manuscripts. This may surprise some people, but we don’t have the original manuscripts (called ‘autographs’) for any piece of ancient literature. Obviously, the earlier the earliest copy is, the more we can be sure it’s accurately conveying the original writing. How early are the copies we have?

Let’s discuss some comparative writings from antiquity so we know what’s acceptable. Many of us read Plato in school. Plato wrote around 400 BC. The earliest manuscript for any of Plato’s writings dates from approximately 900 AD. That’s a difference of 1,300 years. And no one in a political science class ever suggests that we don’t know what Plato actually wrote. Let’s look at a couple of examples from the 1st century for a better comparison. The earliest manuscript for the Jewish historian Josephus is from the 11th century, and for the Roman Tacitus from the 9th century.

In comparison, the earliest manuscript from the New Testament is part of a Gospel of John and it’s dated approximately 125 AD. If John wrote his Gospel around 90 AD, as most scholars believe, this means the time that elapsed between his writing and our earliest manuscript is only around 35 years. In the study of ancient literature, this is astounding! We have many very early manuscripts, and we’re finding more manuscripts all the time. [A fragment of the Gospel of Mark was recently discovered that scholars say dates from the 1st century. If so, this will now be our earliest manuscript. The findings are due to be published later this year.] How does the New Testament handle this first test? I’d say pretty well!

How many manuscripts do we have?
It’s almost embarrassing to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient works. If we have 20 copies of an ancient work, it’s generally considered very well-attested. For Plato, we have only 7. For Tacitus, we have only 3, but Josephus fares better with 133 manuscripts. Next to the New Testament, the most manuscripts for an ancient work are for the writings of Homer, for which we have a little less than 2,500 manuscripts. Very impressive.

How about for the New Testament? Well, if we count only the Greek manuscripts, we have over 5,700 (and the number is still growing). Textual critics also highly value ancient translations of works into other languages. If they can compare how a certain Greek word was translated into Latin, Syriac and Armenian, for instance, it gives them greater insight into the original Greek meaning. In addition to the 5,700+ Greek manuscripts, we have over 10,000 Latin translations, thousands more in other various languages, and over a million (that’s right million) quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the early church leaders. In fact, if we didn’t have any New Testament manuscripts at all, we could duplicate almost all of the New Testament by using only the quotes contained in the early Christian writings. And we should remember this was a faith and a Book that was outlawed for the first 300 years of its existence. How is the New Testament doing so far?

Why is it so important to have a lot of manuscript copies? Let me give you a real illustration. Classes in Bible college or seminary will sometimes do an experiment. Let’s say we have 30 students. The teacher recites, in English, a certain passage of Scripture (maybe a chapter from a gospel such as Matthew), and the students copy down what they hear the teacher reading. Now it’s highly doubtful we’ll have 2 identical copies produced in this experiment. They’ll all have variations. And there won’t be a single perfect copy produced. Everyone will make some mistake. Some will just misspell a word here and there, but some will miss a whole phrase or put down an entirely wrong word. But here’s what’s important: not all of the students will make the same mistake. Even if 3 students make the exact same mistake, we can correct their mistake by comparing it with the other 27. So, by comparing the 30 different copies, we can determine the correct original reading. Do you see how this works? Do you think having over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is important? So just how much of the original New Testament reading can we determine by comparing these manuscripts?

How much of the content is in doubt?
No two manuscripts of the New Testament are identical. Critics of the Bible sometimes toss out this fact as if they’re revealing some deep, dark secret. But every first-year Bible college or seminary student knows this, and all Christians should be aware of it. All this proves is that the transmission of the New Testament wasn’t highly controlled (which calls into doubt many of the more outlandish conspiracy theories regarding the early church). As we’ve seen, we should expect these differences in the manuscripts, what the scholars call ‘textual variants.’ The question is, how serious are these variations?

There are hundreds of thousands of variations in the New Testament manuscripts. This may sound bad, until we realize that every time even one letter is changed in the spelling of a word, this counts as a variation. If 3 letters are different, then that counts as 3 variations. Many of these, if not most, might not even have been considered errors at the time because the people were accustomed to great variation in how they spelled things like names. Other differences involve variations that are so slight we can’t even reflect the differences in our English translations. Almost all of the differences between New Testament manuscripts involve these very minor variations.

So the question is, how much of the actual text is in question? And the answer is less than 1%. And there is no essential Christian teaching that is dependent on one of these few uncertain texts. What are some of these passages we’re not quite sure about? Here’s one example from Romans 5:1:

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.

Most current translations read as this one does, “we have peace” with God. But, in some Bibles, we’ll see a note telling us that some early manuscripts read “let us have” peace with God. “Not a huge difference,” you might say. Yet this is how exacting the biblical scholars are. They invest great amounts of time to even studying such relatively subtle differences. Another one we could mention is 1 John 1:4. We can’t be entirely sure whether he wrote so that “our joy may be complete” or that “your joy may be complete.” Despite the offhand dismissals we often hear in casual conversation, we are actually certain of the reading of the New Testament in over 99% of the text. So when we test the New Testament, we see we have extremely early manuscripts, a wealth of manuscripts to study and compare, and we’re therefore able to be very confident that we’re reading what the original authors wrote.

But what about the Old Testament?
While we do have thousands of Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, the numbers are not quite as impressive as the New Testament. There is a much greater span of time between the last writing of the Old Testament and the earliest manuscripts. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, our earliest Old Testament manuscripts were relatively recent (10th century AD).

Part of what gave scholars confidence in the Old Testament text is knowing the exact nature of the process for copying it. Professional scribes were trained to copy the Hebrew Scriptures, and they went to extreme lengths to make sure they didn’t alter anything in their copying of the text. They would count the total number of words and letters in a book, and in specific sections of the book. If the numbers varied, they would destroy their copy and begin again. They would count to the specific word at the very center of a book and sections of a book. They would verify even the middle letter of a book or section of a book. Any variation and they would scrap their work and start all over again. (And I thought I was a perfectionist!)

One of the most electrifying discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls (found between 1947 and 1956) was a complete Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. This newly discovered copy of Isaiah was 1,000 years older than the oldest manuscripts previously available. How would the 10th century Hebrew manuscripts compare to what had been copied 1,000 years earlier? The results were breathtaking. The versions were practically identical, with only a few minor variations. This, after 1,000 years of copies and recopies. Amazing!

So we enjoy overwhelming evidence that when we read the Bible, we’re reading what was originally written by the biblical authors. But how do we know that what they wrote is actually true, and even the inspired, infallible Word of God? We’ll continue exploring this subject next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote? [see above]

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

The NIV controversy, part 2

It sometimes comes as a surprise to students when I quote approvingly from different Bible translations. They seem to think that, since our church uses the NLT, this must be the authoritative text for us. There are definitely churches that follow such a rigid adherence to one Bible version, whether it’s the KJV or ESV. But an obsessive insistence on one translation is actually a strong indicator a pastor or teacher doesn’t really know much about the translation of Scripture. The truth is there is no perfect translation. No matter how much you may love a particular Bible version, if you continue studying, you’re bound to run across places where you prefer a different reading.

Though I now teach from the NLT, I still love the NIV’s rendering of “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16. (I think the rest of the verse is even more clear in the NLT though.) In my opinion, the NET communicates the clear meaning of John 3:16 when it begins the verse: “For this is the way God loved the world . . .” rather than the traditional “For God so loved the world . . .” (The HCSB and God’s Word Translation have similar readings.) I appreciate the way the TNIV and the updated NIV clarify Philippians 4:13: “For I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength [emphasis added].”

So we shouldn’t seek the one Bible translation that has no issues and gets every reading perfectly; this is simply not a realistic expectation. And we need to understand that if we put any Bible version through an in-depth examination, we’re going to find readings on which scholars disagree and which we may not prefer. Most of us aren’t accustomed to such meticulous analysis of a popular translation. Before we begin, we need to remind ourselves that, though the wording may differ, the various translations of Scripture all communicate the same gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. So just what are the differences in the 2011 NIV?

Updated language
The NIV was last revised in 1984, and some of the wording sounds dated or has different connotations now. For instance, the word “alien” today tends to conjure up visions of beings from outer space, so the 2011 NIV now uses the word “foreigner.”  We normally don’t refer to a woman as being “with child,” so the NIV now describes expectant mothers as “pregnant.” Because of increased knowledge of Greek, we can now specify when Jesus faced opposition from the “Jewish leaders” rather than implying that all of “the Jews” resisted him. These kinds of improvement haven’t provoked much criticism.

More formal readings
One of the criticisms of the more functional translations (including the NIV) is that they are sometimes specific when the original language is not. [For an explanation of what we mean by formal and functional translations, see Which Bible version should I use?] Some feel translations should leave the wording more ambiguous and allow the reader to decide how to interpret the word or phrase. In the 2011 NIV, the translators more frequently opted for such formal readings. For instance, Romans 1:17 no longer tells us that in the gospel “a righteousness from God is revealed,” but that “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In many of the places where the 1984 NIV spoke of the “sinful nature,” the 2011 NIV relies on the more ambiguous, traditional reading of the “flesh.” While some applaud this change, others feel this is actually a step backward in clearly communicating the meaning of the text. Regardless, these kinds of changes have not been controversial. The lightning rod for critics of the 2011 NIV (and the previous TNIV) has been the changes regarding gender—how we refer to men and women. Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

Changes in gender references
Language is constantly changing. This is the very reason why new versions of the Bible are sometimes needed. Remember the purpose of a Bible translation is to accurately communicate the Word of God in the common language used by the people so they can readily understand it. Whether we like it or not, the way we use words related to gender has changed. One can still find old books that refer to Queen Elizabeth as a “man of distinction.” * This sounds silly to us now. If I were to stand up in church and ask, “Will all the men please stand,” how many women do you think would rise? None, of course. Why is that? Because most of us no longer hear the word “men” as including both men and women, but as being exclusively male.

The current translators of the NIV are not advancing these changes, but they must take them into consideration in order to provide the most accurate translation possible. Indeed, some have suggested it is irresponsible not to. If a large percentage of readers think masculine terms such as “men” or “brothers” specify males only, then these words no longer accurately convey the meaning of Scriptures where both men and women are intended. No one is claiming these language changes are universal; one can still find examples of the term “man” being used for people in general. But it’s hard to deny that such usage is becoming continually more rare, particularly among the younger generations and in more urban areas.

Should we adapt to these kinds of changes in language? Some would say no, that we should withstand cultural influences on our language. But then, how many of us would stubbornly insist on describing ourselves as “gay” when we’re feeling happy and lighthearted? By not using this word to describe ourselves are we advancing an ideological agenda? Or are we merely seeking to communicate clearly and unambiguously? Like it or not, language does change, and for a variety of reasons. We must communicate to people in the language they actually speak and understand. Let’s look at some examples:

men and women

The Greek words traditionally translated as “man” or “men” can mean either male persons or people in general. The meaning is determined by the context:

Matthew 16:26

1984 NIV
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

2011 NIV
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

1 Timothy 2:3-4

1984 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2011 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

brothers and sisters

If I were to announce Sunday, “Would all the brothers meet at the front of the church building after the service,” how many women do you think would show up? We commonly use the word “brothers” to indicate men today, rather than all of the people. We understand though the Greek word adelphoi often refers to both men and women.

Romans 12:1

1984 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

2011 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Colossians 1:2

1984 NIV
To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

2011 NIV
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

sons and daughters

The Greek word huioi can mean either sons or children, depending on the context.

John 12:35-36 (Jesus speaking to the crowd)

1984 NIV
The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.  Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.

2011 NIV
Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.

Romans 8:14

1984 NIV
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

2011 NIV
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Out of all of these examples, which ones communicate most clearly that both men and women are intended? Remember, the goal is to accurately convey the meaning of the text. At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “So what’s the big controversy?” Let’s see what the critics are saying:

Common criticisms

“They’re changing the Word of God!”

It’s not uncommon, unfortunately, to hear this charge, accompanied by ominous warnings to those who would alter Scripture (e.g. Revelation 22:18-19). Surprisingly this accusation isn’t being made only by ordinary Christians who lack knowledge, but by those who should know better. Of course, unless we’re all going to read the Bible only in the original Hebrew and Greek, Scripture must be “changed” from the original languages into the languages that people now speak—for us, English. Does this mean we’re altering God’s Word? Not if we faithfully convey the original meaning. As we’ve seen in a previous post, woodenly formal translations often obscure the original sense of a passage. If the text conveyed the meaning of “men and women” to the original readers, then to use wording that doesn’t convey that meaning today—when we can easily communicate the actual meaning—is an approach that is more vulnerable to the charge of altering the Word of God. If the original reading meant “brothers and sisters” in their context, then to render this as “brothers” is to translate Scripture in a less accurate manner.

“They’re obscuring how Scripture applies to individuals.”

Finish this question: “Everyone likes pizza, ________?” * If you said “don’t they,” you would be using normal, everyday English. You also might be considered grammatically incorrect, at least by a small, diminishing number of English teachers. At one time, the proper way to say this would have been, “Everyone loves pizza, doesn’t he?” But no one speaks this way anymore—not even English teachers! It just sounds odd to the current English speaker. Virtually all of us use what scholars call the ‘singular they.’ This isn’t a new innovation (even Shakespeare used it), but it’s become universal in everyday speech and is being utilized even in formal English. When the context shows the text is not specifying males, the NIV translators frequently used a singular they rather than an exclusive “he,” “she,” or the ever-awkard “he or she.”

Matthew 18:15

1984 NIV
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

2011 NIV
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Now, the truth is most people use “they” in precisely the same manner the current NIV does in this verse and similar passages. Its critics, however, claim this reading obscures the fact that a sinning individual is being confronted. They say this now implies a group is involved. (This despite the fact the verse speaks of a “brother or sister”—singular—who sins, and specifies that one should point out their fault “just between the two of you”!)

If I told a class, “If anyone doesn’t have a book, they can see me after class,” would anyone infer I was referring only to groups of students who didn’t have a book? * God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 1984 NIV). Would anyone read this and assume it applies only to groups of people blessing and cursing, not individuals? In the English Standard Version, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:6 as saying: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Because he used plural pronouns, does this mean we must hunger and thirst for righteousness only as a group, and can be satisfied only as a group? Did Christ himself remove any individual nature to this promise? Of course not. And neither do similar passages in the updated NIV.

“They’re obscuring references to Christ.”

This is a serious charge, and perhaps I should devote a follow-up post to examining the passages in question. (This post is getting too long already.) In each case, what is being emphasized is not the masculinity of Jesus, but his humanity. These references are included in a widely publicized list of thousands of supposed “inaccurate translations” in the 2011 NIV. What these critics fail to mention is that each of these “inaccurate” translations are supported by a broad range of conservative evangelical scholars—often by a majority of scholars! The detractors actually represent a tiny fraction of qualified biblical translators.

“This translation includes feminist readings.”

This small, but very vocal, group of critics are part of an association focused on issues regarding distinguished gender roles in the home and church. What you may not get from their flood of articles and blog posts is that many, if not most, of the NIV translators and supporters agree with them concerning these gender roles! Yet these critics insist on decrying the translation of certain passages as “feminist.” Here’s one example:

1 Timothy 2:11-12

1984 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

2011 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This is the only place in Scripture where the Greek word authentein is used, and the meaning is hotly contested. Some say it means to have any authority and others claim that it means to usurp authority. So the NIV translators sought a neutral term that didn’t strongly imply either meaning. The critics, though, believe they’ve given away the farm with this choice. They say “assume authority” is a feminist reading, insisting that it puts the nature of the authority in a negative light. I would challenge these detractors to Google the words ‘assume’ and ‘presidency.’ Are all of these references using the word “assume” in a negative connotation of inappropriately grasping power? When we’re told that “Ronald Reagan was the oldest man to assume the presidency,” does it mean this was a “self-initiated action” as is claimed about ‘assume’ in the current NIV reading? Can these critics see why others are perceiving them as hysterical and strident? While complaining that the 2011 NIV is ideologically-driven, it becomes clear they do want the NIV to be driven by ideology—as long as it’s theirs!

I don’t have space to go over each of the other complaints in detail. They are appalled that Romans 16:7 now identifies Junia (feminine) instead of Junias (male) and that 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 changes the referent for “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people,” despite the fact that a large number of complementarian commentators have supported these conclusions for years! Even though they admit women can teach children and other women, the critics are incensed that 2 Timothy 2:2 now instructs Timothy to entrust what Paul had taught to “reliable people” instead of only men. Apparently, for Timothy (and us) to teach women the actual content of what they were to teach others was beyond the pale. (Of course, there is nothing explicitly male in the original Greek.) As an unabashed complementarian, I would have no problem teaching from the 2011 NIV translation of these passages.

Unlike some liberal translations that have been motivated by ideological agendas, the NIV translators sought only to accurately translate the meaning of the text. Contrary to the terminology of their critics, the desire was not to produce a “gender-neutral” translation, but a gender-accurate one. Where men are intended in the biblical text, the masculine forms are retained. God is never referred to as “she” or “Mother,” and Christ remains the “Son.” The improvements made in the 2011 NIV do not alter in any way how we view God, and they do not endanger the scriptural views of the roles of men and women in the home or church. But when the Scriptures include both men and women, the translators sought to do the same.

As I expressed in my previous post, a disheartening aspect of this controversy has been the methods employed by many of the opponents of the TNIV and 2011 NIV. While it is very appropriate to publicly discuss and debate new Bible translations, this opposition has focused on highly questionable and misleading claims, and has often included prejudicial comments regarding the motivations of the translators. Not only have these detractors been wrong in their accusations, they have done real harm to the body of Christ.

While I personally use a different translation, I think the 2011 NIV is a fine Bible for personal study, public worship and teaching. It enjoys strong support from a broad range of well-known, conservative evangelical scholars who have great expertise in translating Scripture. I pray that this excellent translation will be widely used by the evangelical Christian community for the glory of God, the benefit of his people, and as a witness to the world.

* I’ve taken some illustrations from Mark Strauss (see below).

For an excellent, and far more detailed, review of the 2011 NIV, see Rod Decker’s review in Themelios.

Another insightful, revealing source is a debate between Wayne Grudem and Mark Strauss.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

Which Bible version should I use?

The NIV controversy, part 1

It’s not unusual for the release of a prominent, new translation of Scripture to cause controversy. At the beginning of the 5th century, a scholar named Jerome produced a new translation in common, everyday Latin. This translation was called the Vulgate because it was rendered in the “vulgar,” or common, language of the people. Jerome was the first Christian scholar to produce a common version of the Bible by translating the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than from the traditional Greek version. This resulted in some readings that sounded strange to the people. For instance, instead of God providing a “gourd” for Jonah, Jerome translated this more specifically as a “castor-oil plant.” The reaction? Rioting in the streets! The people didn’t appreciate anyone messing with their familiar readings of Scripture. [James R. White provides a helpful overview of this history in his book The King James Only Controversy.]

Ironically, over a thousand years later the Vulgate was itself firmly entrenched as the common Bible of the Western world. It was also badly in need of revision. In the early 16th century, Erasmus printed a Greek New Testament, based on the best Greek manuscripts he could find. Alongside the Greek text, he provided a brand new, up-to-date translation in Latin. As you might guess, this new translation faced great resistance. How dare Erasmus change the accepted Word of God that had been the authorized version of the Catholic Church for over a thousand years!

This new scholarship by Erasmus and others was used by the translators of the King James Version, which was published in 1611. It may come as a surprise to many that the King James Version itself faced vehement opposition when it was first released. For over fifty years, many people resisted this “new innovation.” Prominent church leaders decried it as a perversion of the Word of God. This translation, which is now widely hailed as one of the most beautiful works of English literature, was considered by many to be unfit for public worship or personal study. The Pilgrims, who used the Geneva Bible, refused to allow the King James Version on board the Mayflower.

Of course, the King James Version withstood this opposition and went on to become the dominant version of the Bible for over 300 years. But by the late 19th century, many Bible scholars realized there was a great need to revise the King James Version. Not surprisingly, this Revised Version faced withering criticism. Many people felt that anything other than the reassuringly familiar King James Version simply wasn’t the Word of God. To this day, there are some who teach that it is wrong to use any Bible but an “authorized” King James Version.

In 1978, the New International Version (NIV) was published. Despite sometimes stiff opposition, the NIV became the preferred version of Scripture for the vast majority of evangelical Christians. Because of an ongoing commitment to provide a translation of the Bible in current, up-to-date language, in 2005 the translators of the NIV released a new translation, Today’s New International Version (TNIV). And once again, the church went through a firestorm of controversy regarding a new translation of Scripture.

While a large number of highly respected, eminently qualified, solidly conservative scholars praised the accuracy and quality of the TNIV, its critics waged an all-out campaign to bury this new translation.  Accusing the TNIV translators—many of them well-known, conservative scholars themselves—of stealthily promoting a liberal, feminist agenda, they appealed to the suspicions of Christians who were mostly ignorant of the process of biblical translation. Many people began signing protests and complaining to Christian bookstores and churches about the TNIV without adequately understanding the underlying issues.

Generally, when a Bible publisher releases an update of a translation, they stop selling the older version. But Zondervan, the publisher of the NIV and the TNIV, faced a tough choice. They were publishing a brand new translation that many saw as the rightful heir to the NIV; but the NIV (which hadn’t been updated since 1984) was still a bestseller, and they apparently didn’t want to kill the golden goose. So they decided to advertise the new TNIV while continuing to offer the familiar NIV. In actual practice, most of their energy and resources were dedicated to supporting the money-making NIV. Many observers felt this strategy was a mistake, effectively eliminating any possibility for the TNIV to succeed. The TNIV quickly got a reputation as ‘the best translation no one will ever read.’

In 2009, Zondervan sought to rectify this situation by announcing that a new edition of the NIV would be released in 2011, which would replace both the TNIV and the 1984 version of the NIV. Dubbed the NIV 2011, this latest version of the NIV was released to the public earlier this year. Soon after it was released, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a strongly-worded resolution opposing the new version. The reaction of many evangelical Christians was a weary, ‘Here we go again.’ Christianity Today published an editorial in response to the SBC resolution, titled Battle for the Bible Translation. The editorial was well-written, clearly explaining the relevant issues, and rightly decrying the divisive and unnecessary stance of the SBC.

CT’s editorial was posted online, and quickly began receiving comments in response. Unfortunately, these responses tended to reveal the ignorance and hostility of many of the critics. Despite a few commenters who oppose all functional translations (including the original NIV), most of the new NIV’s opponents showed through their comments that they have a naive and overly simplistic concept of Bible translation. Though some of these commenters seemed well-intentioned, many had an almost superstitious perception of how Bible versions are produced. Few seemed knowledgeable of the complexities of real translation. While a few critics expressed themselves graciously, others apparently felt no qualms about slanderously attributing erroneous motives—sometimes in shockingly mean-spirited language—to men who had dedicated their lives to serving the body of Christ.

After teaching from the NIV for years, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the TNIV, feeling that it was an excellent translation. My enthusiasm didn’t wane until I became discouraged by Zondervan’s surprising lack of support for their new translation. Happily, this discontent led me to examine the New Living Translation, and I’m now even more enthusiastic about this translation. While I refer to many versions in my studies, my primary reading Bible is the New Living Translation, and our church uses the NLT. I wish the NIV 2011 great success, but I don’t foresee ever returning to an NIV-family text as my go-to Bible for reading or teaching.

So I have no personal stake in this debate. But I am dismayed to see this kind of hostility expressed toward fellow believers, and for evangelical Christians to be so unknowledgeable and naive about the translating of Scripture. Such paranoia and religious McCarthyism have no place in the body of Christ and must be strongly opposed. Those who follow the way of truth must not fall prey to sensationalistic conspiracy theories. And it’s the responsibility of evangelical pastors and leaders to speak out.

I’ve already addressed the need for Christians to handle controversial issues in a loving, Christlike way. (Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) The translation of God’s Word is obviously of extreme importance, and it’s appropriate for us to discuss issues related to Bible translation vigorously. But we must also do so with Christian love and with fairness. And we must do our homework first so we truly understand not only what we’re opposing and why, but why fellow Christians disagree with us. My next post on this topic will explore the specific characteristics that some people find questionable about the NIV 2011.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 2

Which Bible version should I use?

Which Bible version should I use?

I regularly receive questions about Bible translations. ‘Why do we have so many versions of the Bible?’ ‘Why are they so different sometimes?’ ‘Which one should I use?’ Along with a vibrant prayer life, reading and studying the Scriptures are essential for our spiritual health. I want to take a few weeks to explore some simple principles for studying the Bible—principles that any believer can use. But before we discuss how to study the Bible, it’s helpful for all Christians to understand a little about the Bible itself and why we have different translations from which to choose.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and some short sections in Aramaic. Not many of us fluently read ancient Hebrew or Greek, so we can’t simply pick up these manuscripts and read them for ourselves. We need the Scriptures to be translated for us so we can read them in our own language and clearly understand what’s being communicated.

For many years, the common translation for most English-speaking Christians was the King James Version. But we no longer speak to each other in the archaic English used in the KJV. In fact, the language has changed to the point where many words found in the KJV have completely different, even opposite, meanings from what they meant in 1611 when the KJV was first published. Because of this, most people today find the KJV to be indecipherable or even misleading. The purpose of the KJV translators was to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand.” For most of us, this means choosing a modern translation—but which one? How do the translations differ from one another?

The most significant difference between the modern translations is how they’re translated. There are three basic approaches. Let me explain the different translation styles, and then we’ll compare them.

Some people say they prefer “literal” translations. While there is no truly literal, word-for-word translation, some Bible versions strive to be as close to the original languages as possible. They focus on the meanings of individual words, and they try to retain the original word order as much as they can. This is known as a formal approach to Bible translation. Examples of formal translations would be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Other Bibles are extremely free and dynamic in rendering the original into English. This kind of Bible is called a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to make the Bible as understandable and fresh as possible, but sometimes by going beyond the meaning of the text. The most well-known paraphrase currently is The Message.

Other translations aim for a median approach, striving for a thought-for-thought translation (which is the standard method of translating) as opposed to a word-for-word translation. Rather than focusing on individual words, these translations seek to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Examples of these functional translations would be the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), the New English Translation (NET), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Which is the best kind of translation? It depends on how you intend to use it. All of these versions can be used effectively. But you’re also going to discover some limitations. For instance, anyone familiar with a foreign language will understand that a truly “literal,” word-for-word translation is seldom possible. The familiar Spanish phrase “como se llama,” would have to literally be translated as something like: “as it is called.” But anyone who knows even a little Spanish recognizes this isn’t what the phrase means. The “literal” translation doesn’t accurately convey the actual, literal meaning of the phrase. (Which is why we don’t translate that way.) To accurately translate the phrase, we have to put it into a corresponding, functional English phrase: “What is your name?”

A great way to illustrate how the different approaches work is to translate the French expression: J’ai le cafard. [I’m borrowing this illustration from James R. White’s book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?] If we were to translate this as literally as possible, we would end up with: I have the cockroach. So now would you understand what your French friend is talking about? Not unless they were speaking of a literal cockroach (which they wouldn’t be). We haven’t really gotten that far, have we? We’ve translated the individual words into English, but we haven’t conveyed the idea the person is expressing. We’re as much in the dark as we were before. We’re still stuck with a sentence we don’t understand.

But what if we were to translate the whole phrase instead of just the individual words? What if we took what the entire expression means in French and conveyed it in clear English? Then we would have something like: I am depressed. Or—since this is a colorful French idiom—we could even try to find a similar English expression, such as: I have the blues. This is the functional approach. Since this method of translation conveys to us what the phrase really meant to the original speaker, it’s actually much more accurate in translating the meaning of the original than a strictly “literal” translation would be.

On the other hand, a very dynamic paraphrase will go to great lengths to make sure the phrase is understandable. A paraphrase of this French saying could be something like: I’m having a lousy day! This is definitely more expressive, but we have to be careful. The more freedom that’s taken in the paraphrase, the more the chance that accuracy will be sacrificed.

How does this actually work with Scripture? Let’s look at an example from Luke 9:44.

NASB
Let these words sink down into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.

NLT
Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

The Message
Treasure and ponder each of these next words: The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.

Which of these most accurately communicates the original meaning to us? Have you ever tried to get someone’s attention by telling them: “Hey, let these words sink down into your ears”? We just don’t speak that way, do we? The literal translation may tell us something about Greek colloquialisms, but it doesn’t communicate the actual meaning as clearly as the other two. But then, was Jesus telling the disciples to treasure and ponder each of his words? You can see how the paraphrase embellishes the actual meaning of the text. The NLT, though, gives us a very clear reading of the passage and one which is easily understood in our common language. So, in this example, the NLT most accurately translates the meaning of the text.

But some protest that they like the more formal translations because they “sound like the Bible” to them. For these people, when the Bible reads a little awkwardly or uses language that sounds holy or spiritual, it feels like the Word of God. (One example is what some of us call ‘Yoda translations.’ [I first heard this description from Rick Mansfied over at This Lamp.] They’re called this because you can almost hear the familiar voice of the Star Wars character as you read the strange, backward sentence structure: “Fear not,” “Fret not yourself,” “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” etc. [examples from the ESV].)

Now, in one way, I wouldn’t want to argue with this perception because the best Bible for you is the one you’ll love and use. If this is merely a personal preference, that’s fine. But I also want us all to understand that this isn’t really a good way to evaluate a Bible version. You see, when the Bible was first written it didn’t sound like a religious text. To those who love the familiar cadence of traditional readings and word orders, the original Bible wouldn’t sound like the Bible! It was written in normal, everyday Hebrew and Greek, using common words and expressions. So if we want the Bible we’re reading to be as similar as possible to how the original Scriptures were read, they should be translated into common, everyday English.

Sometimes the literal translation may be a little cumbersome, but still understandable (as with “let these words sink down into your ears”). Sometimes the wording may just sound so odd that it inspires giggling, like calling Jesus a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19 in the NKJV) or claiming that “the ants are a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25 in the ESV, and notice again the strange, Yoda-like syntax).

Other times though, the “literal” wording actually obscures the true meaning. Continuing in Matthew 11:19, the NKJV tells us “wisdom is justified by her children.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’ve asked this many times of students, and I haven’t had one guess correctly (and they all had to guess). Compare that with the NLT reading: “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Isn’t this much more clear? Or what of the NASB’s statement from the Lord in Amos 4:6: “I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Is the meaning clear in English? (Does it have something to do with oral hygiene?) Because the meaning is perfectly clear in it’s original Hebrew context. Is this more understandable (again from the NLT): “I brought hunger to every city”? We shouldn’t need someone to translate the translation for us!

So am I suggesting that formal, “literal” translations serve no purpose? Not at all! They can be very helpful, particularly for those who teach and need to do word studies or get the feel of the original structure of the text. But for general reading, the formal translations are usually too wooden and frequently obscure the flow of the passage. Paraphrases also can be useful by expressing the text in a completely new way that can be fresh and thought-provoking. But we shouldn’t rely on paraphrases to determine the precise meaning of a certain passage. It’s best—especially for teachers—to compare different kinds of translations when studying the Bible. But for general reading and studying, I recommend choosing a functional translation.

Our church uses the New Living Translation (NLT), and I haven’t found any other translation that combines accuracy and clarity so effectively. A good test when comparing translations is to read whole chapters in a book such as Romans or 1 Corinthians, first in one translation and then the other. As you read, see which one makes it easier to follow the flow of thought in the passage. You won’t always understand the concepts that are communicated in Scripture, but if you can’t grasp even the wording in the passage, then it’s really not doing you much good to be reading it! I was delighted when I saw how refreshingly easy the NLT was to understand without sacrificing the accuracy of the text. For a teacher, this means I don’t have to waste time explaining an unclear translation; I can devote that time to actually talking about the main points of the passage.

One final tip for this week. If you don’t already have a good study Bible I encourage you to invest in one. The best introductory study Bible I’ve found is the Life Application Study Bible, and it’s available in the NLT. I’ll write more next week about why this is important, but for now, the Life Application Study Bible has generally balanced notes and tons of in-text maps and charts. It will answer a lot of your questions as you’re reading, and it makes studying the Bible more fun. (If you’d like to see some of the features of this study Bible, just click on the book cover to the right.) Next week, we’ll start looking at some tips for digging into the Bible on your own.

(For a Spanish translation, I recommend the Nueva Traducción Viviente [NTV]. And for those who will be teaching or who have moved beyond a beginner’s study Bible, my favorite study Bible is the NLT Study Bible. By the way, I should clarify that I don’t receive any form of payment for products I recommend.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use? [see above]

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

The NIV controversy, part 2