Suicide & Salvation

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In response to my post, “Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life”, I received the following question from a reader:

I’m wondering about your thoughts on people who are mentally ill, followers of Christ, and decide to commit suicide. Do you think they go to heaven? In your post you said that suicide is equal to the sin of murder. This is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time now.

Mental Illness, Fallen Nature, and Spiritual Warfare

More people die from suicide than from homicide in America. Sadly, mental illness and suicide touch many lives, not only those who suffer from mental illness or struggle with suicidal thoughts, but also the lives of those who love them and are connected to them.  Mental illness often distorts the thinking and perception of those who struggle with it, leading them to feel alone and without hope, even when this is not the case.

Certainly, in addition to physiological disorders and imbalances in the brain, which themselves are the result of the fallen human condition, our minds are the chief battlefield upon which spiritual warfare is waged, with “the enemy of our souls,” the one who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy, attacking our thought life with lies and destructive suggestions.

The word “satan” comes from Hebrew, and means “adversary”. The word “devil” comes from Greek, and means “accuser” or “slanderer”. One of the ways the devil attacks us is by throwing our sins and shortcomings in our face. Whereas the devil is an “accuser”, Jesus is our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1). Another way the devil attacks us is by telling us lies; Jesus said about the devil that “there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

It is significant therefore, that when Paul talks about taking up the “armor of God” to help us withstand “the schemes of the devil”, he includes the “helmet of salvation”, which protects the believer’s head (Ephesians 6:10-20). One of the best things we can do to combat the lies of the enemy is to become intimately familiar with God’s truth and who He says we are.

Sin and Salvation

Suicide, without a doubt, is a grave sin, equal to murder. However, does such a sin cause a person to lose their salvation? Since salvation is not something that can be earned in the first place by our good actions (or lack of bad actions), it is not something we can lose  by our bad actions.

The Bible teaches that those who have been redeemed by God have been forgiven of all of our sins: past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13-14). This means that I do believe it is possible that if a true Christian were to commit suicide in a moment of extreme weakness, they would be received into Heaven.

What About 1 Corinthians 3:16-17?

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

This verse has sometimes been used to say that those who commit suicide will be destroyed by God, i.e. receive eternal judgment and not salvation. The problem with using this verse in this way, is that this verse is not talking about suicide.

While 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 argues for individual holiness on the basis of the fact that, as believers in whom God’s Spirit dwells, we are the temple of the living God, in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul is talking about the church corporately as the temple of God. This is similar to what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5, where he says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The picture Peter paints is that we are each individual stones who come together to form the temple of God; God, thus, makes his habitation in the midst of the congregation, not in special buildings built by human hands (cf. Acts 7:48, 17:24)

The problem we have in modern English is that we use the same word, “you”, for both the second person singular and the second person plural (y’all or you guys – depending on where you’re from), so a simple reading in our modern vernacular doesn’t tell us if a verse is directed towards us as individuals or to a collective group. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 uses you in the second person plural, meaning that Paul is speaking of those who destroy God’s temple as those who destroy the Body of Christ, the Church. This is also clear from the context of 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul is talking about the importance of unity in the Body of Christ.

Thus, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 is a warning about how seriously God takes attacks against the Church, not a warning aimed at those who are considering suicide.

A Word of Caution

My purpose in writing this post is only to bring clarity to a theological question and perhaps some hope to those who have had believing loved ones who suffered from mental illness and/or great spiritual attack, and in a moment of great weakness decided to do something awful and end their lives.

My fear is that in writing this I might give justification to someone who is considering committing suicide, but has been kept from doing so out of fear of Hell.

Let me be clear: what I have written here is my best attempt at faithfully exegeting and making sense of what the Scriptures say. I could be wrong.

I will say this: to entertain suicidal thoughts is sin. It is to entertain ideas of taking your life into your own hands, rather than honoring God as Lord and master of your life. He deserves that role both as a result of creation and salvation; you are not your own, you belong to Him (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Furthermore, the markers of person who has been regenerated by God’s Spirit is that their life is characterized by hope and by a mission. While there may be times when a person experiences extreme feelings of hopelessness for various reasons, there is hope, and God has a purpose with your life.

Help is available for those who are struggling. You can contact me directly here, or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline if you need someone to talk to immediately: 1-800-273-8255

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Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

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Recently SBC pastor J.D. Greear received some criticism over claims that he said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. 

In all fairness, that’s not exactly what J.D. said. In his book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every MuslimJ.D. stated that while the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God are irreconcilably different, there are some shared assumptions about God which can be used in apologetic conversations with Muslims, e.g. monotheism, affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, recognition of Jesus as a prophet, etc.

You can hear, watch and read J.D. Greear speak on this subject in his own words here.

Allah and God

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Israel, and during my time there I met several Israeli Christians, including some Arab-Israeli Christians. Arab-Israeli Christians refer to God by the Arabic word for God: Allah. Just as the English word God is of Germanic origin, and is not itself particularly tied to the God of the Bible, but is a “generic” name for deity, Allah is a similar word in Arabic. As monotheists, who believe there is only one God, we use this word to speak of the one supreme God rather than using a personal name for God to differentiate Him from other deities, since we do not believe any other so-called god is a rival to Him. There is precedent for this in the Bible, in which the ancient Hebrew word, with its Mesopotamian origins is used: אל (“El”), and in the New Testament, the Greek word Θεός (“Theos”).

Islam is different than Christianity in their belief that the Quran cannot be translated to any other language other than Arabic. Muslims are required to pray in Arabic, meaning that non-Arabic speakers are not allowed to pray to God in their mother tongue, but must memorize and recite Arabic prayers. Furthermore, when they read the Quran, they must read it in Arabic. There are “interpretations” of the Quran into other languages, but they are not considered scripture; only the Arabic-language Quran is considered valid and legitimate. It is for this reason, that muslims all over the world refer to their deity as Allah and not God in English, Gott in German, Бог in Russian, and so on.

So, the real issue is not: “What is the difference between Allah and God?”, but rather: “What is the difference between the God of Islam and the God of the Bible?” Even though they are both monotheistic supreme deities, they have different attributes, and therefore, even though they are both called “God”, they are not the same.

Why Islam is Like Mormonism

As the above tweet mentions, when Islam first came on the scene in the 7th Century, Christians did not consider it a different religion per se, they originally considered it a Christological heresy, and they considered Muhammed to be a false prophet.

In the Near East at that time, the majority of the population, particularly in urban areas, was Christian. In the Arabian peninsula, where Muhammed was located, polytheism was still practiced by the majority of the population, many of whom were nomadic. Muhammed led the Arabic people into monotheism, but a new and unique form of monotheism, which built on, but changed, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

The reason Islam was considered a Christological heresy was because Islam affirms both the Old Testament and the New Testament, considering them both holy scriptures, upon which Islam seeks to build. However, they claim that both the Old Testament and the New Testament have been severely altered and redacted, and therefore are not trustworthy. They argue that as a result, the Quran, which they claim is a new and trustworthy revelation given to Muhammed, the last and greatest in the long line of prophets, is the only trustworthy revelation available to us, and the Quran “sets the record straight” regarding things which have been altered and redacted in the Old and New Testaments.

For more information on why we can be sure that the Bible has not been altered (neither the Old nor the New Testament), check out this article in which I discuss historicity, attestation, and canonization.

Some of the things Islam claims were changed in the Bible: God’s choosing of Isaac instead of Ishmael (they claim Ishmael was the chosen son, since they trace their ancestry through him – and they claim the Jews changed the Bible to say that God chose Isaac). They also claim that what the New Testament says about Jesus was radically changed by Christians in order to claim that Jesus was God, when in fact (as they say), he was only a prophet. They do however, acknowledge that Jesus was sinless, unlike Muhammed.

Thus, Muslims deny Jesus’ deity, and along with that comes a denial of his identity as Savior. As a result, they teach salvation by works, whereas Christianity teaches salvation by grace, through faith, through the atoning work of Jesus on our behalf. The Christian gospel is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, which is the basis for our standing before Him, as opposed to Islam, which claims that you must earn your way before God by trying hard enough to keep the 5 Pillars of Islam, so that hopefully your good works with outweigh your bad works, and then God will allow you into Heaven. These are two radically different soteriologies (doctrines of salvation, i.e. how one is saved).

In a way, Islam is quite similar to Mormonism. Consider the similarities:

  • Both claim to build upon the Old and New Testaments, but claim that both have been corrupted and are therefore not trustworthy in the present form in which we have them.
  • Both claim a “new revelation”: the Quran and the Book of Mormon
  • Both claim a new prophet: Muhammed and Joseph Smith
  • Both change the identity and story of Jesus
  • Both teach a works-based soteriology (doctrine of salvation)

Are there bridges of shared assumptions between Christians and Muslims which can be used for apologetic and/or evangelistic purposes?

I believe there are. My wife and I, before we were married, used to serve together in a refugee camp in Hungary which was populated mostly by Muslims from Asia. We provided humanitarian aid to them, and as we built relationships with them, we got the opportunity to share our faith with them as well. We found that they had an affinity for the New Testament and an openness and interest in reading it, so we provided them with copies of the New Testament in their own languages. Many of them, though they had been taught that the New Testament was one of their holy books, had never had the opportunity to read it, assumedly because of the teaching in Islam that the New Testament has been changed and is not trustworthy. However, as these people read the New Testament, many of them were captivated by Jesus, and decided to become Christians. The inbuilt affinity for the Old and New Testaments, for Jesus, and their monotheistic belief, are great starting points for sharing the gospel.

An example of this in the Bible can be seen in how the Apostle John, in the Gospel of John, begins in chapter 1 by identifying Jesus as the divine Λογος (Logos = “the Word”). The concept of the divine Logos was a Greek philosophical concept, which basically meant: “the grand idea” or “the grand force” of the universe. John identified the Logos (translated: the Word) as Jesus. By doing so, John was tapping into an existing belief for apologetic and evangelistic purposes, like Paul did in Acts 17 in Athens, where he appealed to the Athenians on the basis of their altar to “the unknown god.”

Like Paul and like John, may we be uncompromising in our biblical beliefs, and yet wise to use opportunities to share the gospel with people in ways they can grab ahold of, that they might find love, joy, hope, freedom, and salvation in Jesus.

A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

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A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1

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It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you will read. It’s true: the point is for you to read and understand God’s message to you. The best translation in the world won’t profit you anything if you don’t actually read it.

However, what if you’ve moved past that point – and you are reading the Bible? What are the differences between various translations, and how should you go about choosing the right one?

According to the American Bible Society, since William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526, about 900 English translations of the Bible have been published.1 Why so many – and what are the differences between them?

The Bible doesn’t change with time, but language does.

Language is something that is constantly in flux. Language uses sounds and symbols to refer to unchanging realities, but the words we use to refer to those realities do change over time. For example, the word gay has a different meaning in the modern vernacular than it did 100 years ago. The word Awful, in the past meant “awe inspiring” – but in modern English it no longer means that.

Another example is the word Terrible. In the King James Bible, this word is used many times, e.g. Psalm 47:2 – “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”
The word Terrible used to have the meaning of our modern Awesome, which is why more modern translations translate this verse: “For the LORD Most High is awesome.” The word Terrible has come to have an expressly negative or pejorative meaning.

One of the reasons for newer translations is not to change the Bible, but because languages change over time. (Further reading: “What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?”)

The Tension of Translation

I am bilingual; I speak Hungarian fluently and occasionally work professionally as a translator and interpreter. Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is an inherent tension in translating or interpreting between simply translating the words someone said and conveying the meaning of what they said.

For example, in Hungarian there is a term: Zsákbamacska. It literally means: “a cat in a bag,” but what it means is to trick someone, promising them one thing and then giving them an unwanted surprise. In English, we would call that: “pulling a fast one” – or “a switcheroo.”
Furthermore, in English, we do have a colloquialism about a cat in a bag; we say: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or “she let the cat out of the bag” – which means to reveal something earlier than it was meant to be revealed.

In other words, it is possible to translate that phrase directly, but to do so would actually convey something different than what the original writer or speaker had intended to convey. To actually be accurate, you must translate the meaning of the term, not just its words. However, if you only translate meaning and ideas, some of the power of the language will be lost, because particular words conjure pictures (like a cat in a bag), which are rich with insinuations, allusions and other communicative forces.

The ideal translation of any text or speech from one language to another does both, and it is a very difficult balance to reach.

Remember: every translation is inevitably an interpretation.

Because of the nature of language, it is impossible to translate something in a purely clinical, sterile way without getting your “fingerprints” on it.

For example, if in the source language there is a word for which there are two words in the target language, then the translator must decipher which word best matches the meaning they discern the speaker/writer to intend.

For example, in Greek there is one word: pisteuo – for which we have two words in English: faith or belief. There is a difference between faith and belief in English, but not in Greek. Conversely, in Greek there are four words for love, whereas there is only one in English; so if you tell someone you love them in English, in order to translate that into Greek, the translator must interpret what you meant: Do you love this person as a brother/sister? Do you love them romantically? Do you merely feel an empathetic bond to them?

All translations are inevitably interpretations, which is why it matters who translated your Bible and what their underlying theological beliefs and assumptions were.

Some Comparisons for Consideration

All translations fall on the word-for-word and idea-for-idea continuum.

transarrowchartceb_1452185906

I personally use and recommend the ESV and the NASB. After those, I would consider the NKJV and the NIV. I will explain my reservations about the NKJV in part 2 of this post, as well as answering some common assumptions about the NIV – however, both can be avoided by choosing the ESV or NASB 🙂

The reason I prefer these translations is because they are more literal translations – meaning that they attempt to translate word-by-word as much as possible, rather than paraphrasing the basic idea in modern vernacular. For example: the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4 ESV) is interpreted as “those who do right for the right reasons” in the CEV.

I prefer more literal translations because I believe that the very words, not just the ideas of Scripture were inspired by God and are thus very important. Much of the theological richness of certain words or metaphors inevitably tends to get washed out in a thought-by-thought translation, even if that is not intended.

The ideal translation is one which accurately translates the original text, but yet is readable. This is a difficult balance to strike, which is why there are so many translations out there – and why I choose the ESV, because it does both well.

Here is a comparison from Romans 3:24:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
  • (Message) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Every translation is an interpretation, but at what point does an interpretation become a commentary?

Notice the word “justified”, which has enormous theological implications, appears in the more literal translations, whereas in the thought-by-thought translations they take the liberty of explaining what the word “justification” means (or at least what they understand it to mean). That explanation may seem nice, but by doing so, they are crossing the line from being translations to being commentaries. The Message in particular, should not be considered a translation, but rather a commentary, as it is focused on explaining ideas and concepts rather than translating the original text into English.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article, where I look at the King James Version specifically.

Does Easter Come From Ishtar?

We all know that the best place to get information on history is from Facebook memes, right?

One popular meme which I saw floating around this year as we approached Easter was this one, which claims that Easter comes from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and that the practices of Easter are all pagan in origin.

ishtar

There is so much about this that is blatantly incorrect. Let’s break it down:

Is Ishtar pronounced Easter?

Nope. Ishtar is pronounced… (wait for it)… ISH-TAR. Just like it’s spelled.

Was Ishtar the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex?

Yes. Kind of. Ishtar was an ancient Mesopotamian goddess of war, fertility, and sex. She is featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the “Ishtar Gate” was part of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Her worship involved animal sacrifices; objects made of her sacred stone, lapis lazuli; and temple prostitution.

Were Ishtar’s symbols the egg and the bunny?

No. Her symbols were the lion and the eight-pointed star. This one’s a blatant lie.

Was Easter originally a pagan holiday which was changed after Constantine to represent Jesus?

No. The date of Jesus’ death and resurrection are clearly recorded in the gospels. Christians have known and celebrated Jesus’ resurrection since the earliest days. We are told in the New Testament that Christians immediately after Jesus’ ascension began gathering weekly on Sunday to remember and celebrate the resurrection, and we know from ancient Christian documents dating to the early 2nd Century (200 years before Constantine) that Christians celebrated what we call “Easter”, i.e. Jesus’ resurrection annually on the anniversary of the event.

For more on the date of Jesus’ death and resurrection, read: Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How it Adds Up.

Where does the word Easter come from?

The word Easter does not come from Ishtar. There are two main theories about where the word comes from.

Theory #1: Eostre

Some say it comes from the Germanic goddess Eostre. However, there are major problems with this theory, since there is no real evidence that anyone ever worshiped a goddess named Eostre— no shrines dedicated to Eostre, no altars of hers, and no ancient documents mentioning her.

Theory #2: Eostarum

More likely is that the word Easter derives from the Latin phrase in albis, related to alba (“dawn” or “daybreak”). In Old High German, in albis became eostarum, which eventually became Ostern in modern German and Easter in English.

Other languages don’t use the word “Easter” at all

Most European languages use a form of the Latin and Greek word Pascha, which means “Passover.” French: Pâcques. Italian: Pasqua. Russian: Пасха.

Where do Easter eggs and the Easter bunny come from?

During Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter), Christians in the Middle Ages abstained from eating eggs. Eastern Christians (Orthodox and Coptic) still abstain to this day from eating eggs during lent. The tradition of hard-boiling eggs and painting them a few days before Easter developed as a result of people looking forward to the end of the fast from eggs. They would prepare them a few days before Easter and then consume them on Easter Day when they ended the Lenten fast. At some point people made a game out of hiding these colored eggs and sending their children to search for them.

As for the Easter bunny, we know that it is a tradition which the German immigrants to the United States brought with them in the 1700’s. They called it Osterhase, and it was said to “lay” the Easter eggs. It’s origin is not believed to be pagan, but rather… (wait for it)… “fun” (whatever that is!).

There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Don’t fall for it.

Jesus is risen!  He is risen indeed!

The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.