When Is A Door Not A Door?

The other day, my buddy Keith Keyser sent me a link to an article by James Hamilton Jr., an associate professor at Southern Baptist Seminary whereby Hamilton lays down what he sees are the logical ends of adhering to dynamic equivalence theory (going forward I’ll refer to it as functional equivalence) when it comes to Bible Translations. In the end, he says, the translator has decided to translate what he thinks the author means over against the words the author uses. His main examples were grounded on the “glory” language of the Gospel according to John and the importance of retaining that sort of thing. His closing thoughts are that if one doesn’t know the original languages then one should stick to a formal equivalence translation.

I’m torn because I’m a bilingual Hispanic American.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand English. I do. The thing is, because I understand both languages, I understand the fundamental problems in adhering to solely a formal equivalent translating theory. But before I get to that I need to explain the problem strictly within the confines of the English language.

Another buddy of mine, Dan, was doing a word study on the term “light” and noted how the word is used in English. Dan realized that he couldn’t really pin down the meaning of the word light.  It can literally mean an electromagnetic radiation that travels in a vacuum at the speed of 300,000km per second and it can literally mean not-heavy. It can just as easily mean something that informs (shed some light on the problem), public knowledge (bringing something to light), or an igniting flame (hey bud, you got a light?)

Dan stumbled across the first obstacle of translation which I’d expand on by saying that the word “light” has no singular literal meaning.

How do you translate light into Spanish? You can’t just translate it luz because you don’t really know which meaning of “light” you’re applying. This is invariably a problem with Google Translator. Type in a single word, and it’ll give you a meaning. Change the sentence and watch the words change. What you need is a context. So if the sentence the word “light” resides in is “turn on the light” then you can translate it to luz. But if the context is “Wow, this baby is very light” you can’t translate it to luz. You would either use the word ligero or the phrase de poco peso (which means of little weight).

But even then, you have to be careful. The receptor language (the language that is receiving the words that are being communicated, in this case Spanish is receiving the translation of the English words) might have a semantic range on words that can cause very strange meanings. For example, in the right context luz means to give birth. So you can have the phrase “Give light” be translated to Dar luz and the phrase “Give birth” be translated “Dar a luz”.

This is another major problem that plagues a formal equivalent translation. Indeed, you don’t even know when words change. So a word in the original language might perfectly translate to “gay” in 1611 but today it causes snickers and you have to use the word “happy” or “cheerful”.

Problems multiply exponentially when you employ idioms or euphemisms.  I remember my father translating for an American English speaker who used the words “That’s totally cool”. My father couldn’t translate it to the literal words because it wouldn’t convey the same meaning at all: something like “that is thoroughly frigid.” So my father used an Hispanic idiom that conveys the same idea but literally has problems if it was coming back to English: “onda max” which literally means “deep wave or depth””.

And forget other idioms like “who let the cat out of the bag” or “he that pisses against the wall.” (the literal translation of a  phrase in 1 Kings 16:11 but which not even the NASB—an exceedingly literal translation—nor the Darby version, translates literally!)

What you quickly discover that if you’re doing any translation, you’re trying to convey what the text means in the original language and you can’t even consistently do that solely with a formal equivalent theory. Of course, a person can then swing completely the other way and decide that because what’s maximally important is the meaning, then the original words don’t matter—and that would be a mistake. Not only because the original words are inspired, but because you’ve stepped into a minefield of trying to clear up specific ambiguities.

For example, going back to our light problem, let’s say you have a guru who purposefully speaks about light shining in darkness, the effects of light to the darkness and how his message is light and that we who don’t come to terms with the message are blind and in the dark. If you translated what the guru was saying by means of explaining what he is saying, you’ve lost the ambiguity the guru was putting forward as well as the very colorful metaphor. What translators tend to do in this case, is keep the words (the form) while trying to convey what the words are doing (the function).

But then, the ambiguity goes even further when you realize that Greek and Spanish, unlike English, can insert gender into nouns and specify the action source within a verb. So while in English we use the word “I” or “You” or “They” for the object of a verb (I say; you say; they say), Spanish just conjugates the verb (to say: decir) with the right form (I say: digo; You say: dice; They say: dicen). English allows you to know that the subject is male or female (he or she) until it’s either personal or more than one: then you don’t have a clue. So if it’s a group of women speaking, you’ll say “they say” but in Spanish we’d add ellas which indicates group of women.

In Koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament), you can conjugate the verb (lego: I say; legeis: you say; legousin: they say) but you have no clue about the sex unless you have other words (like nouns) which have the gender inserted. In Spanish we sometimes add an –a in the back of the noun to indicate feminine and an –o to indicate masculine but that in no way indicates the object is either feminine or masculine. Los vecinos at the puerta are masculine neighbors at the feminine door but you might just discover that it’s a mixed gender group and your door is totally sexless: a few more sentences and we’ll slam right into the gender neutral language of the TNIV and the NIV 2011!

So what do we do with all this?

Well, I definitely don’t think this means we should be chucking our formal equivalent versions and all purchasing an NIV 2011. Nor do I think that we should follow Hamilton in sticking only with a formal equivalent Bible. I think we should be trying to learn the original languages (they’re so rich after all) but I also think that we live in a very productive day and age with a fine amount of scholarship behind various translations.

The best, I think, is to employ multiple versions and consistently use them all in your studies. If I were to offer a recommendation, I’d say: NASB (formal), ESV (formal with better English) HCSB (mediating with delicious English), NET (mediating with delicious notes), NIV (functional), NLT (functional) and MSG (purely functiona and that links to the audio versionl). I’d make one of the first three my main Bible (mine is the NASB) and I’d check across the others. The MSG wouldn’t be so much for checking, but for seeing how meaning can be conveyed. I’d recommend Gordon Fee’s How To Choose A Translation but with the caveat that he unnecessarily comes down hard on formal equivalent versions.

Oh, and when is a door not a door? When it’s ajar. Yup, I didn’t mention puns, poetry, or plays on words either!

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What About Hell I Don’t Know

Textually, as I covered in a couple of posts before this, I must affirm a literal hell which consists of judgment, separation from God, punishment, eternality and should be rightfully shunned. I think it is dangerous to say the place doesn’t exist when the volume of Scripture teeters with the weight of the matter. I also gave some responses to the nay-hellsayers and some broad theological reasons why we should affirm a hell. This was all consistent with the broad philosophical reasons I gave earlier which allow the doctrine of hell.

But in this last post, I wanted to touch on the fact that although we know certain things from the text, there are certain things we don’t know and can’t even really be sure. We might be able to posit careful answers but even then, those answers might need a lot of nuancing or niggling when we’re not forced to appeal to mystery. So if you wish, these are questions that may or may not have answers but I may not be as confident on them as the textual basis already listed.

Is Hell the same as Sheol? I know that Sheol has a semantic range that goes all the way from the place of righteous rest down to the place of the wicked. I know that Christ uses the metaphor of Gehenna and the New Testament uses Hades or Tartarus or even the Lake of Fire. So surely, Hell lies on the semantic range of Sheol but that doesn’t help me understand the mechanics of the Grave. Indeed, Hades seems to have more of the semantic range of Sheol than Hell. This gets into questions of geography and so forth but even then we still wind up with Hades being thrown into the Lake of Fire. So maybe Hell is specifically the Lake of Fire but Hades is something else? It seems to contain some similar elements but can we be sure?

Is the intermediate state all the same place? I doubt Dante was right but we have Jesus’ parable where the Rich Man looks across a chasm. I understand the point (there’s no crossing over from one side to another) but is this merely hyperbolic language or is it a detail? Is it possible that the Wicked Part gets thrown into the Lake of Fire but the Other Part isn’t?

Do I think that every presentation of the Gospel needs an explanation of hell? No. But I do think that every Christian should be concerned with the people that are heading there. If there is some random child on a train track while the 6:35 Shuttle barrels down in his direction, all of us would be horrified and quick to act—but what about this Thing that is currently reaching up and out?

Why don’t we have more details? Sheol occurs some 65 times in the Old Testament. Gehenna is found in 12 verses. Hades is found eleven times in the New Testament. Tartarus is used once. Lake of Fire occurs 4 times. Just counting that, we have to admit that it’s not that much. But then again, we have more verses here than we do about a literal Adam, about Adam’s Sin causing death, and several other things we believe. But the fact is that we do have quite a bit here but even so, it’s never as much as we would like. But maybe God is using these details as a means to motivate us to warn others?

Should we be happy about hell? I think that it may be okay to hope that there is no hell. I think it is okay to hope that God saves everyone pulling them from the very edge of the fire. I think it is even okay to hope that one day, all sinners will repent and that God has allowed a way for them to be saved. But I think we need to be careful about not trying to be more moral than God. We don’t know everything that’s going on. On the other hand, I think it’s proper to not be gleeful with this doctrine. I remember getting into a conversation with a Christian who planned to be standing by the lake of fire cheering as the unregenerate, the Devil, his cohorts, and me were being tossed in screaming—horrifying thought. I think that sometimes we Christians can get a bit too hell-happy. Christ took the place seriously and painted some graphic images of people sawing off their arms to ensure that they don’t head there but then we get the book of Revelation showing that same Christ squishing bodies and the blood reaching up to the side of a horse and filling the valley. As my last post noted, hell is predicated on several attributes and actions of God and yet we see there is an equal amount of saying the place should be shunned.

Can we go to Hell? I know people die and go Somewhere but, it looks like people don’t necessarily have to die to go to that Somewhere (ala Enoch). We get location information from Scripture (it is down) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s below our feet. What if that means sub-dimension? What if that means something else altogether like a black hole? A blackhole would end in a singularity whereby the closer you approach the singularity the closer you approach that single point into infinite. Or not. But if hell is like that, we’d have an eternal testimony while the people in it are eternally going but not reaching. But that’s complete speculation. In fact, some theologians have argued that hell is a state…a position absent God…and I think that sounds partly right while it ignores that there is a spatial element but, what do I know.

Is hell barred from the inside? A Catholic theologian (cited here) has a hope for universalism while allowing for hell because people are basically free to reject God. CS Lewis, knowing that God judges, looks at free individuals who reject God as rebels. We also know that people stand condemned because they haven’t believed Christ. I find it hard to imagine a place where the rebels can push out God (especially when Scripture has God even in Sheol, in some sense) but I also find it hard to imagine that these people are there against their choice. And here I don’t mean the Calvinistic pseudo-choice. I mean that these people have really made a mad decision by rebelling against God. So yes and no?

Does the grave finally win by sheer numbers? If the scenario was based on quality vs. quantity (if one finds a piece of gold that is better than all the fools gold others have) I guess it could change things. But I personally think that more people will be in a state of eternal life. I think God saves children (babies, miscarriages, kids who don’t know wrong or right) and the mentally handicapped but I don’t have much to base that on. A few scant passages and lots of hope. But in this way, I think that it will wind up that the quantity (and the quality) is all the greater. I don’t think that means we should go out killing children. To me it means God made provision.

Is all hell equally horrid? There are passages in Scripture speaking about more culpability to those who know more. So you’ll have Christ wailing for Jerusalem and saying it would go better at the judgment for some other cities than for Jerusalem during the time of her visitation. To my mind that sounds like hell is in general bad but not equally torturous for everyone. I don’t think that means that people should be fine going there. It might be that it’s bearable for reasons we don’t even know.

Is the torture of hell eternal? Scripture says that the place seems to be eternal, the punishment seems to be eternal, the flames seem to be eternal—but I don’t know if that means that the people being in the situation of torture is eternal. What if the eternality of the tears is the fact that they are there, want to be there, and knowingly hate it? I don’t know.

Like I said, a lot of these I don’t know. I believe some of the things without knowing but I think I’ve explained why. Some of it is predicated on God’s dealings with people throughout history. Some of it is sheer imagination. I don’t think believing these things makes a person an heretic though it may make them an uncareful teacher. What’s important here is that we don’t take our questions and make them overrule the information we do have.  Be honest having the questions but be equally honest with what God has said.

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Get The Gehenna Out of Here?

People love talking about the love of Jesus. Man, that Old Testament was brutal—the God there equally so: ordering death of people, constantly warning of impending judgment, horrid stuff. But the Jesus of the New Testament is fundamentally different: loving, warm, drawing all men to himself, eating with sinners and judging no one! Not like that nasty Pharisee Paul.

But these folk forget that the person who spoke about hell most was not Paul or James or even good old Peter: it was Jesus. Metaphor after metaphor, story after story, constantly making the point of a judgment to come and a punishment to follow. This same Jesus who would sit with sinners is the one who would tell sinners that it was better that they rip their eye out of their socket and throw it into hell than their whole body gets thrown into the fiery hell (Matt 18:19).

Of course, the word there isn’t technically hell: it’s Gehenna.  Nay-Hellsayers are quick to point out that it’s a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term which is Hinnom Valley. This valley was a deep ravine near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where trash was thrown.  The stuff there was cut off from the life of the people and sent over there. Jesus, the master of metaphor, knew the place well and had no problem using it.

What they forget to mention is that the site wasn’t merely for garbage; it was a place for burning. The place wasn’t only a dump, it was a crematorium. The bodies of dead criminals were thrown and consumed there. And it was that same location where children were sacrificed to Molech the God of the Fire (2 Ki 23:10; Je 7:31): Topheth which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom. If you recall in the last post, Isaiah actually uses this same place to connote a place for punishing a certain wicked King and he speaks about it as a place prepared long before (Isaiah 30:33).

Christ would often mention that place but adds details that have nothing to do with the actual Gehenna. He’d say that there is one who has authority to throw people into that place ( Luke 12:5). Well, that’s weird since almost anyone could throw junk into the fire, but here’s one who does have the authority to throw people. Whereas the real Gehenna could kill a person just fine, and burn up corpses equally fine, Jesus ups the ante with the use of Gehenna saying it is a place where also the very living soul is destroyed along with the body (Matthew 10:28). Or in Mark 9:43 where Christ points out that one is either entering into life one way or entering into Gehenna another way but the latter is completely undesirable. The place, he says, was prepared for the angels (Matt 25:41-56) but the actual Gehenna wasn’t prepared for angels at all. While it was a very deep ravine, he calls it an abyss (Lu 8:31). He recalls imagery from Isaiah (Isa 14:11; 66:24) and calls it a place of the worm (Mk 9:48) but unlike the real Gehenna, the worms don’t die in the flames. He calls the place the outer darkness and a place of weeping and gritting ones teeth (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) but who was weeping for garbage and criminals beside fellow criminals?

These are all important differentiations Christ is making with the actual Gehenna near the Temple Mount.  This isn’t nice imagery. It’s horrifying. It indicates separation, punishment, lack of joy and something to be repulsed. I know that modern Christians don’t like to hear that—especially the ones who say “Hell is not what you learned in Sunday School” but there it is: Christ is just adding all these awful details that stand beyond the actual place.

And in so doing, he echoes concepts from the Old Testament as well. It is the ultimate destination of the wicked (Matt 13:41-42). The place is eternal (Mt 25:41). It’s below, somewhere (Mt 11:23; 12:40; Lu 10:15) The place is hot (Mt 13:50). The place is to be shunned ( Mt 5:22). Christ is ultimately master over it (Mt 16:18). Indeed, with the revelation of the Son of God the revelation of Hell seems much more crystalline: the term Gehenna doesn’t have the same semantic range as Sheol, for instance. The pictures for Hades and the Abyss and the Pit are almost exclusively eschatological in nature.  Christ seems to indicate that only the wicked are there (Lu 16:23).

The New Testament has other important details. For example, in the apocalypse, John sees the Lake of Fire being the ultimate destination for the devil, his cohorts, hell itself and the wicked (Re 19:20; 20:14; 21:8). Echoing the repeated Scriptural theme of separation from life he calls this the second death.  Peter might call the place a prison for certain spirits (1 Pe 3:19) waiting the day of judgment (2 Pe 2:4) and though he doesn’t use the Hebrew term, he uses the Greek term of Tartarus. Jude calls it a place of punishment and eternal fire (Jud 7) and somehow ties Sodom and Gomorrah to it but he only does that after saying that angels who left their place are bound there with eternal chains under darkness (Jud 6).

And just like in our last post, we’re left only scratching the surface of the intermediate and eternal states. We have more information, surely, but not all. I didn’t touch on the intermediate state of the righteous or of the ultimate destination. I didn’t touch on how one can be in one and not the other. I didn’t mention the passages that speak of eternal damnation without using either Gehenna, Tartarus or Hades. I didn’t even really offer an apologetic for or against theses readings: I wanted to just list the passages as they stand.

They accord with what the Old Testament says but, as expected since it is usually Christ who does most of the explaining, they expand on it. There are still many core elements there but there are enough other details to still justify that the place is to be shunned. Just like in the Old Testament, the sorrow is not so much the worm—whatever that is—or the darkness or the fire: it is the separation from life. One of the most horrifying pictures that Christ attaches the imagery of wailing and gnashing of teeth is the one of outer darkness.

To understand that you have to envision what it’s like in an pre-industrial agrarian culture. If these guys had a party with their lamps and lights at night, you would be able to see the light from all around—but no one would see you. If you were out in that pitch black night you would see the laughing and the joy but you’d be out there, staring, angry, jealous and separated.  Christ tells a similar story of a rich man who is looking across a chasm, after death, at someone he had mistreated. The man he mistreated never seems to even notice him but he, oh he sees Lazarus drinking while he sits parched and afraid. But the man doesn’t ask freedom from his situation, he asks for the Lord to send a ghost to his brothers to warn them.

It’s a horrid place, says the Lord—and it should be shunned. The horror is that people will still head in that direction even if someone came back from the dead and warned them.

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