English Bible Translations Have Gotten Eternal Almost Entirely Wrong
There's No Such Thing As Eternal Hell
Folks who support the idea that hell will be "eternal conscious torment" will use passages like Matthew 25:46 (NIV)—
"[The unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
You can go to the Gospel Coalition website and see their list of verses that cite a bunch of uses that use the words "eternal," "hell," "fire," and "punishment."
But the Greek word behind our English New Testament's "eternal" doesn't mean "eternal." And it's a historical accident that put it in our Bibles today.
There are two Greek words commonly translated in English Bibles as eternal: aionios and aidios.
In Greek literature, aidios refers to infinitely extended time, what you and I usually think of as "eternal." But that is not the word used in Matthew 25 or similar passages.
In Greek literature, aionios has a wide range of meanings, referring to things in the far past or future, something lasting for generations, otherworldly, or even the mundane and common. But aionios does not mean infinitely extended time. In fact, ancient church writers would use aionios to refer to the time-limited aspect of death and evil's reign.
Aidios (infinite time) is NEVER used to describe the punishment of people in the Bible. Aionios is.
Greek scholars know and accept this. They make this distinguishment when translating ancient literature.
So how did our Bibles get messed up?
Augustine (354—430 CE) knew little to no Greek and therefore had to rely on the Latin translation of the New Testament, the Vulgate. The Vulgate translated the two distinct Greek words aionios and aidios with the single Latin word aeternus—eternal. This was a grave mistake.
Based on his misunderstanding, Augustine criticized the Christian Universalists of his day (the majority position): "But it's obvious—Jesus says the fire and punishment will be eternal!"
Even though Jesus said nothing of the sort.
Augustine was a massively influential theologian and worked hard that Christian Universalism would be known as ridiculous or even heretical (even though he had once been a Universalist himself).
When the King James Version of the Bible was commissioned, it closely followed an The Bishop's Bible, an older English Bible translated from the faulty Vulgate. Moreover, by the 17th century, Universalism had become a tiny minority position. Any translations that could be construed to support it were suppressed.
Today's English translations are still very traditional and often adhere to translating aionios as eternal, even though it means nothing of the sort.
Some newer translations have finally begun to improve their translations.
- David Bentley Hart's New Testament tends to translate aionios as "of the Age."
- N. T. Wright will inconsistently translate aionios as "age" (John 3:16) or "eternal."
- Italian scholar Ialria L. E. Ramelli translates ainoios as "otherworldly," "age-long," or "long-lasting."
The implications, of course, are large. All the prooftexts of hell being eternal conscious torment are now, rightly, called into deep doubt.
Some might ask, if hell isn't eternal, does that mean heaven isn't either?
In short, no, that's not what it means. Our life with God after the resurrection is described in different terms. 1 Corinthians 15 describes all enemies being rendered powerless, including death. All that is corruptible and susceptible to decay will become incorruptible.
1 Thessalonians 4 describes as us being with Jesus "evermore" (literally, "all when").
- A Larger Hope? Appendix I and Terms for Eternity by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli
- The New Testament, Postscript by David Bentley Hart
- Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Bradley Jersak