The English Word “Hell”

As I have continued to study ultimate redemption’s place in Christian history, I have come across good questions I never would have considered.

For example, I have a friend who is interested in old Bibles, or old copies of the Scriptures, and he has acquired several Bibles and Scripture fragments, some of them dating back hundreds of years. One of the books he has includes four translations of the Bible side-by-side, one of which is an English translation that predates the King James Version (KJV) by several hundred years . . . I suppose I should say it’s apparently a translation into English, because it is clearly not the English we use today. Reading it, I could sometimes make out what a passage was saying, and maybe half the words were discernable, but the English was so old that to my eyes and ears, it hardly made sense.

Of course, reading something in “old English” raises questions about the evolution of the English language, and something else I read recently wondered about particular words and how their meaning may have changed over time. Certainly, those involved in translating the Bible have done their best to convey in modern language the same meaning intended by the original authors, but undoubtedly it’s a difficult task, especially when modern language is not the same today as it was a hundred or even 50 years ago, let alone four or five hundred years ago.

So, what do we mean when we say the English word, “hell?” What comes to mind for us when we say “hell” and is it the same thing that would have come to mind for the people reading the KJV in the 17th century? Dante’s Inferno came out in the 14th century and still carries some influence today so maybe our concept of “hell” is one that has been consistent for the past few hundred years, but what about the meaning of that same English word in the years before Dante?

Consider this:

The KJV uses the word “hell” in the Old Testament 31 times. The New KJV version uses it 19 times.

In the New Testament, the KJV uses “hell” 23 times, while the New KJV has it 16 times.

The New International Version never uses the word “hell” in the OT and only 15 times in the NT.

We could, and perhaps should, credit this change to increased scholarship, to improvement in Bible translation, to the continued attempt on the part of Bible translators to convey more accurately in today’s modern language the meaning intended by the original authors. However, we also should consider the meaning packed into the word “hell,” both to our 21st century ears and to those in the 17th century, and wonder at the impact of its use on Christian theology. What was the meaning the original authors were intending with the words we now translate with the English word “hell?” Why did the creators of the KJV versions use the word “hell” so much? Why do we now use it less? What impact did, and does, its use, and the meaning packed into it, have on what we believe the Bible to be saying?

I don’t know. I haven’t studied enough to conclude anything . . . and maybe studying more wouldn’t make me any more certain. But I think we would agree there’s an impact, one worthy of consideration.

To illustrate the point, I want to offer a comparison of verses. While having the greatest appreciation and respect for modern scholarship and for people working tirelessly to create authentic translations of the Bible, I wonder both about the impact of specific word choice on theology, and about the impact of theology on specific word choice.

I have added the italics below, but here is Titus 2:11, first from the 1984 New International Version, and then from the 2011 New International Version.

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.”

A minor difference from the same version of the Bible written less than 30 years apart.

Interesting? An insignificant tweak? A noteworthy change? Any potential impact on people’s understanding of “salvation” or the “grace of God?”

I don’t know, but at least it’s worthy of consideration.

Either way, I think the gospel is good news.

Really good news, really.


1 Comment

  1. Great post! Very thought-provoking and delicately stated

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