Theological Mistakes #10: “The Gates of Hell”

Today, I would like to discuss a Bible interpretive mistake that involves both translation and theology, the meaning of Matthew 16:18. This is part of the “Good Confession” account of Matthew, a pivotal section in which we find Peter identifying Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ response to this confession is to tell Peter that this has been revealed to him by the Father in heaven, and that Peter would be the “rock” upon which the church would be built. (I’m sure some of you disagree with this last part, but I will deal with it in another post.) Jesus then offers this promise, that the “Gates of Hell” (KJV translation) would not prevail against the church. How should we understand this?

In Greek, the phrase translated “gates of hell” is πύλαι ‘αίδου (pulai haidou). The first word, plural of pulē, is rather simple and means “gates” or “portal entrance.” It could be used to describe a gate of the Jerusalem temple (Acts 3:10) or a city gate in the ancient world (Hebrews 13:12, Judges 16:3). The idea of this word is more than a little gate to a backyard garden, but a fortification-style gate that is part of a walled structure. The word that gives us trouble is haidou, a form of the Greek word haidēs, which is quickly recognized as “Hades,” a transliteration of this name.

A common application of this verse is to take the KJV phrase “gates of hell” as representing the power of Satan. Therefore, we are taught that Jesus promised Peter that Satan and his armies would never prevail against the church. This has been used as a rallying cry for the church, invoking the promise of Jesus that we, the church, will win in the end and Satan will lose. Now that may be true (and seems to be a central message of the book of Revelation), but that is not what Matthew 16:18 is saying. Lest you think this interpretation is passé, I would point out that it is used as a central idea in Chuck Swindoll’s recent book, The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal.

There are two problems with this interpretation, both of them types of theological mistakes. First, “hell” is a mistranslation of the word haidou. “Hell” is a rather undeveloped concept in the Bible, but we understand it as a place of punishment, perhaps the destination of those who are not granted eternal life and access to heaven. “Hades,” on the other hand, is just the place where dead people are. This image is used in Revelation 1:18, where we are told that the risen Christ has the keys to “death and Hades,” meaning he has the power to set the dead free from this place.

The second problem is the idea that hell is somehow the kingdom of Satan, that he is the ruler there and uses it as the home base for his legions of demonic armies. This concept  is not biblical. It comes from Greek mythology (and other similar mythologies) that imagine the place of the dead as a physical location ruled over by a god. For the Greeks, this god was named Hades. For the Romans, he was Pluto. (not the Disney star or demoted “planet”). In biblical thought, Satan is not the ruler of hell or Hades. Instead, it is promised that he will be one of the residents (Revelation 20:10).

So, when Jesus promises that the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against his church, he is not making a comment about the cosmic battle between the people of God along with the spiritual forces of good vs. the hoards of evil beings controlled by Satan. Instead, he means “the power of death.” A better translation would be “Upon this rock I will found my church and the power of death will not defeat it.” I think there are two implications to this. First, it is a prophecy of Jesus himself, that he would die but not be defeated by death. He would rise from the dead and give a hope and a resurrection message to his disciples. Second, Jesus is promising us (through Matthew) that death will not be the end for us either. We also have the promise of resurrection, so we need not fear death as the end of the road. Remember Paul’s take on this, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).  As one of my favorite little poems says:

And death’s not the end ‘neath the cold black sod,
‘Tis the inn by the way on the road to God.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #9: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

As we enter the Lenten season, our hearts turn to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week leading up to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. A common way this season has been preached is to offer a series on the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” This is based on a compilation of seven utterances of Jesus from the cross that are recorded in the four Gospels.

All seven of these are rich with meaning and have theological implications for us. Perhaps the most puzzling one, though, is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What are we to make of this. Is it a question, an accusation, or something else?

This statement, recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, has caused misunderstanding from the day it was uttered. At the time, it was misunderstood by those present at the cross. This is because Jesus made this statement in either the Hebrew language (Matthew’s version) or in the Aramaic language (Mark’s version). Therefore, the word translated “My God” was either “Eli” (Matthew) or the very similar “Eloi” (Mark). Which one was actually spoken by Jesus doesn’t really matter, but in either case, part of the crowd at the cross thought Jesus was crying for Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. The tradition about Elijah was that he never died, but was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot while still living. Perhaps those at the cross imagined that Jesus was calling for Elijah to return in this flaming craft and take him away in a similar fashion. No doubt Jesus’ physical condition contributed to this, making his speech thick and difficult to understand. Both Matthew and Mark include this in their narrative as a tragically comic detail to show us how utterly alone and misunderstood Jesus was, even as he was dying.

It is the modern misunderstanding, however, that becomes a theological mistake for me. Rather than focus on the story as told by Matthew and Mark, some have mined this statement for its theological implications. In this endeavor, the statement has been seen as either a questioning accusation or an accusing question. The statement is taken literally. If Jesus accuses God of abandoning him, we must assume that God has, in fact, abandoned him. Having settled this in our minds, we can turn to our own question, “Why would God abandon Jesus on the cross?” Since neither Matthew nor Mark give us an answer to this question, we fall back on a systematic theological answer: God abandoned Jesus because it was at this moment that he took on the sins of the world. Since God is holy, he must turn his back on Jesus, because he cannot look upon sin (or he must separate himself from sin).

I object to this theory, which to me is nonsensical and borders on blasphemy. Let me give you four reasons. First, if this were the case, why didn’t Matthew or Mark give us this information? They are not shy about inserting theological commentary in their narratives (especially Matthew). Second, God can do anything he wants to do. For us to decide that he must turn his back on Jesus because of some sort of theological construct we have erected is not a wise move. Third, I cannot even begin to discuss the damage this does to the doctrine of the Trinity. If God the Father truly separated himself from God the Son, I don’t see how the charge of bitheism or ditheism does not apply. Either that or we must consider that somehow Jesus was drained of his divinity at this point, a sort of delayed or secondary Arianism. Fourth, I cannot escape from asking this question: If God turned his back on his Son because of sin, why would he not turn his back on me because of my sin?

So what are we to make of this statement of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Just this: Jesus is quoting Scripture. Specifically, he is quoting Psalm 22, King David’s anguished cry to God at a time of great distress. If you read this psalm you will see that David’s opening cry is an expression of distress, a cry to God for help. Yet he addresses God throughout the psalm, and not as if he is talking to a turned back or a brick wall. David’s strong words to begin this psalm do not mean that God has, in reality, abandoned him.

Jesus is not teaching us that God had abandoned him. He is crying out to his Father in great distress, and he is using Scripture for this purpose. In some ways we see Jesus in a very human way here. This is not doubt and it certainly is not sin. As the Psalms teach us, it is OK to cry a prayer to God like this when we have in a rough period of life.  It is OK to ask God, “Why?” And it is OK to want God to come to our aid.

BTW: If you would like to hear my sermon on this, try the following links:

iTunes version, it will be sermon #66.

Vimeo version with PowerPoint

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #8: Body as Temple

In previous posts I have been dealing with theological distortions that come from transliterating Bible words rather than translating them. I will return to these problems in future posts, but let me address another error that comes from 1 Corinthians 6:19. In the NIV (2011) the first part of this verse reads:

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you …”

Here is the same text in the earlier NIV edition (1984):

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you …”

Why the change from “body” to “bodies,” and “temple” to “temples”? I cannot answer for the NIV translation committee, but this is a shift with theological implications. Let me explain.

In Greek, the word for “your” (υμων, sorry, I don’t know how to get a rough breathing or circumflex in Unicode, transliteration is humōm). This is a plural rather than a singular “you,” a distinction we are no longer able to make in English. But the word for “temple” (ναός, naos) is singular as is the word for “body” (σώμα, sōma). My translation/paraphrase of this text would be:

“Don’t all of you know that the one body of which all of you are a part is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you all.”

The context in 1 Corinthians 6 is not about abuse or neglect of our personal bodies, it is about the pollution of the Body of Christ (the church) by the actions of individual members. Specifically, the Corinthian church was being defiled by members who were using the services of prostitutes. Paul’s point to them was that such actions did not just affect the individual, but brought moral filth into the body of Christ of which that person was a member.

Again, I’m not sure why the NIV 2011 changed this. It removed the ambiguity of the “your” in the NIV 1984, but mistranslated “bodies” and “temples.” This seems to me to be an accommodation for the individualistic Christianity that is the norm for many today. It loses the larger lesson of Paul, that Christians are part of a fellowship, and that their actions reflect upon and have influence upon the family of God. Don’t forget, Paul reminds us, the church was bought with a price, redeemed from the slavery of sin and lust.

So, if you are at the gym working out and someone proclaims “My body is a temple” (say this with a Schwarzenegger accent), smile to yourself a little. Taking care of our bodies through proper nutrition and exercise is wise stewardship of the gift that God has given us. Worshiping our bodies or seeing them as individual temples is a concept foreign from the Bible. I do believe that God’s Holy Spirit indwells each believer, but that is not the issue here. Our individual bodies are not intended to be temples. They are intended to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1)

Theological Mistakes #7: “Deacons” (continued again)

In my two previous posts I have discussed the problems of transliteration of Greek words into English with reference to two terms used to describe church offices. The Greek word episkopos (which means “overseer”) became bishop through the magic of transliteration. Its companion word, prebyteros (which means “elder” or “old dude”), became priest. I should have mentioned that in the second case, the door was opened for importing many Old Testaments concepts of “priest” and “priesthood” onto the office of elder, an idea completely foreign to the New Testament or the early church. The New Testament authors celebrate the liberating concept of the priesthood of all believers, not the creation of a new, Christian class of priests based on the Jewish temple regulations.

Now we come to the third item in this grouping of church offices, the Greek word διάκονος (diakonos). It is easily seen that our English term “deacon” is a transliterated version of this word. The Greek term refers to one who “serves,” or a “servant.” Another understanding  of this based on Latin roots is one who “ministers” or is a “minister,” with an older sense of the word minister as a synonym for serve/servant.

There is no question but that this term was used as the title for a church office in the New Testament itself. 1 Timothy 3:8 ff. give guidelines for “deacons.” Philippians 1:1 gives greetings to the “bishops” and “deacons” of the church as separate groups from the larger church. In Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe as a “deacon” of the church in Cenchrea, the port for Corinth. Yet this word is used many other times where translators have not seen it as tied to a church office, and in these places it will usually be translated as “servant” or “minister.” Let me give two examples.

First, in the teaching of Jesus as found in Mark 9:35, we are told, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This is not a call to the ranks of deacons. It is a description of the attitude and conduct that Jesus wished to cultivate among his followers, what has been called “servant leadership.” This verse applies to every person in every church who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Second, we should notice that this is one of Paul’s favorite designations for himself. By my quick count, Paul refers to himself as a diakonos seven times in his letters, and as an apostle sixteen times. But nine of those sixteen “apostle” references are are in the opening greetings of his letters, seemingly a standard designation in that setting. This means that in the body of the letters, he refers to himself as diakonos or apostle in roughly equal numbers. (BTW: I will discuss the transliteration problems of apostolos at some time in the future.) Often Paul refers to being called or appointed to be a diakonos (minister/servant), such as in Ephesians 3:7, ” I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”

So, what is the value of pointing these things out? Let me offer two things. In many churches we have “ministers” who are paid staff, and “deacons” who are volunteer leaders recognized by the church in some way. Shouldn’t we realize that the New Testament doesn’t really distinguish between these two? To translate diakonos as “minister” some places and transliterate it as “deacon” others does not seem to me to be consistent or a true reflection of the makeup of the early church. Second, if we translated diakonos as “Servant” when it referred to a specific church officer, we would avoid some of the nonsense surrounding the office of deacon. Deacons in the early church were called to serve in some way, not to form boards. And, their service was not just passing offering plates and communion trays. Let’s always keep the focus on service. The church always needs servants. Ministry should not be limited to the paid staff, to the ordained.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #7: “Presbyters” (continued)

In my last post I tried to show how the transliteration of the Greek word “episkopos” resulted in the English word “bishop” and obscured the meaning of this word. This church office, intended to be an “overseer” or “supervisor” in the church, was invested with authority beyond a local church and seen as carrying spiritual authority not warranted by the functional description of “episkopos.”

There are two other New Testament words in this category.

One is the Greek word presbyteros. In Greek, this is a comparative form. The –teros ending is like our -er ending for making a comparative word. For example, we can take the adjective “big” and turn it into a comparative word by adding “-er” (and another “g”) with the resultant word “bigger.” The root, “presbys” means “old.” The comparative form makes it mean “older.” We see this generic use in Luke 15:25 where the brother of the Prodigal is called the “older brother.” Thus a presbyteros is an older person or an “elder.” In the early church, it seems to me that this is the most common word used to describe the leaders of the congregations of the church. It also seems to me that this was a holdover from the pattern of the Jewish synagogues of the time, which were ruled by older (and presumably wiser) men. This group seems to have been self-selecting, not voted upon by the congregation, but with congregational consensus. I am sure there were disputes as to who should be an elder in these synagogues and in the early church, but discussion of that issue is not my point here.

The problem is that the Greek word presbyteros was scrunched and transliterated to become our English word “priest.” Therefore, in some church traditions the church officer category the New Testament calls “elders” becomes a specialized group called “priests.” A priest today may undergo a rigorous course of preparation, but being older is not a requirement. The idea behind this word is obscured, and rather than having a group of presbyteroses who are the older and wiser members of a congregation invested with leadership responsibilities, we end up with outsiders who come to a congregation to lead it, and who are given select authority in the sacraments of the church.

I realize the issue of priests and sacraments is far more complicated and involved many historical developments, but this transliteration issue has contributed to the confusion. What if all the people within the church who had the title “priest” began to be called “elder?” Would this change the way things are done? I think it would. It would clear up some theological mistakes having to do with the New Testament intent for church leaders.

There is one more word in this category, but I will save it for my next post.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #7: “Bishops”

In my last post, I talked about the problems arising from transliteration of Bible words rather than translation. Let me give you an example from German.

In the German language, Volkswagen means “People’s Car.” This was the label applied to a German car designed by Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s. But when this car was marketed in English-speaking countries, the title was not translated. In effect, the German “Volkswagen” was transliterated to the English as “Volkswagen.” Because the English alphabet and the German alphabet are similar, this was very easy. English even has words similar to the two words that combine to form Volkswagen, “folks” and “wagon.” But notice that some marketing person made the decision to retain the German word rather than translate it. As a result, “Volkswagen” became a recognized name for an automobile manufacturer, and lost its meaning as “People’s Car.”

This sort of thing has happened many times in translating the Bible into English. I am more familiar with New Testament examples based on ancient Greek. Let me give you three.

The word ’επίσκοπος (episkopos) is what might be called a “transparent” word in Greek. In Greek it is a compound word made up of epi (over) + skopos (look or see). Thus an episkopos is one who looks over things, an overseer. If we translated this word using Latin roots, we would get the English wood “supervisor.” This is what the word means. It is a title, but a descriptive, functional title that is easily understood. In Greek, it is as simple as “parking attendant” in English referring to a person who attends to the parking at a hotel.

Unfortunately, this word was crunched and mangled through various transliterations and came into English as “bishop.” It acquired a distinctly churchy sense. No one today refers to their supervisor at work as the “bishop” (unless they work at a cathedral). But to the New Testament authors who used this word, it was not a word limited to describing church hierarchy or clergy. It was a useful secular word that indicated function. Within the church context, an episkopos was an overseer of the work of the church. (Even more, it was not a chess piece!)

I have two more related examples I will explain in the next post. Then I will attempt to tie the three together.

Mark Krause

Theological Mistakes #6: “Transliteration”

Many of the things I would classify as “theological mistakes” have to do with translation and interpretation of the Scriptures. As my mentor, D.A. Carson, has written, “translation is treason.” By this he means that translation always involves interpretation, and it is very difficult to bring all the meaning of the original text into the translated text without some interpretation. I do believe, however, that we have some very fine English translations available, so I don’t worry about this too much (probably not as much as I should). It is completely unrealistic to expect that the Bible readers in our churches will learn Greek and Hebrew so they can read the Scriptures in the original language. This places an enormous responsibility on those who translate and those who interpret using these original texts, though.

To me, one of the great dangers of translation is only to transliterate a word. Transliteration is done when a word is simply respelled using the alphabet of another language. So if we take the Greek word λόγος and convert it to the English alphabet, it become logos. But when we do this, we have not really translated anything. In fact, we have created a new word in English. The meaning of this word may become unhitched from its Greek original, because word meanings change over time in any language.

The classic example of this is the Greek word βαπτίζω, which is transliterated into virtually all English translations as baptize. If one looks up “baptize” in an English dictionary, one will find a meaning something like this: A Christian ritual involving water. And this is correct. That is what the English word “baptize” means. But it is not what the Greek word βαπτίζω means. It means “to immerse,” and was not a particularly religious word at the time of the New Testament writers. In this case the act of transliteration obscures the meaning rather than conveys it. While we might quibble about the seriousness of this case, the fact remains that our translators have failed us here by allowing church politics and theology to settle for something other than a clear translation. Translation can be treason and lead to theological mistakes.

There are many examples of this transliteration fallacy in our English translations, some more serious than others. I will be sharing more in upcoming posts.

Mark Krause