Sifting through the usual well thumbed magazines in the waiting room at Dr. Love’s Alternative Health Clinic (yes that is his real name) I stumbled upon an interesting pamphlet someone had left. Originally published in 1875 by the Rev. John Wesley Hanson, it was an 88-page treatise (with comprehensive footnotes) on the meaning of two Greek words, Aion and Aionios, as translated and used in the English version of the Bible. My first thoughts were, a) why would anyone spend that much time on the meaning of just two words, and b) isn’t it fascinating where you find such interesting tidbits of information. But the Rev. Hanson felt he had an important point to make and I tend to agree with him.
The Bible, believed by many to be the word of God, has been a foundation stone of western culture for 2,000 years. Nations have been founded, wars fought and people persecuted based on the interpretation of its meaning. While there is no reason to doubt that God was speaking to the original writers of The Bible, Rev. Hanson points out that the meaning of some commonly understood concepts from The Bible such as eternal suffering and everlasting punishment for sinners are, in fact, based on a mistranslation.
Originally written in Hebrew then translated into Greek by some seventy scholars, and from thence into several versions of English, Rev. Hanson argues that key words in the Bible have gone through their own version of Chinese whispers. To sum up briefly, the Hebrew word Olam is, in almost all cases, translated into the two Greek words Aion and Aionios and these have been used synonymously in the English translations to mean everlasting, eternal, forever, etc. when in fact their meaning is closer to life, life-long or life-span. In other words, a limited time span is involved according to the particular situation. As Rev. Hanson observes, haven’t we all commented at some time that a boring speaker “went on forever” but do we really mean that he never, ever stops talking?
This is good news for sinners. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of eternal damnation (especially if it concerns me). It’s always seemed to me that God would be benevolent with his creation, and that as life is always changing and evolving, nothing can be frozen forever in one place. The only eternal and everlasting thing is God. We humans always have the opportunity to grow and to redeem ourselves for any mistakes we make.
There is a serious point here that goes beyond the biblical context and into every aspect of our lives. We use words to communicate ideas and concepts to each other, but we have to be very careful when it comes to understanding the literal truth of words as they are used. A wise saint once told his followers that there were those of them who would hear his words, and those who would hear the meaning in between the words, implying that there was a greater truth beyond the words he spoke. Wisdom, and hence truth, comes from a combination of both knowledge and experience. The truth of anything we hear spoken or written cannot be taken at face value, but is better reflected from our own inner experience and understanding, as well as the context in which the words are used. Truth should “feel right” to us and not be accepted just because someone says it is so.
This is particularly relevant, for example, in the current election cycle when the words of the candidates are often used out of context, and twisted or distorted to change their meaning. We have to look deeper than sound bites and beyond the spin if we want to make an informed judgment on any issue. Voting is a huge responsibility. Politics, like religion, affects the lives of millions of people and each voter needs to seek truth beyond the superficial meaning of the words spoken by any candidate before he or she makes their decision.
As the writer Eckhart Tolle says, “The quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people, or situations, the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you. In this way, cleverness may be gained, but wisdom is lost and so are joy, love, creativity and aliveness…..Of course we have to use words and thoughts. They have their own beauty—but do we need to become imprisoned in them?”