In other posts, I detailed some of the more egregious theological errors being supported by the the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistranslation of the Bible. Now I want to touch briefly on the issue of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hell (mostly because the title and headings are funny).
It is well known that Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Society (the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), began his journey away from orthodox Christianity by denying Hell. Although raised Presbyterian, he began to attend a Congregational church in his teenage years. Because could not reconcile an eternal hell with a merciful God he became agnostic, then dabbled in Eastern religions, and at the age of eighteen discovered Adventism and began indulging in the kind of failed end-time speculation that the Watchtower would later be famous for. He continued to question many other historic Christian doctrines and decided that orthodoxy was not true Christianity. So, in 1881 Russell founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society – aka, the Jehovah’s Witnesses – which became the outlet for his aberrant teachings.
Where the Hell?
Jehovah’s Witnesses since literally translated the Hell out of the Bible. In the 1960’s they produced their own version of the Bible called the New World Translation (NWT) which became helpful for supporting their false teachings. You won’t find the word “Hell anywhere in the NWT. Now, this is not necessarily inaccurate, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
The problem is that the word “Hell” has been used to translate far too many biblical terms which are not co-extensive:
- Sheol is found in the Bible in 65 places. IT is the Hebrew term for the place of the dead, and is usually translated as “the pit” or “the grave.”
- Hades is found in the Bible in 11 places – it is basically the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol (i.e., the place of the dead or “the grave”).
- Tartarus is only found 1 time in the Bible at 2 Peter 2:4. There it is used to describe the place God kept the angels that sinned. The word is from Greek mythology – an abyss where the wicked are tormented.
- Gehenna is used 12 times and is almost always translated as “hell” and means the final place of suffering for the unsaved (i.e., the Lake of Fire).
This can lead to both interpretation and theological errors. For example, the KJV translates all these words as Hell (how does Hell get thrown into Hell in Revelation 20???).
What the Hell?
During the Intertestamental Period, the concept of afterlife abodes became more precise. Sheol became distinguished from the place of final punishment (1 Enoch 18:9-16; 51:1) known in Hebrew as Gen Hinnom or the Valley of Hinnom (2 Apoc Bar 59:10; 4 Ezra 7:36) – after the infamous valley outside Jerusalem where child sacrifices had once been made to Molech (2 Kings 16:3 ; 2 Chron 28:3 ; 33:6 ; Jer 7:31-34 ; 19:6) and became Jerusalem’s dump (2 Kings 23:10). In Greek this location is known as Gehenna (2 Esdr 2:29), and it became equivalent to the later New Testament idea of everlasting, fiery punishment (1 Enoch 90:26, 27; 54:1, 2). Gehenna became the term Jesus uses when he describes the place of the wicked unbelieving dead (Mt. 5:22, 7:19, 8:12; 10:15,28, 11:22-24, 18:8-9; 22:13; 25:30; Mark 9:43-49 ; Luke Luke 13:28-30; 17:26-30; John 15:6), etc.
However, because the very idea of eternal punishment is denied by Jehovah’s Witnesses, the word “Hell” is not used the NWT. For example, this is the footnote that appears where “Hell” would normally be used as the translation of “Gehenna”:
In another place, the Greek term for “punishment” (κόλασις) is “translated” as “cut-off.”
The word means torment, chastisement, or punishment, yet the NWT has “cut off.” The Greek term appears on one other place in the Bible at 1 john 4:18 which the NWT inexplicably translates as “restrains us.”
The reason behind this mistranslation is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that because they have no souls, when people die they basically cease to exist. If God does not recreate these people (the Jehovah’s Witness notion of “resurrection”), they simply remain non-existent (“destroyed”). This is confirmed by the NWT rendering of 2 Peter 2:9, which is cross-referenced to Matthew 25:46. Instead of punishment we have “destruction”:
This notion is also evident in the New World Translation of Luke 23:43, where the comma is shifted so that it falls after “today.”
While the Church teaches that Paradise was a compartment of Hades set aside for the righteous dead, and that Jesus came for them after his crucifixion, this would make no sense to a Jehovah’s Witness. Thus, the NWT makes it look like the thief was not going to be in paradise that day, rather Jesus was telling him about Paradise (which will be on earth thousands later) that day.
Once again, under the guise of literal translation (a claim violated far too often in the NWT to be taken seriously), the NWT is really communicating its ideology.