Did Jesus Go to Hell?

Posted: May 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

The following is in answer to a question that was posed in our Bible study group. We were looking at Luke’s account of the crucifixion, and after reading Jesus’ words to the thief next to him: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Someone recalled the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which states that after death, Jesus “descended into Hell”. What? Without making it sound like a Warner Bros cartoon which way did he go? moment, it raised a legitimate question: is the Apostles’ Creed actually wrong on this one?

Did Jesus descend into Hell? Simple question, you’d imagine. The answer, as it turns out, is somewhat more complicated. To come to some good conclusion about this question requires a quick exploration of some things that – at least initially – don’t seem to have much to do with the matter. So we’re going to take a slightly scenic route. Bear with me… this might even end up making sense.

The teaching of Christ’s descent into Hell is technically known as “the Harrowing of Hell” and features more prominently in the Roman Catholic tradition. It is held that (as the Apostle’s Creed states) Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead…[1] From there the traditional understanding has grown that Christ Jesus triumphed over Hell and released those held captive there – particularly prominent, righteous Old Testament figures.

Translation Issues – the Bible:

Scripturally, there is nothing direct that refers to Jesus’ descent into Hell. There are cryptic references that hint at the idea, but there is nothing direct. The popular King James Version translates Acts 2:21 as follows: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. This was referencing Psalm 16:11. And this is where the complications begin.

            Our picture of Hell – particularly as Jesus taught – is a place of punishment, torture and torment. Often Jesus used words like Gehenna or the outer darkness when describing Hell. The Greek word used in Acts and Psalms (at least, in the Septuagint version of the Psalms) is αδης , Hades. The Hebrew in Psalm 16 is שאול, Sheol (a pit, a ditch, a grave or the place of the dead). Both Sheol and Hades were “the underworld” or “places of the dead”. They were not particularly regarded as a place of suffering, although certainly they were thought to be gloomy places, where the souls of the dead went after the body had given up its life. Neither Hebrew nor Greek culture had any great expectations of the hereafter – but it would also be true to say that there was no great thought given to eternal suffering of the wicked.

To be accurate both Hades and Sheol should really be translated as such, or translated by a phrase like those above. Hell, in our modern understanding, is a poor word to choose, and leads to misunderstanding. As it stands, the King James Version is pretty well the only translation available that uses Hell in both Psalms and Acts. But the influential Bishop’s Bible and Tyndale’s New Testament used “Hell” instead.

Exegetical Issues: The Bible

The most difficult text to come to grips with is 1 Peter 3:19-20, followed by 1 Peter 4:6. Here we read that Jesus was made alive through the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah… and that the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead…

There are many thousands of words written – and millions of hours spent in thought – in the attempt to solve the puzzle of how to properly understand what Peter has written. Least convincing is the idea that Jesus went on a missionary journey to the gates of Hell to preach a gospel message to the souls of the wicked (looking at Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-21 – there was no way for anyone to cross the gap to give the dead rich man so much as a drop of water). Is it too late to repent in Hell? Almost every denomination would agree that it is too late. Death is the cut-off date, and no late entry is permitted.

An alternative possible understanding is that Jesus walked up to the gates of Hell and proclaimed what He had just done – won victory over death and sin. This is more plausible. Following his ultimate victory, he goes to the place of the dead and lets everyone being held in Hell know what’s going on exactly.

            It’s worth noting that the verse in 1 Peter may possibly be better understood as something happening after Christ’s resurrection, not before (i.e. the Creed’s descent-Hell-ascent pattern).

Early Christian Theology:

We can see that some of the early Church fathers have had thoughts along these lines. Tertullian (160-220AD) wrote of how Jesus broke the bolts of hell and went around smashing the place up. Clement (150-215AD) took it further and claimed that after His death, the Lord Jesus descended into “hell” and released the souls of the righteous who had been previously kept captive by the Devil. Hippolytus (170-235AD) went on to teach that therefore Christ’s descent into hell was as important a part of His redemptive work as His death on the cross. The idea of “the harrowing of Hell” is, essentially, an extension of their ideas. As you can see by the dates attached to their names, the idea of Jesus in Hell is hardly new.

It must be noted, however, that the first theologians – wise as they were – had many difficulties in developing theology. I’ll leave out the many dramas in formulating a way of expressing what we now know as the Trinity, but it’s enough to say that it was messy, and took many years to get right. The fact that some Church Fathers thought that Jesus marched up to “the gates of Hell” doesn’t guarantee that this is, in fact, the case.

A similar problem of translation occurs when we get to the roots of the crucial Creeds – and it is more likely that the Creeds gave shape to this idea of Jesus going to Hell.

Creeds are printed statements which explain key doctrines. They generally do not make use of Scripture quotations, but attempt to summarize important foundational truths of the Christian faith. The Church has almost always encouraged the saying – and memorizing – of Creeds. Historically, the average believer’s access to the Bible is relatively recent (even in the 1900s, Bibles were not cheap to produce or buy), and, prior to this access, the bulk of a Christian’s knowledge of his own faith came from three sources; memorized and frequently-repeated Scriptures, the homilies/sermons of the local priest, and the memorized Creeds.

Many of the Creeds that are familiar to us today have a rich history: the famous Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed can easily trace their roots with certainty to the year 451 (Athanasius wrote them down, as did Basil of Caesarea, and they appear in the minutes of an important Bishops Council in that year), and most likely to the Council of Nicaea, held in the year 325. Although it sounds odd to us, we can see how this Creed is the skeleton of something more familiar:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down and became incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose on the third day, And ascended into heaven, and is coming with glory to judge living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say, There was when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into being from things that are not, or that he was of a different hypostasis or substance, or that he is mutable or alterable – the catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.”

Apart from the strange-sounding third paragraph, the majority of differences seem to be in the construction of the wording itself. There are a few things to note in our quest for an answer. The first is that the familiar phrase, he descended into hell, is completely absent, as is any mention of his death – only a simple he suffered and rose. There seems to be a lot about who Jesus was and is, but very little about what we’d normally regard as one of the most important things that we believe.

There’s a very good reason for that: the document came as a summary of the Council of Nicaea. It met to thrash out one thing: how can Jesus be both God and Son of God AND Man, all at the same time? There were many different beliefs (I’m not going to go there), and the Council’s job was to figure out what was true and what was heresy. The Creed that came out reflects this: a massive definition of what it means to be the Son of God at the beginning, a condemnation of heresies at the end, and the briefest overview of Jesus’ work in the middle. Why nothing about the death of Jesus? Simple: there was no debate about it – everyone believed that Christ was indeed killed by execution upon a Roman cross. Although impossible to prove, the bit about he descended into hell does not surface because it really wasn’t on anyone’s radar. There simply is nothing in the “skeleton” of the Creed to indicate a line-of-thought concerning Jesus in hell.

A more thought-out, detailed creed is called the Athanasian Creed, thought to be composed by Athanasius (296-373AD). It is essentially concerned, again, with the nature of the Trinity, and first appears in Latin rather than Greek (despite Athanasius being from Alexandria, Egypt, and probably a Greek-speaker). The line that concerns us reads as follows: Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. “Hell” is the given translation from the Latin inferos – again, not the best translation. Inferos is again akin to “place of the dead/underworld”, not the widely-accepted picture of the place of eternal, fiery punishment (which, in Latin is very similar – Infernus).

But the translation hell has remained with us, percolating up through the translations of the Apostle’s Creed (which, in Latin again, states descendit ad inferos, not infernus) into Catholic liturgy. Thomas Cranmer welded much of this liturgy into the Book of Commom Prayer, translating it into usable English… and Hell came along for the ride.

Theology – Implications & Conclusion

Upon the cross, Jesus said to the thief; “truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[2] It is the only indication that Jesus gives us of what may possibly have happened between death and resurrection. We get nothing else. And creating an argument from Biblical silence is not a good practice.

The tradition (that Jesus rescued righteous people in the Old Testament from Hell) is held by Catholic lore, and it shows some inconsistency in the theology of Hell. Why were these righteous people in Hell to begin with? For what were they being punished? Why did Jesus have to blow the doors off Hell? Is Hell ruled by the Devil?

            Hell is a place in God’s creation, and like everything in creation it falls under His sovereignty and lordship. The “power of hell” that Jesus broke is the power of his atoning death – we, once condemned to eternal punishment for our rebellion, are made right in his shed blood and shed life. The “power of hell” is not that of a CEO-like Satan, at the gates with a big ledger like a mirror-image of old Saint Peter upstairs. Hell is under God’s full control and authority. For Jesus to break in and rescue people from it would not be an act against the power of Satan, but of God the Father. And that’s a dangerous theology to have. The British mystic poet Blake believed that the “good” Christ’s power was in overruling the tyranny set up by the Father – which explodes the notion of Trinity rather badly.

            Jesus descended to the place of the dead – that is to say, he most certainly died, and the extent of his being in “the place of the dead” (whether it is called Sheol, Hades or Infero) must be recognised and acknowledged. But I would find it very difficult to support an argument that he “descended into hell.”

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1662. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p12

[2] Luke 23:43


Codex SinaiticusOne of the manuscripts used for translating the New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus. It is hugely important for several reasons – penned somewhere around 500AD, it contains the oldest complete New Testament (as well as a grea amount of the Greek Old Testament), and is considered a really good record of the wording of the original New Testament documents (the autographs).

The problem was that this Codex is scattered over four different locations. The British Library holds 350 leaves (bought from the Soviet government in 1933), the  National Library of Russia in St Petersberg still holds a couple of leaves, Leipzig University has 43 leaves and a Greek Orthodox monastery at Mt Sinai, St Catherine’s,StCathSinaiLandscape300w has the remaining 19 leaves. The story of how much of the manuscript was removed from the monastery has a little controversy to it, but the end result is that the text has never been viewable as a complete document. Only very recently have all the pieces been reunited, and even then it’s only happened in cyberspace.

StCatCopyHowever, it’s exciting news, and not just for the theologians. It is really important to know that the foundational material of our Bible is available, and is publicly viewable (the link should allow you to view the opening chapters of John’s Gospel). True, you need to be able to understand Koine Greek – and work out where puntuation happens, and where words start and stop (the Greek manuscript simply runs together). But you can see it. It is not hidden. The way that the Bible has been made has no secrets. Click here for the link to the Codex Sinaiticus Prioject website.

One column, containing Song of Songs 1:1-4

One column, containing Song of Songs 1:1-4

Thanks to Leanne Stephenson for drawing my attention to it, and to this blog for noting some media problems associated with the Codex Project’s completion.

1170196_78561358A question popped up the other day. “If the Bible is the Word of God, which one is the right Bible? Which one – which version – can I trust?” I thought it was a brilliant question, and one that people should ask more often! This person had thought-out one of the problems with having so many versions of the Bible available in English. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many other people have the same question.

In the last hundred years, there has been a huge increase in the number of different translations that are available. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the King James Version was still the standard, at least as far as the public was concerned.. But two things happened. Firstly, Biblical scholarship was helped by the discovery of a lot of different ancient manuscripts. These helped to both confirm the accuracy of what we have now, and to shed better light on the original texts. That in turn enabled translators to make more accurate choices.

Secondly, the nature of the English language itself changed; more and more people needed to learn English – often as a second language – and the flow of 1600’s English (in both grammar and vocabulary) became more obscure. For one famous example, Genesis 25:29 – “and Jacob sod pottage”. To any modern reader, that looks like either a misprint or something pretty horrible. It isn’t.  Today there are Bibles to suit almost any level of literacy, from the very easy-to-read to intermediate, all the way through to the Greek and Hebrew languages themselves (and some don’t even have subtitles!). So now we can read that “Jacob was cooking stew.” Much more pleasant to contemplate than sodding pottage.

But that doesn’t answer the issue completely – if they all claim to accurately translate “from the ancient tongues”, why are there so many different translations? Which is right? And if some are more “right” than others, does this mean that there are any Bibles that are wrong?

To un-complicate a tangled issue, there are several schools of thought used by the various Bible translation groups.

At one end of the scale, there are Bible versions which reach for the closest possible word-for-word accuracy. The translator “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and personal style of each Bible writer.[1] The technical name for this is “formal equivalence”, and the overriding goal is the most precise choice possible for each word.

On the other end of this scale are the Bible versions that attempt to give the reader a thought-for-thought accuracy, where the translator tries to give an accurate account of the sense of the sentence or paragraph as a whole. Sometimes this may mean stepping away from precise word-for-word accuracy. “Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid using words and forms not in current or widespread use[2] – which is where it may lose some of the very fine detail – but the goal is that a reader can understand the complete thought, or concept, with as little trouble as possible. This is known as “functional equivalence“.

Some translation groups deliberately aim for the middle, with the intent of using the best from both camps – this is termed “optimal eqivalence“.

Isn’t it better to have word-for-word accuracy? Logically, yes – if one language could be switched to another, easily, without losing something in the original. Realistically, that’s almost impossible. Different languages have different rules of grammar, and individual words don’t always translate neatly enough for a direct word-for-word translation to easily make sense. For one example, let’s look at a  verse. Mark 1:32-33 is a good enough example. The Greek reads as follows:

 Opsias de genomenairs, hoete edu ho hairlios, epheron pros auton pantas tous kakoes echontas kai tous daimonizomenous. Kai hair holei polis episunairgmenair pros tehn thooran.[3] 

The Greek of the New Testament is an ancient type known as Koine. Which means that you can’t exactly take it to the Greek embassyor the fish-shop for a translation – Koine is a “dead” language, no longer spoken today. So (at least for the exercise) you’ll have to take my word on the translation. The literal word-for-word rendering is: Evening and (but?) having come, when set the sun, they were bringing toward him all those sickness-having and those being-demon-possessed. And was whole the city gathered-together at the door[4].

While that’s… umm, interesting (at least for an academic), it would be pretty taxing to read more than a couple of paragraphs in that style. Reading it aloud in church would be a labour, and it would be just as tortuous for the listener. It obviously makes far more sense to interchange some words, and adjust the word order: That evening, after sunset, all those who were sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered at the door. This would be classed as word-for-word accuracy (even though it isn’t quite word-for-word).

Some people will still find that a clunky sentence. People who are not naturally strong readers, or people who have English as a second language, may find the next sentence more natural to understand: The sick and the demon-possesed were brought to him in the evening, and everyone gathered around the doorway. This would be a translation classed as thought-for-thought. It is far simpler, although it could be argued that – in the effort to make things easier to read – I’ve lost a bit of precision along the way.

Somewhere betwen the two extremes, I could choose to phrase it: After sunset, the sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered around the doorway. This is an example of “optimal equivalence” – a good middle ground.

Which is most accurate? That’s a question I’ll leave you to answer. Even the most literal translations can’t use word-for-word, as you can see. Compromises do have to be made so that (once again) people can plainly understand the Word of God, the Bible. But those compromises are small – very small – and in no way result in a Bible that can’t be trusted. Which Bible version is the RIGHT version? The one that you can understand most clearly, the one that you will have no trouble reading through every day.

If you have a high reading level, aiming for a translation that values formal equivalence is a good idea. If your reading level is more street-level, look for a version that tries for the best thought-for-thought translation.  The preface of almost every Bible will have the translator’s aims laid out pretty clearly. Have a read through a few passages.

Simply put, it’s really important to realise this: it’s vital to have a Bible that you can understand. God has chosen to speak to man though the Bible – the Bible is the place  where God tells us what he wants us to know about himself, and it contains all the things we need to learn to be saved from destruction.  You can put trust in any common Bible translation. But it’s imperative that you can comfortably read and understand your Bible. It’s that simple.

[1] Preface, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. “Translation Philosophy”, p. vii

[2] Preface, Good News Bible, Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1976. p.viii

[3] I couldn’t find how to write in Greek on WordPress, so I’ve transliterated from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum GraeceI ed.XXVII. For the sake of simlicity, I’ve spelled phonetically rather than use the normal conventions (again, WordPress limitations).

[4] This translation – and the two following are my own. If you’re a Greek scholar, feel free to offer any suggestions or corrections!

Bible and Cross by Billy Alexander

Elderly Bible by Billy AlexanderThe following is a list of Bible versions that are easily available, either in normal bookshops or in Christian book-stores.

There is no intention to promote one Bible ahead of another, or to discredit any of them. They all have up-sides and down-sides, and they depend on your own reading level, your comprehension ability and your understanding. The best Bible for you is the one that you understand the most clearly. And there’s nothing wrong with having more than one version!

There are brief comments about each version, the publisher’s website (you can often read bigger chunks of that particular translation there) and the date the translation was released. Since most versions of the Bible come in many different formats, shapes, sizes and presentations, I’ve tried to limit my comments purely to the translation itself. There are two exceptions – the Study Bible editions of the New International Version and the English Standard Version.



zz-NIV4    NIV – New International Version: (1984, various publishers)

The New International Version is currently the best-selling Bible translation in the English-speaking world. It has pretty well become the default Bible of most Protestant churches and preachers, and is very widely used as a pew Bible. It is a Bible aimed halfway between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, designed to be accurate and readable at the same time. Largely, the translators succeeded; it is freely used by Scripture teachers and academics alike. It has been produced in a huge range of sizes, with many different study aids available; the Zondervan publishing group has gone to great lengths to “produce a Bible for everybody”. An update is also available – the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) is almost identical, except for a decision to replace some gender-specific words with gender-neutral words (for example, “man” and “men” have been replaced with words such as “people” and “everyone” – but only in places where the original languages allow for this).

http://www.ibsstl.org/niv/index.php (the International Bible Society – the original publishers)


The NIV Study Bible was released in 1985. Twenty-five years later, it is still a benchmark for Study Bibles.  Throughout the text of the Bible itself there are 20,000 small study notes which provide extra information. These provide readers with helpful guides to context, background, how passages act as markers to other passages, and can provide an explanation to odd terms (such as Biblical jargon). There are also several essays, a 35,000-entry concordance, timelines and a very extensive cross-reference system. It is very thorough without being overly technical, and is an excellent device for people who wish to start digging more deeply but don’t know where to start.

http://www.zondervan.org/ (the largest publisher of the NIV)


 zz-NLTlogo             NLT – New Living Translation: (2004, published by Tyndale)

This is a Bible that is quickly gaining popularity, mainly because it is a very easy-to-read translation. Originally intended as a simple update to another version called the Living Bible, it became a fresh translation in its own right. It is very much a thought-for-thought translation, with the aim to make the language of the Bible as easy to understand as possible. Often its sentences take a rather different form from “traditional” Bibles. Care has still been taken to ensure that the NLT is still a translation with integrity, although it doesn’t have the pin-sharp accuracy that a scholar would require. The NLT is highly recommended for people who struggle with the text of other Bibles they have tried to use. The publisher, Tyndale, has recently introduced a fresh range, including a good study (Life Application) edition.



zz-ESV_logo_LG               ESV – English Standard Version: (2002, Crossway)

One of the most recent all-new Bibles on the market, the ESV aims more toward the “word-for-word” accuracy. It is partly based off a 1952 translation called the RSV (see below). So, although it is a thoroughly modern Bible, it certainly has the “feel” of a much older one – the style of English can often feel like it was produced fifty-eight years ago instead of eight. That can be a minus or a plus. If you are not a very confident reader, it’s easy to get a little lost in it. If you are comfortable with a “high” level of written English, it’s one of the very best translations available. The ESV is rapidly becoming the Bible of choice in many churches – particularly among the conservative evangelical churches, who value as accurate a Bible as possible.



 The publisher, Crossway, has recently released an ESV Study Bible, which is worth a mention in its own right. It’s heavy (2,750 pages!) and it’s not particularly cheap, but it’s one of the most thorough Study Bibles yet released. It utilizes a system of helpful notes throughout the text, and supplies introductory notes at the beginning of each book, extensive concordance / cross-reference system (80,000 entries), over 200 maps throughout, and explanations of Greek and Hebrew words that have importance. Additionally, there is a series of articles which give a very good overview of biblical and systematic theology, Christian ethics, the major doctrines of the Bible, summaries of the major doctrines of the various Christian denominations, and an overview of other religions of the world. These articles provide a condensed introductory theological course in its own right. It is far more in-depth than the NIV Study Bible, but is more of a “working Bible” for preachers, study leaders and readers who require in-depth study.

www.esvstudybible.org There is also a companion online edition with further resources for the serious student.


CEV - Poverty Justice coverCEV – Contemporary English Version: (1995, American Bible Society)

The CEV is quite similar style to the NLT; it’s an easy-to-read, thought-for-thought translation. One of the advantages with this Bible is that the American Bible Society has produced the core Bible text, and then allowed other Bible Societies to add their own notes and packaging to it. This makes it a very versatile book, with a wide range of readers in mind. Several are geared specifically toward teenagers – and often to specific groups within teen culture (surfers, skaters etc). One other advantage is that the CEV is quite often one of the least expensive, most accessible Bibles on the market. It usually comes with a range of helpful notes and articles.



KJV2KJV – King James Version: (1611, various publishers)

This is the traditional “thee, thou, thine” version of the Bible that, despite the archaic 400-year-old language, is still enormously well-regarded. It’s a sentimental favourite of older people who grew up memorizing its verses. It has a rich history, is one of the most influential books to ever be published, and, right from its release, has had a massive impact on the English language and culture. Passages have carved their way into the consciousness of Western society and its traces are still very much evident in this day. Strangely, it still carries the status of the  authorized version of the Church of England, and British printers do so only with a licence from the Crown. Outside Britain the text is considered a public domain document.

Having noted that, it is important to realize that – aside from the famously popular passages (like the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm) – the KJV is not an easy version to follow at all. Unless you are very comfortable reading Shakespeare or other literature of a similar age, the text is far less accessible than other translations. English words have often changed their meaning over the course of years, and unless one is familiar with older English some phrases may not make themselves clear. Additionally, improvements in scholarship and more recent document discoveries mean that the King James Bible does not benefit from the most accurate textual base. Keeping all this in mind, it is still a beautiful work, is an absolute classic, and has earned its place in the hearts of millions for many years to come.


nkjv1            NKJV – New King James Version: (1982, Thomas Nelson)

The NKJV is very popular in the United States, is often used by Pentecostal preachers and writers, and shares much with the KJV. The New King James Version is primarily based on the same manuscripts as the original 1611 version. Because of this, it also shares the same disadvantages – a lack of access to the most modern scholarship. The aim was to update the grammar and vocabulary whilst still capturing the characteristic “voice” of the older KJV. To this end, it has succeeded. Indeed, it still has that majestic quality of language, which is this version’s biggest strength. The “thee, thou and thine” expressions have been deleted or replaced with their modern equivalents, but the phrasing still holds to the “old classical” feel. The NKJV is, again, not the easiest version to follow unless you are comfortable with an older, more formal style of language.



NASBNASB – New American Standard Version: (1995, Lockman Foundation)

The NASB is arguably the most accurate reproduction of the original languages into English. This, then, is a very literal version – in many places, it works to the limits of English grammar in its pursuit of translational purity. It will attempt to closely follow the sentence structure of the original, and notes where changes in tense have been made to the original (Koine Greek often moves from past-tense to present-tense in ways that make no sense in English), which certainly adds to its accuracy. It is frequently the translation that commentators use as the benchmark for translations, and is often cited in academic-level theological publications. But this level of razor-sharp accuracy comes with one cost; it can make the NASB one of the hardest versions to simply open and read.

Outside of America or academia, this version is not nearly as widely-known, and as a result the range of available Bible types is very limited. In short, it’s not the most accessible Bible, either linguistically or in availability – it would be rare to find the NASB for sale in a bookshop that isn’t Christian-specific. But it is a brilliant reference Bible, an excellent scholar’s tool, and one of the most respected translations.



HCSB logoHCSB – Holman Christian Standard Bible: (2004, Holman Publishers) Again, the Holman is more familiar to Americans while remaining almost completely unknown outside the US. The translators have taken a broadly similar in approach to the NIV and have sought an optimal equivalence approach. The result is said to be slightly more accurate, but the translators also went to great pains to keep the Holman relatively easy to read. As a result, it has become highly regarded by many theological scholars, lecturers and students, and more frequently appears on their “recommended” list.  Like the NASB, there is only a small range available (due to its relative obscurity), but most have excellent foot-notes and cross-references as standard. It would be surprising to see this Bible outside a large Christian bookshop.


Cross and Bible by Billy Alexander

800px-Old_book_bindingsI strongly suspect that inside a majority of houses a Bible can be found lurking somewhere. Jammed in between other stranger-delivered books like the Book of Mormon and the Baghavad Gita (“As It Is, With A Forward By George Harrison”). Great-granny’s carefully-preserved King James black-leather-bound monster with illustrations by Gustav Dore, inherited for years, with no-one game to remove it from the house. Nestled comfortably alongside Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, Shakespeare’s works and other essential pieces of important literature which never actually get read – but no-one should be without.

But what is, exactly, that thing sitting in my bookshelf?

It is, of course, a remarkable book. For those who view the Bible as (purely) a collection of literature from the Ancient Near East, that’s actually a good starting point. It’s a collation of sixty-six books of wildly varying literary genres. Its contents range from soaring, soul-searing poetry to essays in existential angst (long before Kierkegaard gave it a name), from grand epic storytelling to detailed census records, from deeply personal studies on the nature of suffering to delicate and subtle erotic poetry. There are accounts of atrocity, anger, destruction, terror and mayhem. There is also mercy, peace, tranquility and deep, deep compassion. And that’s just the Old Testament – the “first half”, if you like. We haven’t even considered the wisdom of Christ as viewed through the lens of the four Gospel writers, or Paul’s new perspective on theology (no apologies to N.T. Wright), or the wild imagery of John’s Apocalypse.

The reasons for its enduring literary legacy hardly need repeating – this book is unique.

For the Christian reader the Bible is much, much more than even that. If you’re reading this, and you aren’t a Christian, I’ll try and explain why we cherish it so deeply. Hold the scepticism aside (for the moment, anyway) – it pays to understand why we think the way we do. Even if you disagree, understanding  this will hopefully start explaining why we say and do what we do.

This is the Word of God. This is where the One who made the universe, and everything in it, tells us His mind. It is the way that Yahweh Elohim – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus – has chosen to show Himself most clearly. We believe that this has been passed from the mind and the heart of the Living God to the minds of men and into recorded, written language. Whether given to human writers by divine prophetic vision, by hard toil and research, or by multiple authors and editors (and there’s ample evience of all of the above), we hold that what we have in front of us has been breathed out by God, and has been breathed-in by man.

The great apostolic theologian, Paul, wrote to his protege Timothy, and he reminded him that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture,” he continues, “is breathed-out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” [1]

For teaching. For reproof and correction. For training. A while ago I worked for a company that had about 180 retail outlets. The sheer volume of instructional data was phenomenal – training material, operations manuals, product information, business and marketing campaigns – all with the aim of teaching, training and laying down rules, limits and consequenses. As someone who had the responsibility of writing some of the training manuals and work methods, I can tell you that the material adds up, accumulates… and gets heavy.

This book, this Bible, is unbelievably compact considering the job that it has been designed to do. And most Bibles printed today are designed to be portable, to be of utility to the modern reader, to be accessible to today’s individual. The days of gathering around the parish priest as he read Latin from an enormous book are well and truly over – the wish of the old Reformers has been granted, and almost everyone can read the Bible for themselves.

I have on my desk one of those old black monsters. It’s an 1800’s Authorized Bible, clad in textured leather (partly by design, partly by age and elements from well over a century’s use) with india-inked, gold-edged pages, that old heavy typeset that physically indents the paper… and it weighs considerably more than my city’s telephone book. Hardly the stuff of portability – although, in fairness, it was a lightweight in its day, and could fit into a saddlebag of a travelling preacher.

In comparison, a friend of mine has the same Bible stored in his iPhone, downloaded out of thin air, now lightly sitting inside his pocket. His Bible, literally weighs nothing – it’s an app. He can read it, send it, cut-and-paste bits into other documents. He can write sermons on the train, and once attempted to do the same while driving his green Kombi-van.

With these advances, themselves as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press, it is good to know that the Bible is being read. Not just read, but studied, consuled, commented upon, examined, taught from, prayed over, and pondered over in solitude, in Bible-study groups, congregations and television audiences, in seminaries, universities and colleges around the world.

The Word is being read!

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[1] 2 Timothy 3:15-17 (ESV)

Old BibleRecently I walked into a bookstore in the middle of the city. I love books, and a good bookstore is a treat. This one is monstrous – browsing in here is like being let loose in an ice-cream factory with a tiny teaspoon. In both physical floorspace and range of subjects covered, this bookstore would match (and possibly better) more than a few public libraries.

In one corner was the RELIGIONS section. Considering that this wasn’t a specialist Christian bookseller, I was quite surprised at the variety of Bibles on offer. Leather, vinyl, hardback, clothback, paperback. Pocket-sized slim New Testaments to monsters that weigh more than housebricks. More initials than a Pentagon weapons program – KJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NLT, CEV… also on CD and DVD. Prices ranged from $5 to $250. Study Bibles, “guide” Bibles for men, women, business-people and professionals, high-schoolers, skaters, surfers, athletes. The presentations, translations and applications made for a bewildering range. 

It would be quite easy to view this range with a small measure of cynicism. After all, someone out there is making a handsome profit from selling a book that Christians believe is the very Word of the Living God. It’s a core product, central to the business and marketing strategies of companies like Crossway, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson and a range of others. It’s even available in the Penguin Classics range of literature – sitting in the unusual company of Voltaire, the Koran and Machiavelli. Clearly, there’s some money to be made.

There’s just one thing. Whether you call it “demand” or (even more horrifyingly) a “market”, it is quite clear that people still want Bibles.

People want Bibles!

In Western countries, at least, it’s quite easy to get it for free. Actually, it’s hard to think of a book more publicly, freely, accessible. There are any number of websites that allow one to read and print almost all of the main translations since the Reformation. One freely-downloadable Bible program, e-Sword, includes the 1568 Bishop’s Bible, the 1587 Geneva Bible, the 1889 Darby, the 1899 Douay-Rheims, the Vulgate, a Hebrew Old Testament, a Greek New Testament – not to mention some quite sophisticated research tools. And it’s all free!

And yet, even with the advent of such devices, there’s still a remarkable appetite for a Bible. In print. And if the range of Bibles available in this one city bookstore is a reasonable indication, the Bible-buying public is well-informed, literate and sophisticated in their requirements.

About six months before I began to consider writing this book, the newest version  for release was Crossway’s English Standard Version Study Bible. It’s a hefty book, and it’s not exactly cheap. But it caused an on-line sensation when it was released. Reviews exploded through the blog-sphere, people reviewed it on YouTube (I can honestly say that I’d never considered going to YouTube for Bible-buying advice, but it’s there – and it’s being watched), and once again the debate was re-opened into the title of “the best Bible in the world.”

In a world that appears to be more and more godless, in a world where Christianity seems as though it has been relegated to an out-of-the-way corner-shelf, the simple fact that there is still enormous public demand for the Bible is immensely heartening and encouraging.

May it always be so.

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