The job of a Bible translator or interpreter is fraught with dangers. It’s actually easy when there is a textual difference between a Greek text or an English Bible, and that text or version is one that you do not trust. When that difference is in a text you do trust and different translations all fit the definitions of the word, it is more difficult. For example, suppose that in a particular verse the KJV contains a certain word and another version or a foreign translation from the Received text uses a different word. Many of us would simply choose the KJV word. But, how do we answer a critic when both translated words came from the same Greek word in the Received text and both translations are technically equally valid? This happens often in the New Testament. Many Greek words, like words in any language, have more than one meaning. This is called Polysemy, the principle that words have multiple meanings. But, as a translator, how are you to choose between the meanings?
This problem is found many times in the New Testament. One very prominent example is found in John 5:24.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.
This seems to be a straight forward and clear verse. It is in perfect accord with the teachings about salvation in the entire Bible. However, there is an issue with the word condemnation. Of course there is a problem in the modern English versions, you say. However, the problem is not just that the New King James and other English version translate the Greek word Krisis as judgment, rather than condemnation, but early Received Text Bibles also translated it that way. The Tyndale, Coverdale, Bishops, and Geneva translations all use the words condemnation or damnation. One the other hand, the 1744 French Ostervald Bible says “judgment” (as available on e-sword.net; the 2018 Revision by Pastor Mario Monette says “condemnation”). The 1545 Martin Luther German translation uses the word Gericht, which means “court or judgment.” J. P. Green’s so-called “literal” translation says “judgment.” Even the King James has a difference in how it translates krisis. In John 5:29, the KJV translates krisis as “judgment.” Then, the word is again used in verse 30 and translated “damnation.”
How are you to know which is correct? Once again, some of you would point to the way the KJV does it and say the KJV is right. I also agree the KJV translated this word correctly. But, how are you to explain it? How would you explain the difference in how the KJV translated this word to a young or ignorant Christian? How do you know which is right?
It’s easier than you think. But, many miss it.
First, the Greek word, krisis, is an example of polysemy. It has multiple meanings which depend on the context. According to the Complete Word Study Dictionary, the word means both “the act of judging” and “sentence pronounced.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says it “primarily denotes ‘a separating,’ then, ‘a decision’ ”. Thayer’s Greek Definitions tells us the word means a “trial or contest” and an “opinion or decision.” So, it has more than one meaning. It means the process of examining someone (judgment) and the sentence or decision made after the examination (either condemnation or acquittal}. Therefore, on the bare surface, both translations are technically correct.
So, how are we to choose between the definitions? Many words have multiple meanings. The only way to choose which definition applies in a given place in a document depends on context. In the Bible, that contextual information may come from the verse in which we find the word or it may come from the nearby verses or even other chapters in the same book. It may even be found in other books.
The context of John 5:24 and the word krisis is an example of the last one and it depends on a correct understanding of the verse itself.
The subject of John 5:24 is eternal life and how one obtains it. Salvation depends on 1) hearing the word and 2) believing it. By doing this you ensure your eternal safety. The view of this verse is eternity. So, the result of believing is 1) you have eternal life right now and 2) you will never be condemned. That is the teaching of the verse as it stands in the KJV. However, the translations that use “judgment” do not guarantee a freedom from condemnation. They guarantee freedom from judgment.
You may say, isn’t freedom from judgment the same as freedom from condemnation? It is not the same; however, freedom from judgment may result in freedom from condemnation. That is not the problem. The real difficulty is that the statement, “you shall never come into judgment,” is not true. In fact, it is a flat out lie. Moreover, it sets up a contradiction in Scripture. The greater Scriptural context contradicts the idea that you, as a believer, will never come into judgment. The Scriptures declare, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). This takes place in heaven after this life is over. Also, we are judged in this life. “But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). Further, we are to judge ourselves. “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31). To say that a believer will never come into judgment is simply not true. It is true that a believer will never come into condemnation. So the right definition of krisis to use in John 5:24 is “the sentence” of condemnation.
The context of krisis in John 5:29, is different. That verse is talking about the one who has the authority to judge all people, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The conclusion is simple. The translation of krisis in the KJV is correct. It fits the truth of salvation taught throughout the New Testament and it is true to the future of the Christian. Every translator should be extremely careful in his examination of the words he translates.