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Written Before the Foundation of the World? Translation Matters


I got a few interesting comments on Facebook and Twitter recently when I wrote that I find it increasingly humorous to run across what seem to be theological biases in published standard translations of the Bible, and I must say that it’s not always so humorous. Some questions of translation could go either way; others should not be handled so poorly. So, I thought I would point to another verse where there is almost always an unhelpful discrepancy between the original and the published translations.

The ESV renders Revelation 13:8b like this: “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This translation suggests that the action of having one’s name written (or not) in the book of life took place “before the foundation of the world.” The NRSV, NAS, and NLT each handle this verse in a similar way. This translation has a certain Calvinistic odor about it suggesting that one’s fate is unconditionally predetermined before the dawn of creation. Arminians (like myself) don’t appreciate that too much precisely because we think it maligns the character of God. Why would a good God condemn any of his creatures, if he has the power to save them without doing harm to their will? Arminians insist that he would not. In the case of Revelation 13:8, the Greek text does not support the Calvinist view.

In the Greek syntax of Revelation 13:8, the prepositional phrase does not modify the verb rendered “has not been written” (γράφω); instead, it modifies the substantive participle translated “who was slain” (σφάζω). So, a proper translation would read: “everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world” (cf. the NIV). You can easily see that the Greek makes no comment on the timing of when one’s name is or is not written in the book of life. The emphasis is altogether different. The emphasis is on God’s eternal commitment to reveal himself as the one who is self-giving sacrificial love in the person of Jesus, the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 says nothing about individual or unconditional predestination; it says that God is unconditionally committed to the cross, and he is committed to it from eternity.

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