Is there any improper nuance to the word "exists" vs "is" in translating the present tense of "to be" in Hebrews 11:6?

Berean Literal Bible: And without faith, it is impossible to please Him. For it behooves the one drawing near to God to believe that He exists and that He becomes a rewarder to those earnestly seeking Him out.

New American Standard Bible: And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Westcott and Hort / [NA27 variants]: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

I've heard of some deeming it inappropriate to speak of God "existing" rather than "being".

  • 2
    'To be' and 'to exist' may function as synonyms in modern English, particularly when 'to be' is left unmodified. For example, 'I am' can simply be a statement of existence when nothing further is implied by context, such as, 'Are you at work? I am.' In that, 'to be' (I am) has an implied meaning because of the previous question (I am [at work]). That, as opposed to the maxim, 'I think, therefore I am', where 'I am' means 'I exist'.
    – user2910
    Sep 6, 2017 at 19:00
  • @MarkEdward: And wherever you are, that's where you'll be! Sep 6, 2017 at 21:52
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    @rhetorician I guess you could call this my "to be or not to be" question!
    – Ruminator
    Sep 6, 2017 at 21:55
  • @MarkEdward If you copy your comment into an Answer I'd be happy to mark it as an Answer. I think the objection I've heard is that "is" sounds more "active and ongoing" whereas "exists" sounds more sterile and lifeless. It is enough perhaps for a person with those associations to make a word choice but probably not a meaningful objection to "exists".
    – Ruminator
    Sep 8, 2017 at 4:40

3 Answers 3


As far as I can determine as to etymology, "exist" comes from Latin and "be" comes from Old English, presumably from ancient Saxon or Scandinavian. I can presently see no difference in usage in the English and I personally conclude they are absolute synonyms.

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    "Be" can be a copula or absolutive; "Exist" is never a copula.
    – fdb
    Sep 24, 2017 at 21:17
  • I would invite your comment on the following : "I am." "I exist." They both have no object and are thus intransitive. Thus they are absolutive. So - in the context of existence and being, they are equivalent.Only when English uses the verb "to be" in an additional way - I am going - do we see it to be a copular situation. Nigel.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 25, 2017 at 22:40
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    May I suggest you look up the word "copula" in an English dictionary. "Be" and "exist" are not synonyms. You can say "I am a child". You cannot say "I exist a child".
    – fdb
    Sep 25, 2017 at 22:51
  • "I exist, as a child" would be correct, would it not ?
    – Nigel J
    Sep 25, 2017 at 23:23
  • @fdb 'I exist, a child.' is a perfectly grammatical sentence.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 19, 2020 at 7:25

Obviously even in the context of Hebrews-11(6), the choice of English, here "is" or "exists", is/exists to be decided by the translators on the basis of the passage's tone, as perceived to have been spoken:

  • by which was in the passage as a whole;
  • as well as by whose words and phrases had required emphasis;
  • and whereby to support their perception of tone or nuance. .

As you see by my own example above, the word "exists" weighs, in connotation, much heavier in emphasis and tone, conveying deliberate purpose and function: wherein something exists to peform a purpose and fulfil a function. If it is to do so, it requires a trigger. Otherwise it sits ready, existent with latent or dormant function. .

In this verse, the speaker seems to be defining faith in terms of our need for its source, but where "seeks" (ἐκζητοῦσιν) can equally be translated as "needs". If the latter, then the emphasis could equally be intended for the conjunction (ὅτι) immediately preceding "is", thus apparently justifying the use of "exists". .

However, if the conjunction is intended to mean "Who" then it resonates with Exodus and YHWH's "I am Who I am". Nonetheless, there was no conjunction originally in the Exodus hebrew. I would love to check the manuscripts for Hebrews, but we apparently do not have the hebrew original of the Letter to the Hebrews. If by St Paul, who according to N T Wright (Q/A on Teams, Oxford 2020) was equally fluent in Hebrew and Greek, I would defer my conclusion by this.

He alas would have most likely given this letter in hebrew, originally, and thus we await the archaeologists' retrieval.

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    – Dottard
    Dec 21, 2020 at 21:26

Does the I am, or he is , not mean a continual ,eternal, on-going state of being, whereas anything can exist but may at some point cease to exist. ie. My dog

  • Welcome to BH. The Greek ἔστιν translated as " He is" or "He exists," 50/50 of major versions(my count). If the referent in context is God, the first cause, means "eternal/infinite" state of being/existence. The context and referent is the determiner, not opinions. Good words study is available at one "click."
    – Sam
    Jul 29, 2020 at 19:16
  • 'To be' means 'to exist'. But 'a being' is an individual : a person.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 29, 2020 at 21:52

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