Conditionalists frequently respond to the traditionalist argument from Mark 9:48’s undying worm and unquenchable fire. What doesn’t appear to come up as often, however, are Jesus’ words which immediately follow verse 48: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Occasionally this verse is pointed to in defense of the traditional view of hell. As John Gill writes, 1
that fire shall be to them, what salt is to flesh; as that keeps flesh from putrefaction and corruption, so the fire of hell, as it will burn, torture, and distress rebellious sinners, it will preserve them in their beings; they shall not be consumed by it, but continued in it: so that these words are a reason of the former, showing and proving, that the soul in torment shall never die, or lose any of its powers and faculties;
Leading up to my recent debate, when my opponent asked me how I understand this verse I did not yet have an answer. But with the help of some friends and fellow conditionalists I developed a confident response—and I’m glad I did because it came up briefly during cross-examination. Here I’ll explain in further detail the answer I gave.
Weston W. Fields wrote a paper published in the 1985 Grace Theological Journal in which he noted that “the meaning of Mark 9:49 … has long perplexed interpreters,” pointing out that “Bratcher and Nida have counted at least 15 different explanations of the verse, and Gould calls it ‘one of the most difficult to interpret in the New Testament’.” 2 Adam Clarke admitted that “there is great difficulty in this verse.” 3 James Burton Coffman wrote that “this is a difficult verse, and all kinds of notions have been advocated as the meaning of it.” 4 Albert Barnes speculated that “perhaps no passage in the New Testament has given more perplexity to commentators than this; and it may be impossible now to fix its precise meaning.” 5 It is readily apparent, then, that no interpretation of this verse is so certain as to serve as the lens through which the rest of the biblical testimony concerning final punishment is to be read.
But just what did Jesus mean? One common interpretation is the one that Gill offers above. Clarke likewise wrote that “it is generally supposed that our Lord means that, as salt preserves the flesh with which it is connected from corruption, so this everlasting fire … will have the property … of making them inconsumable like itself.” 6 Barnes said, “The common meaning affixed to it has been that, as salt preserves from putrefaction, so fire applied to the wicked in hell shall have the property of preserving them in existence.” 7 But as common as this interpretation may be, surely it is entirely speculative. Salt may preserve meat, but Jesus doesn’t say everyone will be salted with salt. He says they will be salted with fire. The connection between the preserving function of salt and the alleged preserving function of this fire seems dubious.
Some commentators do not see verse 49 as having anything to do with the damned. Barnes rejected what he called the common meaning, offering instead that “the passage has not reference at all to future punishment.” 8 Coffman writes, “If we understand ‘fire’ as a reference to the persecutions and tribulations that invariably beset the Christian pilgrimage, it means that none shall be saved except through the endurance of the world’s scorn and opposition.” 9 Pointing to faith tried by fire in 1 Peter 1:7 and 4:12, William L. Lane interprets it similarly: “While verse 48 applies to the rejected, verse 49 has reference to those who are true to God in a hostile world … The disciples must be seasoned with salt, like the sacrifice … through fiery trials.” 10 If Barnes, Coffman, and Lane are right, then conditionalists have no explaining to do.
Lane finds support for his view not only in the fiery trials of 1 Peter but also from the same connection made by some scribes early in the history of this text’s transmission. One, for example, includes, καὶ πᾶσα θυσία ἀλὶ ἁλισθήσεται, translated “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.” Bruce Metzger writes, “At a very early period a scribe, having found in Lv 2.13 a clue to the meaning of Jesus’ enigmatic statement, wrote the Old Testament passage in the margin of his copy of Mark.” 11 In Leviticus 2:13 grain offerings are to be seasoned with salt before being burned up “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering.” Unlike Lane, however, John Gill interprets this connection as meaning that 12
the wicked in hell shall be victims to divine justice, and sacrifices to his wrath and vengeance; and that as the sacrifices under the law were salted with salt, these shall be salted with the fire of hell, and shall never be utterly destroyed;
It seems strange that the seasoning of Levitical sacrifices by salt, which were subsequently destroyed, should be seen as support for the salting of the damned by fire which never destroys them. In fact, an argument could be made that this connection favors annihilation. After all, what happened to those grain offerings which had been seasoned with salt? They were burned up. Again, conditionalists have no explaining to do.
However, I concur with Edward Fudge who, in the third edition of his book The Fire That Consumes, writes: 13
Perhaps the most promising explanation of Mark 9:49 relates to the premise that Mark used a Hebrew source for this passage, which included Hebrew idiom lost on later Greek readers … The expression ‘to salt with fire’ is an idiom, says Fields, for the practice of destroying a place and sowing it with salt to make its destruction permanent.
Fudge and Fields are not the only ones to see salting with fire as an idiom communicating permanent destruction. Apparently some early scribes understood it that way too. Bruce Metzger notes that 14
The opening words of this verse have been transmitted in three principal forms … Other modifications include πυρὶ ἀναλωθήσεται (Θ, “…will be consumed with fire…”), θυσία ἀναλωθήσεται (Ψ, “…sacrifice will be consumed…”) … and πᾶσα δὲ οὐσία ἀναλωθήσεται (implied by it, “and all [their] substance will be destroyed,”…)
Fields points out that Israeli New Testament scholar Robert Lisle Lindsey, as well as German Hebraist Franz Delitzsch and the UBS Modern Hebrew New Testament, suggest מלח as the Hebrew translation of the Greek ἁλισθήσεται (“salted”). While מלח is usually translated “to salt,” Fields notes further that Hebrew linguist and lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan defines another usage of the word as “to destroy” and “to erase,” and that Israeli lexicographer Reuven Alcalay translates a phrase literally meaning “to sow a place with salt” so as “to destroy completely.” If conditionalists are correct, that the preceding verse’s unquenchable fire and undying worms communicate irresistible, permanent destruction, then it would make sense for Jesus to use this idiom to refer to the fate of the damned in final punishment.
Traditionalists might object to this interpretation on the grounds that Mark 9:49 was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and that we should not base our interpretation on what is speculated to be Mark’s Hebrew source material. Fields could be said to have done just that, suggesting that “a Hebrew expression was translated literally into Greek, not dynamically,” and indeed this does seem a little speculative. However, it is not primarily the language that is being appealed to but the idiom. Even if Mark was not translating from a Hebrew source document into Greek when he penned Mark 9:49, he may have been writing this expression literally in Greek, one familiar to him and his Jewish readers but lost on his Gentile readers.
Understandably, Fudge and Fields are not dogmatic in proposing this as the best interpretation of this text. Neither am I. Admittedly it is speculative—as is the alleged preserving nature of the fire, as well as the alleged connection to the Levitical sacrifices and any interpretation based upon it. As such, this very annihilation-friendly interpretation is at least equally plausible.
We have examined, then, several possible interpretations of Mark 9:49’s “salted with fire.” The only one which favors the traditional view of final punishment makes a dubious connection between the preserving nature of salt and that of the fires of hell. Another sees it as having nothing to do with final punishment. Another sees a connection to sacrifices seasoned with salt and then destroyed, requiring no explanation from conditionalists, some of whom lean toward still another interpretation that may favor their view but are not dogmatic about it. If Bratcher and Nida are correct, then there are perhaps a dozen other interpretations, and many commentators have frankly admitted the difficulty in understanding it. It simply will not do to make a case for the traditional view of hell from this text, and critics of conditionalism should avoid attempting to do so.
- Gill, J. (1999). “Commentary on Mark 9:49.” New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible.
- Fields, W. (1985). “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Grace Theological Journal 6(2), 299-304.
- Clarke, A. (1832). “Commentary on Mark 9.” Adam Clarke Commentary.
- Coffman, J. B. (1983-1999). “Commentary on Mark 9.” Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament (Abilene Christian University Press).
- Barnes, A. “Commentary on Mark 9.” Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament.
- Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans), 349.
- Metzger, B. (2005). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Ancient Greek Edition (Hendrickson), 87.
- Fudge, E. (2011). The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed. (Cascade), 126.
- Metzger, 87.