A few months ago we took a look at Mark 9:48, in which Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24 and refers to gehenna as the place where “their worm does not die.” Critics of conditionalism often misquote or misunderstand the idiom as depicting a consuming maggot that eternally feeds upon but never fully consumes its host, and I had explained that quite the opposite is true. Similar to the scavengers of Deuteronomy 28:26 and Jeremiah 7:33 which will not be frightened away and prevented from fully consuming carrion, the worm “will not be prevented by death from fully consuming dead [bodies] … their shame is made permanent and everlasting by being fully consumed.” 1
Of course this image is only the first of two which Isaiah and Jesus use to paint their horrifying picture of final punishment. Just as the worm will not die, they promise that “the fire is not quenched,” an idiom that appears in a very similar form just a few verses before Christ’s appeal to Isaiah when he calls gehenna “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). Elsewhere John the Baptist says that God “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17). Traditionalists typically understand these phrases to mean that the fire will never go out, implying that its fuel—the unredeemed—will exist eternally, being burned forever, yet never completely consumed. But as we’ll see, this idiom is as misunderstood as its abhorrent parallel.
To quench or not to quench
Traditionalists typically assume that Isaiah contrasts a natural worm, which normally dies after it has consumed its food, with a supernaturally undying worm that never runs out of food. In a similar way, traditionalist Robert Peterson reasons that, “Although all earthly fires eventually consume their fuel and go out, the fire of hell never comes to an end because its work is never done.” 2 Edward Donnelly concurs, explaining that conquerors would burn the corpses of their enemies to shame them, but “at least the fire went out when it had used up all its gruesome fuel … Here, however, the fire is never quenched.” 3
This line of reasoning, however, is based on a very peculiar definition of the word quenched. As illustrated by Donnelly’s words above, traditionalists understand quenched in this passage to mean “went out.” Yet that is not how the word is typically used. When we speak of quenching things, such as a thirst, we are talking about extinguishing it. When firefighters are called upon to quench a house fire, they don’t typically arrive on the scene only to stand idly by and watch a family’s home burn to the ground; even if it were unquenchable, it would still go out naturally after it consumes its fuel. One might, in fact, be forgiven for doubting that traditionalists ever use quench to mean “die out” in any other context besides Scripture.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the English word primarily as, whether literally or figuratively, “to put out or extinguish the fire or flame of (something that burns or gives light).” 4 Other definitions include “to put out, extinguish, douse,” “to destroy the sight of (an eye); to blind,” “to oppress, crush; to kill, destroy,” and “to put (a person) down; to reduce to silence; to quell.” Most definitions of quench likewise carry some form of the meaning “to put an end to.” Only a tiny handful of its many definitions connote something like “to go out.” (And those meanings are rare or obsolete.)
Still, though very rare, this use of the English word quench does exist. The same appears to be true in the original biblical languages. The Hebrew and Greek words translated quench primarily mean something like “to extinguish,” but they are capable of being used to mean “to go out.” For example, Proverbs 26:20 reads, “For lack of wood the fire goes out [kabah]. And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.” Matthew 25:8 reads, “The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out [sbennymi]’.” So which meaning, then, is intended in Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:48 and similar texts?
Quench in Hebrew
In some texts where kabah connects to ordinary fire the Hebrew word, our English quench, might mean something like “die out.” Aside from Proverbs 26:20, it’s used twice in Leviticus 6:12-13 to say, “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out.” 1 Samuel 3:3 says, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.” Proverbs 31:18 says of a good wife that “her lamp does not go out at night.” Although it could be argued to mean “put out” in these texts, the consensus among major translations might be reason enough to concede that it can occasionally mean “die out.”
In other places, on the other hand, and in a variety of contexts, kabah takes “put out” as its primary meaning. A widow tells the king that she fears the execution of her only remaining son and his heir, that in so doing “they will extinguish my coal which is left, so as to leave my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth” (2 Samuel 14:7). When David wearies in battle, risking being killed by a Philistine, his men swore to him, saying, “You shall not go out again with us to battle, so that you do not extinguish the lamp of Israel” (2 Samuel 21:17). God promises to “extinguish” Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32:7. Hezekiah tells the priests and Levites in 2 Chronicles 29:6-7 that “our fathers have been unfaithful and have … put out the lamps.” Additional uses like this include Song of Solomon 8:7 and Isaiah 43:17.
It is interesting to note at this point that the aforementioned consensus among translators—which might prompt one to concede that kabah can occasionally mean “go out”—is the same consensus which therefore ought to prompt traditionalists to concede that it does not carry that meaning in Isaiah 66:24. Major translations almost universally render it something like “go out” when it is believed to be used in that way, such as in Proverbs 26:20, otherwise translating it “put out,” “extinguish,” or “quench.” With few exceptions, the vast majority of these translations render kabah in Isaiah 66:24 as “put out,” “extinguished,” or “quenched.” Their consensus suggests the word carries its primary meaning there.
It is the remaining uses of kabah which are most useful for determining whether or not the consensus among most major translations of Isaiah 66:24 is correct, for their contexts are similar: the fiery, inextinguishable wrath of God. In Ezekiel 20:47-48, God tells Ezekiel to say,
47 … Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. 48 All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
The meaning of kabah in this text is clearly “put out.” Whether to be taken literally or not, although the fire “will not be quenched,” it is clear that the trees which fuel the fire will not burn eternally, for the fire will “consume” (‘akal) them. When the word translated “consume” describes what fire does, it means completely burn up. Hence the text of Exodus 3:2 uses it to say that although Moses saw that “the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed [‘akal].” The bush, though burning, was not burned up completely; but the green and dry trees would be, by the unquenchable fire of God.
Similarly, Jeremiah 17:27 reads, “If you do not listen to me … I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour [‘akal] the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched [kabah].” God did not threaten that the buildings of Jerusalem would burn perpetually forever, but that, unable to be extinguished, his fire would reduce them to rubble. Amos 5:6 likewise says, “He will break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it will consume [‘akal] with none to quench it [kabah].”
Even traditionalists often recognize that in these texts and others, in which the fire of God is not able to be quenched, it does not mean the object of God’s wrath will burn forever, but that the fire will burn unabated until its intended destruction is complete. John Gill, for example, writes of Ezekiel 20:47-48 that it refers to “either the succession of these calamities one after another; or the force and strength of them, which should not be abated until the ruin of the city was completed … no stop put to it by all the art and power of man” (emphasis mine). 5 6 Commenting on Jeremiah 17:27 Gill wrote that the fire would not be quenched “until it has utterly destroyed the city: this was fulfilled by the Chaldeans” (emphasis mine). 7 And of Amos 5:6 he wrote, “His wrath and fury break out like fire as the Targum, by sending an enemy to invade the land, destroy it … [they] would not be able to avert the stroke of divine vengeance, or turn back the enemy, and save the land from ruin.” 8
God’s burning wrath which wouldn’t be quenched, prophesied in 2 Kings 22:17 and 2 Chronicles 34:25, found its fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem in the subsequent chapters of both books. Still other examples could be brought to bear, but from all of these it’s evident that the unquenchable fire of Isaiah 66:24 need not refer to a fire which burns forever because its fuel is never fully consumed, but can instead—and likely does, given these parallels—refer to a fire which cannot be extinguished prematurely before it completely consumes the wicked. And since the worm that won’t be prevented by death from fully consuming the wicked is the parallel to the unquenchable fire, we have every reason to believe that’s what the fire likewise does.
Unquenchable in Greek
Besides Matthew 25:8 where it may mean “die out,” and besides Mark 9:48 (because it is the verse in question), everywhere sbennymi (quench) is used in the New Testament it means “put out.” 9 As we’ve seen, the best understanding of Isaiah 66:24 is that it likewise refers to a fire which, being inextinguishable, completely consumes. Lacking any indication that the meaning is being changed, it means the same thing when cited by Jesus in Mark 9:48. But what about the “unquenchable” (asbestos) fire in verse 43 and other texts?
Matthew records John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clear his threshing floor; and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable [asbestos] fire” (Matt. 3:12; cf. Luke 3:17). When chaff is separated from wheat and burned, we know what happens to it: it is completely burned up and reduced to ashes. What’s more, given that the context is the fiery wrath of God, the precedent set in the Old Testament informs us that Jesus is referring to a fire which, incapable of being put out prematurely, will burn up the object of God’s wrath entirely.
Furthermore, the Greek word translated “burn up” is katakaiō which, like its Hebrew equivalent (‘akal), means to completely consume. When the Jewish translators of the Septuagint rendered Exodus 3:2 in Greek they wrote that while the bush was burning it was not katakaiō or consumed. On the other hand, Paul said that the work of some believers will remain but that the work of others will not remain, instead being katakaiō or “burned up” (1 Cor. 3:14-15).
Perhaps the most graphic use of katakaiō in connection with the unsaved can be found in Matthew 13. Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the tares, saying in verse 30, “In the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn’.” Interpreting the parable as analogous to the fate of the wicked, beginning in verse 40 Jesus says,
40 So just as the tares are gathered up and burned [katakaiō] with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire… (Matt. 13:40-42)
Beyond likening the fate of sinners to chaff completely burned up by fire, Jesus says they will be thrown into a “furnace of fire,” alluding to Malachi 4:1-3 in which the Lord says (all emphases mine),
1 For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze … so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name … 3 You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing …
So when Jesus and his forerunner John liken the destiny of the lost to chaff burned up by “unquenchable” fire, they are not saying that the unredeemed will suffer forever in flames. Instead, they are saying that those flames are incapable of being extinguished prematurely, and will therefore irresistibly and completely consume the wicked until all that remains is no more than remains.
The fire is not quenched
Isaiah 66:24 which says “their fire will not be quenched,” and its citation by Jesus in Mark 9:48, as well the “unquenchable fire” of Mark 9:43, Matthew 3:12, and Luke 3:17, have been believed by traditionalists through the centuries to depict a fire which never dies out, and in which the lost consciously suffer for eternity. If one were to compile a list of the texts most frequently cited by traditionalists, these verses would, no doubt, appear toward the top of that list. But a simple look at how the idiom is used by the authors of the Old and New Testaments reveals that this is not at all what they had in mind.
Instead, when the authors of Scripture wrote that the fiery wrath of God is incapable of being quenched, they meant that it irresistibly consumes. Like a raging house fire which firefighters are unable to extinguish, therefore burning the building to the ground, the unquenchable fire of God completely destroys. Like chaff separated from wheat and burned up, the risen wicked, Jesus says, will be thrown into a furnace of fire and reduced to remains. Far from supporting the position of critics of conditionalism, these verses, some of the favorites of traditionalists, clearly teach the final annihilation of the unsaved.
- Date, C. (2012, July 17). “Their worm does not die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 16 July 2012. http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/their-worm-does-not-die-annihilation-and-mark-948/
- Peterson, R. Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), 64.
- Donnelly, E. Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 37-38.
- quench, v. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, September 2007; online version June 2012; accessed 07 September 2012.
- Gill, J. “Commentary on Ezekiel 20:47.” The new John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. 1999. http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=eze&chapter=020&verse=047.
- Gill. “Commentary on Ezekiel 20:48.” Exposition. http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=eze&chapter=020&verse=048.
- Gill. “Commentary on Jeremiah 17:27.” Exposition. http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=jer&chapter=017&verse=027.
- Gill. “Commentary on Amos 5:6.” Exposition. http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=am&chapter=005&verse=006.
- Matt. 12:20; Eph. 6:16; 1 Thess. 5:19; and Heb. 11:34.