If someone spoke of hell as a fire that will not be quenched and worms that will not die, many believers would hear such language and think it was referring to worms and fire biting and burning and tormenting people forever. And that is fair, given the traditions and presuppositions many of us will bring to the table by default. For this reason, Mark 9:43-48, most notably verse 48, is commonly believed to speak of eternal torment in hell.
But when we look at it just a little bit deeper, especially after taking into account the Old Testament background of the passage, this passage no longer makes a good case for eternal torment. If anything, in light of the passage’s Old Testament background, this passage serves as evidence for evangelical conditionalism and against the traditional view, not the other way around.
The argument for eternal torment from this passage is fairly straightforward. Jesus, when warning his listeners to turn from sin to avoid hell fire, says that for those sent to hell (Greek Gehenna), “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (NASB). It is reasoned that this means in hell, there are always worms that afflict the unsaved (since they do not die), and the fire burns them forever (since it is not quenched). It is inferred that therefore, the unsaved are always alive and in torment in hell, being burned with fire and bitten by worms.
Of course, many believers who believe in eternal conscious punishment today no longer believe that there is literal fire in hell, and likewise view the worms as symbolic. But the eternal conscious experience they see in Jesus’s words remain.
There are two main reasons why this passage does not give any substantial biblical weight to the doctrine of eternal torment, let alone prove it:
1. The Old Testament background of the passage paints a very different picture from the idea of conscious, resurrected people alive in a place of fire and biting worms (or their symbolic equivalent) forever.
2. The terms used about worms not dying and fire not being quenched don’t even mean eternal duration in the first place. That part is read into the passage by people who already believe that hell is a place of eternal torment.
Old Testament Background
When you take into account that Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24, it really changes the whole dynamic of his words:
Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind (NASB).
Notice what Isaiah is describing. It is not living people in the fire and worms. It is corpses. Isaiah is describing corpses, inert dead bodies that cannot feel or think or experience anything. These are what are subject to fire and worms, two entities that, when applied to dead bodies, are destructive and consuming.
Not only does the verse itself refer to corpses, but it is clear from the context. After all, no Bible verse exists in a vacuum. In verses 15 and 16, Isaiah describes the Lord coming down in a torrent of fire and fury, concluding that “those slain by the Lord will be many.” Isaiah is harkening back to that, telling the reader that the people will go out and look upon the corpses of those same people whom God had killed.
Jesus wasn’t coming up with that line about fire and worms on his own. He was quoting the God-breathed Old Testament scriptures to make his point to his audience. And the verse he quoted referred to fire and worms that consume dead, rotting flesh – not fire and worms that torment living, breathing, feeling people in resurrected, immortal bodies.
Neither Isaiah Nor Mark Indicate Eternally Burning Fire or Eternally Living Worms
One might ask, if the corpses in Isaiah are being consumed, and therefore Jesus is appealing to a picture of consumption and destruction in Mark 9:48, why did Isaiah (and Jesus) say that the worms will never ever die and the fire will burn forever?
The answer is simple: neither Isaiah nor Jesus said that. When Isaiah speaks of the fire not being quenched and the worms not dying, he is only saying that the worms and fire will not be stopped from consuming the corpses. And I will explain why that is.
What Isaiah said is that the fire would not be quenched. He didn’t say that the fire would never go out, or that it would always burn. To quench a fire means to actively put it out. It means to extinguish a fire. A fire that is left to burn and consume everything and die out on its own has not been quenched. It’s as simple as that.
Unfortunately, many people incorrectly assume (when talking about hell) that a fire not being quenched means it never goes out. But that just simply isn’t it means.
For good measure, we see fires not being quenched elsewhere in the Old Testament (using the same Hebrew word, Kabah). And their context makes it clear that the fire is not an eternally burning fire. It simply is an earthly fire that burns and consumes and cannot be stopped by men.
In Ezekiel 20:47, God warns that He will kindle a fire in the Negev (southern forest) that will consume every tree, and “it will not be quenched” (NASB). Similarly, In Jeremiah 17:27, God warns that he will destroy the palaces of Jerusalem if the Jews did not observe the Sabbath. And that fire “will not be quenched” (NASB). In neither case are we talking about hell, nor about any fire that would do anything other than burn everything up and eventually die out, as fire naturally does.
Nowhere in the passage does it ever actually say that the fire lasts forever. It just says that it is not quenched. Unfortunately, the NIV and a few other less literal translations will impose their incorrect interpretation onto the text in Mark 9:43, translating the Greek pur asbestos (literally “unquenchable fire”) as “the fire that never goes out.” But the actual text, as translated in more literal translations, simply says the fire is unquenchable – just like the temporary fires of Jeremiah 17:27 and Ezekiel 20:47 were unquenchable.
In the case of the worms, Isaiah does not say that the worms will never die. He just says that they will not die. To say that someone will “not die” can be limited by context. We see this in real life. Someone, perhaps even an unbeliever who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, may say to a hypochondriac friend “you’re not going to die” while their friend freaks out about having a cold. Obviously, this hypothetical unbeliever doesn’t believe their friend lives forever. Their friend will die. They just won’t die right then as a result of whatever afflicts them at the moment.
In the Bible, on a number of occasions the priests are told to observe purity laws so that they would not die (e.g. Exodus 30:20, Leviticus 8:35). The warning was so that they would not drop dead instantly from defiling the altar of God. Even if obedient, they would eventually die.
The significance of worms not dying when talking about corpses is that if the worms died, they would not be able to fully consume the flesh of the corpses. The point is that the worms will outlast the corpses they consume. They will not die, but rather, they will consume the corpses and then move on to something else, as worms naturally do.
What About Taking the Bible at Face Value?
One might ask, why should we interpret the imagery of fire and worms as I advocate? Why should we think that a fire that is not quenched is a temporary consuming fire and worms that do not die are worms that only do not die for the time in context?
The answer is simple: if you don’t already have eternal torment on your mind, the obvious implication of corpses being left to fire and worms is destruction and consumption. It’s not a 50/50 sort of thing. In nature, in the normal course of things, worms and fire consume corpses. Isaiah’s ancient readers would have immediately recognized worms and fire as consuming agents, not agents of torment.
It is not evangelical conditionalism that requires you to apply unusual and unlikely meanings to this text in order to preserve the doctrine. Evangelical conditionalism, the idea that hell is a place of final destruction, is the one view that does not require you to do that!
Jesus quotes Isaiah who talks about worms and fire consuming the corpses of God’s enemies and, without any further explanation, says “this is what hell is like.”
It only stands to reason that if Jesus is going to quote Isaiah in this way, there is a pretty good chance he intended to convey at least broadly the same message as Isaiah: hell entails the final death and destruction of God’s enemies.
Attempts to Rebut the Evangelical Conditionalist Interpretation
As you might imagine, there are attempts at arguments made to defend the eternal torment interpretation of this passage. Some will argue that Isaiah 66:24 really is speaking of the unsaved in hell and it is all symbolic. Some will argue that it is flawed hermenuetics to think Jesus meant something similar to Isaiah. Some will even appeal to intertestamental literature.
For a more in-depth look at this, you can check out my free ebook The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XXI. Other articles on this site also address some of the more in-depth issues as well (see the endnotes).1
But when looking into some of the more in-depth arguments against the evangelical conditionalist view from this passage, consider the following (mostly rhetorical) questions:
1. What reason do we have to think that Jesus was quoting Isaiah in a way to convey a very different meaning from what Isaiah had in mind?
Not only do many traditionalists reply that Jesus meant eternal torment instead of the destruction Isaiah speaks of, but many insist that this must be the case. They insist that it is bad hermeneutics to say that Jesus would quote an Old Testament passage and have a similar meaning to what the original passage said (at least in the case of this passage).
You’d literally be amazed how incredulous some people get that someone would suggest that if Jesus quotes the Old Testament, we should look at the passage he quotes to help us figure out what he meant. It is as though Jesus must have intended to convey a new meaning, and that new meaning must be eternal torment – even though Jesus doesn’t give any explanation of his words that would indicate a new meaning or eternal torment.
I will never understand this insistence that saying Jesus meant to appeal to Isaiah is somehow imposing upon Jesus’s authority. It was Jesus who chose to quote Isaiah in the first place! The Old Testament is God’s word as much as the New Testament. And while the New Testament can clarify and fill in the blanks in the Old, nevertheless the Hebrew scriptures didn’t just stop existing when Jesus came. And nothing that Jesus says indicates that he intended to appeal to Isaiah in a more indirect manner (which he sometimes does with the Hebrew scriptures).
There just isn’t anything in what Jesus said to make us think he didn’t intend to appeal to the death and destruction of the passage he quoted. At the very least, this makes it quite reasonable that Jesus might not have been speaking of eternal torment.
2. If Jesus intended to appeal to intertestamental literature and not Isaiah, why did he quote Isaiah?
Other alternative theories, such as Jesus appealing to Judith 16:17 where fire and worms do appear to speak of torment, run into the problem that Jesus’s words are much more like the inspired words of Isaiah 66:24. This one is pretty straightforward (although I do speak about the intertestimental literature and its relation to Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:48 in my free ebook referenced above.)
3. Why would we really think that Isaiah 66:24 being symbolic of eternal torment is actually the more reasonable interpretation?
Isaiah sees the corpses of those slain by God being consumed by fire and worms. That is so totally different from the idea of eternal torment that it just is not reasonable to think Isaiah is speaking of eternal torment.
This idea seems to really just stem from the mistaken belief that the worms and fire go on for eternity, tied in with the assumption that eternal torment is true. Since eternal torment is true, Jesus must have been referring to eternal torment and so Isaiah must have meant eternal torment.
Just ask yourself: unless you have a vested interest in seeing eternal torment in Isaiah 66:24, why would you ever see corpses set on fire and being eaten by worms and think it must actually be symbolic of people being immortal and never being consumed? Why would you think that corpses are symbolic of sinners who are “spiritually dead” but physically alive (despite having been killed eight verses earlier)? Why would you think the worms are symbolic of unfulfilled longings or bad memories or whatever else? Why would you think anything other than God slayed his enemies and, without even the dignity of a proper burial, they are consigned to be consumed by fire and worms?
- Useful Rethinking Hell articles include:
“What the Qal? Revisiting the Unquenched Fire” by Glenn Peoples.
“The Passive Qal and Other Issues” by guest contributor Claude Mariottini (Professor Emeritus and former professor of Old Testament at Northern Seminary).