Unquenchable fire and undying worms. Both of these symbols on a surface level seem to imply a punishment in hell that lasts forever. Most of this “implying” emerges not from the text but from our own assumptions about hell. Even many of the most popular pastors over the years have gotten this wrong. Now, there are some scholars out there who argue intelligently for an eternal hell, but I think the arguments still fall upon further inspection. So, without further ado, let us peer into the depths of immortal worms, Jesus, and Isaiah, and also look at an argument from those who advocate an eternal hell through the use of the intertestamental book Judith.
First, the controversial words in question:
“43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell[Gehenna],[h] to the unquenchable fire.[i]45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell[Gehenna].47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell[Gehenna],48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Italics mine)
This is Jesus’ warning to his listeners. It is far better to go through drastic measures to avoid sin than to suffer the consequences of sin, which, according to Mark/Jesus, is the judgment of Gehenna. In this cursed valley, the fire is unquenchable and the worms do not die. This imagery comes straight from Isaiah 66:24 (the original source), and, since Jesus uses Isaiah to make a point, we would be wise to examine the original context:
“For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.[…]
22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
23 From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.
24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Italics mine)
Isaiah, through the use of figurative and prophetic language, describes a future judgment on the world (which, in Isaiah’s case, were the enemies of Israel). God will come in fury and slay with a sword. The end result is a field of corpses. The worms refer to maggots, larvae hatched from the eggs of several kinds of flies, which benefit the decomposition process by feeding on dead matter…including dead bodies. Maggots not only reinforce the fact that those on the receiving end of God’s judgment are dead, they also serve as a symbol of disgrace. These larvae only decompose bodies that are not buried, an abhorrent act in the Hebrew culture (Ecc. 6:3). These bodies, left unburied, are destined to maggots and fire. The point to be made by the language of the worms not dying and the fire not being quenched is that the number of those slain is so great that neither worm nor fire will run out of fuel to consume. We see this idea of an unquenchable fire expressed numerous times throughout the OT (Is. 1:31, 34:10-11, Jer. 4:4, 7:20, 17:27, 21:12, Ezekiel 20:47-48, Amos 5:6). Take, for example, Ezekiel 20:47-48:
47 Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. 48 All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
The unquenchable fire is a fire that continues to consume until nothing remains. Taken into account, both worms and fire describe a scene of total destruction. The reaction of the righteous to the scene of the slain is one of contempt and disgust. The final state of the wicked is one of shame, not pain or torment, as they have met their final and complete end.
This is important, because Jesus, by describing the coming judgment with language from Isaiah, is saying that the coming judgment will be comparable to the judgment pictured in Isaiah. Both the original context of Isaiah 66:24 and Jesus’ use of it indicate annihilationism. Both picture a fire that consumes until no semblance of life remains. If Mark/Jesus really wanted to teach that the wicked will be eternally tormented for eternity, would it not make much more sense to say something much more explicit rather than borrow language from a source that indicates the complete opposite?
The Argument from Judith
When the relationship between Jesus and Isaiah is taken in a straightforward fashion, there is no indication that Jesus’ use of the phrase “unquenchable fire” means anything other than the ultimate death of those punished. There are, however, alternative ways to read these passages. One could argue Jesus is echoing later Jewish traditions, specifically those found in the literature written between the testaments. Glenn Peoples at Rethinking Hell summarizes the opposing argument as follows:
“Regardless of whether or not Isaiah 66 offers support for the doctrine of eternal torment, other books among Jewish literature modified Isaiah’s imagery to refer to eternal torment. When Jesus quoted from Isaiah, although he didn’t mention any of these other books or what they had to say, his audience would have been familiar with the literature, they would have known of the references to divine judgment in those other books, and so when they heard Isaiah being quoted, they would have filtered what they heard through what they knew about the other books that spoke about divine judgment, and they would have therefore interpreted Jesus as referring to eternal torment, rather than to the conquest and death that Isaiah spoke about.”
On its face, this appears to be an interpretive approach with merit. For example, 4 Edras 7:36 describes the “furnace of Gehenna” as a “pit of torment”. Regarding Isaiah 66:24, Judith 16:17 takes the imagery of fire and worms and alters their meaning:
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people!
The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment;
he will send fire and worms into their flesh;
they shall weep in pain forever.
I think this approach encounters some serious problems, however, by involving a problematic assumption, a misinterpretation, and raising issues of canonicity. (Serious credit is due to Glenn Peoples for first thinking of these argumentative points, since I am “borrowing” them here.)
A Jewish Consensus on Hell?
The foremost, and by far the most glaring problem, for this approach is that it requires the tremendous assumption that those who would have heard Jesus speak would have filtered Jesus’s words through a particular understanding. To put it another way, this requires a Jewish consensus on hell, particularly in favor of a punishment of eternal duration. If there is any diversity at all among the Jews’ understanding of the final punishment in the time of Jesus, then it becomes problematic for arguing that Jesus is warning of a punishment that shares similar qualities with the writings produced between the testaments. Why? Because, Jesus gave very little description regarding the nature of “hell” other than a handful of OT symbols, quotes, and allusions. If diversity of thought is present, we should be extra cautious in stating that the intent of Mark/Jesus was to convey something about hell in any particular way beyond the explicit OT allusion, since the hearers themselves would have likely come to varying conclusions, all due to the same words!
The Apocrypha and the Pseudigrapha both indicate that there was far from a “standard” view of hell between the Old and New Testaments. Within the Apocrypha, there are seven references to the final fate of the unrighteous. Six of these appear to describe the annihilationist view, whereas one book, Judith, as we have already seen, appears to describe eternal torment. Using Edward Fudge’s representative sample of the Pseudepigrapha in chapter 10 of The Fire That Consumes, there are twelve references to a final punishment of the unrighteous. Five of these books appear to support annihilationism, two of these books appear to support eternal torment, two of these books are vague enough as to not support either position, and three of these books provide inconsistent teaching by seemingly supporting both positions in different sections within their pages. (One of these books, Jubilees, is placed within the inconsistent category, but it could easily be placed in the annhilation group.) For what it is worth, eleven out of the nineteen intertestamental books surveyed by Fudge appear to support annihilationism, whereas three out of the twelve books appear to support eternal torment. Continuing the ideas of annihilationism expressed in the OT, it seems that the Jews living before and during the time of Christ supported annhilationism as the majority view, above and beyond eternal torment. What matters here, however, is that there was no Jewish consensus on hell, and, therefore, the case for reading Mark 9:43-48 and Isaiah 66:24 through the filter of Judith is weak.
Is Judith an Interpretation of Isaiah?
Another flaw in this argument is that it implies Judith is interpreting Isaiah 66:24 to indicate eternal torment, and that Jesus, by alluding to Isaiah 66:24, is echoing the interpretive tradition of Judith. This idea that Judith is somehow interpreting Isaiah is just crazy. Isaiah goes out of his way to communicate that those subject to the fire and the worms are dead, having already been judged by God. Judith, on the other hand, has the fire and worms inflict pain and torment forever on those being judged. Though both authors speak of a great judgment, they seem to communicate two very different ideas. I would argue that Judith is not interpreting Isaiah 66:24 to mean eternal torment so much as Judith is employing the same imagery used in Isaiah and/or alludes to Isaiah itself to put forth a separate idea. This separate idea is ultimately a step forward in the development of the conception of final punishment found in the OT. This point matters when understanding Jesus; it makes it far more likely he was alluding to Isaiah with Isaiah’s original intent in mind, not echoing a interpretive tradition from the intertestamental period.
Do Our Beliefs Regarding Canonicity Affect Our Interpretation?
This is a tricky question to answer and one that relies upon differing view of inspiration and authority. The intertestamental literature is certainly helpful, but should we consider these books to be a source of relevant teachings? If we do consider these books as “authoritative” alongside the Bible, we are left with a body of literature full of contradictory statements, including some that argue against the very positions Jesus endorses. Regardless of whatever soft inspiration we might attribute to these books, I think we can be confident attributing a higher level of inspiration and authority (sort of like a tie-breaker) to the Old and New Testaments. I think we can trust the authors that were more closely related to Jesus (NT authors) to teach us correctly. I do not think we can have the same level of trust towards those who did not know Jesus as well or those who largely departed from the OT into the waters of speculation, as many of the intertestamental writers appeared to do at times. Besides, if Mark/Jesus wanted to indicate that God’s judgment would be similar to what is found in Judith, he could have easily directly quoted Judith. Instead, he alluded to Isaiah.
When writing the second half of this post, I became aware of a growing suspicion that I had chosen the wrong horse to beat to death. The argument I chose to examine and break down more than likely had never crossed your mind. If you have made it this far, I extend my admiration to you.
 Glenn Peoples, http://rethinkinghell.com/2012/08/worms-and-fire-the-rabbis-or-isaiah/
 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 161
 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 132