Thursday, June 19, 2014

The worm that doesn't die

Here is a question I used to have in my mind as I would listen to folks preach on Jesus' teaching from the Gospels concerning "the worm that doesn't die and the unquenchable fire" (maybe you have wondered the same thing):

Why do we teach that an undying worm represents a human soul being tormented forever in hell? I mean, really, where does that come from?

We know what Jesus said: "If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire."  (Mark 9:47-49)

I included verse 49 because that part always seems to be left out. It is something for you to ponder as we explore these verses.

Most Bible versions also have the worm and fire quote in verses 44 and 46. You will notice they have brackets around the phrase and a footnote that states, "Vv 44 and 46, which are identical to v 48, are not found in the early mss". That means that they are not found in early manuscripts and mostly likely added later.

You will also notice that the worm and fire phrase is in all caps. That does not mean Jesus was shouting at His audience. Okay, that was just a joke - you know the capitalized words mean it is a direct quote from the Old Testament. Super! That is a huge lead to understanding what Jesus is actually trying to say here. The only problem is, I've never heard preachers actually go back and read the OT passage and relate its meaning to Jesus' teaching. Is that your experience? I find that VERY odd.

The good news is that we, in our modern age, have access to myriads of resources! We can just reach for our Bible and look up that OT passage (made easier by a Bible with cross references).  It is found in Isaiah 66:24, which happens to be the very last verse in that book. It is written in poetic form:

"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."

So, it is plain that we are talking about dead people - men who have transgressed against the Lord. There are also other people, apparently spared from death, who will go and look at them and be disgusted. So, what do we know about worms and dead bodies? The worms consume the dead flesh - the worms will not die so they'll just keep eating. There are also fires that are burning up the dead bodies and no one is able to quench, or put out, the fires. This description in its poetic format leads me understand that these dead people are undergoing a complete destruction.

If you would like more information about these enemies of God, just read all of Isaiah 66. Some highlights include: "For behold, the LORD will come in fire…To render His anger with fury…For the LORD will execute judgment by fire…And those slain by the LORD will be many…those…will come to an end altogether, declares the LORD."

This 'garbage dump' where dead things were burned was originally called the valley of Hinnom (or Gehenna). It was the valley of Ben-hinnom where wicked people made their sons and daughters pass through the fire in worship to Molech (Jer. 7:31, 19:6, 32:35). The Gehenna that Jesus referenced was found south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned. 

When Jesus talked about people being cast into Gehenna, I am confident he was not speaking literally (your body being thrown into a burning garbage dump). However, looking at all the information we have from the Old Testament (and the whole counsel of the Word) we can come to some reasonable conclusions.

It seems clear to me that Jesus was using pictures and symbols to warn of the judgment to come and final punishment (which Traditionalists would agree). His graphic language paints a picture of total destruction, not everlasting torment. This conclusion is confirmed by Jesus' words in Matthew 10:28:

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna."

And repeated over and over throughout the Scriptures. If you ask I will compile a list and post it. Here is an example from Psalm 73:

"For, behold, whose who are far from You will perishYou have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You."

So the next time you hear about the worm that will not die, hopefully you'll have less confusion - and maybe even some insight to share with others.

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I understand this is a difficult subject and there are different views from folks who all value God's inspired word. I value your feedback, corrections and questions. Please leave a comment!