There’s an Old Testament, as well as a New Testament reference to worms that cannot die and unquenchable fire and that’s what this final entry will address, in the order they appear in Scripture.
Isaiah 66:22 For as the new heavens and the new earth which I make stand before Me, declares Jehovah, so your seed and your name shall stand.
Isaiah 66:23 And it will be, from new moon to its new moon, and from sabbath to its sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, says Jehovah.
Isaiah 66:24 And they shall go out and see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me; for their worm shall not die, nor shall their fire be put out; and they shall be an object of disgust to all flesh.
I believe I’ve pointed the following out somewhere else in this blog, but with the Old Testament containing over 27,000 verses, traditionalists generally claim that a grand total of 2 of them speak specifically of eternal suffering in hell, and Isaiah 66:24 is one of them. I think this claim is a pretty big inadvertent accusation that God failed to properly warn people who existed before the New Testament was written, of the “true consequences” of faithlessness, if in fact the traditional view of hell is true. On the other hand, folks like myself believe that God has always given the same warning throughout Scripture, that ultimately, death(the second death from which there is no resurrection) awaits the unbelieving. But concerning this passage, Peterson (the most publicly outspoken Hell traditionalist) has demonstrated in his writings that he believes that v.22 gives us the timeline when it mentions the new earth and new heavens, which would place the timeline in eternity, beyond time, given that the old earth revolving in front of the Sun is what created time. But he has made a pretty big oversight. The Lord, through Isaiah, mentions the new heavens and new earth only in a simile that indicates how long believers will endure. V.22 has nothing to do with dating the passage. The timeline is actually set by all of the surrounding verses in this chapter. It is speaking of the time of the tribulation when the Lord will “slay many” according to v.16, and then the millennial reign of Christ on earth. We know this is happening on earth for a couple of reasons. For one, there are new moons and Sabbaths. A “new moon” is a calendar event – something that happens in time…not timelessness. There are not going to be any nights or moons in eternity when the Lord is our light, and these heavens have been consumed by fire(2 Pet 3:10 and Rev 20:11) and I sort of doubt the Jewish Sabbath will still be in practice throughout eternity, although I don’t know this. Secondly, the Lord says, in v.23, that “all flesh shall come to worship before me”. The way I understand it, we’re not going to be “fleshy” in heaven, after the millennial reign of Christ(1 Cor 15: 44,47,48), and we will be in the presence of the Lord continually in some fashion, and will not need to “come” to worship. Thirdly, v. 24 clearly says that these are dead bodies(not lost souls) that rebelled against God, and it says that when we go up(to Jerusalem, I presume) to worship the Lord, we will go out and see the dead bodies. Is this what we’re going to be doing in eternity – looking at dead bodies? I hope not. To me, it seems most likely that these are just the dead remains of those who rebelled in the tribulation, and most likely they are visible at the beginning of the 1000 year earthly reign of Christ(when we will still have a moon), until they are consumed by worms and fire(but their souls are in hell/Hades awaiting final judgment). And I believe there is somewhere else in Scripture that talks about how we are going to go up to worship the Lord yearly during the millennium, so this would fit well with that.
As far as the worms being undying, I don’t think for a minute that we are expected to believe that some new species of eternal indestructible worm is going to come into existence that will eat on these dead bodies. The worm not dying is just figurative language that indicates that some will be eaten by worms, and that that the lowly worm (not a Richard Scarry reference 🙂 will outlive those who rebelled against God, and also that ultimately there will not even be a physical remembrance of them. Concerning the unquenchable fire, the fire that consumes these bodies will not be quenched. It’s that simple. They will be consumed. We don’t need to assume that the fires never go out even though “unquenchable fire” has been twisted to mean this by many traditionalists. These are just dead bodies and they will eventually stop providing fuel for the fire when they are gone. Not only does the passage come right out and say these are “dead bodies”, it tells us in v. 24 that they shall be an object of disgust to “all flesh”. This is clearly an earthly event. Also, this concept of unquenchable fire appears in other places in the Bible and it never means fires that burn for eternity.
Jeremiah 17:27 “But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.”
I think this verse defines what happens when a fire will not be quenched: It devours.
Ezekiel 20:45-48 Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Son of man, let your face be turned to the south, let your words be dropped to the south, and be a prophet against the woodland of the South; And say to the woodland of the South, Give ear to the words of the Lord: this is what the Lord has said: See, I will have a fire lighted in you, for the destruction of every green tree in you and every dry tree: the flaming flame will not be put out, and all faces from the south to the north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that I the Lord have had it lighted: it will not be put out. (italics for emphasis)
If this prophecy is about something that already happened, and I believe it is, then the fire “went out”, but was not “put out” or “quenched”. Also, it was lit for the purpose of “destruction”. Unquenchable doesn’t mean ever-burning. It just means that it is going to complete what God intended it to do, consume, without God or anyone else quenching it.
In the New Testament, the lost are compared to chaff that will be burned with “unquenchable fire”. Chaff is burned up to be gotten rid of, and I think that is why it is used figuratively to indicate the consumption and destruction of the lost, but traditionalists have used this verse too, to teach ever-burning flames. It’s difficult to understand why. If a fire “will not be quenched (put out)” then it is going to burn up whatever is in it.
Let’s jump to the New Testament reference and see if here we get any evidence for eternal conscious suffering in hell, as Peterson and the traditionalists claim…
Footing #5 Mark 9:44-48
Mark 9:44 where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
Mark 9:45 And if your foot offends you, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame than to have two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched
Mark 9:46 where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
Mark 9:47 And if your eye offends you, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes to be cast into hell(Gehenna) fire
Mark 9:48 where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
We basically covered this above. Again, I don’t think that we are expected to believe that there are going to be worms that possess immortality (or would it be imwormity?). Worms consume, and so does fire, especially if it is not quenched. This verse just speaks of the same destruction that Jesus always foretold for those who go down the broad path. I think this differs slightly though from Isaiah’s use of the same images in that Isaiah was predicting literal worms and earthly fire, whereas I believe Jesus is “borrowing” the thought(as if the Word wasn’t His to begin with) and using it more figuratively to describe the ultimate and total consumption of the soul in Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, the eternal punishment from which there is no return, just as something burned or eaten away cannot exist again.
A fire that is not quenched will finish its work of destruction. That’s the idea here. And worms are another picture of destruction. I looked around Scripture for some examples and I thought of Jonah, who was sitting under that vine that had come up in one day, but then God sent the worm to destroy it. The ultimate point of that story was God showing Jonah that his values were out of place because the prophet was more concerned for this plant that had come up in a day, and then died, than he was for the many souls in Ninevah who were going to be destroyed if they didn’t repent and turn from wickedness. But for our purposes here, it’s a demonstration of the fact that worms destroy…even when it’s just one worm.
I found something interesting in Job as well. In chapter 17 Job is announcing what he believes is his entry into death but he’s implying that his hope goes beyond Sheol (the grave, or the realm of the dead, and often translated ‘hell’). We know in hindsight that the Lord was going to raise him up again, but at this point, he’s at rock bottom and is preparing mentally for death, but telling his “friends” that his hope is not in the grave. But the way that relates to this post is that he mentions worms, and after figuratively calling Corruption his father, he calls “his worm” his mother and sister in 17:14. I couldn’t help but notice it’s possessive (“his worm”, not just “a worm” or “worms”, just like when Jesus says “their worm” in the Mark passage we’re considering. The NIV 2011 version even took out the possesive “their” and changed it to read “the worms that eat them will not die”. Maybe that’s the general idea of what’s going on, but in the Greek, there’s a possessive there.
As with many traditionalist arguments for eternal conscious suffering, when the proof isn’t there, they resort to human reason and arguments, and instead of just letting Scripture interpret Scripture, various hypotheses are thrown out. A common one I’ve heard, concerning this worm who will not die is that it’s the “worm of consciousness” that will eternally torment the lost. That’s not in the bible. In fact, I looked up every place that the word “worm” is used and here is everything that it ever represents: a worm, a man, mankind in general, and the House of Jacob, at least once.
Well I hope this helped in understanding the statements about unquenchable fire and undying worms. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free. God Bless