Their Worm Does Not Die
In Mark 9:43–48, Christ evidently referred to the same judgment fires as those described in Isaiah 66:24, where we read: “They [the righteous] shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched.” We are told in so many words that the agencies of “worm” and “fire” are working, not upon disembodied spirits, but upon bodies—dead bodies.
The word “hell” used in Mark 9:43–48 is from the Greek word gehenna, or geenna. This term is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word hinnom, the name of a valley near Jerusalem, “used as a place to cast carcasses of animals and malefactors, which were consumed by fire constantly kept up.” (See Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon.)
Christ used this valley of Hinnom to teach His hearers the fate awaiting the wicked. Certainly the Jews who heard His words could not possibly have obtained any idea of wicked, disembodied souls suffering endlessly. They saw in Hinnom dead bodies being devoured by flames, or if the flames did not reach them, then by worms, those ever-present agents of destruction and disintegration. The fact that the fires of Hinnom were always kept burning—were “not quenched”—was the surest proof that whatever was cast into them would be consumed. To declare that a fire is kept ever burning and that whatever is cast into it keeps ever living, is to go contrary to the evidence of our senses and of Scripture.
You may ask, If whatever is cast into this fire is completely consumed, why will the fire always be kept burning? The answer is, It will not. A city-wide conflagration once enveloped Chicago. If we should describe that fire by saying that the flames could not be quenched, would you conclude that Chicago is still burning? No—you would understand that the fire raged until it ran out of fuel. Common knowledge makes unnecessary the statement that the fire died down of itself.
It is this natural sense of the word “quench” that the Bible uses. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord declared to the ancient Jews, “I will kindle a fire … and it shall not be quenched” (Jeremiah 17:27). (The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the same Greek root for “quenched” as is used in Mark 9:43–48.) In 2 Chronicles 36:19–21, we read of this prophecy’s literal fulfillment when the Babylonians put the torch to the city. Is that fire still burning? Are those Jewish “palaces” ever consuming, but never quite consumed? Preposterous, you say. Then why should anyone wish to take Christ’s statement in Mark 9 and force from it the conclusion that the judgment fire will never end, and then build upon this conclusion that the wicked will be ever consuming but never quite consumed, and then finally perch upon this the conclusion that therefore the wicked have immortal souls?
Each and every one of these conclusions is unwarranted by logic and is contrary to Scripture. The Bible nowhere says that souls are immortal but declares that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Nowhere does the Bible say that the wicked will be ever consuming; instead it declares that they will become “ashes” (Malachi 4:3).
The Bible does not say that the judgment fires will burn endlessly, for we read that these fires are due to God’s setting ablaze this wicked earth, and that following this conflagration He creates “a new earth.” (See 2 Peter 3:7–13; Revelation 20:15; 21:1.) There must therefore be an end to the fire, else this earth could not be recreated. The very promise of God to give us a new earth “in which righteousness dwells” is contingent upon there being an end to the judgment fires.
Adapted from Answers to Objections, Francis D. Nichol, 369–371.