And if your hand offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. And if your eye offend you, pluck it out: it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. (Mark 9:42-49)
As one of the biggest stumbling blocks for belief in Jesus Christ, the concept of hell is one of the most important concepts in the New Testament. In this passage, Jesus is teaching us about the nature of hell and this teaching is so important that he emphasizes it by giving us multiple different illustrations of the same basic truth. What do these verses teach us about hell?
The first thing to notice about hell is that it is characterized by a worm and a fire. Some ancient scribes evidently thought that the repetition of the phrase “Where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched” was so unimportant that they omitted the first two instances and only kept the final occurrence. Many modern translators have agreed with these ancient scribes and “improved” the Word of God by omitting the repetition. In other places in the Scripture, however, God emphasizes important concepts through repetition. For this reason, I would argue that the worm and the fire teach us what hell is like and that this teaching was so important that Jesus emphasized it by repeating it three times. What are the worm and the fire?
A vital clue as to the nature of the worm and the fire is given to us in the text. We note that the worm “dieth not” and the fire is “not quenched”. This implies that we as human beings living in this world already experience the worm and the fire that characterize hell. Why warn people of a worm that “dieth not” if they did not already have the worm? Why warn people of a fire that is “not quenched” if they do not already experience the fire? This implication is strengthened by the fact that “everyone is salted with fire”. Even believers, therefore, experience the worm and the fire and this experience acts as “salt”. So what could the worm and the fire be and how could they serve as “salt” that preserves believers from corruption?
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. (Jonah 4:7)
In this verse, there is a worm that is prepared by God. This worm causes Jonah discomfort by killing a plant that was providing shade to the prophet as he watched the city of Nineveh from his vantage point in the desert. The worm, therefore, is a symbol of disease, decay and discomfort. So one of the characteristics of hell is that it is a place where disease and decay are never ending and this stands in stark contrast to the promises made to believers that we shall be given the gift of a body that does not experience disease or decay.
If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:15-17)
Like the worm, fire in Scripture is a destroyer. Unlike the worm, fire purifies by destroying that which is corrupt or unworthy. Every human being has experienced the frustration of having the work of our hands destroyed by weather, malice or accidental destruction. Another characteristic of hell, therefore, is the continuation of the principle of entropy by which the works of our hands are continually destroyed. This perpetual destruction entails an enormous amount of labour and frustration and is referenced in other portions of Scripture.
“May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.” (Romans 11:10)
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:17)
In Revelation, the fire is described as the second death. The first death occurred when Adam and Eve severed their relationship with God through disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Since the first death and the second death are of the same kind, we see that fire is used to describe the state of being eternally separated from the love of God. That this torment is real and unbearable is clearly evident in the world around us.
Surely every human being has experienced the pain of loneliness? That feeling that nobody else in the world understands you, that nobody else in the world cares for you, that other people only spend time with you for some ulterior motive? This torment is the byproduct of the desire that every human being shares for love. The love of God and of other human beings is essential for human happiness, but it only exists as the byproduct of the willing submission of the will to the self-sacrificial requirements of love. If you reject Christ, you have rejected God’s love and the fire of being tormented by that loneliness will never end. Your desire for perfect love will never be satisfied and the fire that is the byproduct of that desire will never be quenched.
So if the worm that does not die speaks of unending physical illness and the fire speaks of the eternal destruction of the works of our hands and the torment of eternal loneliness, how do these things “salt” believers? It seems to me that believers are “salted” by our experiences of the worm and the fire down here on Earth through an appreciation of what it is like to live life without God. Faced with a temptation to do that which is displeasing to God in eternity, a Christian believer will say, “No thanks. I have lived life in a world without God’s gifts, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace and God’s guidance. I did not like it at all and I do not want to go back.” In eternity, this appreciation of the benefits of following God will preserve our relationship with God through every temptation.
Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103:2)
In the “Nature of Hell” and other essays on this site, I have attempted to address questions concerning hell from a philosophical perspective. This is because the ultimate target of this site are not Christians who know the Bible but those outside the church who have questions. As we have seen above, however, a careful examination of the Scriptures agrees with the philosophical reasoning that hell is not literal flames. As is clear from the teaching of Jesus, hell is the consequence of rejecting the gifts and the love of God.