Mark 9:47-49:

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, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. [ESV]

47 And if your eye is causing you to sin, throw it away; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished. 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. [NASB]

47 And if thine eye may cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is better for thee one-eyed to enter into the reign of God, than having two eyes, to be cast to the gehenna of the fire -- 48 where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched; 49 for every one with fire shall be salted, and every sacrifice with salt shall be salted. [YLT]

Is Jesus describing a literal place called Gehenna (hell), to which those who don't make it to the kingdom of God will be cast? Are worms that never die and fires that are never quenched literal aspects of this place? Or should we rather view Jesus' words as figurative statements?

  • What, do you suppose, might be the 'figure' ? If 'fire' is not literal then what unimaginable thing can 'fire' possibly indicate ? And how can it possibly be expressed, if Jesus himself, God's only begotten Son, did not express it ?
    – Nigel J
    Apr 30 '21 at 4:58
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    If it is symbolic the symbolism could have been taken from a rubbish tip. A typical rubbish tip has a lot of worms crawling through food scraps, and has sporadic fires burning here and there, from time to time. Apr 30 '21 at 8:38
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    All species of worms die in fire, so, how can it be anything else than figurative? Apr 30 '21 at 9:06
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    Worms and fire correspond to the two most common ways of disposing of a body: burial and cremation. As long as any flesh remains, the worms and the fire live on, nothing or no one kills or quenches them. Jesus is talking about the permanent and complete destruction of dead bodies. The concept of immortal worms is definitely not Christian doctrine. Apr 30 '21 at 23:29
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    I do find it interesting we hear many times that the entrants, and life, will be eternal when it comes to heaven. Over and over. And we hear that the place is eternal when it comes to Hell. Over and over. Except for one time, when it seems to be taking about some archetypes tbat will be in the lake suffering forever. I think thats the only time that the one admitted to hell is referenced as eternal, not the place. Or the destruction is eternal not destructee (but.. something permanently annihilated has faced eternal destruction). Solidly clear “You will suffer forever” is strangley absent
    – Al Brown
    Sep 15 '21 at 10:59

God revealed himself in literal fire a number of times. He appeared in a burning bush to Moses, Exodus 3:1-6. Fire came out of the tabernacle from before the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering .. and the people shouted and fell upon their face, Leviticus 9:24. This in the inauguration of the Aaronic priesthood.

But some thought to mimic this procedure and thought to rebel against what the Lord had decreed. And fire came out from the Lord and devoured them and they died before the Lord, Leviticus 10:2.

Came out from the Lord ... and they died before the Lord.

For the Lord thy God is consuming fire, Deuteronomy 4:24.

For our God is consuming fire, Hebrews 12:29.

In both the original Hebrew and in the original Greek there is no grammar in the way, there is no verb : it is stated as an equivalence - "the God of us - consuming fire".

It is what he is. Consuming fire. Either to purge and purify : or to utterly consume.

That which conforms to him is purified and purged.

This was made clear to Abraham : 'Walk before me and be thou perfect', Genesis 17:1. It was said to the children of Israel : '... be holy for I am holy', Leviticus 11:44. It is said by Peter to scattered strangers : 'Be ye holy for I am holy', 1 Peter 1:16.

That which does not submit, will not be made perfect, and shall be (eventually) consumed. There is no alternative. For God is whom he is.

That is why justification by faith is not a matter of 'human righteousness' (which does not exist) but is a matter of 'the righteousness of God', so described ten times in the Greek New Testament scriptures. God's righteousness was demonstrated and was resolved and was fully satisfied at Golgotha, by the sacrificial offering of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Redemption having been accomplished, there remains the fate of that which has 'not submitted to the righteousness of God', Romans 10:3.

We are told by Jesus that at the end of time, the stars shall fall to the earth, Mark 13:25 and John reiterates this, having seen it in vision, Revelation 6:13.

We are told by Peter that in the day of the Lord, the elements shall melt with fervent heat, 2 Peter 3:10.

If the stars fall to earth and if the elements of matter are reduced to their basic structure, then this is what we call a plasma, the fourth state of matter (other than solid, liquid and gas) and the most abundant form of matter in the universe, see Wikipedia - Plasma.

We are told that the wicked shall arise from the dead in the day of judgment and shall be judged according to their works, John 5:29, and Jesus tells us that they shall be consigned to the lake of fire into which Diabolos and his angels have already been cast, Matthew 25:41.

The Apostle John confirms this in vision, Revelation 20:10 and 15.

There can be no doubt that the end of the first creation results in a conflagration of the entirety of its contents and that the result is a plasma that is self-sustaining.

Anyone who does not escape this event, will be trapped in it, in a resurrected body, which cannot be further modified or changed, and which will continue, without ceasing, for ever and ever, aeon upon aeon, aeons of aeons . . . . . .

But those who are called are exhorted to 'lay hold on eternal life', 1 Timothy 6:12.

And we are assured that those who have turned from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead, are they who are already delivered from the wrath which is to come, 1 Thessalonians 1:10.

... even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come [1 Thess 1:10 KJV]

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    Was the burning bush literal fire, considering it did not consume the bush? I always thought it was just the appearance of fire.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 30 '21 at 14:08
  • @curiousdannii The word used is 'fire'. If it was only the 'appearance' of fire, there would be no mystery about it and no indication that God, himself, was involved. Nor would the whole incident lend itself to the understanding of divine presence (a burning) inhabiting that which comes of the earth (a living bush) thus a setting forth of Deity and humanity represented as united together. A mere 'appearance' robs the figure of spiritual meaning.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 30 '21 at 15:33
  • @NigelJ actually appearance of fire is a miracle. This is before TV after all. Normal fire is just fire and would make the unconsumed bush a miracle. But when God shows you a miracle to teach you a lesson it's a bit rude to ask him how it works. But what do I know? I'm still trying to figure out what this immortal worm is. Apr 30 '21 at 16:18
  • @NigelJ- No where, in your answer have you mentioned the word Gehenna !! Sep 16 '21 at 17:09
  • @OldeEnglish Correct. I have concentrated, fully, on the fact of literal fire, the wrath of God and deliverance from that wrath. The word 'Gehenna' needs some explanation which is a different question.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 16 '21 at 17:13

Is Jesus' description of Gehenna (Hell) literal or figurative?

This is an admittedly difficult subject because we do not recognize our wretchedness before God. The reason that animal sacrifices were so gruesome was that God wants us to know what sin represents to Him, in contrast to His absolute majesty, holiness, and perfection. A couple of passages from the Gospel of Mark may help illustrate our woeful condition:

Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (cf. Jer. 17:9).

As well, from the Letter to the Romans, we also read:

Romans 1:29-31: "[The godless,] being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful"

Just who is "godless" in the bracketed notation above? Those outside of Christ, those that refuse to "walk in the Light" (1 Jn. 1:7) as we have been told.

Suppose we now present this full catalog in totality based on Mark 7 and Romans 1:

      Mark 7:20-23          Romans 1:29-31
  1.  Evil thoughts     14. Greed
  2.  Fornications      15. Strife
  3.  Thefts            16. Malice
  4.  Murders           17. Gossip
  5.  Adulteries        18. Haters of God
  6.  Covetousness      19. Insolence
  7.  Wickedness        20. Arrogance
  8.  Deceit            21. Boastfulness
  9.  Sensuality        22. Inventors of Evil
  10. Envy              23. Disobedient to Parents
  11. Slander           24. Untrustworthy
  12. Pride             25. Unloving 
  13. Foolishness       26. Ruthlessness 

Which of these qualities have never been part of our lives? If we answered that question with: "None" then it might be wise to consider this:

1 John 1:10: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us."

This passage is telling us that if we staunchly maintain we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar. Perhaps we might re-evaluate that table and think about it carefully?

Christ's and Paul's inventories could undoubtedly be more comprehensive and graphic. If anyone doubts this, perhaps they might reflect on the vile, savage posts that routinely appear on social media. This is where anonymity offers everyone a degree of separation from others, where we are able to freely express ourselves without repercussion. Our innermost thoughts can often be despicable and poisonous, yet we never consider ourselves to be anything other than "good people".

In the Letter of James, the Lord's brother writes:

James 1:17: "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow."

What is James saying? He seems to be indicating that every good characteristic we possess is a gift from God; all others are the result of "the world." Reference to "the world" is hardly a compliment: it is meant as a considerable pejorative. If we can understand that, as human beings, we still possess a certain amount of "goodness," then we are indeed worth saving despite the deplorable behavior that has characterized our lives.

However, once all goodness is withdrawn from us by God, what else remains? I would suggest it is the list of horribles depicted in Mark 7. In this sense, then, there is very little left to be saved. Were we to encounter ourselves without mitigating rewards from God Almighty, it seems unlikely that we would recognize ourselves as anything more than demons.

It is from this recognition that we might begin to understand why the Bible employs the expressions that it does. And, as unpleasant (and fearful) as they seem to us, that is the point: the emotional states of Hades and eventually, Hell, demonstrate conscious agony. They are indeed, places of “unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:44) — fire representing the loathsome conditions which the disobedient, those uncleansed by Christ, will undergo after their brief life on earth.

This should be no mystery. As the OP indicates, Christ spoke of Gehenna (Hell) as a place “where their worm does not die” (Mk. 9:48). The never-dying worm also represents unending torment. As well, Jesus described Gehenna as a place of eternal punishment -- and punishment implies consciousness.

It would be absurd to describe those who no longer exist (through unbiblical annihilation) as being “punished.” As frightful as all of this may sound -- and it is meant to sound that way -- the lost will be tormented. And, whether that involves literal "worms that never die and fires that are never quenched" seems quite beside the point. Words can probably not describe the unfathomable horror of endless torture in flames.

  • Ecclesiastes 9:5 NWT: "For the living are conscious that they will die, but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten." ...Hell (Sheol) is just 'the grave'. To the Hebrew mind, 'Sheol' was simply the state or abode of the dead. Sep 16 '21 at 17:41
  • @OldeEnglish I hope you're well! Let me try another approach. The "second death" is an ultimate, eternal separation from God. The expression is found 4 times in Rev. ( 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). Some have defined "the second death” as “the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell” (cf. Luke 16:19ff). It's characterized as the 2nd death because it follows the physical death of the body; it's designated as death because it's terminal separation (Mt. 7:23; 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:9). Substitute “annihilation” for “death” in the passages of Revelation -- they make no sense, e.g., “the 2nd annihilation.”
    – Xeno
    Sep 16 '21 at 18:53
  • @OldeEnglish Allow me to add this. Physical death involves the separation of the human spirit from the physical body. Note the death of Stephen, where his last words were: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:56). At the point of death, the body returns to the dust just as you suggest, but the spirit returns to God (Eccl. 12:6-7) — Who will deal with it according to our obedience (or lack thereof) to His Word.
    – Xeno
    Sep 16 '21 at 19:03
  • @Xeno-First of all, let me take Luke 16:19ff, where we subsequently find the account of the "Rich man and Lazarus". This is what the same journal, as in my A., says on pg. 1181 of Vol. 1: "Hades is the common grave of dead mankind. That it cannot be concluded from this parable that Hades itself is a place of blazing fire is made clear at Rev 20:14 (which you also allude to), where death and Hades are described as being hurled into "the lake of fire." The death of the rich man and his being in Hades must therefore be figurative....figuratively dead but actually alive as a human..tbc.. Sep 16 '21 at 20:53
  • @OldeEnglish I think we agree that the language of Luke 16:19ff is figurative. But that wasn't really my point. The larger issue is that if there is no eternal suffering, then why do we read of demons pleading not to be sent to the abyss in Luke 8:31? Further, why does Matthew 25:41-42 tell us that the King will say: "Depart from Me, accursed ones [these are human beings], into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing..."? Is it not a lie to tell us about "eternal punishment" if there is none?
    – Xeno
    Sep 16 '21 at 21:15

This is not difficult - either the expression, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" is literal or figurative/metaphor.

We should pause to note Mark 9:48 is a direct quote from Isa 66:24. The passage immediately preceding this verse is about the New Heavens and the New Earth. Note the following elements

  • The LORD will come with fire (V15)
  • His chariots like a whirlwind (V15)
  • (V15) "to execute His anger with fury, // and His rebuke with flames of fire" Note the parallelism here that God's anger = rebuke, and God's fury = flames of fire.
  • (v16) "For by fire and by His sword, the LORD will execute judgment on all flesh, and many will be slain by the LORD." Question: is this literal or figurative??

It become obvious that God's final judgement is not done with a literal sword.

Now to V24

for their worm will never die, their fire will never be quenched (as quoted by Mark 9:48)

Is this literal or is it figurative? If it is literal, then we cannot have both living worms consuming dead bodies ("Corpses") simply because the fire that consumes the bodies would also destroy the worms. Both appear to be figures of speech, ie, metaphors of permanent and dishonorable destruction of dead bodies.

Back to Mark 9:48

Precisely the same analysis applies to Mark 9:48 - worms and fire cannot literally co-exist. Again, they are metaphors of permanent destruction. Note a further important point - the bodies that are being consumed are already dead because in Is 66:24 they are described as corpses = dead bodies.

One more question - does eternal torment without end? This cannot be for two reasons:

  1. the bodies are already dead as noted above
  2. unquenchable fire means that it cannot be quenched (Duh!) but that does not mean it will not stop burning when there is nothing left to burn. We have a similar figure in Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with such fire and that fire is NOT still burning!
  3. the worms similarly are a simple metaphor of permanent destruction of dead bodies.
  • "Is this literal or is it figurative? If it is literal, then we cannot have both living worms consuming dead bodies ("Corpses") simply because the fire that consumes the bodies would also destroy the worms." - unless they're fireproof worms purposely designed for the punishment of hell. Surely that's not something impossible for God to do, right? May 1 '21 at 0:34
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - that is theoretically possible but then we have both fire and worms destroying already dead bodies - the piled metaphors become a stretch when we combine an ordinary fire with unearthly worms - IMHO - both are metaphors of complete destruction
    – Dottard
    May 1 '21 at 8:09
  • Just reread this after commenting on other answers and having answered myself and you correctly, IMO, come down on the figurative side, but you too, like Nigel, do not mention the word Gehenna in your answer, which is the subject of the Q. when all is said and done. Sep 16 '21 at 18:15
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator- fireproof worms!!, really?? Sep 16 '21 at 18:19

Isaiah 33

14The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling grips the ungodly:
“Who of us can dwell with a consuming fire?
Who of us can dwell with everlasting flames?”
15He who walks righteously
and speaks with sincerity,
who refuses gain from extortion,
whose hand never takes a bribe,
who stops his ears against murderous plots
and shuts his eyes tightly against evil—

Only the righteous can escape the everlasting flames. The wicked will be destroyed by it.

  • Hi David, welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Could you expand upon your argument--I'm not sure it directly answers the original questions. Please be sure to take the site tour and read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. Thanks! May 1 '21 at 17:57

"...where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" - Is Jesus' description of Hell (Gehenna) literal or figurative?

The simple answer is that it is figurative and therefore not literal.

Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew Geh Hin.nom, meaning "Valley of Hinnom". It is transliterated from the Greek word ge'en.na, at least in a number of modern translations. It appears 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, although many translators mistakenly, or at least take the liberty in translating the word as "hell" (Matt 5:22 (and many other relevant verses) in the NASB being a case in point). The "Valley of Hinnom" today, is known by "Wadi er-Rababi". Judean Kings Ahaz and Manasseh practiced idolatrous worship there, which included the making of human sacrifices by fire to Baal (2 Ch 28:1,3; 33:1,6; Jer 7:31,32; 32:35). It wasn't until the reign of Josiah that this place, in order to prevent further such practices, was deliberately polluted and became a place of refuse.

No Symbol of Everlasting Torment

Jesus Christ associated fire with Gehenna (Matt 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:47,48 NWT), as did the disciple James, the only Biblical writer besides Matthew, Mark and Luke to use the word (Jas 3:6 NWT). Some commentators endeavor to link such fiery characteristic of Gehenna with the burning of human sacrifices that was carried on prior to Josiah's reign and, on this basis, hold that Gehenna was used by Jesus as a symbol of everlasting torment. However, since Jehovah God expressed repugnance for such practice, saying that it was "a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart" (Jer 7:31; 32:35), it seems most unlikely that God's Son, in discussing divine judgement, would make such idolatrous practice the basis for the symbolic meaning of Gehenna. It may be noted that God prophetically decreed that the Valley of Hinnom would serve as a place for mass disposal of dead bodies rather than for the torture of live victims (Jer 7:32,33; 19:2,6,7,10,11) Thus, at Jer 31:40 the reference to "the low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes" is generally accepted as designating the Valley of Hinnom, and a gate known as "the gate of the Ash-heaps" evidently opened out onto the eastern extremity of the valley at its juncture with the ravine of the Kidron (Ne 3:13,14).It seems obvious that such "carcasses" and "fatty ashes" are not related to the human sacrifices made there, under Ahaz and Manasseh, since any bodies so offered would doubtless be viewed by the idolaters as "sacred" and would not be left lying in the valley.

Therefore, the Biblical evidence concerning Gehenna generally parallels the traditional view presented by rabbinic and other sources. That view is that the Valley of Hinnom was used as a place for the disposal of waste matter from the city of Jerusalem. [At Matt 5:30 Ph (The New Testament in Modern English) renders ge'en.na as "rubbish heap."]

Symbolic of Complete Destruction

It is evident that Jesus used Gehenna as representative of utter destruction resulting from adverse judgement by God, hence with no resurrection to life as a soul being possible (Matt 10:28; Lu 12:4,5 NWT). The scribes and Pharisees as a wicked class were denounced as 'subjects for Gehenna' (Matt 23:13,15,33 NWT).

Jesus also apparently alluded to Isaiah 66:24 in describing Gehenna as a place "where their maggot (worm) does not die and the fire is not put out" (Mr 9:47,48 NWT). That the symbolic picture here is not one of torture but, rather, of complete destruction is evident from the fact that the Isaiah text dealt, not with persons who were alive, but with " the carcasses of the men that were transgressing" against God.

Figurative Use

The Biblical use of Gehenna as a symbol corresponds to that of "the lake of fire" in the book of Revelation. - Re 20:14,15

The 'blockquotes' here, are taken from pgs 905 and 906 of "Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1," (a Watchtower publication, edited for brevity).

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    Not sure if you had it already, but here is the link for the location online for your Insight on the Scriptures source: wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200001642
    – agarza
    Sep 16 '21 at 14:24
  • @agarza-You, of all people, must then know that this is "Figurative" and yet you don't upvote !*?# Oh well, at least members can now read the longer version, if they have the patience, or indeed the inclination. To me, the 'expose' was very Insightful and really endeavored to show an extremely likely truth: Gehenna (mistakenly translated as 'Hell') is no place of 'eternal' torment. Sep 16 '21 at 16:41
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    My apologies I thought I had upvoted. I didn't want to edit your post and thought it would be best to comment the link to you.
    – agarza
    Sep 16 '21 at 16:44
  • @agarza-Ah, my faith in you is restored! Non edit appreciated. I'm still ignorant of a number of the intricacies of 'presentation' but at least I figured out how to 'blockquote' and even capitalize in the 'comments' section, since our last interaction. Sep 16 '21 at 16:55
  • Cowardly down voter! Identify your self, or forever hold your peace. Anonymity does not become a BH member, nor is it in keeping with this site. If you are not willing to identify yourself, the Christian thing to do would be to retract. So ask yourself this, while looking in a mirror: "Who am I?" Sep 16 '21 at 18:03

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