A Comprehensive Analysis of Mark 9:43-48:
[Mark 9:43-48] And if your hand should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than having two hands to go away into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than having the two feet, to be cast into Gehenna. 47 And if your eye should cause you to stumble, cast 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 Gehenna, 48 where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (BLB)
In verse 43, Jesus starts off by telling us that, should our hand cause us to stumble, that is, sin, we should cut it off,2 for it is better to enter into life crippled than to go away unimpaired "into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire". Jesus reiterates this sentiment in v.45 and 47-48, as He tells us that if our foot or eye causes us to stumble, we should cast them out from us, for it is better to enter into life3 debilitated, than be cast into Gehenna fully intact, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched". There is a parallel account in the gospel of Matthew, namely, Matthew 18:8-9, where Jesus tells us that we should gouge and cast out our eye if it causes us to sin, as it is better to "enter into life one-eyed, than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire". Note that Matthew's account does not tell us the nature of this "fire" that is intrinsic to Gehenna. Mark's account does, on the other hand, tell us the nature of this fire in v.43 and 48, namely, that it is "unquenchable" and "is not quenched". Hence, putting it all together, we see that Jesus is informing us that it is better to remove any appendage that causes us to sin and enter into life marred than be tossed unscathed into the Gehenna of unquenchable fire. Boy, that's pretty intense. But what exactly does Jesus mean by "unquenchable fire", "the fire is not quenched", and, of course, "their worm does not die"? Is Jesus presenting us with everlasting worms and a fire that never goes out?
First a little background on the traditional interpretation. Traditionalists believe that the phrases "unquenchable fire" and "the fire is not quenched" refer to a fire that never ends, and that "their worm does not die" refers to worms that never die, both of which eternally consume the impenitent in hell. This truth is made evident in this paper here, which is a brief and somewhat cogent defense of the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment. For the chapter on Mark 9:43-48, see pages 26-32. The sections concerning the expressions "the fire is not quenched" and "their worm does not die" are titled The Fire that Never Ends and The Worm that Never Dies respectively. The author effectively summarizes the view of Jesus' words here that traditionalists hold, namely, that Jesus is talking about worms and fire that perpetually and unendingly feast on the immortalized bodies of the wicked in hell. However, is this what Jesus' words are delineating, and how much warrant does such an interpretation really have?
We'll start with the phrase "unquenchable fire". Most importantly, what does the word "unquenchable" mean? Most people seem to think that "unquenchable" means "can never go out", and hence an "unquenchable fire" would be a fire that never goes out. We'll start with the Greek word translated as "unquenchable", which is ἄσβεστος (Strong's G762), pronounced asbestos, and is derived from the Greek word σβέννυμι, which means "to quench", and the Greek letter A (ἄλφα), which is used as a negative prefix (a prefix that expresses negation); hence, the word "ἄσβεστος" literally means "not quenched, unquenchable". So, what does the word "unquenchable" mean? Oxford Languages and Merriam-Webster provide the definition "not able to be quenched; unable to be quenched". Take note of how there is no reference to duration in this (or any) definition of unquenchable; "unquenchable" does not mean "unable to be quenched forever", just as the word "unusable" does not mean "unable to be used forever"; something may be unusable at one moment in time, but usable at another. Now, what does the word "quench" mean? Does it mean "go out" (which would make an unquenchable fire a "fire that is unable to go out", as traditionalists claim it is)? Well, the word "quench" actually means "put out, extinguish", and it is a transitive verb (meaning it has a direct object), which is in contrast to "go out", which is an intransitive verb (meaning it does not have a direct object). Thus, an "unquenchable fire" is a fire that cannot be put out, contrary to the traditional interpretation of the same expression, namely, that it refers to a fire that can never die out. When Jesus uses the phrase "unquenchable fire", He is not denoting a fire that burns in perpetuity, but rather a fire that cannot be put out or extinguished. Now, whether Jesus means to say that the fire cannot ever be put out, that is, that it can never be extinguished, is a separate question; the phrase "unquenchable fire" itself does not in any way necessitate such an understanding.
Now, what about the phrase "the fire is not quenched", which is virtually identical to the phrase "unquenchable fire" in terms of what it conveys (if a fire cannot be quenched, it certainly will not be quenched). Does "the fire is not quenched" mean "the fire is never quenched", that is, that the fire will never be put out? Perhaps, but again, such an understanding is by no means necessitated. Saying that something will not happen is not necessarily the same as saying it will never happen. But how do we know whether or not Jesus is referring to a permanently inextinguishable fire by such an expression as "the fire is not quenched"? Well, we can search the scriptures to see if there are any references to a fire that cannot be quenched and see whether the fire goes out eventually or not. When one does that, they see that the expression "will not be quenched" is one that is found numerous times in scripture and invariably signifies the unstoppable nature of God's wrath; it never refers to something that goes on for eternity (particularly for the purpose of tormenting the wicked). Observe the following passages (emphasis mine):
2 Kings 22:16-17 Yahweh says, ‘Behold, I will bring evil on this place, and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.’”
2 Chronicles 34:25 Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath is poured out on this place, and it will not be quenched.’”’
Isaiah 1:28-31 But the destruction of transgressors and sinners shall be together, and those who forsake Yahweh shall be consumed. For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which you have desired, and you shall be confounded for the gardens that you have chosen. For you shall be as an oak whose leaf fades, and as a garden that has no water. The strong will be like tinder, and his work like a spark. They will both burn together, and no one will quench them.”
Isaiah 34:8-10 For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams will be turned into pitch, its dust into sulfur, And its land will become burning pitch. It won’t be quenched night or day. Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation, it will lie waste. No one will pass through it forever and ever.
Isaiah 66:24 “They will go out, and look at the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me; for their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Jeremiah 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh, and take away the foreskins of your heart, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go out like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
Jeremiah 7:20 Therefore the Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man, on animal, on the trees of the field, and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and will not be quenched.”
Jeremiah 17:27 But if you will not listen to me to make the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter in at the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem. It will not be quenched.”’”
Jeremiah 21:12 House of David, Yahweh says, 'Execute justice in the morning, and deliver him who is robbed out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my wrath go out like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
Ezekiel 20:47-48 Tell the forest of the South, ‘Hear Yahweh’s word: The Lord Yahweh says, “Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it will devour every green tree in you, and every dry tree. The burning flame will not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north will be burned by it. All flesh will see that I, Yahweh, have kindled it. It will not be quenched.”’”
Amos 5:6 Seek Yahweh, and you will live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, and there be no one to quench it in Bethel.
Notice how God's fury is consistently analogized to fire ... fire symbolizes the wrath and indignation of God (cf. Psa. 74:1; 80:4; 89:46; Isa. 9:19; 30:27-30; 66:15; Lam. 2:4; Eze. 22:31; Nah. 1:6; Zep. 3:8). Take careful note of how, in each record where the fire of God's wrath was ignited and could not be quenched (2 Ki. 22:16-17; 2 Ch. 34:25; Isa. 34:10; Jer. 7:20; Eze. 20:47-48), the fire eventually went out, but only after it was done completely eradicating whatever it is that it was kindled against. When God's wrath was being poured out against the people, it could not be put out by anyone; it was irresistible, indomitable, unstoppable, insurmountable, and inexorable. The inextinguishable nature of the fire of God's wrath means that absolutely no one is capable of obstructing it from fully consuming that which it was kindled to burn up ... unquenchable fire cannot be thwarted or put to a stop by anyone until it has accomplished its goal of utterly devouring that which it has taken hold of. To summarize, unquenchable fire is not fire that torments evildoers for all eternity; it is fire that engulfs and utterly exterminates the ungodly, who are thoroughly powerless to prevent it (cf. Job 20:26; Isa. 47:14).
Now, what about the phrase "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." We know what "the fire is not quenched" means, namely, that the devouring fire of God's wrath cannot and will not be extinguished until it has reached its objective of eliminating whatever it has been ignited against. But what does "their worm does not die" mean? Who or what does "their" refer to? Jesus does not explicitly tell us. The invariant traditional interpretation of "their worm does not die" is "the worm that is feasting on the living immortals in the lake of fire never dies". However, in Mark 9:48, Jesus is directly quoting from the Hebrew Bible. The passage He quotes from is Isaiah 66:24. Let's take a look at the passage in its context.
[Isaiah 66:3-4; 14-17; 24] He who kills an ox is as he who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, as he who breaks a dog’s neck; he who offers an offering, as he who offers pig’s blood; he who burns frankincense, as he who blesses an idol. Yes, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations: 4 I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears on them; because when I called, no one answered; when I spoke, they didn’t listen; but they did that which was evil in my eyes, and chose that in which I didn’t delight.”; 14 You will see it, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones will flourish like the tender grass. Yahweh’s hand will be known among his servants; and he will have indignation against his enemies. 15 For, behold, Yahweh will come with fire, and his chariots will be like the whirlwind; to render his anger with fierceness, and his rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For Yahweh will execute judgment by fire and by his sword on all flesh; and those slain by Yahweh will be many. 17 “Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves to go to the gardens, behind one in the middle, eating pig’s meat, abominable things, and the mouse, they shall come to an end together,” says Yahweh; 24 “They will go out, and look at the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me; for their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (WEB)
Yahweh God has decided to bring judgment upon the evildoers who have rebelled against Him; He is going to slay His enemies and altogether put them to an end. By the time He is done with them, their carcasses will be laid exposed and unburied (something that was the pinnacle of shame and humiliation in the ancient Near East [see Ecclesiastes 6:3]), being engulfed by an inexorable blaze and gorged by maggots4 ... the sight of the smouldering, maggot-ridden corpses is loathsome, abhorrent, and repulsive to all of humanity.5 Is there any mention, nay, any hint or slightest indication, of anything closely resembling eternal conscious torment/separation in immortal bodies? What is in view, namely, being slain by God and having your corpse (which is incontrovertibly lifeless, oblivious, and insentient) be fully devoured by fire and maggots, is the exact opposite of living forever in immortal bodies in torment. When Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24, being consciously tormented/separated from the presence of God for all eternity as living immortals would have been the absolute last thing to ever arrive in the minds of His disciples. Perhaps you and I can't help but conceive of notions of eternal torment when looking at terms such as "unquenchable fire", "their worm does not die",6 and "the fire is not quenched", but that is only because we are already thoroughly acquainted with such notions. Jesus' disciples would not have been. What they were familiar with is the Tanakh, their sacred writings, i.e. the Hebrew Bible, and such terms as "Gehenna", "their worm does not die", and "the fire is not quenched" would have all conveyed to them something entirely distinct from eternal conscious torment/separation in immortal bodies, such as being slaughtered by your enemies and having your cadaver disgracefully laid out in the open to be irresistibly consumed by wild beasts and scavenging birds (Jeremiah 7:30-34; 19:6-7), or being executed by God in His righteous indignation and having your remains eradicated by an implacable flame and voraciously scarfed down by maggots (Isaiah 66:14-17; 24). Jesus' disciples did not have the concept of eternal conscious torment/separation clouding their perception, as hard as it might be to believe that.
As we have seen, the traditional interpretation of Mark 9:43-48 cannot be sustained. Let us summarize why this is so. First off, the argument that "unquenchable fire" is fire that never goes out and consequently lasts forever is entirely baseless. Unquenchable fire is simply fire that is not able to be put out or extinguished. Whether or not the fire ever goes out is not something you can ascertain by the phrase itself. On top of this, the concept of fire not being able to be quenched does not originate with Jesus, but is found in various places in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus' disciples would have been familiar with the imagery of fire not being put out that Jesus was drawing upon from the Hebrew Scriptures by His use of the expression "unquenchable fire". And such imagery never denotes a fire that lasts for eternity, especially for the purpose of tormenting the ungodly (who themselves are alive forever), which is precisely what proponents of ECT say of the "unquenchable fire" in Gehenna.
In fact, the opposite is true. The notion of fire that cannot be quenched signifies the destruction and eradication of rebellious and wicked people (2 Ki. 22:16-17; 2 Ch. 34:25; Isa. 1:28-31; Jer. 4:4; 7:20; 17:27; 21:12, Amos 5:6), occasionally the absolute desolation of their lands (Isa. 34:8-10; Eze. 20:47-48), and even the total consumption of their festering corpses (Isaiah 66:24). Finally, not only did Jesus draw upon imagery from the Hebrew Bible that His disciples would have been familiar with when He employed the phrase "unquenchable fire", but He actually directly quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in Mark 9:48, namely, from Isaiah 66:24.
What would such a passage evoke in the minds of Jesus' disciples? Isaiah 66 portrays an eschatological battle scene where Yahweh God brings judgement upon all those who have rebelled against Him and done abominable things by exterminating them and putting them to an end. When all is said and done, their relics lie outside being incinerated by insuperable flames and gobbled up by relentless maggots. So, what we have are images of God's foes being slaughtered and of their unconscious, wholly insensate corpses being fully devoured ... contrast that with living, conscious people in immortal bodies who never die and are tormented for all eternity (which is exactly what ECT adherents think Jesus is teaching in Mark 9:43-48). So, to conclude, it is simply beyond inconceivable that Jesus' disciples would have ever considered Him to be teaching eternal conscious torment/separation in everlasting bodies by His words recorded in Mark 9:43-48.
1 Also called conditional immortality, this is the belief that immortality (the quality of not being subject to death/living forever) is a beyond magnificent gift of God that is granted only to believers in Christ, and that consequently, all unbelievers will ultimately perish. Annihilationism, which is largely the same as conditionalism, furthermore asserts that unbelievers will forever cease to exist by having their body and soul/spirit permanently killed. Both of these views are irreconcilable with traditional eternal conscious torment/separation.
2 Like most people, I believe that Jesus is being hyperbolic in this passage, but that is a separate subject, so I will simply take Jesus' words at face value for now.
3 Notice the stark contrast between "entering into life" and being "cast into Gehenna". Jesus clearly presents these as mutually exclusive fates: either we remove any part of us that causes us to sin, enter into life, and avoid being cast into Gehenna, or we don't remove any part of us that causes us to sin, are cast into Gehenna, and avoid entering into life. Entering into life and being thrown into Gehenna are the only two prospects Jesus offers us. Thus, Jesus' disciples would have known that being thrown into Gehenna precludes entering into life, or living, which means it includes dying. Now, what sort of "dying" would Jesus' disciples have thought of ... physically dying or "spiritually dying" (if they were even aware of such a concept)? In what follows, we will see that physically dying is unquestionably the only tenable option.
4 The word for "worm" in Isaiah 66:24 is תּוֹלֵעָה. That it can refer to a "maggot" or "wormlike larvae that feasts on carrion" is evident by the way it is paralleled with the Hebrew word for "maggot" (רִמָּה) in Job 25:6 and Isaiah 14:11, cf. Job 17:14, Job 21:26.
5 The word for "loathsome" in Isaiah 66:24 is דֵּרָאוֹן, and it is found in only one other place in the Hebrew Bible, namely, Daniel 12:2, which says that some of those sleeping in the dust will wake up to "shame and everlasting contempt [דֵּרָאוֹן]" (note that only the contempt, not the shame, is said to be everlasting. While the shame is certainly felt by the wicked, it is not said to be everlasting; only the contempt is said to be everlasting). Some think this passage proves that the wicked will continue to exist forever, as it says that they awaken to "everlasting contempt". However, we know from Isaiah 66:24 that those feeling the contempt are not the damned but those protected by God, to whom the damned are abhorrent and loathsome; the ungodly are held in contempt by the righteous forever, and hence "everlasting contempt". However, the fact that the righteous will have contempt for the ungodly forever does not require that they are alive forever. One can certainly hold someone in contempt even if that someone is not alive; I'm sure all of us have great contempt for Hitler, and yet, he is most certainly dead.
6 For those who positively insist that "will not die" must mean "will never die", take a look at the following passages: Genesis 42:20, Exodus 30:20-21, and Jeremiah 38:24. In each of these passages, people are told that they "will not die", and yet, in none of these passages are they given immortality; all eventually died. "Will not die" does not have to mean "will not ever die" or "will never die"; it can simply mean "will not die in the context of whatever you are doing". The same is true of the worms in Isaiah 66:24. The worms will by no means die while they are doing what they are meant to be doing, namely, ingesting the putrid, rotting corpses of God's adversaries (cf. Isaiah 51:8). In fact, this picture of critters not being prevented from totally consuming the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against God is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, namely, in Deuteronomy 28:25-26 and Jeremiah 7:30-34. In both of these passages, the wicked and rebellious have been massacred by their enemies, and their dead bodies strewn over the ground for scavengers to feast upon, and in both passages, we are told that no one will frighten these scavengers away. What follows from this? If these creatures can't be frightened away from the corpses upon which they are feeding, eventually, they are going to entirely devour them, won't they? Since no one will be able to disturb them and prevent them from doing their job, the scavengers will continue to feast on the putrefying flesh of God's enemies until their corpses have been fully exhausted, and all that is left are dry, lifeless bones (provided that the scavengers don't eat the bones as well. Yes, certain scavengers such as hyenas and lammergeiers feed upon the bones of deceased organisms, along with their decaying flesh).