The Bad Place: Where the Worm Doesn’t Die
It’s better for you to go into the Kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes, and get thrown into Gehenna—48where “their worm doesn’t die, and the fire doesn’t get put out.” (Mk 9:48 (quoting Isa. 66:24)
This is often the first Bible passage preachers go to when they want to prove the idea of hell as a place of everlasting torment. But that interpretation falls all to pieces when you look at the passage with any care. Let’s have a look at what’s going on.
In the first place, those quote marks show that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament (hereafter “OT”) book of the prophet Isaiah. He’s quoting from the very last verse in the whole book of 66 chapters. We’ll look at that in just a minute. But let’s get some basic information out on the table before we get to that. First, the OT was written in the Hebrew language (except for a very few passages in Aramaic), and all of the NT was written in Greek. Secondly, there is no Hebrew word in the OT, or Greek word in the NT, that means what most people think of when they hear the word “hell.” When the translators of the King James Version (followed by many familiar contemporary translations like the NIV, ESV, and NASB) translate the word “Gehenna” in the passage above as “hell,” they end up hiding from you, the reader, the vivid OT reference that Jesus is making. Gehenna is a Hebrew or Aramaic word that means “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom.” This valley, or ravine, is also known as “Topheth,” and it lies right outside the southern walls of Jerusalem. During the years of Judah’s political independence, it was a horrible place where kings would burn their children as an offering to the false god Moloch. Jeremiah refers to this valley using both of its names—Topheth and the Valley of Ben (= the Son of) Hinnom—in the following prophecy:
31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. 32 So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.
In Isaiah, Topheth is the place where God is going to burn the king of Assyria alive with fire and sulfur, in a parody of a kingly funeral pyre:
Isa. 30:29-33, esp. v. 33
33 Topheth has long been prepared;
it has been made ready for the king.
Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,
with an abundance of fire and wood;
the breath of the Lord,
like a stream of burning sulfur,
sets it ablaze.
What is this about? Isaiah lived in the last third of the eighth century BC. At that time, the Assyrian army, led by their king, was going around the whole Middle East and burning every city, village, and field they passed. This successfully terrorized the nations, and showed them who was boss. In this passage, God promises that he is going to turn the tables on the king of Assyria, and burn him up when he tries to attack Jerusalem. No one in the ancient world was more feared than the king of Assyria. Yet Isaiah prophesies that the faithful people of Jerusalem are going to be singing hymns and celebrating as God destroys the king and his ruthless army (v. 32; see the background verses, Isa. 30:18-26). This is what Gehenna suggests to the imagination of a person who knows biblical prophecy: a place just outside the walls of Jerusalem, where God will completely burn up and destroy the dangerous enemies that try to attack the holy city.
Now that we have some biblical background, let’s look at the very last verses of Isaiah, from which Jesus is quoting in Mk 9:48:
22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
When you compare this passage (and its context, Isa. 65:17-25) to Isa. 30:29-33, which we just read, you can see that a very similar story is being told. When God creates a new heavens and a new earth and a New Jerusalem (see Isa. 65:17-18; 66:22), those who love him will be completely safe. They will never again have to fear being attacked. God himself promises to be their protector (see Isa. 65:21-23; 66:12-16). Thanks to God’s protection, the faithful people of the New Jerusalem will go out and see the dead bodies of their enemies lying there in total disgrace. These lifeless corpses are going to be burned up by fire and eaten by maggots—a process that no one, and nothing, is going to stop. The fire and the maggots are God’s agents for completely removing death and deathliness from the new creation…
Someone will ask, “Doesn’t ‘unquenchable fire’ encourage us to think of a kind of Promethean scenario, in which people are tormented forever?” …A study of the OT reveals that the idea of being devoured by inescapable fire or scavengers is repeated often, and that it has a definite meaning: a complete and total destruction that is utterly unavoidable. Jesus’ words in Matthew also associate Gehenna with total, unavoidable destruction: “Don’t be afraid of people who kill the body, but can’t kill the soul. Be more afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna” (Mt. 10:28). Clearly, if we use Scripture—including Jesus’ own words—to interpret Scripture, we discover that Mk 9:48 says nothing about everlasting torment, and everything about total, inescapable destruction.
About the Author
J. Webb Mealy is trained as a scholar of New Testament and biblical studies and discovered his passion for biblical translation as an undergraduate at Westmont College, where he translated the Gospel of John. After completing undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Philosophy at Westmont, an MA in Humanities at Western Kentucky University, and a PhD in biblical Studies (emphasis in New Testament) at the University of Sheffield in England, he became Senior Biblical Studies Editor at Sheffield Academic Press, which during his tenure was the leading academic biblical studies publishing house in the world. There he commissioned three series and numerous individual titles, and edited numerous articles and technical books involving biblical Greek. In 1995 he left Sheffield in order to participate in the development of an experimental Christian community in Oakland, California. Since then, Webb has focused on translating the New Testament, writing on theology and biblical intepretation, teaching Christian lay people, and building spiritual community.