“their worm does not die.” This verse is quoted from Isaiah 66:24, and it has been used to prove that people “burn in hell forever,” but that is not what it is teaching. Both in Isaiah and here in Mark, it is teaching that unsaved people are totally destroyed. Jesus specifically uses the word Gehenna, which is where people will be destroyed (Mark 9:47), while Isaiah does not mention the place, but simply says people will “go out” (of the city) and see the dead bodies. We know from the book of Revelation that the destruction of the wicked will occur in the Lake of Fire (see Rev. 20:14-15).
Gehenna was the garbage dump of Jerusalem. All kinds of garbage, and even dead animals, were thrown into Gehenna and destroyed. The fires in the valley burned up everything that could be burned, and the maggots and worms ate up the vegetable and animal waste. Everyone in Christ’s audience knew this. No one thought that the wood, rags, or other burnables that had been thrown into Gehenna burned forever in the valley, or that animal and vegetable garbage lasted forever, eternally being consumed by worms. Christ’s point in comparing the Valley of Gehenna to the future Lake of Fire was graphic and clear: if a person was thrown into Gehenna on the Day of Judgment, he would never be restored, he would be totally consumed; he would be annihilated.
[For more information on Gehenna, see commentary on Matthew 5:22.]
One thing that helps us understand Jesus’ teaching is knowing that Isaiah 66:24 is not speaking of living people suffering, but dead bodies in the process of being destroyed. This is clear from paying attention to the context and vocabulary of the verse. Isaiah 66:24 says, “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” From this, we can see that this verse is not talking about living people being tortured. It is talking about dead people being totally destroyed.
In reading Isaiah chapter 66, we can see that the closing verses are about God’s judgment on the wicked, and how He will destroy them with fire and sword (Isa. 66:16). This is a general picture of God’s judgment, and could refer to either to the Battle of Armageddon just before the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 19:19-21) or to the Final War at the end of the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:7-10), or even to both. At some point after the battles, the unrighteous people go to the place where God has thrown the bodies of the unsaved, and they are all dead, they are not suffering. Isaiah said the righteous will look upon the “dead bodies,” and the Hebrew word peger (#06297 פֶּגֶר) is always used of dead bodies, never living ones. Those dead bodies were being consumed by worms and fire, and eventually would be completely gone. So we see that Isaiah is not portraying the suffering of the wicked, but their final fate: destruction.
When Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 in his teaching, he quoted it to reinforce his point, which was the same point that Isaiah was making: that there is no restitution for the wicked, only complete annihilation. Jesus was not modifying or correcting what Isaiah wrote. Rather, Jesus was teaching about Gehenna, and quoted Isaiah to help emphasize the point he was making about the destruction of the wicked. In another teaching, Jesus made it clear that God would destroy both “body and soul” in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28).
The phrase, “their worm does not die,” does not mean the worms never die. “Immortal worms” would not have made sense to anyone in biblical times. Neither Isaiah nor Jesus was teaching or explaining a new doctrine that worms somehow lived forever. This is not picturing everlasting torment, but rather that the worms and fire will not stop until everything in Gehenna has been annihilated. People who vermapost (that is, compost by using worms), are very familiar with the fact that as long as they keep adding garbage to the worm bins, the worms there do not die off, but multiply. Individual worms die, but collectively the worms eat and multiply until all their food is gone, at which point they starve and die. Of course, there cannot be literal worms, as we know worms, in Gehenna, because they could not survive, so they may just be a metaphor for total destruction, but it is possible that God would miraculously keep worms alive to be part of the destruction of the wicked. Most orthodox teachers do not believe the worms are literal, but believe they are a figure to portray horrible suffering. However, as we saw, the people were “dead bodies,” they were not alive. Many of the “worms” eating the rotting flesh and food are maggots, and the NLT version reads “maggots.”
“and the fire is not quenched.” Just as the phrase “the worm does not die” does not mean that there are “immortal worms,” but rather means that the worms will eat until there is no more food, the phrase “is not quenched,” does not mean the fire burns forever, it means it is never purposely put out. Firemen today are very familiar with house fires that “cannot be quenched,” and do not go out until the house is consumed to ash. We disagree with Lenski and other commentators who insist that these words portray everlasting torment. For example, Lenski writes, “A fire that is ‘unquenchable’ is by that very fact eternal.”a That is not accurate. The text simply states the fire is “not quenched.” No one puts the fire out, but that does not mean the fire does not go out when the fuel is gone.
God uses the word “quenched” (or “extinguished”) for fires (or anger) that cannot be extinguished but will go out on its own a number of times in the Bible. Many verses support the idea that “not quenched” simply means that no one can put the fire out until it burns out. Ezekiel 20:47 speaks of God causing a fire in the forest in the Negev and says, “the blazing flame will not be quenched,” but that does not mean that the woods of the Negev will burn forever, they will burn until the trees are burned up. Jeremiah 17:27 is a prophecy of Jerusalem that if the people do not obey God and keep the Sabbath holy, “I will kindle a fire in its [Jerusalem’s] gates, and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it will not be quenched.” The palaces in Jerusalem do not burn forever, no one can “quench” the fire in them until they are burned down and gone.
God also uses the word “quench” with the same meaning for fires and anger. God speaks of His anger that cannot be “quenched,” meaning that people cannot put it out, but it will eventually die out. For example, because of the idolatry of Judah, God said His anger would not be “quenched” (2 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron. 34:25; Jer. 7:20; 17:27). Indeed, Judah was destroyed by Babylon and the people carried into captivity, but eventually God’s anger died down and Judah returned from captivity to the Promised Land. So God’s anger could not be “quenched,” but it could stop, and that is what will happen in Gehenna. It will take a very long time, but eventually, the fire of Gehenna will burn out.
So the biblical and lexical evidence is that “not quenched” does not mean “eternal” but rather means it cannot be put out until the fuel burns out. The phrase “not quenched” would only refer to a fire that burned forever if the other biblical evidence showed that the fuel for the fire lasted forever, but the other biblical evidence supports the eventual destruction of the wicked. When people are thrown into Gehenna after they are judged on the Day of Judgment, the fire there will not be able to be put out, and the worms there will not die until there is nothing left to consume and all the sinners have been annihilated.
The Bible does not describe people’s suffering in the Lake of Fire, it simply notes that there will be some suffering there. Nevertheless, as the teaching about “eternal hell” continued to be developed and embellished throughout Church history, there was a tremendous fascination and emphasis on “hell.” This is well represented in Christian art through the centuries and in literature such as the epic poem, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (the first part of which is titled “Inferno,” which is Italian for “Hell”). It is worth noting that there was such a fascination with hell that somehow the phrase about the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched was added two more times in some manuscripts of Mark. Thus, both Mark 9:44 and 9:46 were added to some manuscripts, but those two occurrences are not in the original text and are not in most modern Bibles.
[For more on annihilation, see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire.”]