The final “hard saying of Jesus” to be addressed in this series is the text found in Mark 9:43-48.
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee 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 dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
What did Jesus mean by the expression “hellfire”? And what did He mean by “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched”? Do worms never die in hell? And will hellfire burn for all eternity?
To understand what He meant, we need to go back to the beginning. What does the Bible really say about man? This needs to be addressed because if there is an eternal hellfire, then there must be men who are eternally living in it. Notice what the Bible says about man. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). An act of God gave man life, and he became a living soul. But notice carefully. The text does not say man has a soul. Rather, it says he is a soul. What is a soul?
The Hebrew word for “soul” is nephesh. It is used a number of times in the Old Testament, and is even applied to animals and fish.
Notice what we read in the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon:
5315 ????[nephesh /neh·fesh] . . . AV translates as “soul” 475 times, “life” 117 times, “person” 29 times, “mind” 15 times, “heart” 15 times, “creature” nine times, “body” eight times, “himself” eight times, “yourselves” six times, “dead” five times, “will” four times, “desire” four times, “man” three times, “themselves” three times, “any” three times, “appetite” twice, and translated miscellaneously 47 times. 1 soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion. 1a that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man. 1b living being. 1c living being (with life in the blood). 1d the man himself, self, person or individual. 1e seat of the appetites. 1f seat of emotions and passions. 1g activity of mind. 1g1 dubious. 1h activity of the will. 1h1 dubious. 1i activity of the character. 1i1 dubious.
This authoritative source shows that the Old Testament usage of “soul” does not imply anything that is immortal. The fact is: What Adam became was a “living being.” No immortality is implied by the word “soul.” Actually, the idea that man has an immortal soul came from the Greek concept of dualism. This was the pagan notion that man is made up of two parts-a physical body, and an immortal soul. This view did not originate in the Bible.
The following excerpts concerning the word nephesh [nepes, nph] are taken from The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, by Harris, Archer, and Waltke.
The original, concrete meaning of the word was probably “to breathe” . . . The noun appears to denote “?breath?” in ?Gen 1:30?: “?in which [i.e. the land creatures] is the breath of life.?” The connection between nepes and breath is also suggested by such statements as: “?and [the Lord] breathed [nph?] into his [man's] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul?” (?Gen 2:7?); and “?the nepes [life/breath/soul] of the child returned and he revived?” (?I Kgs 17:22?) . . . . Accordingly, in some passages nepe is best translated by “?life,?” but “?life?” here denotes the living self with all its drives, not the abstract notion “?life?”. . . . A total of 755 occurrences of the noun nepes have been counted in the ot, and of these it is rendered in the Greek translation (LXX) some 600 times by the psyche (?????). Of the 144 times it is used in the Psalms, over 100 of them have the first person suffix, “?my soul.?” Thus in its most synthetic use nepes stands for the entire person. In ?Gen 2:7? “?man became a living creature?” [nepes]-the substantive must not be taken in the metaphysical, theological sense in which we tend to use the term “?soul?” today. Precisely the same Hebrew expression (nepes hayya)-traditionally rendered “?living soul?” occurs also in ?Gen 1:20?, ?21?, and ?24?. In other words, man is here being associated with the other creatures as sharing in the passionate experience of life and is not being defined as distinct from them.
What does all this mean? It means that the word “soul” does not imply that man is immortal!
What then is man?
The Psalmist states: “For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). Jesus Himself said: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh . . . ” (John 3:6). Can souls die? Certainly. The Scripture tells us: “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). Have all human beings sinned? Yes, according to the Bible. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Consider the following Scriptures: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Ps. 146:3-4). “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 9:5-6). “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” (Ps. 6:5). “The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17). The above clear-cut Scriptures are easily understood. Jesus said, ” . . . the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), meaning the Scriptures do not contradict. But other Scriptures are not as clear as these. This is why the statements Jesus made in Mark 9:43-48 need an explanation.
The Bible calls death a sleep. Jesus made this plain in John 11. Jesus told His disciples that His friend, Lazarus, was sleeping. Then He plainly told them Lazarus was dead (John 11:11-14). The Apostle Paul also said death was a sleep. “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:50-52).
And in 1 Thessalonians four, Paul wrote:
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not [precede] them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first (vv. 14-16).
People are usually interred in the ground, or in the grave, when they die. But many people believe the souls of the unconverted dead go to hell when they die. Where is hell anyway? Jacob knew what would happen to him when he died. When told his son Joseph was dead, he said: “. . . For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning . . . ” (Gen. 37:35). The word “grave” is the English translation of the Hebrew word sheol. It means the “pit,” the place where men were buried. The word “pit” was used when Korah and his company were killed. “But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD” (Num. 16:30).
Sheol is often translated “hell,” meaning the “grave,” but there is another meaning for the word sheol. This meaning is found in Deuteronomy 32:22. Notice: “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.” This “hell” does not refer to the grave. It refers to a worldwide conflagration-a hellfire- that will take place at some future date. In the New Testament, three separate Greek words are translated “hell” in the English language. The Greek word hades is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol. The word hades also means the grave. An example of this usage is found in Matthew 16:18: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus promised that the grave, or death, would not prevail against His Church. It would never die.
Another example of the use of hades is found in Acts 2:26-27, and 31, texts that refer to the Messiah, His death, and resurrection. “Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. . . . He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption” (Acts 2:31). One more example is found in 1 Corinthians 15, where the word hades is translated “grave.” “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (v. 55). This victory is the Resurrection, and Jesus alone has the key. “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [hades] and of death” (Rev. 1:18). The fact is: Every place where the word hades is translated “hell” in the New Testament, the meaning is the grave. The only Scripture that could possibly confuse anyone is found in the parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man.” See Luke 16:19-31. While in “hell” the rich man lifted up his eyes in torment. For the meaning of this parable, please refer to Part 10 of the Parables found on the home page of our Web site.
The second Greek word used to translate the English word “hell” is tartaroo. It is used only once in the New Testament. It does not refer to a subterranean cavern beneath the surface of the earth, but to “a condition or place of restraint.” This is the present condition to which Satan and his demons have been placed. Peter tells us: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (2 Pet. 2:4). These wicked spirits no longer have the powers and capabilities they once possessed, but are greatly restrained. They know there is a judgment coming. During His public ministry, demons cried out to Christ ” . . . What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29).
The third Greek word used for the English “hell” is gehenna. This is the word that has caused many to become confused. It is used in Mark 9:43, 45, 47, quoted earlier. What does it mean? Any number of Bible dictionaries will quickly tell us that Gehenna was a valley west and south of Jerusalem, also a symbolic name for the final place of punishment of the ungodly. The literal Gehenna was the location of the city dump. It was a deep, narrow ravine with steep rocky sides where all the refuse of Jerusalem was dumped. Jesus used this name as a type or representation of the final lake of fire described in Revelation 20:14-15. Here is what the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon states:
1067 ??????? [geenna /gheh·en·nah] . . . AV translates as “hell” nine times, and “hell fire + 3588 + 4442″ three times. 1 Hell is the place of the future punishment called “Gehenna” or “Gehenna of fire.” This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.
The word hades, mentioned three paragraphs above, means the “grave.” But hades eventually came to have another meaning. As Greek thought gradually crept into the visible church, Greek concepts were absorbed. Notice what Wuest’s Word Studies in the New Testament states:
The second of these words is “Hades, (????,)” which is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek word . . . .The word itself means “The Unseen.” This was the technical Greek religious term used to designate the world of those who departed this life. The Septuagint, namely, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses this word to translate the Hebrew “Sheol, (?????,)” which has a similar general meaning. The “Hades (????)” of the pagan Greeks was the invisible land, the realm of shadow, where all Greeks went, the virtuous, to that part called Elysium (???????), the wicked, to the other part called Tartarus (????????).
What this means is that as Greek thought penetrated the church, the pagan concept of a subterranean cavern under the earth became accepted as the definition of hades. The fact is: The concept of a subterranean cavern is pagan in origin and did not come from the Old or New Testaments! It became a popular belief in the church as a result of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Even Wuest’s above comment that the pagan meaning of this hades is similar to that of the Old Testament Sheol reflects this pagan error.
The punishment about which Jesus warned was eternal death in the Lake of Fire, not punishment for all eternity in hell. He said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The physical body can be resurrected back to life, but also both the physical body and life can be destroyed forever in gehenna. Notice carefully, the Bible does not speak of “eternal punishing,” but “eternal punishment.” There is a difference. “And these [the wicked] shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matt. 25:46). “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:5). Jesus warned the Pharisees: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell (gehenna)?” (Matt. 23:33).
Even John the Baptist warned of the fate of the wicked. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees attend his baptism, he said: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). Continuing he explained: “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v. 12). This is the fire of which Jesus spoke in the “hard saying” given at the beginning of this article.
The Bible clearly states that the wicked will be consumed in fire. Notice Matthew 25:41. Jesus stated: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Now to verse 46: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Does this fire continually burn beneath the surface of the earth, or are these texts speaking of the consequences, or finality, of that fire? Notice again carefully. This fire is called “punishment,” not “punishing.” It is further defined in Revelation 21:7-8: “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” How can this be called “death,” which means the cessation of life, if those cast into this fire will burn for all eternity? This concept of an ever-burning hellfire is so ensconced in the thinking of theologians that many believe the false notion that death does not mean cessation of life, but separation from God.
What really does happen to the wicked? The prophet Malachi tells us: “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch . . . . And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 4:1-3). This is the real “hellfire” people often mistakenly believe to be beneath the earth. The fact is: The fire of which Jesus spoke is not an everlasting fire, but a fire that has everlasting consequences. It is the “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation 20:14-the fire from which there will be no resurrection. This fire will not be quenched, but neither will it burn forever.
Isaiah wrote of the fate of the wicked. He said: “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (Isa. 66:23-24). So, what does it mean, “neither shall their fire be quenched”? Jeremiah gives the answer. This warning was to the men of Judah: “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (Jer. 17:27). Are the palaces of Jerusalem still burning? Of course not! An unquenchable fire, then, is a fire that burns itself out. It cannot be extinguished until has burned completely.
But what about the statement “their worm shall not die”? Do worms live forever? A Bible Dictionary, by Smith and Peloubet, under the subject of “worm,” tells us that worms feed upon the bodies of dead human beings (See Job 19:26; 21:26; 24:20). The fact is: Both Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:44, 46, and 48 are used metaphorically for the torments of the guilty. Smith’s Bible dictionary goes on to describe this as the torment in the world of the departed spirits, but this last notion is, of course, completely false. When both Isaiah and Jesus referred to worms, they were referring to the city dump of Jerusalem. This was the valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, where the filth of the city, including dead bodies, was teeming with worms. Worms are the pupae stage of flies. They do not die in that state but turn into flies, a new life form. This is why Jesus said, “their worm dieth not.” He was referring to the carcasses of the wicked lying on the ground, being consumed by maggots. There is no Bible support for the idea of either eternal worms or eternal fire. Isaiah’s statement is particularly clear in this regard. The warning that Jesus gave in Mark 9:43-48 refers to the final fate of the wicked-the second death!
One other point that should be called to the reader’s attention is the meaning of the word “forever” in the Bible. This can be understood by examining a text that uses the word “forever.” An example is Exodus 21:5-6. If a Hebrew servant wanted to remain with his master, we read: “And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.” Is the Hebrew servant still serving his master? Of course not!
Clearly then, the meaning “forever” in the Bible means as long as the factors involved continue to exist. In the example listed above, both of the factors ended long ago. See also Deuteronomy 15:17. When we examine the texts that refer to the judgment of God, this same rule applies. See, for example, Revelation 14:11; 19:3; 20:10. At the time of Christ’s return, God’s judgment will be meted out. “For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many” (Isa. 66:15-16). This judgment applies to Revelation 14:11; 19:3. This is destruction by fire. That fire will not burn for eternity, but only until it burns out. Those are the factors involved at this time, but this is not the final judgment. That takes place 1000 years later.
Revelation 20:10 applies to the final judgment-the Lake of Fire. This verse states: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). Notice, in the Authorized Version, the word “are” is in italics. This means it is not found in the Greek text and was added to make the meaning clearer. In this verse, it does just the opposite. If any words should have been added to verse 20, it should not be “are” but “were cast.” The fact is: The beast and the false prophet were cast into “the lake of fire and brimstone” 1000 years earlier and were consumed. What Revelation 20:10 states is that the devil is cast into the fire where the beast and false prophet were cast 1000 years earlier. At a particular location and during the period of the Millenium, a localized fire will be burning. Flesh and blood perish, but Satan is a spirit being. Spirit beings cannot die (Luke 20:36). So, he and his demons will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Matt. 25:41). The location of this fire is not revealed. How long is this “forever”? The Bible does not say, but it will last as long as the factors involved continue to exist.
When Jesus said, “the fire is not quenched,” and “their worm dieth not,” He was referring to the final death of the wicked in the Lake of Fire, typified by Gehenna, the city dump. This fact is made known not only by Jesus’ statement, but also by Scriptures found in both the Old and New Testaments.