Did Jesus Mean Hellfire?
SOME who believe the doctrine of hellfire point to Jesus’ words recorded at Mark 9:48 (or verses 44, 46). He mentioned worms (or maggots) that do not die and fire that is not quenched. If someone asked you about those words, how would you respond?
Depending on the Bible version being used, the person might read verse 44, 46, or 48 because these verses read similarly in some versions.* The New World Translation reads: “If your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.”—Mark 9:47, 48.
In any case, some claim that Jesus’ statement supports the view that after death the souls of the wicked suffer forever. For instance, a comment in the Spanish Sagrada Biblia of the University of Navarre says: “Our Lord uses [these words] to refer to the torments of hell. Often ‘the worm that does not die’ is explained as the eternal remorse felt by those in hell; and the ‘fire which is not quenched,’ as their physical pain.”
However, compare Jesus’ words with the final verse of Isaiah’s prophecy.* Is it not apparent that Jesus was alluding to the text in Isaiah chapter 66? The prophet there apparently refers to going out “of Jerusalem to the surrounding Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), where human sacrifice was once practiced (Jer 7:31) and which eventually became the city’s refuse heap.” (The Jerome Biblical Commentary) The symbolism at Isaiah 66:24 clearly is not that of people being tortured; it speaks of carcasses. What it refers to as not dying is worms—not live humans or immortal souls. What, then, is the import of Jesus’ words?
Note the comment on Mark 9:48 in the Catholic work El evangelio de Marcos. Análisis lingüístico y comentario exegético, Volume II: “[The] phrase is taken from Isaiah (66,24). There the prophet shows the two ways corpses were usually destroyed: putrefaction and incineration . . . The juxtaposition in the text of maggots and fire reinforces the idea of destruction. . . . Both destructive forces are described as permanent (‘is not quenched, does not die’): there is simply no way to escape them. In this image, the only survivors are the maggot and the fire—not man—and they both annihilate anything that falls within their power. Hence, this is not a description of everlasting torment, but one of total destruction which, as it prevents resurrection from occurring, is tantamount to final death. [Fire] is, then, a symbol of annihilation.”
Anyone who knows that the true God is loving and just should be able to see how reasonable it is to understand Jesus’ words in that way. He was not saying that the wicked will experience everlasting torment. Rather, they are at risk of total destruction that prevents resurrection from occurring.
The most reliable Bible manuscripts do not include verses 44 and 46. Scholars acknowledge that those two verses were likely later additions. Professor Archibald T. Robertson writes: “The oldest and best manuscripts do not give these two verses. They came in from the Western and Syrian (Byzantine) classes. They are a mere repetition of verse 48. Hence we [omit] the numbering 44 and 46 in our verses which are not genuine.”
“They will actually go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that were transgressing against me; for the very worms upon them will not die and their fire itself will not be extinguished, and they must become something repulsive to all flesh.”—Isa. 66:24.