Saturday, February 9, 2019

The “Hell” of which Jesus Christ Spoke (Part Three)

(For part one of this study, click here: https://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-hell-of-which-jesus-christ-spoke.html)

Heeding Jewish Myths

In Titus 1:10-14, Paul wrote the following to his co-laborer in the faith: For many are insubordinate, vain praters and imposters, especially those of the Circumcision, who must be gagged, who are subverting whole households, teaching what they must not, on behalf of sordid gain. One of them, their own prophet, said: “Cretans are ever liars, evil wild beasts, idle bellies.” This testimony is true. For which cause be exposing them severely, that they may be sound in the faith, not heeding Jewish myths and precepts of men who are turning from the truth.

As is evident from the part of this passage that I placed in bold, Paul clearly had no tolerance for “Jewish myths,” and instructed Titus to expose “severely” those in the faith who were heeding such myths. What I will be arguing in this third and final part of my study on “Gehenna” is that the decision to translate Gehenna as “hell” betrays a preference for Jewish myths over the truth revealed in Scripture.

As argued in the previous section, the term translated “hell” in most English Bibles is the name of a well-known locality near Jerusalem, and is never employed in the Hebrew Scriptures to mean anything other than the place with which every Jew in Christ’s day would’ve been familiar (i.e., Hinnom Valley). I further argued that it is in this valley that the prophecy found in the closing verse of Isaiah will be fulfilled. Here, again, is the argument with which I presented the reader in part two of this study:

1. The place where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” is the place where “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against [God]” will reside and undergo destruction (Isaiah 66:24).

2. According to Christ in Mark 9:42-48, “Gehenna” is the location where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched.”

3. The “Gehenna” of which Christ spoke is the location where “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed” referred to in Isaiah 66:24 will reside and undergo destruction.

But if Christ was referring to a literal valley into which literal corpses will be cast when he used the term “Gehenna,” why has the word been translated “hell” in most English Bibles? In order to answer this question, we need to consider the meaning of the word “hell” itself. And I can think of no better authority on this subject than what is, arguably, the biggest and oldest promoter of the doctrine of hell within the Christian religion: the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on “hell,” we read the following:

The term hell is cognate to “hole” (cavern) and “hollow”. It is a substantive formed from the Anglo-Saxon helan or behelian, “to hide”. This verb has the same primitive as the Latin occulere and celare and the Greek kalyptein. Thus by derivation hell denotes a dark and hidden place. In ancient Norse mythology Hel is the ill-favoured goddess of the underworld. Only those who fall in battle can enter Valhalla; the rest go down to Hel in the underworld, not all, however, to the place of punishment of criminals.

After this brief history on the origin of the word “hell,” we’re then provided with four different meanings of the term that have been distinguished by theologians. However, the article informs us that, according to “the strict sense of the term,” hell denotes “the place of punishment for the damned, be they demons or men.”

Thus, when a translator chooses to use the term “hell” (rather than the transliterated word “Gehenna”), they have actually taken the liberty of interpreting the original Greek word for the reader rather than simply translating the word for the reader. For, again, the literal meaning of the term is an actual valley that borders the old city of Jerusalem to the south. So the English word “hell” is no more an accurate or appropriate translation of the Greek word Gehenna than it would be of the Greek words Ioudaia (“Judea”) or Hierousalem (“Jerusalem”). But again, why would a translator even choose to interpret Gehenna as “hell?” What’s the connection?

Concerning the connection between “hell” (the supposed “place of punishment for the damned”) and the term “Gehenna,” the article goes on to say:

“…in the New Testament the term Gehenna is used more frequently in preference to hades, as a name for the place of punishment of the damned. Gehenna is the Hebrew gê-hinnom (Nehemiah 11:30), or the longer form gê-ben-hinnom (Joshua 15:8), and gê-benê-hinnom (2 Kings 23:10) “valley of the sons of Hinnom”. Hinnom seems to be the name of a person not otherwise known. The Valley of Hinnom is south of Jerusalem and is now called Wadi er-rababi. It was notorious as the scene, in earlier days, of the horrible worship of Moloch. For this reason it was defiled by Josias (2 Kings 23:10), cursed by Jeremias (Jeremiah 7:31-33), and held in abomination by the Jews, who, accordingly, used the name of this valley to designate the abode of the damned (Targ. Jon., Gen., iii, 24; Henoch, c. xxvi). And Christ adopted this usage of the term(bold mine).

According to the above quotation, it is “the Jews” who used the name of the literal Valley of Hinnom “to designate the abode of the damned” (with two examples of this figurative usage of “Gehenna” by the Jews being referenced). And then we’re told that “Christ adopted this usage of the term.”

Now, we do know that, by the time of Christ, certain Jewish sects had come to believe that a place of torment awaited the wicked after death. For example, this was the view of the Pharisees (who were, of course, Christ’s most public opponents during his earthly ministry). In this supposed post-mortem place of retribution, it was thought that the “immortal souls” of the wicked would be either endlessly tormented or (eventually) annihilated. Concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote: “They believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison (eirgmon aidion), but that the former shall have power to revive and live again” (D. Ant. 18.14-15).

Here we find that the Pharisees believed the subterranean place of punishment for wicked immortal souls was an “eternal (aidion) prison.” And in another place (B. War 2.162-64), Josephus wrote that the Pharisees “say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.[1] In contrast with the doctrine of the Pharisees, we’re told by Josephus that the Sadducees “take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades.” From these quotes it is evident that the rewards and punishments which the Pharisees thought would be meted out to people in the afterlife would take place “in Hades.”

Having shown that at least some Jews in Christ’s day (e.g., the Pharisees) believed in a post-mortem, subterranean place of judgment, let’s now consider the two claims found at the end of the excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia article, as quoted above:

1. The Jews used the term Gehenna to designate the abode of the damned.

2. Christ adopted this usage of the term.

Concerning the first claim, the Jewish Rabbi David Kimhi (c. 12th century A.D.) wrote: ”And it [Gehenna] was a despised place where they cast filth and corpses, and there was there perpetually a fire for the burning of the filth and the bones of the corpses. On account of this, the judgment place of the wicked is parabolically called Gehenna.” Thus, according to Rabbi Kimhi, the term Gehenna began to be used “parabolically” to refer to the “judgment place of the wicked” (i.e., the subterranean place of punishment to which it was thought the wicked went after death). But when did this term begin to be used “parabolically” to refer to the supposed place of post-mortem judgment in which certain Jews (i.e., the Pharisees) believed? For in order for Christ to have “adopted” this usage, it had to have been fairly commonplace before the start of his public ministry (or at least it had to have become so by the time his public ministry began).

When we begin to try and determine when, exactly, the term Gehenna began to be used figuratively (or “parabolically”) by the Pharisees to refer to a subterranean “judgment place of the wicked” (or “abode of the damned”), it soon becomes clear that there is no conclusive evidence that any of Christ’s contemporaries actually used the term in this way. And even if some did, we have even less reason to believe that the term was so commonly and widely used in this way that those to whom Jesus spoke would’ve understood the term in no other way except for as a reference to this place (rather than as a literal reference to the actual valley of Hinnom).

The article provides two references in support of its claim that “the Jews” used the term Gehenna to “designate the abode of the damned.” The first reference is to the so-called “Targum of Jonathan.”[2] According to Sefaria.org, the date of the composition of this work “is disputed,” and it “might have been initially composed in the 4th century CE.” We’re also told that “some scholars date it in the 14th Century.” Even the earliest date that I’ve seen suggested for the composition of this work (which is sometime in the second century) is too late for it to be understood as evidence that the Jews in Christ’s day used the term Gehenna as a figurative designation for “the abode of the damned.”

The second quote is from the apocryphal “Book of Enoch” (a work which I happen to have in my possession). Although there is evidence that 1 Enoch was, in fact, written before the time of Christ, the term “Gehenna” does not even appear in the passage referenced in the article (nor does it appear in the rest of the book). Rather, in the passage referenced, we’re told that “Enoch” sees a certain valley existing between two mountains which is “deep, but not wide,” which consists of “a strong rock,” and which has a single tree planted within it. After the brief description of this valley, we’re then told by “Uriel” (one of Enoch’s angelic guides) that the wicked “shall be collected” in this valley, and that it will be “their territory” in “the latter days.” However, not only is this valley not identified as “Gehenna,” it doesn’t even geographically match the actual Gehenna that formed the southern border of the old city of Jerusalem (and even if this valley is to be understood as Gehenna, it’s clear from the way it’s depicted that it’s intended to be understood as a literal valley, and not as a figurative depiction of some other place).

These, then, are the two references which the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article apparently understood as supporting the theory that, in Christ’s day, the term Gehenna was used by the Jews to designate “the abode of the damned.” However, neither of these references can be understood as conclusive evidence that any of the Pharisaic contemporaries of Christ actually used the term “Gehenna” as a figurative reference to “the abode of the damned” (let alone that the term was so commonly used in this way that those to whom Jesus spoke would’ve understood the term in no other way except for as a reference to “the abode of the damned”). And this fact is problematic for the theory that Christ “adopted” the Pharisee’s figurative usage of the term. For how could Christ have adopted a figurative usage of the term Gehenna that didn’t actually exist before or during his public ministry? [3]

But let’s suppose (just for the sake of argument) that the Pharisaic contemporaries of Christ regularly used the term Gehenna in a figurative way to refer to the subterranean “abode of the damned” in which they believed. Do we have any good reason to believe that Christ would have sanctioned as true the Pharisees’ beliefs concerning this place? Before we answer this question, let’s consider another question: How did these Jews come to believe in the place of post-mortem punishment for the wicked that they began to figuratively refer to as “Gehenna?” From what source did these Jews get their information concerning the “abode of the damned” in which they believed?

The only Jewish literature which was binding on the Jews as authoritative before and during Christ’s public ministry was that which constituted those inspired writings which Christ called the “Law and the Prophets” and “the word of God.” Christ spoke as if the books that comprise our “Old Testament” Scriptures had been completed by his day, and ought to have been considered inspired canon to the Jewish people. In Jesus’ day, this collection of inspired writings was the standard of truth by which all Jewish beliefs and practices were to be measured. And nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does Gehenna ever figuratively refer to a subterranean place of punishment for the disembodied souls of the wicked. Every time we read of this geographical location in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s a literal reference to the geographical location. The Hebrew Scriptures are completely silent concerning any sort of figurative usage of “Gehenna.” And not only this, but these inspired writings are just as silent concerning the existence of a subterranean place of punishment for the disembodied souls of the wicked. That is, the very existence of the place which certain Jews came to figuratively refer to as “Gehenna” is not even revealed in their own inspired Scripture.

So where did their information concerning this place of punishment come from? Well, insofar as the subterranean place of punishment for the wicked in which the Pharisees believed is not revealed in their own inspired Scripture, it ultimately doesn’t matter where they got their information from. All that matters is that the source from which they derived their information concerning this place is a non-inspired one. And this means that their beliefs concerning this place of punishment do not correspond with what God himself had revealed to them in their inspired Scriptures, and - as such - could not possibly have had God’s authoritative approval. It is simply irrelevant what the views expressed in the Jewish literature or oral tradition of Christ’s day were if they did not have their origin in the writings that Jesus understood to be inspired and authoritative. If the views held by the Jews of Christ’s day concerning a place they figuratively referred to as “Gehenna” were derived from an uninspired source, then it’s neither very reasonable nor very honouring to Jesus to say he would have subscribed to them.

In fact, Christ explicitly rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for holding to and teaching things that were foreign to their own inspired Scriptures. In Mark 7:6-13, for example, we find Christ accusing the scribes and Pharisees of “teaching for teachings the directions of men,” of leaving “the precept of God” and “holding the tradition of men,” of “repudiating the precept of God, that [they] should be keeping [their] tradition,“ and of “invalidating the word of God by [their] tradition.” And in addition to the specific examples Christ provided, Christ added that “many such like things” were these religious leaders doing! Their teachings concerning the subterranean place of judgment in which they believed (and which they, at some point, began to figuratively refer to as “Gehenna”) can, therefore, be understood as just another way in which they invalidated the word of God by their tradition.



[1] The words translated “eternal punishment” in this quotation from Josephus are aidios timoria, and must not to be confused with the words found in Matthew 25:46 (which, despite being commonly translated as “eternal punishment,” are different Greek words entirely - i.e., kolasin aionios, or “chastening eonian”).

[3] It could be objected that, in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 450 – 550 AD), we’re told that the two Pharisaical “schools of thought” (i.e., “Beit Shammai” and “Beit Hillel”) had doctrinal positions concerning “Gehenna” (see Rosh Hashana 16b-17a: https://www.sefaria.org/Rosh_Hashanah.16b?lang=bi). It’s true that both “Beit Shammai” (“House of Shammai”) and “Beit Hillel” (“House of Hillel”) existed before and during Christ’s public ministry. However, it must be kept in mind that these two schools continued in existence after the time of Christ’s public ministry as well (with “Beit Shammai” continuing until the close of the first century and “Beit Hillel” continuing after that). So it could very well be the case that these Pharisaical schools began using the term Gehenna in a figurative sense after Christ’s public ministry had already ended. Moreover, the codification of the Talmud took place in the 5th century, and the quotes as they appear in this work could have undergone some editing over time, with glosses being added to reflect the vocabulary of the time at which the Talmud was codified. In any case, it doesn’t follow that this figurative usage of “Gehenna” was common or well-known before or during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.

The “Hell” of which Jesus Christ Spoke (Part Two)

“Cast into Gehenna”

As a way of reviewing what has been argued so far in this study, it needs to be emphasized that we have every reason to believe that the fulfillment of what we find prophesied in Isaiah 66:24 will be as literal as can be. There is simply no good reason to believe otherwise. The corpses that will be seen by those travelling to and from Jerusalem at this future time will be literal corpses, and the “worm” and “fire” which will be contributing to the visible destruction of the corpses will be literal as well.

But what, exactly, will be the geographical location of the sobering scene described in Isaiah 66:24? Where, exactly, will the “mass burial site” where a “seemingly endless pile of maggot-infested corpses are being burned” be located? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess or speculate. For, although Isaiah doesn’t tell us in his prophecy, Jesus does. In Mark 9:43-48 (CLNT), we read that Jesus spoke the following to his disciples:

And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off. It is ideal for you to be entering into life maimed, rather than, having two hands, to come away into Gehenna, into the unextinguished fire where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out. And if your foot should be snaring you, strike it off. For it is ideal for you to be entering into life maimed or lame, rather than, having two feet, to be cast into Gehenna, into the unextinguished fire, where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out. And if your eye should be snaring you, cast it out. It is ideal for you to be entering into the kingdom of God one-eyed, rather than, having two eyes, to be cast into the Gehenna of fire, where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out.

In most modern Bible versions (such as the ESV, from which I quoted in part one), the word translated as “Gehenna” in the above passage (γέεννα) is translated as “hell.” Jesus spoke of Gehenna on seven occasions, each of which is included in Matthew’s Gospel Account (Matt. 5:22, 29f; 10:28 [cf. Luke 12:5]; 18:9 [cf. Mark 9:43-47]; 23:15, 33). In part three of this study, we’ll consider why this term has been translated “hell” in most Bibles. For now, however, I simply want to consider the literal meaning of the term.

The literal meaning of the term “Gehenna” is “the Valley of Hinnom” (or simply, “Hinnom Valley”), and denotes an actual valley in the land of Israel that formed the southern border of the old city of Jerusalem. In Joshua 15:8 and 18:16 we read:

Then the boundary goes up by the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the southern shoulder of the Jebusite (that is, Jerusalem). And the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against the Valley of Hinnom, on the west, at the northern end of the Valley of Rephaim.

Then the boundary goes down to the border of the mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is at the north end of the Valley of Rephaim. And it then goes down the Valley of Hinnom, south of the shoulder of the Jebusites, and downward to En-rogel.

As is evident from the above passages, the valley was named after the “son of Hinnom.” And as can be seen in the following map, this valley lay just outside of (forming the south/southwest border of) the old city of Jerusalem:


It was in this southern valley that certain kings of Israel sacrificed their children to the false gods Baal and Molech (2 Chron. 28:1-4; 33:1-6; Jer. 2:23; 32:35; Isaiah 57:5), a detestable practice which God had forewarned was deserving of swift and severe judgment (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5). When young Josiah became king of Israel, he responded to this abominable pagan practice by defiling this valley so that “no one might burn his son or daughter as an offering to Molech” again (2 Kings 23:6-16). Although we can’t be certain, it’s possible that Josiah turned the Valley of Hinnom into Jerusalem’s “garbage dump,” where the refuse of the city was deposited.[1] In any event, the location ceased to be used for activities associated with pagan worship.

But even after King Josiah's reforms, we read in vv. 26-27:

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”

The prophet Jeremiah had much to say about this impending judgment upon the Jewish nation. Since the people of Judah refused to “obey the voice of Yahweh” and had defiled the temple with their idolatrous practices (Jer. 7:11, 30), Jeremiah declared that his generation had been rejected by God, and had become “the generation of [God’s] wrath” (vv. 27-29). Jeremiah prophesied that the same valley in which the kings of Judah had once sacrificed their children to pagan gods (i.e., the Valley of Hinnom) would soon become a mass grave filled with the corpses of Jerusalem’s slain inhabitants (vv. 30-32). Rather than being properly buried (which was considered to be of great importance to the Jewish people), the dead bodies of those who perished during this judgment were to become “food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth” (v. 33).

In chapter 19 we find Jeremiah being instructed by God to actually go out to the Valley of Hinnom “at the entry of the Potsherd Gate,” and proclaim there a prophecy of judgment against the “kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem”:

You shall say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’

‘Then you shall break the flask in the sight of the men who go with you, and shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. Men shall bury in Topheth because there will be no place else to bury. Thus will I do to this place, declares the LORD, and to its inhabitants, making this city like Topheth. The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah— all the houses on whose roofs offerings have been offered to all the host of heaven, and drink offerings have been poured out to other gods—shall be defiled like the place of Topheth.’’

As in chapter 7, we once again find the Valley of Hinnom being identified as the place where the dead bodies of those slain in a future judgment would be cast. We are told that people would be buried in “Topheth” (the location in the Valley of Hinnom where child sacrifice was practiced) because there would be “no place else to bury,” and that God was going to make the city of Jerusalem “like Topheth.” 

Jeremiah referred to this valley again later on when, after speaking of the new covenant that God was going to make with the house of Israel (Jer. 31:31-34), he referred to “the whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes” as being among the places that “shall be sacred to Yahweh,” and which wouldn’t be “uprooted or overthrown anymore for the eon” (v. 40).

Having thus been foretold (Jer. 7:13-15, 20; 20:8-10; 25:8-11), Jeremiah's prophecies concerning the coming judgment upon the people of Judah were fulfilled when God’s wrath was finally poured out upon the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. through the instrumentality of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:20; 25:1; Jer. 52:4-5). And just as Jeremiah foretold, the corpses of the countless Jews who perished during the siege were heaped into the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) to become “food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth.”

The significance of this historical event in relation to the present subject is that, according to Jesus, this same valley is going to once again be used for the disposal of corpses. Here, again, is the prophecy from Isaiah that we find quoted by Christ in Mark 9:43-48:

And they will go forth and see the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against Me,
For their worm shall not die,
And their fire shall not be quenched,
And they will become a repulsion to all flesh.

Christ didn’t quote the part of Isaiah 66:24 in which it’s made clear that corpses are in view. However, he didn’t have to. His disciples would’ve been familiar with this prophecy (it was the closing prophecy of Isaiah, after all), and would’ve known exactly what Christ was referring to when he mentioned the worm that would not die and the fire that would not be quenched. Christ’s disciples would’ve also known what Christ meant by his use of the word “Gehenna.” They would’ve been just as familiar with this geographical location as they were with the Kidron Valley or the Mount of Olives. And given the history of Gehenna (with which the disciples also would’ve been familiar), it probably did not surprise them to hear that this valley would be the place where the corpses referred to in Isaiah’s prophecy would be cast. The valley had already been used for just such a purpose before (and insofar as this is the case, we can understand its use during the Babylonian siege as foreshadowing its final prophesied usage, during the eon to come).

When Christ described Gehenna as a place of “unextinguished fire,” it must be kept in mind what the purpose of the fire in the valley will be. Obviously, the fire won’t be tormenting the people who are to be cast into Gehenna (for by the time they’re cast into the valley they’ll already be dead). Rather, its purpose will be to reduce the decaying corpses to ashes (and any corpses that have not yet been incinerated by the unextinguished fire in the valley will, of course, be breeding worms). The fire of this valley is said to be “unextinguished” because it will continue burning, without interruption, as long as there remains a need for it.  

To summarize the position that has been advanced thus far:

1. The place where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” is the place in which “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against [God]” will reside (Isaiah 66:24).

2. According to Christ in Mark 9:42-48, “Gehenna” is the place where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched.”

3. The “Gehenna” of which Christ spoke is the place in which “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed” referred to in Isaiah 66:24 will reside.

Now, at this point, some Christians may be inclined to raise the following objection: “If the only thing that Christ had in mind in Mark 9:41-48 was corpses being destroyed by fire and worms in a literal valley, then this threatened fate can’t be considered that big of a deal. Being cast into Gehenna would amount to nothing more than having one’s dead body disposed of in a dishonorable way. While this might not be considered ideal (especially for those who put a great deal of importance on an honorable burial), it still makes for a relatively weak threat. After all, not even believers are exempt from the possibility that their bodies might be dishonorably disposed of after they’ve died.”

In response to this objection, it must be emphasized that the mere dishonorable disposal of certain people’s dead bodies is not what Christ was warning his disciples of in Mark 9:42-48. Let’s look at the passage again:

And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off. It is ideal for you to be entering into life maimed, rather than, having two hands, to come away into Gehenna, into the unextinguished fire where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out. And if your foot should be snaring you, strike it off. For it is ideal for you to be entering into life maimed or lame, rather than, having two feet, to be cast into Gehenna, into the unextinguished fire, where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out. And if your eye should be snaring you, cast it out. It is ideal for you to be entering into the kingdom of God one-eyed, rather than, having two eyes, to be cast into the Gehenna of fire, where their worm is not deceasing and the fire is not going out.

There are two different fates that Christ is contrasting in this passage, and they are as follows:

1. “Entering into life”/“entering into the kingdom of God.”

2. Being “cast into Gehenna.”

When we realize that being cast into Gehenna is being contrasted with entering into the kingdom of God (and enjoying life there for the eon to come), it becomes clear that being cast into Gehenna involves much more than the mere dishonorable disposal of one’s body after death. Being cast into Gehenna will be the fate of those who “transgressed against [Yahweh]” just prior to Christ’s return (as well as during his reign), with the implication being that those cast into Gehenna will miss out on being in the kingdom of God during the eon to come. These transgressors will not only die a dishonorable death (and be dishonorably disposed of after being executed), but - worst of all - they will remain dead during the eon to come. They will, in other words, not be among those who will take part in what Christ referred to as “the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14) and which John referred to as “the former resurrection” (Rev. 20:4-6).

Thus, assuming (as is reasonable) that Jesus’ disciples believed that entering the kingdom of God was far preferable to receiving the death penalty at Christ’s return, they would’ve understood being cast into Gehenna as a fate to be avoided at all costs. Even entering into the millennial kingdom “maimed” would, according to Christ, be better than not entering into it at all! Although it’s unlikely that Christ actually expected his disciples to strike off body parts in order to avoid being “snared,” the hyperbole would’ve served to forcefully drive home the point that the disciples would have to be willing to do whatever was necessary to remain faithful. For apart from such a willingness to do whatever was necessary, Jesus’ disciples would’ve exposed themselves to the danger of being among those who, instead of entering into the kingdom of God at Christ’s return, would end up being “cast into Gehenna.”

Two Scriptural Objections

In response to the understanding of Mark 9:42-48 that has been advanced in this study, it could be objected that, in Matthew 18:8, Christ referred to the fire of Gehenna as an “eternal fire.” However, as argued in my seven-part study, ”Eternal or Eonian?” (see also my study on Matthew 25:31-46), the word translated “eternal” in most English Bibles literally means “eonian” - that is, lasting for (or pertaining to) an eon, or eons. The fire of Gehenna will not be an “eternal” fire, for it’s not going to be burning in “eternity.” Rather, it’s going to be an “eonian fire” (or “age-abiding fire,” as it’s translated in Young’s Literal Translation), burning without interruption throughout the eon of Christ’s millennial reign, and consuming whatever comes into contact with it during this time.

Another objection to the understanding of Gehenna defended in this study is based on what Christ declared in Matthew 10:28. In this verse we read, And do not fear those who are killing the body, yet are not able to kill the soul. Yet be fearing Him, rather, Who is able to destroy the soul as well as the body in Gehenna.” If Gehenna should be understood as a literal reference to the Valley of Hinnom during the millennium, how could a person’s “soul” be destroyed in this valley, along with their body? Wouldn’t it be a place where the body alone is destroyed?  

It should be noted that, traditionally, Christians have understood this verse as supporting the view that the “soul” is something that continues to exist after the death of the body, and that the death of the body does not result in, or necessarily involve, the destruction of the soul. However, according to what Christ declared elsewhere, it’s clear that, when a human is killed, his soul is, in fact, destroyed. Just a few verses later in Matthew 10, Christ declared the following to his disciples: “…he who is not taking his cross and following after Me is not worthy of Me. He who is finding his soul will be destroying it, and he who destroys his soul on My account will be finding it (Matt. 10:38-39). And later, in Matt. 16:24-25, we read: Then Jesus said to His disciples: “If anyone is wanting to come after Me, let him renounce himself and pick up his cross and follow Me. For whosoever may be wanting to save his soul shall be destroying it. Yet whoever should be destroying his soul on My account shall be finding it.

In these verses (the context of which is faithfulness in the face of persecution), the destruction of a person’s soul is the result of their being killed.[2] Thus, when Christ referred to one’s body being killed but not their soul, he couldn’t have meant that the soul survived the death of the body. For this, of course, would contradict the clear fact that one’s soul is “destroyed” when one is killed. Thus, Christ must have been speaking figuratively when he used the words “kill the soul.” And the same can be said for the expression, “destroy the soul as well as the body.” But if Christ was speaking figuratively here, what idea was the figurative language intended to convey?

I think the words of Isaiah 10:18 can help us out here. In this verse we read (ESV), “The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.” Obviously, Isaiah wasn’t saying that the forest and fruitful land belonging to the king of Assyria had a soul and a body; the idea being conveyed here is that the king’s forest and fruitful land would be completely destroyed (the NET Bible doesn’t even bother preserving the figurative terminology used by Isaiah, and translates the verse as follows: “The splendor of his forest and his orchard will be completely destroyed…”). A similar figure of speech is found in Malachi 4:1, where we read that the day of the Lord would leave all of the arrogant and all evildoers with “neither root nor branch” (i.e., this time of judgment will result in their being completely destroyed).

When we understand the words “kill the soul” and “destroy the soul as well as the body” as a figure of speech, it seems clear that Christ was referring to people being completely destroyed in some sense. In other words, Christ was exhorting his disciples to not fear those who could “merely” kill them, but who were not able to bring about their complete destruction. Rather, they were to instead fear God, who has the ability to bring about the complete destruction of people in Gehenna. But what is the nature of the “complete destruction” that Christ had in view here?

As argued earlier, the wicked who will be executed at the time of Christ’s return (and subsequent to it) will be cast into Gehenna, and will remain dead for the eon to come. They will not be among those who will be restored to life at the “resurrection of the just” to enjoy eonian life in the kingdom. Not only will they die and be dishonorably disposed of, but they’ll remain dead for the entirety of the future eon. Paul referred to the fate of those who will remain dead during the eon to come as one of “eonian extermination” (2 Thess. 1:9). In one of the most well-known verses of Scripture ever (John 3:16), Christ used the word “perish” to refer to the fate of those who, because of unbelief and unfaithfulness, would remain dead during the eon to come, and in John 10:28, he explained this as meaning “perishing for the eon.” This fate – i.e., “perishing for the eon” - is the “complete destruction” that Christ had in view in Matthew 10:28 when he spoke of the destruction of both the soul and the body in Gehenna.





[1] Support for this position could be briefly stated as follows:

1. The fact that Josiah is said to have “defiled” the valley suggests that he made it unsuitable for the purposes for which it was being used. Turning the valley into the city garbage dump would have certainly “defiled” this valley.

2. The entrance into the Valley of Hinnom is called the “Dung Gate” in Nehemiah 2:13, which would be highly appropriate if it was used to carry all of the rubbish out of the city. While the original location of the Dung Gate cannot be pinpointed, it is generally agreed to have entered into the Valley of Hinnom (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, p. 189).

3. A number of Essene latrines have been found in the Valley of Hinnom, as well as sewers entering the valley from Jerusalem (“Where the Community Lived in Jesus’ Time,” Biblical Archeological Review, 1997).

4. In his exposition of Psalm 27:13, the Jewish Rabbi David Kimhi (12th century A.D.) wrote: “And it [Gehenna] was a despised place where they cast filth and corpses, and there was there perpetually a fire for the burning of the filth and the bones of the corpses. On account of this, the judgment place of the wicked is parabolically called Gehenna.”

[2] Interestingly, those whose souls are destroyed are depicted as if they were actively involved in their souls’ destruction. However, this can be attributed to the fact that, in these passages, Christ is putting an emphasis on the actions of the individual. The destruction in view is to be understood as a direct result of the actions of those whose souls are “destroyed.” Thus, when Christ referred to someone “destroying his soul on My account,” he wasn’t talking about his disciples committing suicide; rather, he was talking about them being killed as a direct result of how they lived. Killed by whom? Answer: those persecuting them, and seeking to put them to death because of their faith in Christ (Matt. 10:16-42; 24:9-10; Luke 21:12-19; cf. John 15:18-27; 16:1-4). Thus, when Christ said, “He who is finding his soul will be destroying it,” he meant that those whose primary concern is self-preservation (rather than faithfulness to Christ) will end up having their soul destroyed.

The “Hell” of which Jesus Christ Spoke (Part One)

Introduction

According to the gospel heralded by Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, Christ died on humanity’s behalf as “a correspondent Ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:1-7, CLNT), and thereby procured the salvation of all people from the condemnation of which our sins have made us deserving (which is, I believe, death). This is what it means for Christ to have “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:1-4; cf. 15:17-19, 56). If a single human is not eventually saved from death, then it would mean that Christ didn’t die for their sins. But since Christ died for the sins of all, it follows that there is not a single person who will not ultimately be saved (as is affirmed in passages such as Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21-28, Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:20). For more on this important subject, see my three-part study, “A Ransom for All” (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2018/08/a-ransom-for-all-why-every-human-being.html).

In spite of what I believe to be the clear scriptural evidence for it, the majority of Christians deny the truth summarized above. Even among those who may sincerely want it to be true, the mainstream Christian position is that this truth simply cannot be correct. For, according to the mainstream Christian view, there are certain passages of Scripture which reveal that at least some people (usually believed to be the majority of human beings) are going to be “forever lost,” and will have to spend “all eternity” separated from God in a place of torment called “hell.” For example, in the “statement of faith” of a popular evangelical Christian church, we read the following:

After living one life on earth, unbelievers will be judged by God and sent to Hell where they will be eternally tormented with the Devil and the Fallen Angels (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:12-15, 21:8).”

For most Christians, the passages referenced in the above quotation are simply incompatible with the doctrine of universal salvation. Now, I believe whole-heartedly in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and do not think that Scripture contradicts itself. Thus, if these passages really do reveal that some people will be “sent to Hell where they will be eternally tormented,” then I would agree with most Christians that it’s impossible (and not just unlikely) that the doctrine of universal salvation is true. However, I’m also convinced that those passages which are commonly thought to be inconsistent with the doctrine of universal salvation have been greatly misunderstood, and are perfectly consistent with those passages of Scripture which reveal that Christ’s sacrifice will be universally efficacious and beneficial.

I’ve already examined a few such passages elsewhere on my blog. In my study on Matthew 25:31-46 (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2018/04/the-judgment-of-sheep-and-goats-study_28.html), I argued that this passage has nothing to do with the traditional Christian doctrine of “hell.” The “sheep” referred to in this passage will be comprised of those righteous Gentiles who, along with faithful Israelites, will get to enjoy an allotment in the land of Israel during the eon to come (which will be the geographical territory of the kingdom of God after it’s been established on the earth by Christ). The “goats,” on the other hand, will be comprised of those Gentiles who, because of their unwillingness to bless Israel during the time of their “great affliction,” must live outside of the land of Israel during the eon to come.

The expression translated “eternal punishment” in v. 46 of most English Bibles would better be translated “chastening eonian,” and should be understood as referring to the earthly destiny of the nations during the millennial reign of Christ (as referred to in Revelation 20:4-6 and elsewhere). In Rev. 2:26-27, we’re told that those who will be reigning with Christ during this period of time will, with Christ, have “authority over the nations,” and will be “shepherding them with an iron club, as vessels of pottery are being crushed.” From this verse and others (e.g., Psalm 2:8-9; Rev. 19:15; Zech. 14:16-19), it’s clear that the existence of the nations during this future time will, in fact, involve “chastening.”

I further explained why the “chastening eonian” of the nations is referred to as “fire eonian” in v. 41. Fire - and that which is connected with fire and heat - is sometimes used as a figure for adversity, affliction and trial. In accord with this understanding, I also provided some explanatory remarks on the expression “furnace of fire,” as used by Christ in Matt. 13:49-50 (cf. 40-42). Elsewhere in Scripture, places of adversity, affliction and trial are figuratively referred to as furnaces or crucibles (Deut. 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4 [cf. Ex. 3:7]; Isaiah 48:10; Ezekiel 22:18-22). In light of this figurative imagery, I argued that the “furnace of fire” referred to by Christ should be understood as a reference to the territory of the nations during the millennium (which will be outside of the geopolitical territory of the kingdom of God). It is to this territory that unfaithful Israelites will be banished when Christ returns. The same can be said for the “outer darkness” to which Christ said the “sons of the kingdom” will be banished, and from which they will be able to see those in the kingdom of God (Matt. 8:11-12).

In this study I want to consider another passage commonly understood to support the traditional Christian doctrine of hell: Mark 9:43-48. As with Matthew 13:47-51 and 25:41-46, I don’t think I’ve ever read an article or book defending the doctrine of hell that doesn’t appeal to this passage (in fact, the reader may recall that this passage is one of the passages referenced in the “statement of faith” from which I quoted above). And it’s not really surprising why this passage would be thought by many Christians to support the doctrine of hell; after all, in the majority of English Bibles, our Lord is recorded as having used the word “hell” a total of three times in this passage alone. For example, here’s Mark 9:43-48 as it appears in the English Standard Version:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”[1]

Significantly (and to its credit), the ESV has a footnote that provides the reader with a more literal translation of the term that is translated “hell” in the main text. In footnote “b” for v. 43 we read, Greek Gehenna; also verse 47.” What I will be arguing in this study is that the term found in the ESV’s footnote (i.e., Gehenna) should have been placed in the main text, and that the word “hell” should never have been used to translate the term that Christ is recorded as having used in this passage. I will be arguing that the fiery place into which Christ said certain people will be thrown is just as earthly in location as the place where Christ was standing when he spoke the words recorded in Mark 9:43-48, and that the fate of those who are to be “thrown into hell” is perfectly consistent with their ultimate and eventual salvation from sin and death.

An earthly kingdom

In my study on Matthew 25:31-46 I argued that the future events which Christ had in view in this passage will involve mortal human beings who will be living on the earth during the millennial reign of Christ in the eon to come. I noted that it is on the earth that the kingdom of God will be established when Christ returns (Matt. 6:10; 13:41, 43; Luke 21:31; cf. Daniel 2:34-35, 44), and that it is on the earth - not in heaven - that believing Israelites expected to live and reign during the reign of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5; 31:1-40; Isa. 61:1-62: 12; Isa. 65:17-24; Ezek. 36:24-38; Mic.2:12-13; Zech. 14:8-20).

Concerning this time period, we read in Rev. 20:4 the resurrected saints will “live and reign with Christ a thousand years,” and in Rev. 5:10 we read that the saints “shall be reigning on the earth.” Not only did Christ himself affirm that his twelve apostles will be sitting on twelve thrones and “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” during the eon to come (Matt. 19:28-29), but John also included himself as being among those who “shall be reigning on the earth” as “a kingdom and priests to [Christ’s] God and Father” (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; cf. 20:4-6). The twelve apostles will, therefore, be among those who, at the time when Satan’s thousand-year imprisonment ends (when we’re told that Satan goes out “to deceive all the nations which are in the four corners of the earth), will be dwelling in “the citadel of the saints and the beloved city” referred to in Rev. 20:9. The “beloved city” referred to in Rev. 20:9 is, of course, Jerusalem, and will be the location of Christ’s throne and the “world capital” during the eon to come (see Jer. 3:17; Zech. 8:22; 14:4-21; cf. Rev. 14:1).

The book of Isaiah contains a number of prophecies concerning the advent of the Messiah, his reign over the earth, and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel that will take place when his reign begins (cf. Acts 1:6). For example, in Isaiah 2:1-4 (Concordant Literal Old Testament) we read the following:

The word which came from Yahweh to Isaiah son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
And it will come to pass in the latter days,
The Mount of the House of Yahweh shall be established on the summit of the mountains,
And it shall be lifted up above the hills,
And all the nations will stream unto it.
Many peoples will come and say:
Come, and let us ascend to the Mount of Yahweh,
To the house of the [God] of Jacob;
And He shall direct us out of His ways,
So that we may indeed walk in His paths.
For from Zion shall go forth the law,
And the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.

He will judge between the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples.
They will pound their swords into mattocks,
And their spears into pruners;
Nation shall not lift sword against nation,
Nor shall they learn war any more.

House of Jacob, come, And let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

As is the case with many other prophecies (both in Isaiah and elsewhere), the basis of the above prophecy is the “Davidic covenant” – i.e., God’s promises to David, as given through the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 7; cf. 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16). This unconditional covenant with David ultimately points to Jesus Christ himself, who would come from the lineage of David and the tribe of Judah, and for whom God would establish “the throne of his kingdom for the eon” (2 Sam. 7:13-14; cf. Heb. 1:5).

Taking into account its background, there can be no doubt that the prophecy from Isaiah 2 concerns conditions that will characterize the reign of the Messiah. There is also no good reason to reject the literal, straight-forward meaning of the prophecy, or to believe that its fulfillment will not involve literal, physical events that correspond with what’s being said. We’re told in v. 1 that this prophecy concerns “Judah and Jerusalem,” and then we find Jerusalem explicitly referred to again in v. 3. No one seriously doubts that the prophecies of chapter one involve the literal city of Jerusalem and nation of Israel (see Isaiah 1:1). Thus, consistency demands that the fulfillment of what we read at the start of the very next chapter (2:1-5) cannot involve something other than the literal city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel. To make this prophecy about something other than Jerusalem and the nation of Israel is to fail to take seriously what’s being said. We can’t allegorize or “spiritualize” the meaning of the prophecy simply because it doesn’t fit with our particular “eschatological” position, or because a literal interpretation would run contrary to what we believe concerning the future of Israel and God’s covenant-based purpose involving this nation.

When we understand the above prophecy in a natural and straight-forward way, the following picture emerges: at some future time, wars between nations will be done away with completely, and the city of Jerusalem will be the world’s political and religious capital. People from all the surrounding nations will travel to “the house of the God of Jacob” (i.e., the temple) to be instructed concerning God and his law. It is at this time that the temple in Jerusalem will, in fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 55:7, be “called a house of prayer for all peoples” (cf. Jesus’ words in Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). Not only will the city have political and religious preeminence, but it will come to have a preeminent geographical location as well, with an elevation that is significantly higher than the surrounding territory (such that pilgrims travelling toward the temple will be travelling upwards, while those departing from it will be descending).

But what does all of this have to do with what Jesus had to say about “hell?” Well, a lot, actually. In order to see how, we need to consider the final chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah’s concluding prophecy

In Isaiah 66 we find another remarkable description of the same general time period prophesied in Isaiah 2:1-4. In Isaiah 66:7-24 (CLOT) we read the following:

Ere she is travailing, she gives birth;
Ere a cramp is coming upon her, she delivers forth a male.
Who has heard such a thing as this?
And who has seen such things as these?
Shall a land be in travail in one day only?
Should a nation be born at one time?
When she travails, already Zion gives birth to her sons.
Shall I bring the breaking and not bring the birth?
saying is Yahweh;
If I am the One bringing the birth, would I restrain it?
says your Elohim.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and exult in her, all who love her!
Be elated with her with elation, all who mourn over her!
That you may suckle and be satisfied from the breast of her consolations,
That you may drink deeply and find pleasure from the rich bosom of her glory.

For thus says Yahweh:
Behold, I shall stretch out peace over her like a stream,
And the glory of the nations like a watercourse overflowing;
And you will suckle; you shall be carried on her side,
And shall be dandled on her knees.
Like one whom his mother is comforting,
So I Myself shall comfort you,
And in Jerusalem you shall be comforted.
You will see, and your heart will be elated,
And your bones, like verdure shall they bud,
And the hand of Yahweh for His servants will be known,
Yet it will menace His enemies.

The “birth” of the nation of Israel that we find prophesied in verses 7-9 is one that will take place at the time of Christ’s return, when the kingdom is restored to Israel. In Ezekiel, this supernatural event is figuratively referred to as the resurrection of the nation (Ez. 37:1-14). That these verses refer to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel is evident from what we read in the remainder of this chapter (see verse 15-28). See also Ezekiel 38, which reveals what will be taking place near the end of Christ’s reign over the earth (cf. Rev. 20:1-10, where John refers to this same period of time).

Continuing with verses 15-17, we read:

For behold, Yahweh, with fire shall He come,
And His chariots like a sweeping whirlwind,
To bring back His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with blazes of fire.
For with fire Yahweh shall come to judge,
And with His sword upon all flesh;
And Yahweh’s slain will be multitudinous.

Those who sanctify themselves
And who cleansed themselves for the gardens, going after one in their midst,
Eating the flesh of swine and the abominable thing and the rodent,
They shall be swept up together, averring is Yahweh.

As is clear from these verses, the restoration of the kingdom to Israel will be accompanied by a fiery display of indignation against the enemies of Yahweh. It is with these fearful (but necessary) events that the blessing-filled reign of the Messiah will commence. For the remainder of Isaiah 66 (verses 18-24), we read again of how Jerusalem will become the center of worship for the world, with the nations coming to worship before Yahweh:

I know their deeds and their devising;
I shall come to convene all nations and tongues,
And they will come and see My glory.
I will place a sign among them,
And I will send some of their delivered ones to the nations,
To Tarshish, Pul and Lud, Meshech, Quesheth, Tubal and Javan, the coastlands afar, Who have not heard of My fame, and have not seen My glory,
And they will tell of My glory, among the nations.
And they will bring all your brothers from all the nations as an approach present to Yahweh,
On horses, in chariots and in coaches,
On mules and on dromedaries,
To My holy mountain, Jerusalem, says Yahweh,
Just as the sons of Israel bring the approach present
In a clean vessel to the house of Yahweh.
And also I shall take some from them for priests and for Levites, says Yahweh;

For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I shall make shall stand before Me, averring is Yahweh,
So your seed and your name shall stand.
And it will come to be, as often as the new moon comes in its monthly time,
And as often as the Sabbath comes in its Sabbath cycle,
All flesh shall come to worship before Me, says Yahweh.

As with what we read in Isaiah 2:1-4, the state of affairs depicted in the above passage involves a large number of people from all the nations regularly travelling to Jerusalem to worship before Yahweh. It’s a beautiful “prophetic snapshot” of the conditions that will characterize the reign of the Messiah during the age to come.

The final “prophetic snapshot” in Isaiah reveals what those among the nations who will be travelling to and from Jerusalem will see (or will be able to see) during their pilgrimage. And I must forewarn the reader that it’s not a pretty sight. In verse 24, we read:

And they will go forth and see the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against Me,
For their worm shall not die,
And their fire shall not be quenched,
And they will become a repulsion to all flesh.

Here is how v. 24 reads in the NET (New English Translation): “They will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent.” The NET notes for this verse explain that it “depicts a huge mass burial site where [a] seemingly endless pile of maggot-infested corpses are being burned.”[2]

We have no good reason to deny that this prophecy foretells actual, real-life events that will be occurring at some future time (i.e., during the eon to come), and that the scene being depicted will thus one day be a reality. That is, we have no good reason to deny that actual people from among the nations will, during the eon to come, be travelling to Jerusalem to worship before Yahweh, and that these same people will ”go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against [Yahweh].”

According to Albert Barnes in his commentary, the term translated “worm” (towla) is “sometimes applied to the worm from which the crimson or deep scarlet color was obtained…but it more properly denotes that which is produced in putrid substances” (emphasis mine). The word only occurs a few times in Scripture, but in two of its occurrences it is clearly associated with death and decay. In Exodus 16:20 we read that the leftover manna “bred worms (towla) and stank.” It also appears in Isaiah 14:11, where we read the following concerning the demise of the king of Babylon: “All your pomp has been brought down to Sheol, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms (towla) are your covers.” Here, “worms” are clearly associated with death and decay.

The “worm” referred to in Isaiah 66:24 is said to “not die” to emphasize the fact that it will be present as long as there are corpses to be eaten. This is gruesome imagery, to be sure, but it serves to further emphasize the dishonorable status and condition of those who transgressed against Yahweh. But what about the fire that “shall not be quenched” (or “will not die out?)” This expression has nothing to do with a fire that burns absolutely without end. Leviticus 6:12-13 speaks of the fire on the altar as being one that “shall always be burning and which “shall not be quenched.” The same language was used in Jeremiah 17:27 in reference to a fire that has long since gone out: “But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.” See also Ezekiel 20:47-48. [3] No one understands this language to mean that the fire in view would go on burning for “all eternity.”

That the burning and worm-infested corpses being referred to in v. 24 will be a visible sight for those travelling to and from the city of Jerusalem during the eon to come is further evident from the way the verse ends: “And they will become a repulsion to all flesh“ (or, as the NET reads, “All people will find the sight abhorrent.”). Who is the “they” referred to here? Answer: it’s a clear reference to the corpses of those who transgressed against Yahweh. As if the sight of dead bodies wasn’t bad enough, seeing them being eaten by worms and consumed by fire will indeed be a repulsive and abhorrent sight. It certainly won’t be something that anyone will want to spend any great deal of time observing. But it will be a fully visible scene, nonetheless, and will serve as a solemn and sobering warning to would-be transgressors and rebels during this future period of time.

But whose corpses was Isaiah referring to? Well, we know they’ll belong to those who “transgressed” or “rebelled” against Yahweh. And from the context of Isaiah 66, it’s reasonable to infer that the vast majority of the corpses will (at least initially) belong to the enemies of Yahweh that we find referred to in verses 14-16:

And the hand of Yahweh for His servants will be known,
Yet it will menace His enemies.
For behold, Yahweh, with fire shall He come,
And His chariots like a sweeping whirlwind,
To bring back His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with blazes of fire.
For with fire Yahweh shall come to judge,
And with His sword upon all flesh;
And Yahweh’s slain will be multitudinous.

However, it’s also reasonable to believe that any death-penalty-deserving rebels during the eon to come will, after being executed, end up among the corpses referred to in Isaiah 66:24.

I’ll conclude this section with the following two points:

1. The words “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” refer to “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against [God].”

2. The place where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” is a place in which corpses will reside.





[3] Interestingly, the famous Greek poet, Homer, said that the Trojans used “unquenchable fire” against the Grecian ships (Iliad 16.123, 194; 1. 599).