Diet of Worms
I had a great discussion with someone after an evening at a WYSOCs course recently. He was understandably keen to show me the error of my heretical ways, and one of the passages he brought up was Mark 9:47-48:
47 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,
48 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'
His accompanying question was as follows: doesn't this prove that the misery and judgement of those who reject God will be eternal? I had no answer to give him on the night, although I felt confident there would be more to it in the fine print.
There is a saying in the legal profession, “hard cases make bad law”. Perhaps more appropriate to theology would be “hard verses make bad doctrine”. The first thing to remember as we approach this verse is that it is the only time these mysterious, immortal hell-worms are mentioned in the New Testament. Nevertheless, this hasn't stopped centuries of speculation as to their identity; apparently there have even been suggestions that the 6ft tube worms found near undersea volcanic vents are these very monsters.
In this verse Jesus is quoting from his favourite Old Testament book, Isaiah. It's the one he asked for at every synagogue he visited. But before we get there, let's look at the immediate context. Jesus has just recommended that you tear your eye out if it leads you to sin. Most Christians would probably admit to being tempted by things they've seen; new shiny toys or an attractive stranger. But few of them have torn out their eyes – why is this? Because they immediately recognise that Jesus is using symbolic language, as have teachers, preachers and prophets for centuries. And yet in the very next (and closely related) verse, we're getting all excited about immortal invertebrates.
The identity of these worms is less Tremors, more primary school science lesson. The word simply refers to maggots, those very common but still fairly gross creatures that eat decaying matter, and after a few days turn into flies and go off to lay more maggot eggs. It's the less glamorous side to the circle of life.
Is God going to create a superbreed of maggots arrested in their pupae stage, never to earn their wings? And what about the unquenchable fire? Looking at the relevant passage in Isaiah almost raises more questions than answers (Isaiah 66:24). Because it seems this terrible plight is reserved for… dead bodies. So does that mean God is not only going to make genetically modified perma-maggots, but also somehow preserve corpses in a state of perpetual decay? It's all very confusing.
Let's take a step back and see what else Jesus is referring to. In this passage, “hell” should be translated (or rather, left untranslated) Gehenna. Jesus was referring to a real place, well known for being both the place where pagans practiced their child sacrifice and then, after it had been deliberately desecrated by Josiah to put an end to this practice, as a place of burning rubbish. But does this mean that he was warning his listeners of a literal flaming dump they would be bodily thrown onto? Surely it means that to the same extent that he was instructing them to literally pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands. What he is doing is using the instant association of Gehenna with judgement: you can have a little pain now, or a lot of pain later. You can either deal quickly with the problem despite the apparent loss, or you can let it drag you to an altogether worse place.
In the next verse he uses a cryptic phrase, “everyone will be salted with fire.” What does salt do? Preserve. What does fire do? Destroy. Everyone will go through a process in which they are purified, refined, the worthy stuff kept and the nasty stuff burned away. You can choose to either put yourself through that now (in which case, the Holy Spirit is the fire which refines you) or you can avoid it until the last moment, when you risk being all but consumed.
But what about that original question: doesn't it suggest an eternal fate, even if the worms and the fire are symbolic? Well, not really. The most reasonable and obvious meaning in terms of the worms is that, while there is food for the worms, they'll keep reproducing and doing what they do best. In the same way, Scotland could be said to be the land “where the midge dies not”; it would simply be a poetic way to suggest that there is a ready supply of them, and no one will go unbitten for lack of midges. Similarly, the fires that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah were “unquenchable”, in the sense that if you wanted to lessen the judgement they experienced by way of dousing the flames, you would fail. But to my knowledge, none of the various “unquenchable” fires of Old Testament judgement are still burning today, which should give us reason to think about exactly what is and isn't meant by the term.
In conclusion, Jesus is using symbolic language to refer to the possibility of a real and terrible-sounding judgement, drawing on the prophetic imagery in the Old Testament well known to his audience. But it does not require us to picture some Dante-esque inferno; it is a warning of the judgement that must come to all in one form or another; the reality that all “flesh”, all carnality, will be consumed. And in the same way that the physical Valley of Gehenna no longer has burning rubbish and rotting corpses but lush and peaceful gardens, spiritual Gehenna will eventually serve it's purpose in bringing righteousness to all of God's creation.
A final note: In this verse Jesus uses metaphor, that in turn references a prophecy, that in turn uses catastrophic and arguably hyperbolic language. It was always going to take a bit of reading and careful analysis to make sense of. Why is it that people are so keen to read this verse as literally as possible, but when they encounter numerous verses that state God will have all to be saved, that every knee will bow and tongue confess, that Jesus will drag all men to himself, that he is the saviour of all the world etc. they insist these fairly clear statements must be rendered meaningless with caveats and context?