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 [Greek: gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43)
Strangely enough, one of the “proofs” offered by some authors that most of mankind is destined to be tortured forever in an everburning Hell is the biblical references to “worms that don’t die.” Jesus mentions such worms in the passage above. Surely that must indicate eternal torture, if only by worms!
Yes, to many over the centuries, these undying worms have seemed to imply a conscious, tangible, but somehow disembodied “soul” being swarmed over and tormented by supernatural worms, a horrific mental picture. You might say it is somewhat akin to the kind of torture inflicted on enemies by some aboriginal tribes in centuries past–burying them alive up to their necks, and then setting swarms of insects such as fire-ants on them.
Artists and authors depicting the torments of Hell have often included “worms that dieth not” as one of the agents of torture of human souls. Here is a brief excerpt from a modern version (1992), posted on the Web as part of the description of the author’s alleged vision of Hell, and a “song” that she claimed to have heard there, sung by a “fallen preacher.” The purpose of this posting was to encourage people to turn to Jesus as Savior and avoid this type of fate.
I saw a naked man covered in flaming worms that cannot Die! He turned to me and heaved a deep sigh as flames surrounded him and he sung this song in an emotionless voice! A voice that held NO emotion only the pain and torment he was in! Flaming WORMS that looked like Snakes! were crawling in and OUT of EVERY OPENING OF HIS BODY! His EYES, EARS, NOSE, FRONT, REAR, I repeat EVERY OPENING! without getting graphically gross here! The screams yet echo in my mind as I am writing this down! … Here are a few lyrics from the song: Flaming worms crawl in, flaming worms crawl out in the belly button and out the mouth! In the front and out the rear ! In the eyes and out the ears! We scream for mercy yet NO one cares or hears! Red hot pain in my blood rivers of feces, lava, vomit and blood it looks like a flood! Flames everywhere yet they cast NO light! All I have is every kind of pain, terror, torture and fright! I am a Citizen in HELL!
Was Jesus really referring to worms that were themselves supernaturally immortal, living eternally to torment the souls of the lost? Did His few brief words in Mark really indicate that this scenario and others similar to it, with varied tortures, are playing out by the billions daily as human souls suffer in Hell? Does the Bible provide verification that the “vision” described above from the Web was truly from God, and reflects a biblical view of the nature of Hell … or was this vision from another source?
What many theologians throughout the ages seem to have ignored is that Jesus was quoting from Isaiah, and the imagery was one of a trash heap, not a supernatural underworld. Speaking of a time after the beginning of the Millennium, Isaiah wrote:
“From one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathesome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:23‑24)
In the original description in Isaiah, these worms are connected to dead bodies, which people go “look at” somewhere in the physical world, not supernatural “souls” in some hidden underworld.
The Hebrew word translated “worm” in Isaiah doesn’t refer to earthworms, but to maggots, the larvae of insects such as houseflies. On a trash heap, maggots would breed perpetually. Was Isaiah indicating that God would miraculously preserve the dead bodies of the rebellious continually throughout eternity, along with preserving the individual maggots feeding on them– making them “immortal worms”? Or was he speaking in highly figurative language indicating that the rebellious would not be given a “decent burial,” and their bodies would be exposed for all to see—and to “loathe”—while they were consumed by maggots and their flesh and bones burned by the fires until they were no more?
A swarm of maggots will continue to breed and feed on decaying matter until there is nothing left. The individual maggots may live, propagate, and die, but to the human eye, “the maggots” feasting on a carcass don’t die off. The swarm continues until the job is finished.
Actually, whatever Isaiah had in mind, whether literal or figurative, whether temporary or miraculously age-lasting, one thing this passage does NOT speak of is “souls” being tormented by these maggots and this fire in an unseen spiritual world of the kind of Hell envisioned by most people.
The description is of dead bodies, physical fire, and living maggots, all above ground, being seen by living humans. There is NO mention of conscious torture here, NO mention of disembodied souls, NO mention of the Devil sitting on a Hellish throne watching in glee over such torture.
Some would suggest that, even if Isaiah was making a physical reference, Jesus used this imagery as a “metaphor” for an unseen Hell where supernatural worms torture souls. But if so, there are no other passages in the Bible that make this connection. All of the depictions of such “Hellish worms” in art and literature are not based on any biblical passage, but on the fanciful, often ghoulish imaginations of the authors and artists.
(For more on this maggot-ridden trash heap, which is referred to in the Bible as gehenna, see the NonDante blog entry Digging Deeper into Hell.)