by Al Maxey

Issue #68 ------- September 10, 2003
The righteous man takes his life in his
hand whenever he utters the truth.

--- George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)


Mighty Munching Maggots
Understanding the Undying Worm

In speaking of Gehenna, Jesus describes it as a place "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). Some versions repeat this phrase in verses 44 and 46, although there is little textual evidence for such. Most translations, based on a superior Greek text, include it only in verse 48. What is Jesus suggesting here? Is He really describing a place where maggots are immortal? Or is this merely an allusion to symbols and figures found in the OT writings? I believe the latter is clearly the case. Or, to use the wording of the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, this passage "is purely figurative" (vol. 5, p. 969).

Jesus is referring to the prophecy of Isaiah. In the final statement of this book of prophecy we find a judgment scene, and we see the joy of God's people as they behold His righteous judgment on their behalf against His (and their) enemies.

Isaiah 66:15-16
For behold, the Lord will come in fire and
His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His
anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames
of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment
by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and
those slain by the Lord will be many.

Please note here that the text says the Lord will SLAY these ungodly ones, it does not declare the Lord will TORTURE them. Notice also that the redeemed will be able to witness the RESULT of this destruction carried out by God against the wicked:

Isaiah 66:24
Then they shall go forth and look on the
corpses of men who have transgressed
against Me. For their worm shall not die,
and their fire shall not be quenched; and they
shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.

Please note once again that there is absolutely NO MENTION of the wicked being tortured alive forever and ever!! Indeed, just the opposite. The only thing the redeemed behold are CORPSES. The wicked are DEAD. They have been SLAIN by the fury of God's fire and sword. Thus, all that the redeemed see is visible evidence of death and destruction. It is one huge scene of abhorrence and shame. It is a giant garbage dump composed of the dead corpses of the wicked. They are not writhing in pain and screaming out in anguish. They are not being tortured in endless misery. They are dead!!

What does all of this represent? Of what is this a figure? If one studies the history of armies and warfare during ancient times one will discover a very common practice of those who were the conquerors. They would lead the people they had set free (and even those they had captured) out to the scene of the battle, and there they would make them look upon the bodies of the defeated army. In some cases this was to strike fear into the hearts of the conquered people, letting them know their army was gone and could no longer fight for them. In other cases, it was to instill disgust in the hearts of those who beheld these slain ones. It also served as an occasion of joy for those who had been liberated from the ravages of this now defeated and destroyed army. The liberated would behold the lifeless corpses of those who had oppressed them, and they would see these slain ones being consumed by maggots (the "worms") and by the fires that had been set to burn up the corpses so as to prevent the spread of disease. "Corruption (the worm) and burning (fire) are mentioned together as the two most common ways of disposing of dead bodies" (Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7, p. 454).

Barnes is quick to point out, however, that this is figurative language, even though it draws from literal historical practice. He writes, "It is not to be supposed that there will be any 'real' worm in hell." It merely represented the truth that the consumption would continue until the destruction was complete. Kittel writes, "The worm does not die until it has completed its work and the bones as well as the flesh of the dead are consumed, so that all hope of restoration to life is extinguished. The expression thus denotes total destruction."

W.E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of OT & NT Words, stresses that "the statement signifies the exclusion of hope of restoration, the punishment being eternal." "Eternal," that is, in the sense that the resultant state -- death, utter destruction and consumption -- will never, ever be reversed. Once dead, they are dead forever and ever. In other words, our Lord is referring to the final punishment of the wicked, and He is indicating it will be a destruction and death so complete and total that there will never, ever be any hope of restoration to life. The wicked will be utterly consumed by actions that can't be stymied by the victims (which is the significance of the worm being "undying" and the fire being "unquenchable"); the "worm" and "fire" will continue unabated as/until they consume completely that which is committed to them.

In commenting on the passage in Isaiah 66:24, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states, "A comparison with Jeremiah 7:32 - 8:3 strongly suggests the prophet has the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, in mind. Mark 9:48, in its context, applies this to eternal punishment" (vol. 6, p. 354). I agree that Jesus has this location outside the walls of Jerusalem in mind, and that He is using it figuratively to convey a message of doom for the godless.

Part of this valley was committed to use as the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It is reported by writers who lived at that time that there were always fires burning or smoldering in the dump, and that numerous maggots ("worms") could be found there consuming the waste. At times notorious criminals were cast DEAD into the garbage outside the walls of Jerusalem (sounds like a scene in Revelation, doesn't it? --- the wicked being cast into Gehenna which is outside the walls of the New Jerusalem). The bodies of these criminals were allowed to lie there (instead of receiving a proper burial, something cherished by the Jews) and to be consumed by the maggots and the fires that were always present in that foul and loathsome place. It was a scene of abhorrence and shame. Few wanted to end their days cast into the garbage to become food for maggots and fire.

This is the image Jesus is presenting to us in His statement. A day will come when the Lord will appear in judgment against His enemies. He will SLAY them with fire and sword, and their dead bodies will be cast into the garbage dump (Gehenna) outside the walls of the New Jerusalem. There the righteous will witness the effects of this great destruction --- the dead will be piled high in testimony of the victory of God over the forces arrayed against Him, and these corpses shall be utterly consumed so that they will never pose a threat to the people of God again.

Please note that absolutely nothing whatsoever is said, either by Jesus or Isaiah, about the bodies of the wicked being either conscious, alive or endlessly tortured. They are dead. They are corpses. They have been slain. The only thing mentioned which "does not die" is the worm. If someone is looking for something immortal in these passages, the only thing he might find is maggots!! Both the fire and the worms are said to be enduring. Such is NOT stated, however, with reference to their victims.

Even if one allows that maggots might truly be immortal (which, of course, they are not), it says nothing about that upon which they feast. Indeed, the OT Scriptures, from which the "worm" figure is drawn, declare these maggots feast upon corpses .... not upon the living. These are really not difficult figures to interpret if one will simply take note of the type of literature one is seeking to interpret, if one will further recognize that the interpretation of many of these figures is to be found within the inspired writings themselves, and not in the false fancies of paganism, and if one will employ even a small degree of common sense.

A careful exegesis of these passages in which mention is made of the "undying worm" will quickly reveal to the serious student of Scripture that they do not support the false doctrine of perpetual torture of the unredeemed. Indeed, sound exegesis demonstrates just the opposite reality. They portray the utter consummation and ultimate elimination of the unredeemed.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Thanks for your great articles. They are a godsend. An additional note concerning the subject of immersion. If I am not mistaken, all examples of immersion in the conversion stories in the book of Acts seem to indicate that the converts were immersed immediately. We have no example of anyone waiting two or three days, or even a month, before they were immersed. Did not Ananias say to Saul, "Why DELAY, arise and be immersed"? Simple actions speak volumes in correcting or directing our spiritual thinking.

From a Reader in Alabama:

I've never met anyone with a mind like yours. The years of trying to find a way around Scripture has made you mad. I don't think it's possible for you to find your way back to the truth. You have been so defiled with liberalism and tearing down the Lord's Body that you are pitiful. I pray for your soul, that somebody might do or say something that will change you for the better. Read the New Testament instead of Max Lucado's book and you will see the difference from a saint and a sinner.

From a Preacher in Lubbock, Texas:

Apostate Al, Why won't you just go ahead and say it? You do not believe that one must be baptized in order to be saved. Stop beating around the bush trying to "flimflam" folks -- be a man and just say it. Perhaps, in the next issue of your Defections, your article can be -- "Baptism Is Unnecessary For Salvation."

From a Reader in Montreal, Canada:

It's been a privilege to read your Reflections and share time with you. I absolutely love getting home from work at midnight and, after grabbing a snack, going to the computer and seeing if any more Reflections have arrived. What a joy to hear your words. If there is any encouragement, any joy, then let that be your strength as the Holy Spirit guides you.

From a Preacher in California:

Thanks brother, I appreciate your thinking. Your mind is good and therefore makes you dangerous. I mean that as a compliment as to your thinking, but also the great responsibility you have in what you write.

From a Family in Alabama:

Attention: Elders, Cuba Ave. Church of Christ
Gentlemen, Enclosed is a check for $30. Please apply this to the expenses of brother Maxey's Reflections web site. His work is such a great blessing to us. This is a small token of our appreciation of his work. May God continue to bless your work is our prayer.

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