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   Immortal Worms?

 

Strangely enough, one of the standard biblical "proof texts" that implies to many an eternal torturing of human souls in an ever-burning Hell is an obscure reference by Jesus to a worm that does not die:

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [Greek: Gehenna], where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:47-48)

To many over the centuries, this has seemed to imply a conscious but 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 heads and then setting swarms of insects such as fire-ants on them. 

Artists and authors depicting the torments of Hell have often included these worms. 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! (www.amightywind.com/hell/citizenhell.htm)

Was Jesus really referring to worms that were themselves supernaturally immortal and "die not," 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 was truly from God, and reflects a biblical view of the nature of Hell ... or was this vision from another source?

What many commentators and Bible teachers throughout the ages seem to have ignored is that Jesus was quoting from an Old Testament prophetic passage, that speaks of a time on the physical Earth after the return of Christ and the beginning of the Millennium:

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 loathsome to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24)

Outside the ancient city of Jerusalem was the Valley of Hinnom, English for the term Gehenna. In Old Testament times it had been a place where sacrifices were made by the rebellious Israelites to pagan gods--perhaps even the place where they sacrificed their children to Moloch in fire. By the first century, it had been turned into the city dump. Refuse of all kinds was tossed there, including animal carcasses, making it a huge, stinking heap. The bodies of criminals were also tossed on the heap. If Joseph of Arimathea would not have requested from Pilate the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, it may well have been tossed there. Fires burned in the valley continually to consume the refuse, and maggots (KJV: worms) bred there perpetually.

Was Isaiah indicating that God would miraculously preserve the dead bodies of the rebellious continually throughout eternity, along with the individual maggots feeding on them? Does "their fire will not be quenched" indicate an eternally-burning fire? Or was he perhaps 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 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, and even then may just move on to the next source of food.

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 torture here, no mention of disembodied souls, no mention of the Devil.

Some would suggest that Jesus used this imagery as a "metaphor" for an unseen spiritual Hell where spiritual worms feast on and torture souls and spiritual fire torments the unsaved.  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, such as the descriptions in the writings of Dante in The Inferno, and the art illustrating editions of that work, are not based on any biblical passage, but on the fanciful imaginations of the authors and artists.

If one wishes to clearly establish from the Bible itself a doctrine of an ever-burning Hell of eternal torment for all who are not saved,
one will need to search for other scriptures to support it.

 

 

This site contains a collection of articles, on the topic of Hell and the Afterlife, that may each be used independently for research purposes. But it also is designed as a systematic, sequential overview of the whole topic, which can be read like a book.

For those who would like to take advantage of this perspective of the content, the articles are arranged in the Reading Guide as they would appear as chapters in a book, along with a few reference chapters at the end such as would appear in a book Appendix. 

Use the links below to go to the next article, previous article, or first article
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PLEASE NOTE:
No single short article can comprehensively cover any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have questions or concerns regarding the material in this article, be sure to first read through the site FAQ before writing to the author. It may already specifically address the very points you are wondering about.

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references in this and other articles on the
Is It True What They Say About Hell? website are from the New International Version (NIV).

 

All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

All website content 2007, Pam Dewey and Common Ground Christian Ministries

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