Jesus described the state of those in Gehenna with these terrifying words,
“Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
I’ve been comparing the eternal conscious torment (ECT) view with annihilationism in a series of blog posts. How does each view deal with this verse?
The Annihilationist Interpretation
Edward Fudge, the pre-eminent defender of annihilationism, interprets Jesus to mean that the worms and fire are not quenched until the wicked are totally annihilated.
“Worms and fire indicate complete destruction, for the maggot in this picture does not die but continues to feed so long as there is anything to eat. The fire, which is not ‘quenched’ or extinguished, burns until nothing is left of what it is burning” (Two Views of Hell, p. 32).
In other words, Fudge thinks Jesus was emphasizing the unstoppable nature of the process of annihilation. When Jesus said the “worm will not die,” that means it will not die before finishing the job of devouring the wicked dead.
That is also Chris Date’s view, writing on this passage for rethinkinghell.com:
“Their worm, it is promised, will not die in that context, will not be prevented by death from consuming its host. This is an assurance that the abhorrent process of decay will continue unabated until the corpse is completely consumed; the worm is promised no life beyond that.”
The worms will die, and the fire go out, only after the wicked are annihilated, not before.
Is that right? Is that what Jesus meant?
Personally, I think that interpretation is forced and unlikely.
Were people actually concerned the worms could die? Was that a genuine worry that Jesus needed to address? Were people asking, “But Jesus, what if those little guys get full, or tired, or keel over? What’ll God do then?”
I don’t think so.
And were people concerned the fire could be extinguished? By what, exactly? Who has the power to do that? “But Jesus, what if someone came around with, like, a water bucket, and threw it on the fires and put them out? What happens then, huh?”
Again, that seems very unlikely to me.
And I do not see evidence of those concerns in the text.
I have heard every concern about hell imaginable, but I’ve never heard anyone worry the worms might die ahead of schedule.
Since those objections are unlikely, so does the annihilationist interpretation (at least, to me!).
Moreover, I think the annihilationist interpretation is wrong because it directly contradicts what Jesus says. The Lord said the fire is not extinguished. Fudge implies it will be extinguished—right after the bodies are burned up. But that’s not what Jesus says or implies.
The ECT Interpretation
What, then, is the ECT interpretation of Mark 9:48?
According to the ECT view, Jesus was drawing a contrast between this world and Gehenna.
What usually happens in this world is that maggots and fire eventually finish their work, and when they do, they either die or are extinguished.
No meat, no maggots.
No wood, no fire.
Once the fuel is gone, so are the things feeding on it. That’s what happens in this world.
But not in Gehenna.
Gehenna is different.
In Gehenna, the worm will not die and the fire will not go out. Why not? Because there is always something for the worm to eat and always something for the fire to burn.
In other words, Jesus is saying the punishment never ends.
The wicked dead are never consumed.
They continue to exist, continually devoured and burned, suffering eternal conscious torment.
If the ECT view is true, you should expect to find other passages that describe people suffering in a fire that does not go out, and that does not annihilate the people in it.
Are there any?
Consider these two examples.
First, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the Rich Man is tormented in flames but not annihilated by them. The fire does not go out there. It goes on and on tormenting the man.
Second, when you compare Rev 19:20 with 20:10, you see that the Beast and False Prophet have been tormented in flames for a thousand years without being annihilated by them. The fire does not go out there, either.
Doesn’t the ECT interpretation of Mark 9:48 fit that pattern?
I think so.
That’s another reason why I find the ECT interpretation more persuasive than the other options.