Immortal Worms?

Let’s take a look at the worms and fire Jesus spoke about. According to the King James Version, He referred to these destructive forces three times in Mark 9. Here is the passage in full. Verse numbers are included for easy reference:

[43] 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, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

[44] Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

[45] And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:[46] Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

[47] And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

[48] Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Many who hold to the doctrines of the Immortal Soul and Eternal Torment believe that these verses provide evidence that the souls of unsaved sinners will suffer in hell forever. After all, the passage is a direct quotation from the lips of Jesus Himself.

Let’s take a close look at what Jesus said – or did not say.

Please notice that Jesus did not say “soul” in these verses. Not even once. He was clearly talking about physical organs/bodies. In verses 44, 46, and 48 He quoted from Isaiah 66:24, an Old Testament prophecy that also talked about dead bodies rather than souls.

Drawing from that verse in Isaiah, Jesus described two unstoppable, unrelenting forces of destruction. Both are physical in nature, and together they accomplish the complete decomposition of corpses.

Worms (maggots) feast on dead flesh. Note that the worm is the only thing in our passage that does not die.

The worm’s companion in the process of destruction is unquenchable fire. It consumes what the worm leaves behind.

We find the word “hell” in verses 43, 45, and 47. The King James translators chose to use that familiar word rather than “gehenna” – the Greek word used in Mark’s gospel. “Gehenna” would have been particularly meaningful to those who were listening to Jesus.

“Gehenna” was the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem. It had once been the site of child sacrifices – offerings to Molech, the fire god. Some people think it had become a refuse dump where maggots feasted and where fire smoldered continually.

Since Jesus was talking about physical organs and bodies, it was natural for Him to choose a literal, physical location to complete His word picture of death and destruction. Taken as it reads, Mark 9:43-48 deals with concrete realities; bodies and eyes and hands and feet. To some people His words may be shocking in the extreme, but Jesus was pressing home an important lesson: Don’t let anything get in the way of your salvation.

The Rich Man and Lazarus – Fact or Fiction?

The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is told as a parable – a simple story that carries a moral or spiritual lesson. The rich man “fared sumptuously every day” (v. 19). The beggar, Lazarus, subsisted on crumbs (v.20, 21). Both men died and passed to their reward.

The rich man finds himself in hell, tormented by flames. He can see Father Abraham in the far-off distance, with Lazarus “in his bosom.” This is just the opposite of what he expected. In his society, wealth was a mark of God’s approval, while the beggar bore the stigma of divine disfavor.

The rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to cool his tongue (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, pointing out the impossibility of crossing the “great gulf fixed” between them. The rich man then pleads for supernatural intervention on behalf of his surviving brothers: “Send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (v.28).

In typical Middle Eastern reversal-of-fortune stories similar to this one, spirit beings cross the great gulf between the living and the dead, bringing messages from the great beyond. Here is where Jesus surprised His listeners with an unexpected twist. He has Abraham refusing the rich man’s plea. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, “Your brothers have the Bible. If they pay attention to its message they won’t end up like you.”

The rich man pressed his request. “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent” (v.30).

Abraham’s words bring the story to a definitive end. “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (v. 31).

The message to us is clear. God has revealed truth in His written Word. If we are sincere in our relationship with Him, His Word should be sufficient. We don’t need supernatural manifestations or messages from the dead. We have the Bible. That’s enough.

You probably know people who want to believe that by telling this story Jesus was pulling back the veil to give us a glimpse of the afterlife. But Jesus was not relating an actual event. This is fiction, a made-up story like so many of His parables. It is not about death or hell or Abraham’s bosom any more than the parable of the wheat and the tares was about farming.

Two primary arguments have been raised against my suggestion that the story in question is a parable, that it teaches the importance of believing the truth as revealed in God’s written word, and that it does not reveal details of the afterlife.

First, a few people are convinced that the story depicts actual events. They believe the rich man and the beggar are real people, that the scenes Jesus described are literal, and that the rich man was actually able to carry on a dialogue with Father Abraham across the “great gulf fixed” between Abraham’s bosom and Hades. And what is it about the story that makes them certain that it depicts actual events? The fact that the beggar has a name.

Thus far, no one has offered either a biblical or a logical basis for this “name” criterion. There is simply the assertion that the story is real because the beggar has a name. Someone might insist, “It’s the only story Jesus ever told where someone has a name, so it must be a true story.” Must it, really? Is this a fact, or an opinion?

Second, some commenters insist that since the text does not explicitly introduce the story as a parable, it has to be a true account of the experiences of the rich man and the beggar. We have, of course, no biblical doctrine on which to base this particular assumption.

To follow this reasoning, we would have to conclude that the story of the shrewd steward, found earlier in Luke 16, is also factual. As are the stories of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the houses built on rock and sand (Luke 6:48-49), the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-34), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36), the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24), plus two of the three stories in Luke 15. Most of these are widely considered to be parables. You might argue that some of them could be based on real-life situations, but they obviously function as parables – stories told to teach moral or doctrinal lessons. But none of them is introduced as a parable.

While the story is not introduced as a parable, there is another clue that it is actually a parable anyway. Jesus introduces the main character as “A CERTAIN RICH MAN” just as He introduces the main characters in at least seven other parables recorded in Luke:

Luke 12:16 – ” And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of A CERTAIN RICH MAN brought forth plentifully….”

Luke 13:6 – “He spake also this parable; A CERTAIN MAN had a fig tree….”

Luke 14:16 – “Then said he unto him, A CERTAIN MAN made a great supper….”

Luke 15:11 – “And he said, A CERTAIN MAN had two sons….”

Luke 16:1 – “And he said also unto his disciples, There was A CERTAIN RICH MAN….”

Luke 19:12 – “He said therefore, A CERTAIN NOBLEMAN went into a far country….”

Luke 20:9 – “Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A CERTAIN MAN planted a vineyard….”

This common style, used by Jesus in parables, supports the view that the tale of the rich man and Lazarus is also a parable, and not a literal, true story.

If you believe that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is a literal and factual account of actual events, please ask yourself these questions:

After the two men die, do they go to their destinations as “spirits” set free from their bodies? If so, how can the rich man experience physical pain?

If they are disembodied spirits, do they then undergo some sort of bodily resurrection that restored their physical organs so that Lazarus has a finger and the rich man has eyes and a tongue?

Is Abraham’s bosom a literal or geographical place, or is it figurative/symbolic? And what about Abraham himself? Has he been resurrected…or is he a figurative/symbolic character?

If this is a true story, how can both the rich man and Lazarus receive their rewards before the second coming of Jesus? In the light of this, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words in Revelation 22:12? (“Behold, I am coming quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”)

Where on Earth is Hell?

Scientists tell us the earth is made of four basic layers: the outer crust, which is relatively thin; the mantle, a solid layer nearly 1800 miles thick; and a core with an outer liquid layer surrounding a solid center.

But according to some religious teachings, the interior regions of the earth belong to the realm of the supernatural and are therefore inaccessible to mortals. They picture that deep subterranean world as the place of punishment for the unrighteous dead – a burning inferno in which deserving sinners are tormented eternally.

Before we add these contrasting views of the earth to the list of supposedly irreconcilable differences between science and religion, let’s consider what the Bible really teaches about hell. ls it a fiery place of present and eternal torment for those who have died outside of saving grace?

“Hell” occurs 31 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. In every case it is translated from the Hebrew “sheol.” But “sheol,” which occurs some 65 times, is translated by the word “grave” 31 times. (“Pit” accounts for the remaining three occurrences of “sheol.”)

There would be no conflict or confusion over “sheol” were it not for the preconceived ideas so many of us have about hell. Contrary to opinions held by many, the Old Testament NEVER describes hell as a place of fiery torture.

Because the common concept of hell is so far from the meaning of “sheol,” some modem translations of the Old Testament, including the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version, avoid using the word “hell.”

Write your own Bible?

If you believe that we all have immortal souls that can never die, you may want to publish your own version of the Bible and leave out Romans 6:23.

The King James Version says it so clearly that you could hardly misunderstand it: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

These words from St. Paul present the two distinctly opposite outcomes for human beings. Death or eternal life.

Unrepentant sinners, ie., the lost, will not end up living eternally. Anywhere. In any condition. Paul makes death the exact opposite of eternal life.

He’s not talking about this temporary death we all die when our bodies give out for one reason or another. In Romans 6:23, Paul is talking about what happens after the great day of judgment (see Revelation 20:11, 12).

He’s talking about what happens after lost sinners suffer under the sentence of divine justice, according to their own evil deeds.

He’s talking about the ultimate end of sinners who must pay the penalty for their own sins.
It’s what the prophet John calls “the second death” (Revelation 20:14). Nothing survives. It’s oblivion.

“The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” No immortal soul is required. It’s a gift. Everlasting life is the eternal outcome for all who recognize their need and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

I’m going to leave Romans 6:23 right where it is.