A Bible student writes, “I am sympathetic to your position of total destruction instead of everlasting conscious torment. But how do you explain the verse which says: ‘where the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched?'”
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The phrase you cite first comes from Isaiah 66:24, which portrays the righteous going out of the city of Jerusalem, following God’s final judgment on the wicked, and viewing their dead corpses in the city “dump” — where maggots (“the worm”) and smouldering garbage fire (“the fire”) race to consume them. It is a scene, Isaiah says, of disgust or abhorrence (v. 24). Note that the picture includes dead corpses, not living beings. It involves shame, not pain. These are the “corpses of those whom the Lord has slain.” Throughout the Bible, the figure of “unquenchable” fire refers to fire which cannot be resisted, and which thus completely BURNS UP whatever is put into it (Matt. 3:12; Ezek. 20:47-48; Amos 5:5-6).
During intertestamental times, this language came to be associated with the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna, the word translated “hell” in the New Testament. Gehenna is an actual place outside Jerusalem, which I viewed with my own eyes in June 1999 during a pilgrimage to Israel. Gehenna was once the site of child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) and later the city “dump” for garbage and dead carcasses (Jer. 7:31-33; 19:2-13). It was a repugnant and disgusting place in biblical times, crawling with maggots and filled with sickening sights and smells.
The Jewish literature from between the Testaments (the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls) uses the word “Gehenna” to speak of the place of final punishment, although with some diversity of meaning. Most of these writers reveal an expectation of total and eternal annihilation, although one passage in apocryphal Judith clearly says the wsicked will endure conscious torment forever and a few texts in the Pseudepigrapha might suggest that fate as well.
When Jesus borrows language from Isaiah 66:24 for his own teaching (Mk. 9:48), we must read the Scripture he quotes if we wish to understand his meaning. That biblical text clearly describes total destruction, not conscious torment. Since Jesus says nothing to change the original meaning, but rather confirms it in other places (see Matt. 10:28), we are safe to leave it just as it stands.