Written by Ekkehardt Mueller
How can worms survive in eternal fire? How can we understand Mark 9:48?
Mark 9:48 is taken from Isa 66:24. In that chapter the future salvation of Jerusalem as well as the judgment on unbelievers are depicted. Interestingly enough v. 24 talks about corpses or dead bodies which are affected by the worm and the fire. These are not living beings anymore. The word “worm” is found in the singular and not in the plural. The fire is unquenchable in the sense that nobody can quench it until it has done its work. In Jer 17:27 the destruction of Jerusalem is announced which took place when the Babylonians conquered the city .The fire could not be quenched. But today it does not burn any longer. It burned until it had consumed what can be consumed. After that it was extinguished.
Thus, neither the fire nor the worm are eternal. The text does not talk about a soul either, separated from the body. If such a soul would exist, it would not be affected by worm or fire anyway. On the other hand, the worm cannot be equated with the disembodied soul of humans. The worm is “their worm”, namely those who stood in opposition to God and have now passed away. It is so to speak not an individual worm. The worm is furthermore so closely related to fire that it must be regarded as a means of destruction similar to the fire. Nowhere in the Bible is a worm identified with the soul. Living human beings can be compared to worms (Ps 22:6 and Job 25:6). However, when they die they become food for the worms, as Isaiah stresses in Isa 14:ll. In other words, within the Book of Isaiah “worm” is a term that relates to judgment. It is not a human part that lives on.
Mark 9:48 takes this figure of speech from Isaiah, which points to the unavoidable destruction and applies it to those who do not live according to the will of God. That it is indeed a figure of speech is obvious, since the worm exists in conjunction with fire, which is not possible in our natural world. Jesus connects the worm and the fire to the hell, gehenna. Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew word Hinnom, designating the valley south of Jerusalem (see Jer 7:32-34) in which according to tradition trash and even corpses were burnt. The lake of fire in Rev 20 seems to point to the same reality. The unbelievers are devoured by fire. The lake of fire is the second death (Rev 20:9,10,15). By using this imagery Jesus warns against the consequences of not following him and against the final judgment which will end with the complete annihilation of all evil and all evil ones.
The Bible teaches that humans are mortal. According to 1Tim 6:14-16 God alone is immortal. He bestows immortality as a gift on those who experience the first resurrection (1 Cor 15:51-54). Eternal life is always dependent on Christ and not attainable in separation from him (Rom 6:23; John 3:36; 5:24; 1 John 5:11, 12), not even in hell. The term “soul” normally stands for human beings. The Bible clearly teaches that the soul can and will die (Eze 18:4; James 5:20; Rev 20:4; Ps 89:48; Job 36: 14; Lev 19:8; 21: 1, 11. These texts contain the term “soul.”