What Does the Symbolism of “hell” Really Mean?
So, what does the imagery mean if not a place of eternal torment? There is a principle of biblical interpretation that difficult passages in the Bible should be interpreted in light of passages that are clearer. This lends us insight into the correct meanings of these passages.
Let’s now thoughtfully apply this principle to the imagery and symbolism being used in the Bible.
Fire and Worms
I think it is safe to say that the current understanding of the fire and worm imagery in describing the Valley of Hinnom has not applied the principle of interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture. Instead, people have applied very simplistic natural interpretations to the imagery, rather than spiritual interpretations based off of the full counsel of Scripture. The reason I say this is that many people seem to assume that fire simply symbolizes pain and suffering. But where does this idea come from? It does not seem to be from the Bible since the Bible, as far as I can tell, never uses fire to symbolize pain.
So, why have so many concluded that suffering is the meaning of the imagery of fire and worms? Well, people know naturally that fire is painful if touched, so they interpret the fire to mean pain. And they know worms are yucky, particularly if they are eating your flesh, so they interpret them to refer to just how awful “hell” will be. And being eaten by worms would probably be painful too, so worms also are thought to signify pain. Fair enough, on the surface, but we don’t want to interpret things solely at a surface level. Rather, we should be like the Bereans, who diligently examined the Scriptures to evaluate claims (Acts 17:11).
So what do these symbols actually symbolize in Scripture? By the way, if you are thinking these are not symbolic, but literal, this produces a plethora of interpretive problems that are very difficult, if not impossible, to coherently defend (dark fire, worms and people that are being burned but never die and are never consumed, a lake of fire that is also a valley and also outer darkness and also the second death etc.) And don’t go down into the pit of arguing that they are actual, literal, spiritual worms because that’s just a contradiction in terms that defies plausibility. So now that we’ve laid that to rest, let’s get back to the question of the meaning of the imagery.
In the Bible, fire is very frequently a symbol of purification from sin. You may have heard of “Refiner’s fire.” There’s even a popular song sung in churches called Refiner’s Fire. Let’s look at this concept in the Bible.
And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
1 Peter 1:7 (ESV)
So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 48:10 (ESV)
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
“Therefore wait for Me,” declares the Lord,
“For the day when I rise up as a witness.
Indeed, My decision is to gather nations,
To assemble kingdoms,
To pour out on them My indignation,
All My burning anger;
For all the earth will be devoured
By the fire of My zeal.
“For then I will give to the peoples purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of the Lord,
To serve Him shoulder to shoulder.
Although some Bible verses seem to focus on the purifying effects of fire on certain chosen people, this final passage in Zephaniah makes it clear that this same principle applies to all of the earth and its inhabitants. The result of God's fiery zeal and devouring of the entire world is the purification of all so that all call on the name of the Lord and serve Him side by side. The fact that God's fire is meant to purify everyone is further confirmed in Mark 9:49 where Jesus encourages us to pursue righteousness "for everyone will be salted with fire." It is critical to notice that Jesus says that everyone will be salted with fire so this cannot reasonably be interpreted as referring to eternal damnation. This seems to clearly indicate a process of purification and refinement, since both salt and fire are symbolically used in this way in the Bible. Interestingly, this statement comes at the end of Jesus' discussion of the fire that is not quenched and the worm that does not die, as part of one of the favorite texts of those who desire to promote belief in endless hell. This passage, however, is replete with figurative and hyperbolic language (plucking out eyes and cutting of hands if they cause sin, for example). So, we must ask what the symbolism of being salted with fire symbolizes and not assume that it is literal. Since Jesus is, in context, referring to the unquenchable fire and stating that everyone will be salted with it, it is apparent that He is referring to purification and refinement. This is why He says (in Luke 12:49), "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" The Savior of the world is certainly not wishing to kindle damnation for everyone, but rather the fire of God's love that will transform the world into the kingdom of Heaven.
There are also many other examples of this concept. I’d encourage you to look them up (Proverbs 17:3, Psalm 66:10-12, Matthew 3:10-11, Jeremiah 9:7, Revelation 3:18, 1 Peter 4:12, Isaiah 1:25, Ezekiel 22:18-22, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Daniel 11:35, Isaiah 4:4 , Job 23:10, and more).
Think of all the “fire and brimstone” messages you’ve heard. Do any of them echo the sentiment clearly delineated by Scripture? You might be thinking that we’ve discussed fire so far, but what about the brimstone? Consider the purpose of the hot coal in Isaiah 6:5-7:
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Let’s think about this reasonably. The concept of fire as refining, cleansing and atoning is found throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New. If the Bible uses the concept of fire over and over again as a symbol of refinement and purification, referencing an understanding of how fire is used to purify metals by burning away impurities, why do we assume that it simply symbolizes pain and suffering? If the Bible tells us the meaning of the symbol, why do we interpret it differently? Doing so seems seriously misguided.
Consider the significance of fire in the baptism of Christ as described by John the Baptist:
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
What are we to believe? Does Christ baptize us with eternal torment and pain in hell? What does the fire signify? If we use the Scriptures to interpret the meaning, it becomes clear. It is refinement, purification, and salvation from our sins!
In addition, God Himself is frequently said to be a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, Exodus 24:17, Deuteronomy 4:24, Deuteronomy 9:3, etc.) Are we supposed to believe that God is a place of eternal damnation and suffering, with no hope of release? I think not! Instead, we see that this is symbolic of His glory and power, and can also be descriptive of the destruction of wickedness by God. It must be asked, of course, what God (as a consuming fire) consumes. If it is wicked people in their entirety then we are talking about annihilation or simply temporal death, not eternal conscious torment, because something consumed by fire does not, by definition, continue to exist in its present state. If it is the wickedness in them, however, then we still see the destruction of the wicked because they no longer exist as such, but rather as friends of God. This idea is not new; it is rather common in patristic thinking. Here is just one example from one of the most influential church fathers:
Jerome, commenting on Zephaniah 3:8-10
The nations are gathered to the Judgment, . . . that on them may be poured out all the wrath of the fury of the Lord, and this in pity, and with a design to heal— for the nations being assembled for judgment, in order that wrath may be poured on them; not in part but in whole, both wrath and fury being united; then whatever is earthly is consumed in the whole world . . in order that every one may return to the of the Lord, that in Jesus' Name every knee may bow, and every tongue may confess that He is Lord... All God's enemies shall perish, not that they shall cease to exist but cease to be enemies. (St. Jerome, as quoted by Charles Pridgeon, page 288)
Notice that the consuming fire of God's wrath and fury consumes all that is earthly or wicked in the whole world. It is designed to heal by burning away all evil from mankind so that everyone will bow and confess before God, as the scriptures guarantee. This destroys the wicked in a manner worthy of God. It is in love that He puts an end to evil by transforming us all into his friends. Indeed, this is why "the wicked will be no more" (Psalm 37:10). An eternal hell does not cause the wicked to be no more, but rather to exist perpetually.
It is also fascinating to note that in the only place in the Bible (to my knowledge) where the symbolism of unquenchable fire is explained, it refers to it as love. This is consistent with Jerome's understanding above, since God consumes evil completely because of His great love for us.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
…for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
In Greek, there are several different words for love: eros was erotic, romantic love, philia was brotherly love, etc. Since Song of Solomon is considered to be an erotic poem, it might be assumed that eros is being used here. Significantly, however, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) renders love in this passage as agape. In the New Testament, agape is the selfless love of God that we are called to emulate as followers of Christ. Agape is the fire that cannot be quenched, according to this passage!
Furthermore, fire doesn’t just refine; it also illuminates. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and led Israel through the wilderness by a pillar of fire. And when Jesus spoke of being a city on a hill whose light shines so that others will come to glorify God, He was speaking of fire (electric lighting did not yet exist). Fire casts light on who we are, dispelling our myths of self-sufficiency and our pretenses of self-righteousness. It shows us where we are and shows us where we are heading. God as a consuming fire and even the lake of fire itself could be doing their work of refinement partially as a result of this illumination. We cannot hide our faults or pretend our motives were pure when the darkness is dispelled by such a blaze. So, we must come to terms with them, to experience the sting of conscience when pricked by the truth, and then follow the light out of the depths we sunk to.
In light of all of this evidence on the meaning of fire's symbolism, thinking that fire is just something that causes pain seems childish, because it fails to account for its rich biblical meanings. As far as I can tell, fire is never used in the Bible as a symbol for pain, so it is rather curious that many people cling to this as its only possible meaning. Please feel free to let me know if you can find a verse where fire is clearly metaphorical for pain. I have yet to find a single one.
Consider the words of the apostle Paul:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
We need to think deeply, consistently, and maturely about the Bible, not imposing on it doctrines or interpretations that do not belong. We need to heed Jesus’ words and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37 and elsewhere).
The Lake of Fire
Now, keeping in mind what we have just learned about the true biblical symbolism of fire, let’s examine where the wicked are placed after they are judged, the lake of fire.
Revelation 14:9-12 (NIV) with Greek
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented (basanisthēsetai/βασανισθήσεται) with burning sulfur (theiō/θείῳ) in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment (basanismou/βασανισμοῦ) will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship (proskynountes/προσκυνοῦντες) the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.
Recall from our earlier analysis of the words translated "for ever and ever," (aiōnas aiōnōn) that these do not denote an eternal time period, but rather mean "ages" that can have a significant range of duration. The literal translation of aiōnas aiōnōn is "ages of ages" because aiōnōn is in the genitive case (indicating possession). In other words, the translation "for ever and ever" is not accurate and obscures the actual meaning of the text.
Because the phrase aiōnas aiōnōn literally means "ages of ages," it is reasonable to infer that the duration of time spent in the lake of fire varies according to the nature of the person or thing being placed there. Those deserving of more corrective punishment will spend more ages (out of the total number of ages) in it. Indeed for some things (like death and Hades that aren’t personal beings at all), it is at least a possibility that they are simply burned up and destroyed since they serve no purpose and need no redemption in the coming age. This seems likely considering that 1 Corinthians 15:26 tells us that "the last enemy that will be destroyed is death."
With that in mind, let’s consider the imagery and language used in this passage rationally.
Although the word torment likely evokes the concept of cruel, purposeless torture for a modern reader in English, it is not likely that this was the idea that would have come to mind for an ancient speaker of Greek. For example, basanisthēsetai is a future tense conjugation of basanízō. Consider the first entry for basanízō in Thayer's Greek Lexicon:
1. properly, to test (metals) by the touchstone.
Basanízō comes from the word "básanos – originally, a black, silicon-based stone used as "a touchstone" to test the purity of precious metals (like silver and gold)" (HELPS Word-studies). Bankers in antiquity used touchstones for moneychanging since pure gold left a distinctive mark when rubbed on the básanos (DuBois 1991). Consider now the abundant biblical imagery of God as a consuming fire who refines his people like a refiner of precious metals. Coupled with the concept of basanízō as a test for authenticity and purity of metals that are in the process of being refined, we see a perfect biblical metaphor. People are refined by fire and tested for purity. The aim of refining gold, of course, is to ultimately obtain a pure gold by melting away impurities. Given the rich biblical symbolism of fire as purifying, this interpretation of basanízō as testing the fire's effect seems most reasonable and consistent.
Nevertheless, it must be asked why the term "torment" is used at all for basanízō. Page Dubois, Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC San Diego, succintly summarizes the evolution of this word:
The ancient Greek word for torture is basanos. It means first of all the touchstone used to test gold for purity; the Greeks extended its meaning to denote a test or trial to determine whether something or someone is real or genuine. It then comes to mean also inquiry by torture, "the question," torture (DuBois 1991).
So we see that the ancient Greeks used básanos metaphorically to denote a test or trial (not necessarily torment) to determine genuineness or authenticity. Although it eventually came to also be used of torture, it is important to note that even when básanos was used in this sense (which was not its only connotation), it meant torture for judicial examination in order to arrive at the truth. In Athens, for example, orators would issue a challenge to básanos, asking to torture a master's slaves in order to force them to testify truthfully about a legal matter related to their master (Horton 2013). In such a case, the slave was not necessarily implicated in any crime, but was simply believed to possibly have some pertinent information about the case. It was believed that slaves did not have the character to testify honestly but that "truth was hidden in the body of the slave and had to be extracted by physical coercion" (Tapia 2015). So the purpose of básanos in ancient Athens was not punitive, but rather to arrive at truth. Given that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), it seems very likely that the fiery trial of the lake of fire serves to expose not only the truth of the sinner's sin, but also the truth of Jesus' love and atoning sacrifice "for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). Divorcing the meaning of básanos from its original cultural context obscures these nuances and leads modern readers to misinterpret its good purpose.
This good purpose of testing and trial as refining is well-established biblically, even for believers.
1 Peter 4:12-13 (NKJV)
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
1 Peter 4:1-2 (NKJV)
Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.
So we see that suffering, trial and testing serve a good purpose for the believer, cleansing us from our sinful natures and making us more like Christ. Sanctification is an ongoing process that involves these unpleasant elements. Why should it be assumed that the suffering of the lost in the lake of fire does not serve the same purpose? The consistent biblical symbolism of fire paired with an deep understanding of básanos (and its derivatives) as trial and testing for purity, gives us assurance that this good purpose is not only for the few. Instead, it is for all people, for Jesus came "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10), giving His life as a ransom for all people (1 Timothy 2:6).
The image of brimstone in the lake of fire also has profound meaning in ancient Greek culture. Its deep significance is easy to miss for the modern reader without careful study. The Greek word translated as "burning sulfur" or "brimstone" is theiō/θείῳ. Thayer's Greek Lexicon describes it as "equivalent to divine incense, because burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off contagion."
Charles Pridgeon, in his book Is Hell Eternal? Or Will God's Plan Fail? discusses how the image of brimstone complements the rest of the imagery used to describe the lake of fire. He nicely summarizes the role of brimstone and elucidates its role in the lake of fire as ancient Greeks would have understood it:
The original idea of basanizo is "to put to the test by rubbing on a touchstone," to test some metal that looked like gold to find whether (Mal. 3:2-3) it was real or not. The meaning and usage harmonizes with the idea of divine purification and the torment which is the test to find whether there has been any change in the sufferer.…Sulphur [brimstone] was sacred to the deity among the ancient Greeks; and was used to fumigate, to purify, to cleanse and consecrate to the deity; for this purpose they burned it in their incense. In Homer‘s Iliad (16:228), one is spoken of as purifying a goblet with fire and brimstone. The verb derived from Theion is Theioo, which means to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god (see Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, 1897 Edition). To any Greek, or any trained in the Greek language, a "lake of fire and brimstone" would mean a "lake of divine purification."
Notice that in ancient Greek culture, brimstone was used to purify, cleanse, consecrate, hallow, make divine or dedicate to a god. Thinking of brimstone as charcoal for a barbecue misses the sense of the Greek word entirely. Instead, it held a clear, unmistakable meaning in that culture as purifying and making holy. This same sense seems to have also been understood in Hebrew culture. Recall that in the book of Isaiah an angel touches his lips with a live coal and says "your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." The purification of guilt and sin by the hot coal is clearly analogous to the Greek understanding of the role of brimstone. Of course, in the biblical context, those being made holy are not consecrated to "a god" but rather to the "one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:10).
The image of smoke, like the rest of the imagery used to describe the lake of fire, is entirely consistent with the theme that it serves a purifying role. Smoke is the result of impurities in combustible materials. Combustion of a pure fuel (like methane for example) only produces carbon dioxide and water, not smoke. I think it is reasonable to assume that God understands chemistry, and that He chose to use the image of smoke for a reason, namely to show that impurities are being burned away in the lake of fire. It is serving its purpose (that all things be put under obedience to Christ) albeit through agonizing trial and testing. This seems to be the reason for the lake of fire! It is not pleasant but its purpose is redemption. I still don’t want to be thrown in it, but it doesn’t seem to be eternal; rather its judgment is purposeful, and brings about God’s promise that one day "every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11 NASB).
The smoke that rises for "ages of ages" could then serve to remind those who have been purified of the extent of their sin and of the greatness of God's amazing grace in Christ. Undoubtedly, this is a primary reason for confessing Jesus Christ as Lord to God's glory. Authentic praise and thanksgiving bring glory to God; unending, purposeless torment does not.
In the Presence of the Lamb
Although not specifically related to fire per se, the symbolic representation of Christ as the Lamb is also vital to proper interpretation of the lake of fire. Notice that the trial and testing occurs "in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb." The view that souls are tormented forever would have us believe that the Lamb is forever delighted to vindictively revel in the sight of the torment of His enemies. We picture the Lamb as enraged, vengeful and even sadistic.
The absurdity of this interpretation should be quite obvious to anyone who has ever seen an actual lamb. Lambs are not vicious creatures, to say the least. But beyond this physical reality is the spiritual symbolism that the image of the Lamb is meant to evoke. Christ as the Lamb is Christ as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" as John the Baptist emphatically exclaims in John 1:29. He is like a Passover Lamb whose precious blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness, as a ransom for all people (1 Corinthians 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19, Revelation 7:14). He is the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep and who searches for the lost one even if 99% have been found, rejoicing when He finds it (Revelation 7:17, John 10:11, Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:4-7). He is the one to whom salvation belongs and who cried out "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" as He was being sacrificed to bring salvation to all people (Revelation 7:10, Luke 23:34, Titus 2:11).
This is the Lamb that is present in the lake of fire. How should we interpret Him? Are His arms folded, His bloodshot eyes glaring in rage? Or are His arms open, showing the scars that He bears on His hands because His great love for us all, as He welcomes those who turn to Him in repentance, even still? Which interpretation seems most reasonable and biblically consistent to you?
Considering the symbolism of fire in the Bible as well as all of the rest of the imagery used in conjunction with it, it is most reasonable to assert that the lake of fire is for purification and ultimate redemption. I am quite certain that this will offend many people who believe that sin deserves infinite punishment and I’m not surprised.
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Why is the gospel offensive? One very important reason is that it offends our religious mindset! Religion allows us to believe that we’re the good ones and they’re the bad ones. This is what the Pharisees and religious leaders referenced in the verses above believed. But Jesus made it clear that they were NOT the good ones and condemned their judgmental attitudes, which made them jealous and hateful toward Him. That is why they crucified Him! I pray that as the church, we will examine ourselves and not hear Jesus say the same words to us that he spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
I have spoken to multiple people in just the past few months who cite the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell as a major barrier to faith in Christ, or as a factor that made them avoid church fellowship. It is also one of the most cited objections to faith in written works. As ambassadors for Christ in this world, we must consider whether a stubborn insistence on this doctrine might be preventing people from entering the kingdom and harming our witness to the world that Christ came to save.
Fire and Worms
Often found together with the imagery of fire is the imagery of worms. These are found together for a reason. Let’s think about what was occurring in the Valley of Hinnom during Jesus day. The Valley of Hinnom (which is translated “hell”) was a dump where all kinds of unclean things were discarded, including dead bodies. Both fire and worms serve to break down and decompose rotting flesh, thereby purifying it. It is also worth noting an important reality of nature, namely if dead things aren’t broken down, new life can’t arise. Death is required in order for new life to be possible.
By the way, Jesus knew the Scriptures quite well (as well as understanding principles of nature). Let’s look at the Scripture He was alluding to when using this imagery.
Discussion of Isaiah 66
This is a very interesting passage about God’s judgment, the new heavens and new earth, the grace shown to other nations, and more. Most importantly, it seems, is that it is the judgment alluded to by Jesus in his discussion of “hell” or Gehenna, both because of the descriptions and because Gehenna was a place where burning occurred. Much is of interest but here are the verses that stuck out to me:
“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
The reason I highlight this is that it has the same diction used by Jesus to describe Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom) which is argued to be a place of everlasting conscious torment by the classical doctrine of Hell. The idea of it being conscious torment seems unlikely since they are “dead bodies.” If Gehenna is instead temporary judgment to put to death the flesh, the passage seems to make more sense. The dead bodies could symbolize the flesh, the sin of mankind, burned away as impurity by God’s refining fire. The worm symbolism calls to mind the same idea. Worms help to break down and decompose the flesh, ultimately turning the filth of dead bodies into nutrients (sorry, that’s my science nerd background coming out…). Perhaps this is why the dead bodies are loathsome to “all mankind.” This makes sense if all mankind is saved and looks upon their flesh as loathsome and destructive because they have been redeemed as suggested by the many verses we have discussed throughout the Bible so far. This salvation of all mankind as God destroys evil (symbolized by the flesh), is strongly implied in this very passage since it states that all mankind will come and bow before God, presumably in worship.
But some will still object to this interpretation because the worm won’t die and the fire won’t be quenched. Doesn’t this mean that it goes on forever?
Actually it does NOT.
Let me explain.
To quench a fire is to put it out. Now, imagine I have a campfire and it is getting late. I would quench the fire before the wood is fully burned, for safety purposes, by pouring water on it. What would happen otherwise?
The fire would burn until the fuel ran out. The fuel is our sinful nature, our flesh. Once the fire has fully consumed sin and destroyed evil, it goes out on its own, without having to be quenched!
The biblical text clearly supports the understanding that the the word "quench" refers to extinguishing a fire. In Isaiah 66, "quench" is the Hebrew word tich·beh. This exact same word is used in the following passages.
Leviticus 6:12-13 (NET)
But the fire which is on the altar must be kept burning on it. It must not be extinguished (tich·beh). So the priest must kindle wood on it morning by morning, and he must arrange the burnt offering on it and offer the fat of the peace offering up in smoke on it. A continual fire must be kept burning on the altar. It must not be extinguished (tich·beh).
Jeremiah 17:27 (NKJV)
But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched (tich·beh).
It is therefore undeniable that the phrase "not be quenched" means that the fire will not (or should not) be stopped or put out, rather than that it goes on forever. In both of the instances cited above, it is clear that the fires described did in fact burn out. After finishing their work, they ran out of fuel and stopped burning. When a fire from God is said to be unquenchable, this means that we, as human beings, are powerless to stop the burning process. We can thank God for this reality because this burning is symbolic of our sanctification. It's a good thing for everyone that we can't stop God from finishing His work in our souls.
What about the worms? Are they special, immortal worms? I think not! The same principle applies. The worms continue to consume and break down the flesh until it’s gone.
The point of all of this is that God fully completes his work of sanctification in all of us. When we finally enter the new Jerusalem, we won’t be sinners anymore and the evil that we harbor in our hearts will be gone forever! This gospel is truly good news!
It also seems to illuminate the following teaching by Jesus:
Matthew 5:28-30 (NIV)
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Remember, the word translated “hell” actually is Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom. Where would one throw something away? The Valley of Hinnom was the place, a trash heap where waste and bodies were burned outside of Jerusalem. It seems that this passage is suggesting that it is better for the believer to die to himself by dealing with sins (throwing them into Gehenna for the purpose of purification) rather than living in sin and having it spread throughout so that the process of purification in Gehenna would be made much more painful. Is this the judgment of “hell” that will be experienced, leading eventually to the painful destruction of the flesh? I firmly believe that it is. So the advantage for those who put their trust in Jesus is that we get to avoid the pain of the lake of fire since we are being sanctified right now, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
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Citations and Notes
DuBois, Page. “Torture and Truth (Routledge Revivals).” Google Books, 1991.
Horton, Christine. “Persuasive Basanos: Torture in Aristotle and the Attic Orators.” Rhetor: Journal of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric 5, University of Waterloo, 2013, www.cssr-scer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Rhetor-5-1-Persuasive-BasanosHorton.pdf.
Pridgeon, Charles Hamilton. Is Hell Eternal or Will God's Plan Fail? Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1920, Google Books, play.google.com/books/reader?id=-acTAAAAYAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA288. Quoting Jerome's comments on Zephaniah 3:8-10. This same passage from Jerome is quoted in Thomas Allin's classic work, Universalism Asserted: On the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture, available here on Google Books for free.
Tapia, Ramsey. “Basanos - Judicial Torture in Ancient Greece.” Prezi.com, 17 Apr. 2015, prezi.com/7jofmolnhtdq/basanos-judicial-torture-in-ancient-greece/.