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Man’s Nature and Destiny

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    31 THE UNDYING WORM AND QUENCHLESS FIRE

    Mark 9:43, 44: “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: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”MND 259.1

    Twice our Lord repeats this solemn sentence against the wicked, “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Verses 46, 48. These passages are relied on with as much assurance, perhaps, as any, to prove the eternal misery of the reprobate. If this language had never been used by any of the inspired writers of the Scriptures, till it was thus used in the New Testament, it might be urged with some degree of plausibility, as an expressive imagery of eternal torment. But, even in this case, it might be replied, that fire, so far as we have any experience with it, or knowledge of its nature, invariably consumes that upon which it preys, and hence must be a symbol of complete destruction; and that the expression, as it occurs in Mark 9:44, can denote nothing less than the utter consumption of those who are cast into that fire.MND 259.2

    But this expression was one which was well known and understood by those whom Christ was addressing. Isaiah and Jeremiah frequently use the figure of the undying worm and quenchless fire. In their familiar Scriptures the people daily read these expressions. Let us see what idea they would derive from them. We turn to Jeremiah 17:27, and read: -MND 260.1

    “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath-day, and not bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath-day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.”MND 260.2

    From this text we certainly can learn the meaning that was attached to the expression, “unquenchable fire,” by the Hebrew people. This fire was not to be quenched; therefore it was unquenchable. But it was to be kindled in the gates of Jerusalem, and devour the palaces thereof. It was therefore literal, natural fire. But how could a fire of this kind, thus kindled, be supposed to be a fire that would burn eternally? They certainly would not so understand it. No more should we. Moreover, this threatening of the Lord by Jeremiah was fulfilled. 2 Chronicles 36:19: “And they burnt the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof.” Verse 21: “To fulfill the word of the Lord by Jeremiah.” Thus Jerusalem was burned according to Jeremiah’s prediction that it should be consumed in unquenchable fire. But how long did that fire burn? - Only till it had reduced to ashes the gates and palaces on which it preyed. Unquenchable fire is therefore simply a fire that is not quenched, and does not cease, till it has entirely consumed that which causes or supports it. Then it dies out of itself, because there is nothing more to burn. The expression does not mean a fire that must absolutely eternally burn, and that consequently all that is cast therein to feed the flame must forever be preserved by having the portion consumed immediately renewed.MND 260.3

    To the wicked, the threatened fire is unquenchable, because it will not be quenched, or caused to cease, till it has entirely devoured them.MND 261.1

    Psalm 37:20: “But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs; they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.” Malachi 4:3: “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the souls of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.”MND 261.2

    Ezekiel speaks of unquenchable fire in a similar manner.MND 261.3

    Ezekiel 20:47, 48: “Thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree; the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein. And all flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”MND 261.4

    Though this is doubtless figurative language, denoting sore calamities upon a certain land called the forest of the south field, it nevertheless furnishes an instance of how the expression, “unquenchable fire,” was then used and understood; for that generation many ages ago perished, and those judgments long since ceased to exist.MND 261.5

    Isaiah not only speaks of the unquenchable fire, but he couples with it the undying worm, the same as the language in Mark:-MND 262.1

    Isaiah 66:24: “And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.”MND 262.2

    This is undoubtedly the language from which the expression in Mark is borrowed; but a moment’s examination of it will show that the worm is not the remorse of a guilty conscience, but that, like the fire, it is something external to, and distinct from, the objects upon which it preys; and moreover, that those upon whom it feeds are not the living, but the dead: it is the “carcasses” of the men that have transgressed against the Lord. In Isaiah 14:11 and 5:8 the prophet again speaks of the worm as an agent of destruction, but it is always in connection with death. It is thus evident that the terms employed by our Lord in describing the doom of the wicked would convey to the minds of his hearers the very opposite of the idea of eternal life in misery.MND 262.3

    There is other evidence, though no other is necessary, to show that the idea which would be conveyed, and which the language was designed to convey, to their minds, was that of complete extinction of being, an utter consumption by external elements of destruction. The word translated “hell” in the passage under consideration is ge-enna. It is better to enter into life maimed, than to go, in full possession of all our members and faculties, into ge-enna. Did those to whom Christ spoke know anything about this place, and what kind of a fate awaited those who were cast therein? A vivid picture of the place of torment to which our Lord refers was in constant operation before their eyes, near by Jerusalem.MND 262.4

    Greenfield defines the word thus:-MND 263.1

    Gehenna (Heb. gratis ge), the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, once celebrated for the horrid worship of Moloch, and afterward polluted with every species of filth, as well as the carcasses of animals and dead bodies of malefactors; to consume which, in order to avert the pestilence which such a mass of corruption would occasion, constant fires were kept burning.”MND 263.2

    Such was the fire of Gehenna; not a fire into which people were cast to be kept alive and tortured, but one into which they were cast to be consumed; not one which was designed to prey upon living beings, but upon the carcasses of animals and the dead bodies of malefactors. Hence we can see the consistency of associating the fire and the worm together. Whatever portion of the dead body the fire failed to consume, the worm would soon seize upon and devour. If a person had been condemned to be cast alive into this place, as the wicked will be cast into their Gehenna, what would have been his hope of escape? If the fire could have been speedily quenched before it had taken his life, and the worms which consumed what the fire left, could have been destroyed, he might have had some hope of coming out alive; but if this could not be done, he would know of a surety that his life would soon become extinct, and then even his lifeless remains would be utterly consumed by these agents of destruction.MND 263.3

    This was the scene to which Christ pointed his hearers to represent the doom that awaits the wicked; in order that, as they gazed upon the work of complete destruction going on in the valley of Hinnom, - the worms devouring what the flames spared, - they might learn that in the future Gehenna which awaited them, no part of their being would be exempt from utter and complete destruction, one agent of death completing what another failed to accomplish.MND 264.1

    As the definition of the word ge-enna throws great light on the meaning of this text, so the definition of another term used is equally to the point. The words for “unquenchable fire” are pur asbeston; and this word, asbeston, primarily means simply “unquenched,” that is, not caused to cease by any external means: the idea of eternal is a theological definition which has been attached to it. Ancient writers used it in this sense. Homer, in the Illiad, xvi, 123, 294, speaks of the Trojans hurling “unquenchable fire” upon the Grecian ships, though but one of them was burnt by it. And Eusebius, who was a learned Greek, employs the same expression in two instances in recounting the martyrdom of Christians. Cronion and Julian, after being tortured in various ways, were consumed in an “unquenchable fire” (puri asbesto). The same is also said of Epimachus and Alexander. “The pur asbeston,” says Wetstein, “denotes such a fire as cannot be extinguished before it has consumed and destroyed all.”MND 264.2

    Such is the evident meaning of this passage, and the sense in which it must have been understood at that time. Yet commentators, eighteen hundred years this side of that time, presume to turn this whole representation upside down, and give to the terms a meaning exactly opposite to that which they were intended to convey. That sense alone can be the correct one in which they were first spoken; and concerning that there can be no question.MND 264.3

    There is another text often urged to prove the eternal conscious misery of the wicked. It is one in which fire is mentioned as the instrument used for the punishment of the wicked; and this fire, being called eternal, is understood in the same sense as the unquenchable fire of Mark 9:43. It may therefore properly be examined in this connection.MND 265.1

    Jude 7: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”MND 265.2

    This text, when rightly understood, will we think, like that in Mark 9, be found to convey a meaning exactly the opposite of that popularly given to it. The first great error in the interpretation of this text, lies, as we view it, in a wrong application of the tense employed. It is claimed that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, having been destroyed were committed to the flames of hell, where they are now (present tense) suffering the vengeance of that eternal fire. But a moment’s glance at the text will show that it is the example set forth, and not the suffering, that mentioned in close connection with the suffering; thus, “giving themselves over to fornication,” “going after strange flesh,” “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” If one of these expressions denotes something that is now going on, the others also denote the same. If they are now suffering the fire, they are now giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh; for all these declarations are used together of those cities. But no one will claim that the Sodomites are now taking the course here described; neither, then, can it be claimed that they are now suffering the pain of fire.MND 265.3

    The sense of the passage appears very evidently to be this: The Sodomites, giving themselves up to their wicked practices, and, as a consequence, suffering an eternal overthrow by fire rained down upon them from heaven, are thus set forth as an example to the ungodly of all coming ages, of the overthrow they will also experience if they follow the same course.MND 266.1

    Peter speaks of the same event, as an example to the wicked, and tells what effect that fire had upon the cities of the plain. It did not preserve them in the midst of the flame in unceasing torture, but turned them into ashes. He says (2 Peter 2:6): “And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them with an overthrow making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly.” This language is too plain to need comment. How are the Sodomites made an example? - By being overthrown and turned into ashes for their open and presumptuous sins. It is God saying to the wicked of all coming time, Behold, how your sins shall be visited upon you, unless you repent.MND 266.2

    But those fires are not now burning. Seek out the site of those ancient and abandoned cities, and the brackish waters of the Dead Sea will be found rolling their sluggish waves over the spot where once they stood. Those fires are therefore called eternal, because their effects are eternal, or age-lasting. They never have recovered, nor will they ever recover while the world stands, from that terrible overthrow.MND 266.3

    And thus this text is very much to the purpose on the question before us; for it declares that the punishment of Sodom is an exact pattern of the future punishment of the wicked; hence that punishment will not be eternal life in the fiery flame, but an utter consumption, even as Sodom was consumed, by it resistless vengeance.MND 267.1

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