Hell 15: Jesus and Isaiah’s worm

Posted: April 16, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

hell1There is not much emphasis on Gehenna in Mark’s gospel: we have just one reference:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.   And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire.” 

Mark 9:43-49   

The context is all about leadership, and this passage clearly is also: ‘taking care of Jesus’ little ones’. The tone is negative and admonitory: retribution is threatened for those who make the little ones stumble: “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (9:42).

There follow three parallel warnings to remove offending body parts that cause stumbling: a vivid image of repentance from sin. We met this image before, in a different context in Matthew’s gospel: it seems it was a metaphor Jesus used repeatedly.

These warnings are backed up by three parallel comparisons: “it is better to ___ than to ___ .”

It is better to:        than to:

enter life                       go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire

enter life                       be thrown into Gehenna

enter the kingdom of God      be thrown into Gehenna where

their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched

Of the two alternatives here, the first is ‘life’, which is equated with ‘the kingdom of God’. The other option is Gehenna, which is ‘the unquenchable fire’.

This technique of parallelism is a common Jewish literary device. Twice is the norm: by saying it three times here, Jesus emphasises the importance of this idea. In this technique, each reiteration must use different words, but the meaning is felt to be much the same each time. On the third comparison, Jesus varies the wording by adding a quote from his own Jewish tradition, Isaiah 66: “their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”

It’s not so easy to understand this highly formulaic and culturally specific teaching, from the outside. But Jesus says it’s important to get it. So perhaps it’s worth us taking a bit of time, to try to shed some light on it.

1.  Once again we are in symbolic territory: no one thinks Jesus is advocating self-harm here. The image of entering God’s kingdom with self-maimed bodies is not to be taken literally but metaphorically: it stands for the necessity of repentance. In other words ‘the body’ is treated here as a symbol. Everyone agrees on this. Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that in the negative side of the comparison, the body’s fate should also be heard in symbolic terms? A whole healthy body going into the flames of the pit – it’s a terrible image, yes: but an image of what?

2. This teaching is specifically given to the Twelve, the leaders of the new-age community. Soon Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem and denounce the behaviour of the leaders there: they will receive ‘severe condemnation’ and be destroyed (12:9,40). Both here and there Jesus’ teaching about judgement is ‘leader talk’, regarding how leaders treat their followers.  ‘Gehenna‘ here is equivalent to ‘leaders’ condemnation’ and the ‘replacement of the tenants’ in ch.12. These are not teachings aimed at ordinary people.

3. Jesus is not presenting a traditional (Hellenised) cosmology of ‘Heaven and Hell’. The positive side of the comparison is ‘entering life’ or ‘entering the kingdom of God’. His teaching here is plugged in to the prophetic hope of Israel for future age of restoration through the return of King Yahweh. In this it is integrated with Jesus’ message throughout Mark’s gospel, starting from his opening announcement: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Entering the kingdom is not quite the same thing as ‘heaven when you die.’  In Mark it is something that happens in this life, in this world (cf. Mark 10:15-25) – because Jesus is now ushering it in.

This has implications for how we hear the negative side. Jesus uses completely traditional phrases for this side of the comparison: fire, Gehenna, and the Isaiah 66 passage which was traditionally linked with this term. There is, as usual, no elaboration at all. This negative side is something to be feared and avoided, not explored. But in the comparison it contrasts with entering or receiving the kingdom: it must mean missing out. Neither traditional ‘heaven’ nor ‘hell’ seems to be in view here.

What does the Gehenna of fire have to do with leaders missing out on the kingdom? It supplies the emotional freight needed to give suitable weight to Jesus’ warning. How bad is missing out on the kingdom? Imagine your bodies going into the flames of Gehenna, leader-boys. That’s how bad. Jesus pulls out all the stops here. A triple warning with triple Gehenna. That’s about as scary as they come. Clearly, when it comes to the possibility of abusing the little ones, leaders need the crap scared out of them. Only leaders are ever subjected to this sort of scare-tactic from Jesus, in Mark. But he does it to them repeatedly.

4.  We have seen in a previous post how this ‘fire and worms’ prophecy was later identified with Gehenna and the ‘second death’, in the Targums (intertestamental rabbinic literature). Jesus, by linking Isaiah 66 and Gehenna, references this interpretive tradition. Is Jesus buying into the whole rabbinic view of Gehenna, then?

In the Targums the Isaiah prophecy was often treated as a literal description of the fate of souls (cf. e.g. Targum Jonathan). Jesus, however, emphasises the body, and is clearly speaking in metaphors. He doesn’t seem to be taking things in the same direction as the Targums.

Even in the Targums, Gehenna was not often seen as a place of everlasting punishment: its torments were generally said to last for a limited time. So even if Jesus were buying in to this tradition more fully, he would scarcely be giving a clear and unequivocal teaching about the everlasting torment of souls, here in Mark 9 (as is often asserted). There is no way to be confident that Jesus’ original hearers, familiar with rabbinic teachings, would have heard those ideas in Jesus’ words here.

5. It’s interesting to notice that the original source of the ‘worms and fire’ quote, Isaiah 66, also sits quite naturally with Jesus’ warnings here: for in ch.65-66 Isaiah was warning the temple leaders in Jerusalem of a time when they would experience the fire of God’s anger, a fire which ‘burns all day long’ (65:5). The result would be ‘dead bodies’. The little ones whom they oppressed would then be free to play safely with no one to hurt them. These are the same themes Jesus is teaching about here in Mark 9.


Well, that was a bit of work, eh? Worth it though, I reckon.

Because it is true that when we modern westerners read Jesus’ triple warning, images of heaven and hell come straight to mind. Everlasting torment seems to be there on the surface of his teaching. However, I would suggest that this is because we bring these ideas with us to the text. They are deeply imprinted on our cultural consciousness – but not on that of Jesus’ original audience or of Mark’s first readers.  As soon as we start trying to listen from their view point, a different picture emerges.

Jesus  seems to be employing the term Gehenna to describe what will take place when the corrupt leaders of God’s people are exposed, destroyed and replaced. In other words, he uses the word symbolically. As in Matthew.

  1. richardrglover says:

    Just an observation. This reading of Mark 9 (and Isaiah 65-66) also dovetails quite nicely with the (annihilationist?) idea that judgement is first and foremost about ridding the world of evil and its effects, rather than punishment. The burning up of the leaders allows the little ones to play freely; the purpose of the judgement is primarily about getting rid of the evil so that God’s creatures might live abundantly and without fear.

    • J says:

      Richard, thanks for your comment. Yes, the ‘God’s creation’ viewpoint is so often neglected in discussion of these issues. But it’s pretty strong in Isaiah 65-66. It’s not all about me!

      Our evangelical tradition is not strong in this area, is it. Caring about the creation, I mean.

      Is this an annihilationist idea? Perhaps Isaiah was a closet annihilationist… 🙂

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