What does “their worm does not die” mean in Mark 9?
At the end of the chapter in Mark 9, Jesus began a brief discourse with His disciples, explaining that their spiritual well-being should be the paramount concern in their lives. In order to illustrate this point, He commented that if their hand offended them, it should be cut off, or if their foot made them sin, it, too, should be amputated. This figurative language stressed the point that whatever stood in the way of faithfulness to God should be discarded. Jesus concluded that it was better to be rid of stumbling blocks than “to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mark 9:43-44,46,48).
The word “hell” in this passage is actually the Greek word Gehenna, meaning “Valley of the Son(s) of Hinnom,” which was the name given to the valley south of the walls of Jerusalem. This valley was notoriously connected to the sinful, horrific practice of child sacrifice associated with the pagan god Molech. Josiah, the righteous king of Judah, in his efforts to restore true worship, ransacked the pagan worship arena and “defiled Topheth, which is the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech” (2 Kings 23:10). As a result, the valley became a refuse dump for discarding filth, dead animals, and other garbage (see Jeremiah 7:32). By the time of Jesus, the Jewish community associated Gehenna with spiritual death (Lenski, 1946, p. 407).
Interjected into Jesus’ explicit description of Gehenna, was the statement that in this horrid place, the “worm does not die.” The worms—described in Isaiah (66:24), and pictured by Jesus in Mark 9—are maggots, which would be associated quite naturally with the rotting filth of a refuse heap. The twist to Jesus’ phrase is the fact that the worm in hell “does not die.” Concerning this, Lenski wrote: “The fact that it does not die means that its work is eternal. ...The bodies of the blessed shall shine with glory and eternal bliss, but the bodies of the damned shall be like rotting, putrid corpses that have the worm within...” (p. 408).
This passage surely must represent one of the most graphic mental pictures ever painted by our Lord—which should cause each of us to reflect seriously on the possible stumbling blocks in our own lives, and what we can do on a daily basis in order to avoid them.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
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