Readers sometimes puzzle over the expression "where their worm dies not" (Mark 9:46). In traditional Christian teaching it is used to boost the concept that when you die without being "born again" you will suffer for ever in an eternal fire. Your "soul" will be continually eaten - but never eaten up - by hungry worms. Others claim the term "worm" is a synonym for "immortal soul".
When Jesus spoke these words he was thinking of the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem - a deep ravine which was the city rubbish dump. Here, fires continually burned to destroy the city rubbish. it is this place which gives its name to Gehenna - one of the words translated "hell" in many Bible versions. In this context the meaning is clear.
Dump a dead dog into the valley and if it escaped the ever-burning rubbish fires it would soon breed worms. Flies would lay eggs. The eggs would hatch into larvae (worms). These worms would develop into flies! These are "worms that die not". But the dog was certainly dead, and, when the worms and rubbish fire have finished their work, entirely consumed.
On the other hand, there is no Scriptural nor any modern scientific indication that humans have an immortal part we could call a "worm". In fact, modern psychologists use the term "worm" to refer to the basic aspects of physical existence, those features which humans and worms share in common.
The prophet Isaiah's words were the basis of what Jesus said. See Isaiah 66:23-24, "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." As Isa. 66 make clear, these fires will burn after the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth.
Gehenna is historically a place of extreme wickedness and idolatry, even perhaps human sacrifice. Jeremiah foresaw it as a place of God's judgment (Jer. 7:30-32). Tradition has it as the place where Judas hanged himself, He ultimately fell into the ravine, his bloated body "bursting asunder" (Acts 1: 18).
The fate of those who choose to ultimately reject God and His offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ is that they are to be eaten up by worms and consumed by fire. Without Christ, we are, in the long run just so much disposable rubbish!
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For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 13, November/December 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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