Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unquenchable Fire (Part 1)

Earlier in the year I used my morning devotions to do a Bible study on unquenchable fire – a phrase which appears in Mark 9 and Isaiah 66 and which is often taken to be a reference to the everlasting fire of hell.
But first, some personal background.

The question of hellfire is important to me, given that I spent most of my life as a universalist, defending the view that hell is a temporary purifying process that people can escape from once they have repented. So strongly did I advocate the position that every person would one day be saved that I even had a public debate with Douglas Wilson on the matter. Wilson defended the traditional view and I defended the view that hell has an exit. (Since changing my position I took the debate offline.)

I abandoned universalism around 6 years ago. Though I believe I had good reasons for rejecting universalism (reasons I have explained here), it was not easy for three reasons. The first reason is that it would be wonderful, not to mention comforting, to know that all the wicked will eventually repent, turn to Christ and be saved. I still hope that this is true, even though I no longer think the Bible supports that position. But another reason it was hard to give up universalism is because universalism solved the problem of endless evil, which is the Gordion knot for all theodocies constructed within the eternal punishment paradigm (though the doctrine of annihilation or conditional immortality may also go towards solving that problem). The third reason it was hard to give up universalism is because the universalist theology runs deep in my family – both my parents and my wife’s parents have written books on the subject. In fact, the was one of the reasons that Esther and I met in the first place.

Rejecting universalism has not meant that I have embraced the doctrine of eternal hellfire either. I am keen to explore whether the Bible does in fact teach eternal punishment. Towards that end, every once in a while I use my personal devotions to study one of the hellfire passages. Given the demands of family life and work, however, I have only had a chance to explore two passages so far - Matthew 25:31-46 and Mark 9:42-50. I posted my Bible study of Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats) back in 2009 and over the next few weeks I will be posting my Bible study of Mark 9:42-50 in stages.

On the outset it should be noted that Mark 9:42-50 is a favorite proof text for those who support the doctrine of endless torment.  For example, when discussing the “future, final, retributive punishment of the wicked”, Bob Gonzales, Dean Reformed Baptist Seminary, cited Mark 9:44, 46, 48 as one of the passages supporting his statement that the Bible “clearly portrays the duration of this punishment as endless…”

Larry D. Pettegrew, in his article ‘A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell?’ (The Master's Seminary Journal 9/2 (Fall 1998), pp. 203-217) references Mark 9:43–48 as among “the many Scriptures that teach the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell.”
Similarly, James E. Rosscup, Professor of Bible Exposition at Masters Seminary, cites Mark 9:44 to show that “as the fire is never put out, the suffering which it is causing never ceases.” (James E. Rosscup, ‘Paul’s Concept of Eternal Punishment,’ TMSJ 9/2, Fall 1998, p. 169-189)

In his article, ‘The Eternal Punishment of the Lost’, Lehman Strauss cites Mark 9:44 as one of the proof texts establishing that “the fire of Hell is as literal as the place itself”, and by “hell” he means “a literal Hell of fire” that “the resurrected physical bodies of the unbelievers of every age… will go into…”

Alec Motyer argued that Christ’s words in Mark. 9:43-48 indicate “a final change of place and state with continuity of person” and he connects it to the lake of fire in Rev.20:15. (Isaiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, 1999).

Alan Bernstein says that Mark 9:43-48, “appears to be the earliest New Testament reference to an eternal hell.” (The Formation of Hell, Alan Bernstein (UCL Press), p. 229

John Piper writes: “How did Jesus expect his audience to think and feel about the way he spoke of hell?... He spoke of…“unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43)…to portray hell as an eternal, conscious experience…”

In his book The Worm that Dyeth Not, the 17th century writer, William Strong, Worms commented on Mark 9:48 by saying that if worms “should breed in a man, and feed upon him whilst he were alive, it would be much more terrible; as it was a torment invented by a Tyrant to keep a man in a Coffin, and feed him, till by his own filth he breed worms, and these worms devoured his flesh, and he dyed from them…but what will it be for a worm to be gnawing upon the soul for ever?”

I think the above interpretations are missing something. I will be arguing that regardless of whatever we may believe concerning the final fate of the wicked, Mark 9 has nothing to do with it. If everlasting punishment is true, defenders of the doctrine will have to look elsewhere.
But first, let’s see exactly what the Mark 9:42-50 actually says:
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— 44 where

      ‘ Their worm does not die
       And the fire is not quenched.’
 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— 46 where

      ‘ Their worm does not die
      And the fire is not quenched.’

 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— 48 where

      ‘ Their worm does not die
       And the fire is not quenched.’
 49 “For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:42-50)
The recurring motif in this passage about the worm and the fire is drawn directly from Isaiah 66:24, the final verse in the book of Isaiah. By repeatedly citing it, Jesus is invoking for His hearers the Isaianic narrative and bracketing his words within the context of that story. If we approach Mark 9:42-50 as one more isolated proof text establishing the post-mortem torment of the wicked, without attending to this Isaianic background, we will completely miss the import of Christ’s words. It is crucial, therefore, to first unpack what Isaiah 66:24 is all about. But that will be the subject of my next post.

Further Reading

Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series)

Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

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