Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42-50 form another favourite proof text for those who support the doctrine of endless torment. Yet as with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the context is often neglected.
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 this motif, Jesus is invoking for His hearers the whole Isaianic narrative and bracketing his words within the context of the story Isaiah was telling. That story, of course, was the narrative that Israel’s God would renew the earth through the work of his Servant. It was a narrative that would have been common knowledge to Jews of the Second Temple period and by invoking it, Jesus is implicitly saying that he is the Servant who is restoring the earth; He is the Servant who is bringing all flesh to worship Him. Isaiah‘s story, the story of the New Exodus, is unfolding right before them and in front of the disciples’ very eyes.
Yet He is not merely bracketing His ministry within the context of the Isaianic narrative; He is also characteristically investing it with a new twist. The subtext of Jesus’ use of Isaiah 66 is that the Jews who believed they had Abraham as their father, will find themselves cast into Gehenna (the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem where non-covenant members were traditionally dumped as an alternative to ceremonial burial), if they continue to reject Jesus. By telling the people to cut off their offending hand, foot or eye, Jesus is essentially saying: abandon everything that is standing in the way of embracing My agenda of New Creation, or you will find yourself outside the covenant. It is the same message that we find in many of Jesus’s parables: the insiders will become the outsiders, and the outsiders will become the insiders.
Now, we know that there were many things standing in the way of the Jews accepting Jesus work, not least their own ideas of how the kingdom would unfold, including but not limited to their nationalistic aspirations. Those nationalistic aspirations would eventually bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the literal death of the generation that refused to heed Jesus‘s warnings. In AD 70 the unbelieving Jews did parish in exactly the way Jesus described in Mark 9. Rotting and smoking corpses became a literal reality. This is one of the reasons we need not invoke the idea of eternal hellfire to explain Mark 9. It points to a judgment within the space-time continuum – not hellfire but Roman-fire, not the cosmic rubbish dump but Jerusalem’s rubbish dump. It is the same reality towards which the Olivet discourse points (see Mark Hornes The Victory According to Mark for the reasons why everything about the Mount Olivet prophecy indicates a local fulfilment).
(Understanding this helps us to avoid the contradictions which follow from belief in literal hell fire. For example, how can the descriptions of hell be literal when such descriptions include both fire and darkness? Fire, by definition, cannot be dark or it isn’t fire.)
Mark 9 stands as a solemn warning throughout the ages that destruction comes upon those who reject Jesus. Whether that destruction includes endless hellfire is a question that must be settled from an appeal to other passages, not Mark 9. Nevertheless, Mark 9 remains one of the most cited proof texts of endless torment.
For further reading about this, visit my series 'Rethinking Unquenchable Fire.'