Undying Worm, Undying Men

The Eternal Horrors of Hell

Today, some Christians seem embarrassed by the doctrine of hell. As such, they either omit discussing it, or they reinvent the doctrine and rob it of any real horror. Our Lord, however, was not afraid to talk about hell. Jesus speaks of “the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22); the danger of the “whole body” being “thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29); “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43); the place where the impenitent are “thrown” (Mark 9:45), “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).

Many Christians struggle to believe that Jesus plays an active role in the destruction of the godless. However, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt about the reality: Our Lord will, with his angels, gather all “law-breakers” and “throw them into the fiery furnace,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41–42). Christ calls this a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). If people doubt that Christ spoke of the judgment to come, often using vivid language, they have not read the Gospels carefully (see, for example, Matthew 3:12; 7:22–23; 10:28; 11:23; 13:30, 41–42, 49–50; 23:16, 33; 25:10, 31–33; 26:24; Mark 8:36; 9:43–48; 16:16; Luke 9:25; 12:9–10, 46; John 5:28–29).

At the same time, the doctrine of hell is not merely a New Testament doctrine. Indeed, some of the language used for hell in the New Testament comes from the Old. For example, Isaiah warns the godless of “the consuming fire” and the “everlasting burnings” (Isaiah 33:14). In the last chapter, he speaks of God coming in fire “to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (Isaiah 66:15–16). Isaiah prophesies that the righteous “shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against [God]. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24; see Christ’s use of these words in Mark 9:48).

Daniel, along with others, also refers to the final judgment: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

Endless Punishment

There is no shortage of professing Christians who affirm a coming judgment of the wicked. Some, however, tend to think that this judgment will not be everlasting. As finite beings, we struggle to wrap our minds around the concept of eternity. But if God intended to either annihilate the wicked at death, with no future judgment, or put an end to suffering after an indefinite period of time, then he did a poor job of communicating that to us.

Scripture shows us that hell is a place of “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46 KJV). Hell is an “everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8 KJV) that can never be quenched (Mark 9:45), where their worm never dies (Mark 9:48). Sodom and Gomorrah were punished for their sins by “undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). False teachers have a place reserved in hell where the “gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13). We read of the suffering of the wicked, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11; see also Revelation 19:3, Revelation 20:10, “forever and ever”). William Shedd rightly notes, “Had Christ intended to teach that future punishment is remedial and temporary, he would have compared it to a dying worm, and not to an undying worm; to a fire that is quenched, and not to an unquenchable fire.”

Shedd adds that other words and metaphors could have been used to describe a long, but not endless, punishment. Indeed, if hell is not endless, the New Testament writers “were morally bound to have avoided conveying the impression they actually have conveyed by the kind of figures they have selected” (Dogmatic Theology, 892). The word used to describe “everlasting life” is also used to describe “everlasting punishment.” For example, in Revelation 22:14–15, the existence of the righteous in heaven is coterminous with the existence of the wicked “outside” of heaven (that is, in hell).

Separation from God?

Another way people try to make the doctrine of hell more palatable is to say that hell is merely separation from God. But while hell does separate the wicked from the blessed life of God in Christ, hell is still punishment. Those who hate God in this life will continue to hate him in eternity, and they will continue to face God’s wrath.

Hell is a location, a place; it is not simply a metaphor that describes inner thought processes. Acts 1:25 tells us Judas went “to his own place.” Just as there is a place for the righteous after death, so there is a place for the wicked after death. The word Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. The horrible history of this place involved, at one time, the Israelites and kings of Israel burning their children as sacrifices to the false god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). Gehenna may not be a reference to a burning trash dump (as some have claimed), but it is far worse: a place where the greatest horrors take place, such as the willful sacrifice of children. Hell is a place of pure evil, destitute of all hope.

Rather than being mere “separation from God,” hell is, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin said, a place where “God himself, by his own hands, that is, the power of his wrath, is the immediate inflicter of that punishment of men’s souls” (Works of Thomas Goodwin, 10:491). God’s power will be “exercised” as his wrath toward those who are cast away from the presence of God’s blessedness. Those in hell will receive the opposite of those in glory, but they will still be in God’s presence. Those in heaven have a mediator, but those in hell have nothing between them and an avenging God.

If the foregoing is true, we should be careful not to say (as some have) that hell is giving people what they want. In a highly limited sense, this is true. They do not want to enjoy God in this life, so they will not enjoy him in the life to come. However, given the torments of hell, no one can possibly desire to suffer at the hands of the omnipotent God, especially for all eternity. Who could possibly desire for their despair to increase as well? As the creatures in hell realize more and more that they are suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair.

Escape Through the Cross

Goodwin makes the solemn point that the “wretched soul in hell . . . finds that it shall not outlive that misery, nor yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having forever to do with him who is the living God” (Works, 10:548). The wicked will despair because there is no end to the righteous wrath of the living God. Thus, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade sinners to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross.

Our Lord shrieked with cries so that we might sing with praise; he was parched with thirst that we might drink freely from the fountain; he was abandoned in the darkness that we might have fellowship in the light; he was crushed that we might be restored; he was publicly shamed that we might be publicly exalted; he was mocked by evildoers that we might be praised by angels; he gave up his spirit that we might have our spirits saved. As real as his sufferings were, our joys will be no less real. The hellish experience of the cross is the greatest testimony to the unspeakable joys of eternal life with God.