Question: Jesus Christ described people going to a place called "hell" where "their worm does not die." What does this mean? Are there worms in hell, with eternal life, tormenting sinners?
Answer: Mark’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying: "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—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’" (Mark 9:43–44).
People often misinterpret this passage, in which Jesus was quoting from the book of Isaiah. Some believe that it describes ever-burning fires endlessly torturing the damned. Many assume that the "worm" refers to a condemned sinner’s pained conscience torturing him for all eternity.
What, then, is the truth of the matter? First, we should look at the word translated as "hell" in this verse. That word is gehenna—a Greek word referring to the Valley of Hinnom, just south of Jerusalem, where trash was dumped to be burned up and destroyed forever. Bodies of executed criminals were thrown into gehenna, where they would be consumed in the fire or eaten by maggots.
What about the worm? Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance explains that the "worm" being described (in Greek skolex, in Hebrew tola) is "a maggot, as voracious." The life cycle of these creatures is that they do not "die" as maggots—they pupate and become flies which, in turn, lay eggs that become maggots and repeat the cycle.
What does this have to do with the fate of sinners? Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 66, which gives us the context of His warning. Isaiah 66 describes a future time when "‘all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord" (v. 23). Verse 24 describes "the corpses of the men who have transgressed" against God, and states that "their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched." Isaiah was plainly describing that these corpses would be consumed by maggots, and burned until the fire had destroyed them completely. These corpses would not live forever in eternal torment. Jesus, quoting this verse in Mark 9, was describing the destruction—not the torture—of sinners.
The gehenna fire was kept going by a constant supply of fuel from Jerusalem’s refuse—including the bodies of executed criminals, which were considered cursed and unfit for normal burial (Joshua 6:18; 7:11, 25). For any garbage thrown into that fire, complete destruction was assured. Yet, as any visitor to Jerusalem can verify, that gehenna fire south of Jerusalem is not burning today. With nothing else to burn, that fire has run its full course.
Similarly, no sinner can escape the result of unrepented sin—death in the "lake of fire" Revelation 20:14–15). Those who reject Christ will be destroyed forever, just like the corpses in Isaiah 66 and Mark 9. As God tells us, the "soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Souls will die forever in the lake of fire, where those who reject God’s gift of eternal life will reap eternal punishment—not eternal punishing—for their rebellion against Him. They will become ashes, as we read in Malachi 4:3. Ashes do not burn eternally, and neither will the souls of those whom God has destroyed forever.
Satan is angry at God, because he knows he is destined for the lake of fire. He wants to convince human beings that they are immortal by their nature, rather than through the future gift that God has promised Christians at the resurrection. If Satan succeeds in this deception, he can pervert people’s understanding of God’s love, His justice and His true plan for mankind. Do not be deceived—study your Bible, and prove the truth for yourself!