Oct 8, 2006

Where the Worm Does Not Die

Mark 9:42–50

In our day, the doctrine of hell has almost disappeared from Christian preaching. By contrast, no one in Scripture spoke more about the eternal wrath of God than Jesus. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark, urging us to flee from the coming judgment into the safe embrace of Christ.


Let’s turn our attention now to the Gospel According to Saint Mark. This morning’s lesson is in Mark 9:42–50, and I’d ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

“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. 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—where

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

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—where

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

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—where

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

For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 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.”

These are hard sayings that come to us from the lips of our Lord, but this is God’s truth that you have just heard. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Father, even now as we deign to think the unthinkable and contemplate that which is most dreadful, we need Your help. We ask that in Your mercy, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, that we may hear your Word and embrace it. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Context and Content

Before I give any exposition of the text that I’ve just read to you, I want to alert you to one of the ways in which we believe the New Testament records were put together in their final form as individual gospels. It is well established that, as was the custom among Jewish rabbis, the rabbi would impart his teaching to his students, which the students would memorize and then later on be able to recall it and apply it to given situations.

It also seems evident that, before the gospels were written down, there was a body of what was called logia, or oral tradition, among the Apostles. They had this body of information that had been preserved and they had the editorial freedom to put the teaching of Jesus in whatever circumstance best suited the intent or aim of the individual gospel. So, here we find some of those sayings of Jesus that Mark, for his reasons, places in the immediate context of chapter 9, even though they would be found in a different context in other gospel accounts. What is important now is not so much where they are found in the gospel narrative but the content itself, so let’s look at that content.

A Graphic and Terrifying Metaphor

In verse 42, Jesus says, “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.” This is the first warning that Mark gives us in this section, and it is not in respect to children as much as you might expect from the translation.

When Jesus talks about, “if you cause one of My little ones who believe in Me to stumble,” our minds likely jump to the conclusion that He’s speaking of little children, but He’s not. He’s speaking about the rank-and-file believer, the Christian who is not sophisticated in his learning, but who, with a childlike faith, seeks to be faithful and obedient to Jesus. He warns that if people who are puffed up with knowledge and with their status in the church use their arrogance to cause the simple Christian to stumble, they are exposing themselves to great chastisement from the Lord.

Jesus makes a comparison when He says, “It would be better for that person to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea, than to cause one of the little ones to stumble.” That’s an awesome burden placed upon leaders, pastors, people in positions of authority, and teachers in the church, that they don’t destroy the faith of the little ones.

Every day in our country today in both seminaries and in colleges that are supposed to be Christian colleges, students come as freshmen who are excited about their Christian faith but their faith is systematically attacked day in and day out in the classroom. I remember the experience I had as a college freshman, and then in seminary, where our professors told us that if we believed in the substitutionary atonement of Christ, we were fools. We saw the orthodox faith systematically attacked every day. I dread to think of the future of those teachers and leaders who go about the task of trying to undermine the faith of believers in Christ.

Jesus introduces a metaphor that’s graphic and terrifying. He says, “It would be better for that person if they had a millstone tied around their neck, and they were cast into the sea.” Think of that image. In the ancient Jewish community that was an agrarian society, one of the most important products they produced was grain. The grain was ground on the threshing floor, and there was huge stone that was used to grind the grain to produce the flour and wheat and so on.

The millstone that was used in the threshing process was so big and so heavy that no human being was strong enough to turn it, with one notable exception in the Old Testament. In his slavery, the strong man Samson was required to take the place of the animals that turned the millstone, and he was reduced to the status of a brutish animal to do that task. But the task was so difficult that it would take beasts of burden to move that stone around.

Jesus says: “Take a stone of that weight. Tie it around the neck of the person that injures the little ones.” That person would be better off to have that millstone around their neck and be thrown into the sea. For the Jew, the sea was always the symbol in Jewish poetry of terror and destruction. Jesus uses strong language in this text—strong metaphors and images. If you think this image of the destruction of those who destroy the faith of the little ones is severe, let’s look further at the rest of the text.

Nobody Talks More about This Than Jesus

In verse 43, Jesus says: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. For it is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands to go to hell.” Jesus is making another comparison. In the first place, He’s understanding the Jewish tradition that repudiated any acts of self-disfigurement. In the Old Testament, it was a serious sin for people to disfigure their own bodies. The Jews were not like the Greeks, who despised all things physical. They saw the hands, the eyes, the feet as gifts of God to be enjoyed in this life, so a person’s hands, a person’s legs, and a person’s eyes were seen by the Jew as a most precious possession. Yet Jesus says here, “As precious as your hands are to you, you would be better off to cut off your hand and be maimed than to have two hands that you take with you to hell.”

In like manner, Jesus says: “If your foot offends you, it would be better to cut it off and be crippled than to have two good legs that take you to hell. If your eye offends you, you are better to pluck it out than to have perfect vision that takes you to hell.” The obvious point that our Lord makes is, whatever is precious to you, no matter how precious it is, it is not as worthwhile having it as it is worth having the kingdom of God.

The worst calamity that can befall any human being is to go to hell. We know that in former generations, preachers would preach fire and brimstone sermons, warning their flocks about the imminent danger of going to hell. In the twenty-first century, however, the doctrine of hell has all but disappeared from Christian preaching, and people don’t want to think about it. Even if they do, pastors water it down to such a degree that people are no longer living in fear of going to hell. How many people walk through their lives and give much thought or concern about going to hell? How much time have you spent in your life concerned about your final destiny, worrying about whether you might at the end of your life be consigned by God to everlasting punishment?

Jonathan Edwards, who was an expert on this subject, said that the most wicked, impenitent sinner in this world constantly assures himself that he will escape the judgment of God. God’s patience, by which judgment has not fallen on us already, instead of leading us to repentance, leads us to a false sense of security. We think: “God hasn’t punished me yet. Obviously, this talk about everlasting punishment is a scare theology that has no correspondence to reality.”

Beloved, here’s what I want us to see this morning: nobody in the Bible talked more about hell than Jesus. Secondly, we need to face the reality that Jesus talked more about hell than He talked about heaven. I wonder why it is that so much of what the Bible teaches about hell comes to us from the lips of Jesus. I can only guess at the answer, and my guess is this, that we would scarcely believe it from anybody else. We hardly believe it from Jesus.

If Jesus didn’t say anything about hell, and instead it came from Isaiah or Jeremiah or Peter or Paul, we could then dismiss it, saying that is not the teaching of Jesus. The reality is, however, that we hardly believe it when it comes from Jesus. The Jesus of love and mercy and grace is the author of so much of the biblical information about the doctrine of hell.

A Fearful and Dreadful Thing

People ask me all the time, “R.C., do you believe that hell is a literal lake of fire?” My normal response to that question goes something like this: “I doubt that hell is literally a lake of fire. It may be, but I doubt it.” When I say, “I doubt it,” you can feel the people’s relief. They sigh and say, “We’re so glad to know that.” Then I say: “Before you feel too comfortable with my response, you need to ask some more questions. Why is it that when Jesus talked about hell, He used the most ghastly, most graphic images of punishment imaginable?”

In most cases when we use language symbolically or figuratively, we understand that the reality we are describing by the symbol or the figure is more intense in reality than it can possibly be in the symbol. I’ll say it again: the reality is more intense than the symbol. If that’s the case, then my guess would be that the sinner in hell would do everything he could to be in a lake of fire rather than where he is.

I’ve also heard people say, “Hell is really the absence of God.” Again, the breath of relief is given with a gasp: “Is that all? The absence of God?” Let me say two things about this. We are glib in describing calamitous earthly situations with our language of hell. Common is the expression, “War is hell.” We hear people say all the time, describing the misery that they’ve experienced with their afflictions or whatever has disturbed them: “I’ve been going through hell. My life has been hell on earth.”

You’ve heard those comments. You’ve heard those expressions. Maybe you’ve used them yourself. When I hear people say, “War is hell,” or, “I went through hell,” or, “My life has been a living hell,” they are saying to me that they don’t have a clue about the reality of hell. If we could find the person in this world who is still alive and in the worst state of suffering of anybody on this planet, that person would still be enjoying a certain measure of grace from the hand of God. But to be removed totally from the mercy of God, to have Him take all of His grace away, is an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The first thing about being separated from God is that people don’t realize what a dreadful thing it would be to be totally separated from God. That’s one part of the equation, and the other part is paradoxical. There is nothing the sinner in hell would wish for more than to be separated from God. Let me say it again: there is nothing that the sinner in hell would wish for more than to be separated from God, because God is there. He’s there with His wrath, with His punitive judgment. “It is a fearful and dreadful thing,” as the Bible says, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” to be exposed day in and day out to His wrath.

Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?

How long does hell last? There has been a movement in the evangelical world in recent years to discount hell in terms of the doctrine of annihilation. The idea is that when the impenitent sinner who is not redeemed draws his last breath at the end of his life, that’s what it is—his last breath. He has nothing to fear after death except eternal unconsciousness because he will be blotted out of existence, and the eternality of his punishment will be simply that on which he misses out. He will miss the great joy which the believer has looked forward to—everlasting life in the presence of God and with Christ.

According to annihilationism, a person’s hell is that he misses out on everlasting life, and he misses it forever, but there’s no ongoing punishment after death. As soon as the person dies, he goes into oblivion. In a very real sense, the person got away with their cosmic rebellion against God in their earthly life.

Against annihilationism, which has been deemed heretical for two thousand years, is the biblical idea that hell has no ending point in time. The punishment goes forever. I struggle with that. I can’t imagine any Christian not struggling with that. I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy to be in hell for five minutes, let alone to be there forever. People ask me, “How could God be a good God and allow people to suffer His punishment forever?” Of course, the answer is that God is a good God, and because He is a good and holy God, He will not overlook human sin. He has appointed a day of judgment for those who refuse to leave their sins and cling to the Redeemer.

If I can make a personal note, I have to say this: as much as I’ve struggled in my lifetime with the idea of hell, when I think of people I know who likely died in their sins, and I think for a moment that they are in hell, it is almost more than I can bear. However, as God as my witness, if God spoke audibly right now and said, “R.C., your destiny is hell, and you are consigned to the outer darkness forever,” I would be devastated, but I know that I would have no right to complain.

As much as I hate the thought of anybody’s going to hell, I know it would be perfectly just of God if He sent me there. That’s why I cling to the cross, because that’s my only hope in life and in death to escape the wrath that is to come. That Jesus went there for me is the only reason I don’t have to go. But if I did have to go, I would have no grounds to complain.

Dreadful Images

Let’s look at the images Jesus uses when He says, “It’s better to go 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.” Then he mentions again with the foot “the fire that shall never be quenched,” again, “Where their worm shall not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Then a third time, “It would be better to have one eye plucked out than to have two eyes, to be cast into hell fire, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

Do you hear the refrain that Jesus uses three times? “The worm doesn’t die.” “The fire is not quenched.” What’s the point of those graphic images? The principal image for hell in the New Testament and the word for it used in the Old Testament is the word Gehenna. The word Gehenna is related to a geographical area just outside the city of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is a steep ravine on the southwestern corner of the city of Jerusalem.

Looking back into the Old Testament book of Kings, you may recall that during the reign of Kings Ahaz and Manasseh, the people of Israel were involved in one of the worst pagan practices that ever infected the people of Israel, the sacrifice of human beings to the pagan deity Molech. This was one of the darkest periods in the history of the Old Testament, where not only were the people worshiping pagan gods, but they were offering human sacrifices to this repugnant deity Molech. This later came, of course, under the judgment of the prophet Jeremiah. Finally, during the reign of King Josiah, Josiah put a stop once and for all to these human sacrifices to Molech.

King Josiah wanted to deconsecrate the place outside the city of Jerusalem where Israel was making these human sacrifices to Molech. To add insult to injury to that form of paganism, King Josiah turned the traditional place of human sacrifice into a garbage dump, and it became the garbage dump for Jerusalem. The refuse from the city and the offal from the animals were carted out on a regular basis and dumped into this massive garbage dump outside of the city that was always burning with fire. The Jews got rid of their garbage in this huge, burning garbage dump. Because garbage was newly and freshly added to it all the time, they didn’t have to ignite the fire one week and then do it again later. The fire never went out. The worms that were eating the carcasses of the animals never ran out of a food supply. Think about it. The worm in this case was a parasite, and the worm would eat the host, and when the host would die, what would happen to the worm? The worm would die unless he was supplied with a new host to continue his parasitical existence.

It’s those dreadful images that Jesus uses to paint the picture of hell. Hell is a place where the worm doesn’t die because the host is never consumed. The Bible teaches not only the resurrection of the body of the saints but also the resurrection of the bodies of the damned, that they may be fit to receive their everlasting punishment in hell where the worm never dies, where nobody ever pours water on the flames, and the fires never go out.

When Jesus used ghastly images to speak of the duration of eternal punishment, it was these images of the worm and of the flame with which He pointed to the object lesson of the garbage dump: “See that? Those fires never stop. Those worms never die. You would be better off to have your hand cut off, your leg cut off, and your eye plucked out than go to that place with a complete body and all of your possessions.”

Jesus said that there’s nothing more valuable than the kingdom of God and nothing worse than the abode of the damned. He put that before His people. That’s why He said it’s worth your hand, your foot, your eye. It’s worth your hearing and your seeing, it’s worth anything to receive that pearl of great price and to flee from hell.

One Hundred Years from Now

If you’ve never thought about it before, think about it now. Ask yourself not, “Where am I going to be next week or next month?” because you don’t know. You might guess, and you might be correct in your guess. But ask yourself this question today: “Where am I going to be a hundred years from now?” You will be somewhere, and you’ll be conscious. You’ll be awake. You will either be among the damned or in the state where joy never ends and felicity is never dampened, where the beautiful vision of the loveliness of Christ will be before your eyes every second, and where you will gaze upon Him forever. If it takes an eye, an arm, or a leg, make sure you’re there, and not in hell. Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, we minimize what You died for, that which You took upon Yourself instead of permitting us, Your little ones, to experience. Thank You for saving us from hell and from the wrath which is to come. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.