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Letters to a Traditionalist On Hell 02 – Undying Worms7 min read

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This post is part of a series.

In Part 1, I began answering objections from my traditionalist friend regarding the Conditional Immortality view of hell – that the traditional view of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in hell is the wrong understanding of the scriptures, and instead, the view that the unredeemed are annihilated at judgment, and fail to inherit eternal life (hence their immortality is conditional) is correct.

Here’s my friend’s initial letter repeated, and my continued response.

Jesus declares in Matthew 25:41 that the destiny of the unsaved is “the eternal fire prepared for the devil.” Matthew 25:46 uses the same adjective, eternal, to describe the fates of the lost and saved: “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” Jesus depicts “hell” as a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47–48). Paul’s reference to “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, indicates a figurative devastation that the damned will experience forever in hell, separated from the Lord’s royal presence. Revelation 14:10, where we read that the impenitent “will be tormented with burning sulfur,” depicts the hellfire imagery as agony, not annihilation. John speaks of everlasting torment when he adds, “and the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (v. 11). John’s description of Satan’s fate in Revelation 20:10 as being placed in “the lake of fire and sulfur” and being “tormented day and night for ever and ever” signifies everlasting pain, a fate that lost human beings share (Rev. 20:15).

3. Mark 9:47–48 – Undying worms and unquenchable fire

Let’s start with fire again. Jesus did use it in describing the fate of the unredeemed in a similar passage, so let’s compare the usage and come to a decision about what ‘unquenchable’ fire means in light of both passages.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the ‘tares’ are gathered up and thrown into the fire. Jesus then goes on to explain:

So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ~ Matthew 13:24-30

Well, this doesn’t really say if the people are consumed as chaff and tares would be, but note that he uses fire again here to describe the end state:

If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. (John 15:6)

Thankfully, Hebrews 10:26-27 adds more detail:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.

the-fire-that-consumes-a-biblical-and-historical-study-of-the-doctrine-of-final-punishment-3rd-edBy the way, this is why Edward Fudge named his seminal conditionalist book “The Fire that Consumes” – because not only is God’s fire said to consume His enemies, but to assume a fire that never consumes (like Moses’ burning bush) is so backwards that proposing it is truly a ‘strange fire,’ to borrow a phrase.

If we look back again to the ‘eternal fire’ that consumed Edom and Sodom, it is easy to see that unquenchable fire is not fire that burns forever, but that cannnot be quenched prematurely before the fuel is entirely consumed.

Regarding undying worms, it is naturally confusing, because it seems like the worms have eternal life! But this can be naturally understood and better harmonized with ‘unquenchable’ as continuing to consume until the corpses are gone. Worms consume DEAD material, by the way, not living things being tormented. Again, the worms don’t die prematurely, just as the fire does not end prematurely.

To assume unending fuel or undending bodies for the worms is probably not the first or best understanding of this, ESPECIALLY in light of the consistent and frequent use of the words death, destruction, destroyed, consumed, and perish.

Quite honestly, we must either redefine these words to mean ‘destroyed but not destroyed’, or go the other direction and say ‘unquenchable until all fuel is consumed’ and ‘eternal outcome, not eternal process.’ Which harmonization is more likely? Honestly, isn’t it obvious?

4. 2 Thessalonians 1:9, indicates a figurative devastation that the damned will experience forever in hell, separated from the Lord’s royal presence.

So suddenly you are going figurative on me? You can be literal in Rev. but not here? BTW, the passage is not clear – does the destruction remove them from God’s presence, or does ‘from his presence’ define ‘destruction’?

Certainly, if you are destroyed, you are removed from His presence. But if you are removed from his presence (into eternal torment, which is not mentioned here), is that any kind of literal destruction? NO! As you admit, it has to be figurative since the the person ‘destroyed’ still lives. So I ask again, which perspective makes more sense if you don’t assume eternal torment? Destroyed away from, not away from and therefore destroyed.

5. ” Revelation 14:10, where we read that the impenitent “will be tormented with burning sulfur,” depicts the hellfire imagery as agony, not annihilation.”

Again, you make my point. You are taking Revelation literally, which is inadvisable. Why this passage, but not the Lamb, or the 144,000, or the beast, or the whore?

As mentioned above, all of these idioms, including ‘forever and ever’ are the IMAGERY, but all imagery must be interpreted, not taken at face value.


As I have said, each of the three view (ECT, CI, UR) have passages that on their face seem to support them, and all have passages that seem to contradict.

I have just addressed the passages that seem to contradict Conditional Immortality(CI), and I think my explanations make way better sense than the traditional posistion which assumes:

  • God’s fire does not consume (which the Bible says it does)
  • Destruction means ongoing torment but never eventual destruction
  • That destruction means to be removed from God’s presence (but not be literally destroyed), when understanding it conversely makes perfect sense (if you are destroyed, you are GONE, and out of God’s presence)
  • The symbolic languag of Revelation is to be understood literally (and illogically in light of their OT use and use in Jude), while such more pervasive words in the rest of the NT such as perish, destroy, death, and consumed, are somehow figurative
  • That ‘eternal’ must mean ongoing process when it is clear that there are many examples of it meaning eternal outcome.
  • That the consuming fire of God never actually consumes the wicked.

And we haven’t even discussed other problems with the traditional view yet, such as assuming the immortality of the unredeemed soul, or the violation of the Biblical standards of justice, proportional justice (eye for an eye) and mercy, and others.

NEXT: Part 3