Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 2

In my last post I started looking at the first of the views in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Denny Burk wrote a biblical and theological case for this view. The next section of his chapter is titled “Scriptural Teaching on Hell”.

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

Robert Peterson has argued that there are at least ten texts of Scripture that deal explicitly with hell and with the final state of the wicked: Isaiah 66:22-24; Daniel 12:2-3; Matthew 18:6-9; 25:31-46; Mark 9:42-48; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15.
Denny Burk, page 21

Burk states that from these passages we find at least three characteristics, which rule out all the other views in this book:

  1. Irrevocable final separation at the last judgment.
  2. Absolutely unending conscious experience.
  3. Just retribution to recompense for evil, not to redeem or renew.

I’ll discuss the above characteristics as I go through Burk’s section on Isaiah 66:22-24:

22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure.
23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.
24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Isaiah 66:22-24, NIV

He introduces this as “foundational because Jesus himself alludes to it to describe the final fate of the wicked”. 1

So how did Jesus use Isaiah 66? 2 In Mark 9, His disciples after they have been arguing about who was the greatest and who was in the “in group”. In response, Jesus gives a series of exhortations to be humble and welcoming, and to remove temptations from their lives. To illustrate the severity of not doing these things, He quotes Isaiah 66:24:

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into [the Valley of Hinnom], ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’.
Mark 9:47-48, ESV

I’d like to tentatively suggest that Jesus comments on the “fire” in the next two verses:

For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:49-50, ESV

If the “salt” here is God’s fire, then perhaps a reasonable paraphrase could be something like this:

For everyone will be refined by God’s fire (because everyone fails to remove temptation and sin for their lives?). Thankfully God’s fire is good, although if the fire has lost its fieriness (through our apathy and complacency? See Rev 3:15-18 below), how will you make it fiery again? Therefore keep God’s fire in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Mark 9:49-50, my tentative paraphrase

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot [on fire?]. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me [God] gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich…
Revelation 3:15-18a, ESV

It’s also worth noting that most Christians interpret, rightly I believe, “tearing your eye out” as rhetorical hyperbole―that Jesus isn’t advocating physical self-harm. That He discusses the worm and fire in this context might indicate that they too are rhetorical hyperbole. I think this fits with Isaiah 66 too, which is full of non-literal imagery, for example:

earth is My footstool… Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her sons… Be glad for Jerusalem… nurse and be satisfied from her comforting breast… His chariots are like the whirlwind… His fiery sword
Isaiah 66:1, 8, 10, 11, 15, 16, HCSB

Under the heading “Final Separation” Burk says v22 indicates Isaiah isn’t describing immediate events but the end of this age. He notes that Isaiah 65 describes the next age as in God’s presence, free from weeping, death, want, conflict, and evil, but only for God’s people―that these things don’t apply to the wicked.

I think this is problematic because our love for our loved ones will surely increase as we become more Christlike in the New Creation. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, He didn’t rejoice that they were about to experience the consequences of their love of violence (Luke 19:41). Therefore it’s hard to imagine us not weeping over those in ECT. Similarly, anything that isn’t in a right relationship with God is in an evil state. Therefore it seems to me that if ECT continues, so does evil.

Furthermore, he understands v24 as implying the dead rebels will be visible to God’s people, probably just outside Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom.

At the very least, it pictures a separation between the righteous and the wicked… The imagery pictures… “complete separation” of God’s enemies from his worshipers.
Denny Burk, page 23

Given the wicked are visible, just outside the open gates, I’d suggest the emphasis isn’t really on “complete separation”…

Burk then seeks to make a case for it being “Unending Experience”. He says that v22 implies that both the worshipers and wicked will endure as long as the New Creation (i.e. forever), the latter in “a perpetual state of dishonor”. 3

Lastly, under the heading “Just Retribution” Burk writes:

Isaiah 66:24 is the last verse in the book, and the implication is that the final word corresponds to their final state which is unending. This means that the punishment of the wicked is not disciplinary or restorative. Rather, it is a punitive measure to recompense the wicked for rebelling against God. The “continual burning” of the “consuming fire” of God does not purge evil but punished evil.
Denny Burk, page 24

If Isaiah 66:24 was the last verse of the Bible, then this would carry some weight, however, thankfully we have the rest of the Bible, most significantly the record of the coming of Jesus, the full revelation of God.

I’m baffled as to why he sees no possibility of the fire being anything other than punitive as even within Isaiah the image of fire is used in other ways:

I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.
Isaiah 1:25, NIV
The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.
Isaiah 4:4, NIV
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
Isaiah 6:6, ESV
See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
Isaiah 48:10, NIV

And there are other examples throughout the Bible:

 

I think there’s potentially another way of understanding the passage, which comes from the last two verses:

  • all mankind bow down to God (v23)
  • all mankind go out and look at the dead bodies of the rebels (v24)

As all mankind are rebels (Rom 3:23) it seems v24 could read as:

  • all mankind will realise their dead bodies are loathsome

In other words, this appears to be another example of our dual-selves, a theme that appears in Isaiah and throughout the rest of the Bible:

Old name New name Isa 56:5, 62:2, 65:15; Rev 2:17, 3:12
Old man New man Rom 6:6; Eph 2:15, 4:22-24; Col 3:9-11 4
Abram Abraham Gen 17:5
Heart of stone Heart of flesh Ezk 11:19, 36:26
Flesh Spirit Gal 5:16–18
Old things New creature 2Cor 5:17
Old heart New heart Jer 24:7
Simon Peter Mat 16:18
Satanic Peter Peter the leader Mat 16:23, 16:18
Dead Alive Col 2:13, 3:1-17; Eph 2:1-10

I think a case could be made that the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs) is similar―that rather than viewing ourselves as the righteous, wise, diligent, etc. and other people as the wicked, foolish, lazy, etc. , that we acknowledge that we are both, but thankfully God is helping us destroy the latter within us.


1. Page 21
2. I’ll leave the question of how Jesus compares to Isaiah’s revelation of God to another day, although it’s definitely worth considering, particularly given it’s Good Friday as I’m writing this!
3. Page 23
4. See also “Old Man” and “New Man” in Paul

One thought on “Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 2

  1. Pingback: Is Aionios Eternal?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 4 – Reforming Hell

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