Isaiah 66:22-24 - Eternal Worms?
Having just dealt with Daniel 12:2, I thought we should deal with the other passage in the Old Testament that is sometimes rolled out to prove an eternal hell/punishment. Isaiah 66:22-24 reads as follows:
“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.”
It is suggested by some that because the King James Bible states there are worms that shall not die (immortal worms apparently) and a fire that can’t be quenched, this is proof that there is eternal or everlasting punishment. This is of course based upon a rather extreme and very literal interpretation of this passage.
Of course, most Christians don’t take anything else in the passage very literally. The Sabbath in the Bible is the 7th day, not the first, and nowhere in the Bible is the Sabbath changed to the 1st day. Christians as a rule don’t gather to celebrate at the time of the new moon either. That would be perceived as something Jews and pagans do. If we do take this verse literally then we would be faced with a very interesting scenario. For all of eternity, those who are saved will have the “pleasure” of viewing the dead bodies of those who have sinned against God, including family members who weren’t “saved.” These bodies will be eternally consumed by immortal worms in a never-ending fire. Apparently the observation of these rather unusual events will be part of the celebration of those who are saved when they worship God on the Sabbath and the new moons.
Actually let’s combine Isaiah 66:22-24 with the belief that most of humanity, i.e. all the unsaved, are going to be eternally punished in hell. Literally, Isaiah 66:22-24 doesn’t really mention this since it only mentions carcases or bodies apparently lying very visibly exposed somewhere so those going to worship God get to observe these corpses. Now a lot of Christian theology has everyone being resurrected and returned to their bodies so this creates a problem if these corpses are going to be lying visibly on the earth forever but we will set aside that dilemma for now.
Let’s assume that the bodies are being eaten by worms and burned in unquenchable fire while the souls of the people are being tormented in hell. I wonder how joyful you are going to feel when you go to worship God and part of the experience is the observation of your father’s body (feel free to use any other family member if you prefer) being eaten by immortal worms and burned for all of eternity. This would definitely remind you that said family member is being punished forever in the flames of hell by God. But of course there will be no tears or sadness in this new earth and heavens so I guess it won’t bother you at all. (Sarcasm is cheap but sometimes it fits.)
I have a question – Why, if God has made a new earth and new heavens, do we have “old carcases” from the prior earth and heavens existing in this new earth and heavens? I thought all things would be passed away and all things were to become new. Apparently not if these verses are meant to be taken literally.
To be blunt, these verses are really easy if you aren’t a fundamental literalist and if you are, your interpretation of these verses borders on the unfathomable to the rest of us.
Let’s start with unquenchable fire. In Jeremiah 17:27 Jerusalem was threatened with unquenchable fire and in Ezekiel 20:45 forests were threatened with unquenchable fire. Does anyone think that Jerusalem was being threatened with burning for all of eternity? I doubt it but then again, I have learned to never say never so it is possible I suppose.
However, for those who see that it is ludicrous to suggest that Jeremiah meant Jerusalem might burn for all of eternity, we can turn to an example today for the very simple explanation. There are times when firemen arrive at a fire and realize that they can’t put it out. They can only try and prevent it from spreading. They can’t do anything but let the fire burn itself out which it will do when it has consumed anything and everything combustible within its domain. That fire is unquenchable. To say a fire is unquenchable doesn’t mean it will burn forever but rather that it will burn until there is nothing left to burn and if the fire was set for a specific reason, then it will burn until that reason has been accomplished or fulfilled.
Looking outside the Bible and you will find Josephus, Strabo, Plutarch and Eusebius all use the term unquenchable fire to refer to fires that did indeed go out.
By the way, fires that are said in the Bible to never go out… do go out!
“And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out: and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn thereon the fat of the peace offerings. The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.” Leviticus 6:12-13
This fire went out long ago. Bible critics would point to this verse as an example of biblical error. The error however isn’t the Bible per se but the English interpretation and human understanding of the verse.
Isaiah 34:8-10 not only provides us a great example concerning fires that “don’t go out” but it also gives us a great example of the use of the word olam.
“For it is the day of the LORD'S vengeance, and the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion. And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.”
Let’s say that this entire series is all wrong. If so, what does Isaiah 34:8-10 tell us we should expect to find TODAY? We have to go back to verse 5 where we learn that this passage is about judgment falling on the land of Idumea or Edom for their treatment of the Jews. Their mistreatment is referred to as the controversy of Zion in verse 8. If unquenchable means forever and olam means forever, then we should find the land of Edom filled with rivers of burning pitch that will never go out, the earth should have been turned into brimstone never to change, smoke should be arising from the land for all of eternity and no one should have ever travelled through the land since the fulfillment of the prophecy and no one should travel through Edom for all of eternity.
Needless to say, none of that is true from a literal point of view, let alone an eternal or everlasting point of view. If we, however, go back and read Isaiah with the understanding that the judgment would fall on the land of Edom and that judgment would not cease until it had accomplished all that it was intended to accomplish and that it would go on for an indeterminate length of time, then the verses make perfect sense.
There is a genre or style of writing in the Bible that is referred to as Jewish apocalyptic literature. The language of this genre is filled with hyperbole, metaphors, exaggerations, inanimate objects personified, etc. One of the great examples is the book of Revelation along with Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.
We need to be aware of this genre. For example, before you come up with some interpretation for Matthew 24:29 where the sun is darkened and the moon isn’t giving her light and stars are falling from heaven, you better go back and read Isaiah 13:10, Joel 2:10 and 3:15 and other verses where the same phenomena is spoken of and figure out what it meant in those verses because it is going to mean the same thing in Matthew and believe me, or don’t believe me, it has nothing to do with literal stars falling from heaven or the sun’s shining suddenly stopping.
Isaiah 66:22-24 and 34:8-10 are classic examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature. There is symbolism, metaphors, hyperbole etc. giving us rivers of pitch that constantly burn, smoke ascending forever, immortal worms and bodies that burn but never burn up, none of which was meant to be taken from a purely literal point of view.
Allow me to show you what happens when you don’t understand the genre, when you see this far too literally and you believe in a “god” who is going to punish humanity forever in hell.
Isaiah 63:3 reads: “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.”
Here is another great example of Jewish apocalyptic literature but here is what you can end up with when you go to the literal extreme. I am saddened greatly when I realize that there are people who truly believe in the “god” described as follows, the “god” that they come up with based on their interpretation of Isaiah 63:3.
“It is hard for us to think of words that describe contempt, hatred and fierce anger any better than what we find in this verse. Once in hell, God will simply not ignore your cries for pity, He will trample you under His feet even while you cry out.
And even though God will know full well that you are incapable of bearing the agony of His wrath, He will still ignore you and crush you under His feet with out mercy or hesitation. He will crush you to the uttermost so that your blood will fly in all directions and stain God’s robes.
Do not make the mistake of thinking this is not true because of the symbolic language. The description in Isaiah is used simply to give us something we can comprehend in our finite minds. And even at this, we cannot possibly began to conceive of how awful hell really will be, or we would faint dead at the thought. God will not only hate you, but He will have the utmost contempt and disgust for you. There will be no place for you in God’s presence and the only thing you will be worthy of is to be stomped down and crushed into nothing.”
To use the word “olam” in context, this person’s view is olam to me. It is totally beyond my understanding. I can only assume that this person actually believes that somehow I am going to be so dreadfully afraid of this “god” that he believes in, that I will be compelled to get “saved.” There is a play called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames that shows up in churches periodically that basically does the same thing, i.e. focuses far more on the fear of God than the love of God. Needless to say, I am not going to be attending any performances.
How anyone can come up this God is truly mind-boggling and yet, dare I say this, he is not far off in accurately describing the “god” of fundamental Christianity. It is true based on fundamental Christian theology that “God” will ignore any cries for mercy or pity as most of humanity is confined to hell with no chance of escape regardless of their pleas.
That humanity will be “crushed to the uttermost” is not debatable. I cannot dispute that such a description fits what will happen to all that are in hell. That hell would be beyond our comprehension is not debatable. And as harsh as it may sound, most of humanity will apparently be worthy of nothing more than being stomped down and crushed, i.e. being punished forever in hell.
And to be very blunt, that is definitely a ”god” to be feared. That is a “god” whose unconditional love and supposed everlasting mercy are anything but that. The mercy is far from everlasting and the love is far from unconditional.
My joy is to suggest to you that God’s love is unconditional and His mercy is everlasting. I will leave it to you decide which God you think is portrayed in the Bible when all the evidence is considered.
Blessings, shalom, namaste