Worm or Worms? Isaiah 66:24 and the Prophesied State of the Final Judgment

I’ve been a bit busy trying to catch up on some needed reading. I finished Robert A. Peterson’s book entitled Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. I am currently reading a book published by InterVarsity Press where Peterson and Edward Fudge debate the issue of Conditionalism/Annihilationism versus what is often labeled the Traditional view of Hell, entitled Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue. Fudge’s book the Fire that Consumes is forthcoming, and I will probably be adding Chris Date’s Rethinking Hell to my list of need to read.

As I’ve said in the past the issue is a linguistic one. Both sides attempt to argue from Scripture. Both sides claim orthodoxy (right opinion). Both sides have governing presuppositions that direct their interpretation of certain words, phrases and concepts spoken of in Scripture. What the Conditionalist like Fudge wants his readers/hearers to do, he says, is understand the biblical terms in their plainest sense. At one point he even argues that “we should not look for hidden meanings in these words, different from their common, ordinary usage.”[1]

Common Ordinary Sense…

What is meant by the “plainest sense?” The short answer is that Fudge and others who share his position imply that their understanding is the plain one, all others are therefore seemingly extraordinary. One of the first posts on my site was entitled Worldview Lessons from Grandpa. In that post, I highlighted an overarching assumption that people have in regards to what is referred as “common sense.” It was my grandfather’s position if you didn’t know something he knew, or if you didn’t think the way he did about a given subject you lacked what he called “common, ordinary sense.” But here’s the thing “common sense” is never “common or ordinary” it is always learned.

As we age, we gather bits of information from a variety of sources that help form the presuppositional lens that guide our minds. This is why I hate the popular idea that you can merely “follow the evidence where it leads.” Evidence or facts must be interpreted. They say nothing in and of themselves. Rarely have I run into an individual that thinks these things through.

Let me provide a quick example.

Popular Christian apologists that adhere to an evidentialist/classical method will often lynchpin the entirety of the Christian faith on the historical reliability of the resurrection of Jesus. Much of the historical data that they gather, even some of the conjectures that they form, are very helpful to members of the Christian faith. For instance, I find Lee Strobel’s book the Case for Christ very compelling. But the reason I find it compelling is because I view the evidence for the Lord Jesus Christ in light of biblical presuppositions. A person who does not share those same assumptions/biases or axiomatic thoughts will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead (Luke 16.31). That is to say, faith is not built upon evidence, faith is built upon God’s Word (Rom 10.17) as the Holy Spirit opens the heart (mind) of the individual in question (e.g., Acts 16.14).

Presuppositional Necessity…

Historic evidences for the resurrection are wonderful gifts of encouragement to the believer. They do offer some backing to the Christian apologists’ arguments for the faith-system known as Christianity. But one cannot make sense of a man from Nazareth dying on a Roman cross in 1st century Jerusalem without biblical presuppositions. Common sense will never lead one to Christ. It is not through worldly wisdom, but godly wisdom that such things stop being appearing foolish and act as a stumbling block (1Cor 1-2). Even the titles attributed to Jesus (including His name which means Yahweh saves), such as Christ/Messiah/Anointed One, Son of God, Son of Man, Seed of David and Abraham, etc., are not comprehendible apart from the Christian worldview found/taught in the inscripturated Word of God.

Come Back…!

Now if I’ve lost you to this point, I apologize, but what I am getting at is this: Understanding biblical terms, phrases, and concepts is anything but “plain.” You need to define what “in the plainest sense” means first. For the Conditionalist/Annihilationist the plain sense is “dead means dead” like we understand it now. “Fire means fire” like we understand it now. “Consume means consume” like we understand it now. “Destruction, perish, punishment, etc. means what we understand them to mean now.” That is the argument presented, and this appears to me to be the manner in which the push forward their agenda.

Clear Thinking in the OT

Take for example, one of only two clear passages from the Old Testament (Tanakh) that teach something about the final judgment; namely, Isaiah 66:24; Daniel 12:2. I say “clear” in about as muddy as a sense as I may. I do think there is clarity in what is being argued in those texts, but I think overzealousness to prove a point hinders what ought to be seen.

  • “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind” (Isa 66.24)
  • “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12.2).

In both passages there is a comparison between what the righteous will experience, and the unrighteous will endure. For the sake of time we shall only look into the passage of Isa 66.

Isaiah 66

Those who hear and those who do not…

The comparison is found in two types of people. Those that are broken in spirit and mourn in a sense before the Word of God, which He has spoken through the prophets. The Lord says,

“…to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and trembles at My Word (Isa 66.2).

To those others who serve as an antithesis to the former mentioned God says,

“…they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations, so I will choose their punishments and will bring on them what they dread. Because, I called, but no one answered; I spoke, but they did not listen. And they did evil in My sight and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isa 66.4).

The Future Outcome of the Hearing and Non…

In the later part of the same chapter the Lord God, through His prophet Isaiah, puts a spotlight on the two different outcomes for the two different types of persons. To the one who listens to the Lord and serves Him fearfully (lovingly) the Lord says,

“Behold, I extend peace like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; And you will be comforted in Jerusalem.’ Then you will see this, and your heart will be glad, and your bones will flourish like new grass; and the hand of the Lord will be made known to His servants” (Isa 66.12-14a).

**This applies first to the elect of Israel, but later includes the elect of the nations.

“…the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come to see My glory…For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘So your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,’ says the Lord” (Isa 18b, 22-23).

On the other hand, a different fate awaits those who refuse to listen to God in rebellion. With this latter group the Lord states that He

“…will be indignant toward His enemies. For behold, the Lord will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. And the Lord will execute judgment by fire. And by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the Lord will be many” (Isa 66.14b-16).

The judgment of both parties will be exercised at the same time…

“Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens, Following one in the center, Who eat swine’s flesh, detestable things and mice, will come to an end altogether,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I know their works and their thoughts…’” (Isa 66.17-18a).

One group identified by purity and sanctity, those who are granted entrance in the garden(s) of God—His sanctuary, a blessed state where God will dwell with His people forever and ever (cf. Isa 66.23). The other group identified by all things unclean, impure, unholy. That which has been defiled by sin will reap the benefit of their sin.

Their end will be a memorial. Their shame will be eternal. “Their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched.”

Worm or worms?

The Hebrew term translated worm (tôlā) in Isaiah is in the singular and not plural form. In a creaturely sense it refers to a maggot, or larva, or worm (certain types are used in the making of red dye), that feeds upon the dead and/or decaying (cf. Exod 16.20; Isa 14.11).[2] Those that cling to the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view say this is the way we need to interpret it is to focus on the worm, not the individual. “How could it, they are dead?” They argue that it speaks of the finality of shameful fate of those who rebel against their Maker. They…just…die, that’s it.

As I read and listen to their side of the argument I continually hear “worms” being presented.[3] “It’s just talking about worms that feed on the dead.” They do the same thing with Jesus statement in Mark 9. Here the Lord appears to quote from Isaiah’s prophecy:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having two feet, to be cast into hell…If you eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.” (Mark 9.43, 45, 47-48; emphasis in original).

Personally focused…

Jesus only speaks of “worm” in the singular sense, just like Isaiah. Neither the former prophet or the premiere prophet of God speaks of “worms,” just “worm.” Also notice that the worm spoken of is personalized. It refers to specific persons.

Each person who is condemned to hell, who is cast into Gehenna, is said to have “their worm not die.” One person, one worm. My question when hearing the argument that the worm only refers to maggots that feed on corpses is, “Is that is the only way the Bible speaks of the worm? A flesh eater?” What then, about Job 25.6, Psa 22.6, and Isa 41.14? They use the same Hebrew word in the singular sense for “worm.”

  • “How then can a man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman…How much less man, that maggot, and the son of man, that worm!” (Job 25.4, 6; cf. 14.4).
  • “But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people” (Psa 22.6)
  • “‘Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel’” (Isa 41.14).

With these texts in consideration am I then saying that Jesus and Isaiah meant that the worm that does not die is really the person in question? That, though many identify Jesus’ saying in the gospels with Isa 66:24, what He really meant was these texts? No…that is not what I’m saying. That isn’t my argument.

My argument is…

First, to acknowledge that the fallen sinner is sometimes identified in Scripture as a creeping thing rather than what he was originally created to be (i.e., upright before God) due to the corruption of his/her inner self, a consequence of the judicial judgment of Adam (see Rom 5; Eph 2). Such a person in sin, or the one taking on our sin as the Messianic Psalm identifies Jesus (Psa 22.6; see Matt 27.46; cf. Gal 3.13), is comparable to a worm; a dirty, unclean thing that feeds on the carcasses of decaying matter, a picture of contrast with that which is holy (i.e., clean).

Second, to acknowledge that both Isaiah and Jesus were well aware of this fact. Isaiah told by the Lord as his prophet. Not to mention being impressed with his own impurity before God at the initial stage of his prophetic calling (see Isa 6). Jesus being the Lord in the flesh “knew what was in man” (John 2.25) understood the corruption of our nature better than we know ourselves. It is His Word that “cannot be broken” (John 10.35).

Third, to acknowledge that both Isaiah and Jesus use the singular number of the noun in order to identify individuals—both the worm that torments them, reminding them of the worm that they are—who are experiencing the frightful fiery judgment of God. I think it is fair to say that the immediate worm is to be identified with the scavenger of flesh that devours the dead, but I also believe it is fair to see that in this image is a reminder of who the man or woman is that suffers this fate.


[1] Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 61.

[2] “All three forms of the word [tôlā‘, tôlē‘â, tôlā‘at] mean ‘worm, maggot, larva’; two of them (tôlāʿ and tôlāʿat) also mean ‘scarlet, crimson.’ The worms referred to are probably the larvae of certain kinds of insects, primarily flies, moths, and beetles. In the OT they often [not always] symbolize the weakness and insignificance of man…a type that devour decaying matter…including corpses….” Ronald F. Youngblood, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. (Chicago, IL: Mood Bible Institute, [1980], 2007), 972, WORDsearch Corp.

[3] Fudge writes under the heading “Food for fire and maggots” the following: Discarded corpses are fit only for worms (maggots) and fire—both insatiable agents of disintegration and decomposition. To the Hebrew mind, both worms and fire also indicate complete destruction, for the maggot in this picture does not die but continues to feed so long as there is anything to eat.”  Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell, 32.

It should be noted that Fudge eventually, after a few paragraphs of dialogue finally refers to the “maggots” in Isa 66:24 as “maggot.” However, unless one is a careful reader you would assume that Isaiah was speaking about maggots devouring the flesh of God’s adversary, not a maggot in a singular sense for specific individuals in question. While there will be multitudes on both sides of the aisle in the final judgment, the judgment is not limited to a group but a group made up of individuals. Individuals that either humbled themselves before their Maker or individuals that absolutely refused.