What is the worm that will not die mentioned in Mark 9:48?
Mark 9:48 is a description: "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." This verse is found within a larger portrayal of the horrors of hell, which utilizes a place called Gehenna—the garbage dump of ancient Jerusalem—as an illustration. Gehenna was located on the south end of Jerusalem and had been a site for pagan child sacrifices during Old Testament times (2 Kings 23:10). During Jesus' lifetime, Gehenna had a constant fire burning to dispose of the waste that was left there—from regular household trash to the carcasses of animals and convicted criminals (Jeremiah 7:31–33). Because of this, the Jews considered Gehenna to be a cursed place full of filth.
The Greek word Gehenna, translated as "hell" in Mark 9:43, finds its origin in the Hebrew name for a place known as the "Valley of Hinnom." Jews equated the Valley of Hinnom with spiritual death, which is why Jesus used it to clearly communicate what kind of place hell is. In Mark 9:48, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 66:24, which says: "And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." In both verses, the word for "worm" literally translates as "maggot" or "grub." Clearly, maggots are associated with death and decay—they show up to feast on what is dead. What's different about the maggot Christ mentions is that it "will not die."
This portrayal of maggots consuming a decaying corpse serves as a terrifying metaphor for the horrors of an eternity in hell. Looking earlier in this same passage, we see that Christ says it would be better to cut off anything that causes us to sin, so that we may inherit the kingdom of God rather than end up in hell: "And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 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 hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched'" (Mark 9:43–48; see also Matthew 5:30).
The "worm" that is described in Mark 9:48 is not a literal worm that never dies, but rather, it is a figurative description of a person's individual "worm" that never stops causing suffering and torment in hell. Notice that in this verse as well as Isaiah 66:24, the word "their" precedes the word "worm," indicating that there are individually assigned worms for each "host."
There are Bible scholars who think that the "worm" could refer to a person's conscience, meaning that those who are separated from God in hell have the persistent worm of guilt keeping them in a constantly guilty state that cannot be relieved. We can't be certain of what exactly the worm refers to, but what we can be certain of is that there is no greater horror than the horror of hell. It is imperative for us to receive Jesus Christ as our Savior and make Him the Lord of our lives (John 3:16).
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