One is put in the way of biblical mysteries in a variety of different ways . Sometimes people ask you questions and you go about answering them. Recently, my congregation had a sermonette class where I delivered a message on a classic “problem scripture.” As I had the only message prepared that day, the meeting contained a bit of discussion and we were all given an assignment to outline (but not write) a sermonette message on a difficult scripture. The scripture I was given happened to be Isaiah 66:24: “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
There are a few things that can be quickly noticed about this verse. If you look at its context, going back a few verses, we can see that this verse relates to the new heavens and new earth and the lake of fire spoken of in places like Revelation 20 and 21. We are therefore dealing here with matters of eschatology and prophecy, and it is pretty obvious that it is easy to get into trouble in such waters. Additionally, beyond looking at the scripture in its context, we need to look at what is spoken of when the bible speaks of worms here. The Hebrew word for worm used is Strong’s H8438, tola, and it is used often in the Bible as a term for scarlet, since the red dye that was used to make clothing and other materials scarlet came from a grubby insect. At other times this word is used to describe worms or maggots: in Psalm 22:6 David laments in a Christological psalm that he is no man but a worm, in Exodus 16:20 the term is used to describe the maggots that ate the manna that had been left overnight by the Israelites and not cooked and properly disposed of. In Jonah 4:7 it refers to the grubworm that ate the gourd that sheltered the disobedient prophet from the brutal sirocco wind as he watched Nineveh not being destroyed after it repented. In Isaiah 14:11 the same word is used to describe the maggots and worms that eat those who are in the grave.
Most of these references are quite unpleasant. Yet there is a shared connection among them. For one, we see that Isaiah 66:24 is dealing with the gehenna fire, the second death, the lake of fire, or whatever one would prefer to call it. The term gehenna, it should be noted, is a historical reference to a garbage dump outside of the city of Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom where refuse was burned and where the fire never went out. Isaiah 66:24 is one of the more eloquent verses discussing the absence of an immortal soul, in that the corpses of unbelievers remain a permanent sight of disgust to those granted eternal life and the fire and breeding of maggots going out never ceases. And it is that which solves the mystery for us. The fuel is what never does out–the fire keeps going and maggots keep coming because the corpses are never burnt up entirely. The image is one of a garbage dump where the fire is burning continually, the fuel never being entirely used up and so the fire never entirely goes out, even though we are not speaking here of immortal souls being burned up for all eternity but corpses, dead bodies made up of ashes that are yummy food for maggots. The image is an unforgettable one–no one wants to be maggot food for all eternity.
What should we think about this mystery? For one, sometimes it is necessary to understand the poetic language of the Bible for what it is. Isaiah 66:24 is part of a poetic oracle, and it is not speaking of immortal worms here but rather of the reality that the ashes of those who have rebelled against God and have refused to repent will serve as an eternal reminder of God’s righteous judgment. There are only two fates for human beings (and, if one takes Ezekiel 28:15-19 as referring to Satan, for angels as well): either there is life eternal with God or there is death and being part of an everlasting blaze where one’s life and consciousness have been snuffed out but where one remains ashes under the feet of the righteous and food for grubby worms and maggots. This verse certainly gives us a lot of food for thought, that is for sure.
 See, for example: