These are the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about …
…cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, and hell.
I want to talk about this. Not just to understand what the passage might mean but also because I think we should have a feel for how to approach these verses in the first place.
It’s not like they’re the only New Testament verses where Jesus uses this imagery; you’ll find similar in Matthew 5:29-30, right after the verse about how looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. The thing is, no one genuinely believes that men should pluck out their eyes after they lust. So, if we’re ever to going to get traction with the idea that men are responsible for how they look at women, then we also need to reckon with Mark 9:42-49.
What’s more, Mark’s account is longer and lays it on thick with references to the ‘worm that does not die’ and the ‘fire that is not quenched’. Out of the two then, Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ words is the more difficult to tackle.
OK, here goes.
Knowledge can be heavy
I want to start with a little anecdote from Corrie Ten Boom.
She was a woman of great faith who lived in Holland and when World War II broke out, her family began providing hiding places for persecuted Jews. Though her father and sister died during the war, she survived and went on to write the bestselling book Hiding Place.
In her book, she recalls asking as a 10 year old: “Father, what is sexsin?” To begin with, he doesn’t answer. She writes:
At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor. “Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said. “It’s too heavy,” I said. “Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.” And I was satisfied. More than satisfied – wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions. For now I was content to leave them in my father’s keeping.
In many ways, this passage in Mark is a piece of knowledge that is heavy. Too heavy for young children, too heavy for people who are weak and fragile in faith, and definitely too heavy for anyone to wave it around indiscriminately — because if you clunk someone with this passage, you’re going to hurt them.
So – handle with care.
What makes this passage ‘heavy’?
Let’s start by having a read:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’” (NIV)
First thing to note, it’s a passage of judgement and challenge; that alone makes it heavy. And yes these passages are very important, but misapplication can be very damaging. So, we need to be diligent in when and how we apply it, particularly if we are using it to call someone out.
But more than that, it has a triple whammy of graphic imagery:
- It talks about dismemberment and death;
- It talks about one of the most abhorrent physical places that the Jews in Jesus’ time would have known – the valley of Ben Hinnom (this is the place translated as ‘hell’);
- It quotes one of the most graphic and disturbing verses in the whole of the Old Testament.
So… if this passage isn’t your favourite night-time reading, that’s OK. I’d be more concerned if you were comfortable reading this passage.
Let’s work through these bullets.
The art (and horror) of rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of using words to evoke responses in your listeners and persuading them. One of the most effective ways of getting an idea into someone’s conscious thought to relate that thought to their body. Because everyone has a body, everyone knows what it’s like to have their very being and very self connected to their body, and everyone knows what it’s like to feel pain.
Jesus does exactly this, saying to his listeners that they should cut off their hand if it causes them to sin. We can assume he had good reason to use rhetoric as graphic as this, however, we must remember that rhetoric is a way of presenting a message, not the message itself.
We therefore have to take care not to confuse (a) how Jesus is communicating with (b) what he’s communicating. So, for the avoidance of doubt, when Jesus says ‘cut off your hand’, he’s not telling us to cut off our hands.
The dark history of Ben Hinnom, aka hell
The valley of Ben Hinnom was a rubbish heap outside Jerusalem that was constantly on fire. It was also a site for child sacrifice in Old Testament times — hence one of Josiah’s reforms in 2 Kings 23:10 was to stop people from doing this.
In the Greek, this valley gets called ‘Gehenna’ and this is the word Jesus uses when he says it’s better to lose a hand or an eye than for our whole bodies to be sent there.
Thing is, ‘Gehenna’ is often translated into English as ‘hell.’
The thing about ‘hell’ as a concept, is that it is far more informed by cultural traditions, folklore and literature, than it is by the Bible or Old Testament history. Western readers, for example, will have images of hell that come from Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
I’ll talk a little more about what the Bible says in a moment, but the point I want to make first is this: when we talk about hell, we will evoke images that people have internalised. Those images are pretty grim and thus, again, we need to take care in how we talk about ‘hell.’
Jesus also expands on what hell is like, saying its fire will never go out. Again, not a nice image (though, rather close to historical fact when you think about the valley of Ben Hinnom).
But let’s put this in context: he’s quoting Isaiah 66 verse 24, which is itself prophetic poetry. It is rarely wise to take a very scientific or literal approach to either poetry or prophecy, because that’s not how they work as genres. They are open to interpretation in lots of different ways and I suspect we never truly understand their meaning until the events they describe are upon us.
This means, again, we’ve got to take care. Some people have interpreted this verse to mean that after the end of time whoever hasn’t been saved will be in an existence of eternal and conscious torment. And when you combine this passage with other prophetic passages, such as Revelation, I can see why you might think that. But that scenario throws up all kinds of very strange questions regarding the character of God and it’s not the only way of reading this passage.
In fact whenever Isaiah 66 was read in a synagogue, Jews would read verse 24, which is the last verse of that chapter and indeed the entire book, and then go back and read verse 23, “so as to close with words of consolation.” For context, the last few verses of Isaiah 66 are as follows:
22 “As surely as my new heavens and earth will remain,
so will you always be my people,
with a name that will never disappear,”
says the Lord.
23 “All humanity will come to worship me
from week to week
and from month to month.
24 And as they go out, they will see
the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me.
For the worms that devour them will never die,
and the fire that burns them will never go out.
All who pass by
will view them with utter horror.” (NLT)
But the reader would go back and read again:
23 “All humanity will come to worship me
from week to week
and from month to month.
So, maybe when we quote Jesus’s words, we should also remember to end with consolation.
I appreciate that I haven’t really gone into the meaning of these verses or asked why Jesus would say them in the first place.
My TL;DR on that is this: we really, really, REALLY, shouldn’t underestimate the consequences of remaining attached to our sin and the things that cause us to sin. Whether that’s because of what we might lose, or what we might lose out on, I’m not sure. But the stakes are high — I think that’s the only reason why Jesus would use this kind of language.
That means the message of such hyperbole is to tell us that sin is serious, but this rhetoric is not trying to tell us about a solution. After all, cutting off parts of our bodies does not separate us from our sin or prevent us from sinning.
And of all people, Jesus knew that.
Oh, one last thing before I close: the undying worm and never-quenching fire at the end of Isaiah contrasts with another image in verse 14 of the same chapter. There, Isaiah says the righteous will spring up from the earth like grass.
When you take these two verses as a pair, it seems then that the time will come when evil itself will die and stay dead. There will be no dark rising or zombie sin to haunt us or take from our peace.
Instead, all that is good will spring up with new life — like fresh grass, as Isaiah puts it. It’s a life out of death, a resurrection life, and an everlasting hope.
That’s why we call the gospel ‘good news’.
If you’re interested in knowing more on where I stand on theological topics, you might be interested in I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday or (more analytical, but digging into resurrection with reference to three SF&F series) Year of Hell, Remember Nothing, & The Wish: lessons on hope