Theological Reflection from a Wesleyan Perspective

Friday, May 06, 2011

John Wesley: Undying Worms, Unquenchable Fire

9:59 AM Posted by Casey Taylor , , ,
What does the Bible really say about Hell?  How do the good Christian thinkers in Christian tradition help us to understand the Bible on this subject?

I take seriously my task as pastor when I have to regularly preach, teach and talk about such weighty matters as salvation.  I've intentionally chosen to talk about matters - like judgment and Hell - that are frequently downplayed or ignored in many Mainline churches (or are too glibly celebrated in others).
As I prepare to preach on Hell (on Mother's Day, of all days), I've done a lot of reading.  A lot.  I've also been swimming in the sermons of my tradition's theological mentor, John Wesley.  Being a good 18th century preacher, Wesley of course preached on hell.

In many ways, John Wesley simply falls in line with traditional understandings of Hell as a place of unending torment, a view widely repulsive to people in the early 21st century.  However, he also rejects much of the lurid exaggeration of Medieval Catholic piety and revivalist preachers.  For example, here's what John Wesley says in his sermon Of Hell about the "undying worms and unquenchable fire" of Gehenna (cf. Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:47-48):

The First thing intended by the worm that never dieth, seems to be a guilty conscience; including self-condemnation, sorrow, shame, remorse, and a sense of the wrath of God.

Who can bear the anguish of an awakened conscience, penetrated with a sense of guilt, and the arrows of the Almighty sticking in the soul, and drinking up the spirit? How many of the stout-hearted have sunk under it, and chose strangling rather than life! And yet what are these wounds, what is all this anguish of a soul while in this present world, in comparison of those they must suffer when their souls are wholly awakened to feel the wrath of an offended God!

We may observe a remarkable difference in the manner wherein our Lord speaks concerning the two parts of the future punishment. He says, “Where their worm dieth not,” of the one; “where the fire is not quenched,” of the other. This cannot be by chance. What then is the reason for this variation of the expression? Does it not seem to be this? The fire will be the same, essentially the same, to all that are tormented therein; only perhaps more intense to some than others, according to their degree of guilt; but their worm will not, cannot be the same. It will be infinitely varied, according to the various kinds, as well as degrees, of wickedness. 

This variety will arise partly from the just judgment of God, “rewarding every man according to his works:” For we cannot doubt but this rule will take place no less in hell than in heaven. As in heaven “every man will receive his own reward,” incommunicably his, according to his own labours, — that is, the whole tenor of his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions; — so undoubtedly, every man, in fact, will receive his own bad reward, according to his own bad labour. And this, likewise, will be incommunicably his own, even as his labour was. Variety of punishment will likewise arise from the very nature of the thing. As they that bring most holiness to heaven will find most happiness there; so, on the other hand, it is not only true, that the more wickedness a man brings to hell the more misery he will find there; but that this misery will be infinitely varied according to the various kinds of his wickedness. It was therefore proper to say, the fire, in general; but their worm, in particular.

Many writers have spoken of other bodily torments, added to the being cast into the lake of fire. One of these, even pious Kempis, supposes that misers, for instance, have melted gold poured down their throats; and he supposes many other particular torments to be suited to men’s particular sins. Nay, our great poet himself supposes the inhabitants of hell to undergo a variety of tortures; not to continue always in the lake of fire, but to be frequently, By harpy-footed furies, haled into regions of ice; and then back again through extremes, by change more fierce: But I find no word, no tittle of this, not the least hint of it in all the Bible. And surely this is too awful a subject to admit of such play of imagination. Let us keep to the written word. It is torment enough to dwell with everlasting burnings.

I noted above the way Wesley both adheres to and challenges the prevailing notions in his day of Hell.  What also strikes me is his insistence that these "undying worms" are metaphorical but vigorously defends the literalness of hellfire!  I would challenge Wesley on his rationale for that distinction  but his views are insightful and worthy considering nevertheless.