“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 the fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24 NKJV).
In the course of my visits to other countries over the past several years I have often encountered political controversies involving the process of achieving justice for things done several decades in the past. One wonders how necessary it is for a person, now in old age and perhaps feeble health, to be brought to trial and convicted, sentenced, and punished for things done 40 years or more ago.
Very recently I was present in the country when a “war criminal” was executed over his participation in events that occurred in 1971. Many arguments were made that his punishment served no current legitimate purpose. Obviously the legal system disagreed.
That same argument is made by those who do not accept the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell. They argue, “Why would a loving, merciful God consign souls whom he created and loved to eternal torment? If for some reason he could not forgive and save them, would simple annihilation not serve the purpose?”
Isaiah’s wonderful book of oracles closes with one purpose for perpetual punishment. In his portrayal of the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 66:22-23) the prophet describes continuous sincere worship of God by those who have been recalled as his people. Then he states emphatically that their continuous awareness of the ongoing punishment of the disobedient is a meaningful contributor to their worship.
The saved will continue in righteous worship and service to God. They will have a constant reminder of the fruits of unrighteousness. Not just their punishment, but their disobedience which will be emphasized by that punishment and will be a continual abhorrence to all who see it.
There is much about eternity which has not been revealed to us and which we neither know nor understand. Some ask, how can the redeemed be happy in heaven if they know their loved ones are lost and perishing? I cannot answer such questions; God has not given us all the answers.
There are those who argue that the Old Testament does not clearly teach about life after death. Some of them argue that Isaiah is speaking in this passage only of the return of Israel to Canaan after captivity, and the restoration of the Jewish nation. Yet his language is mirrored in the New Testament to unmistakably prophesy of the second coming of Christ and final judgment, and of the final disposition of the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal destruction.
Jesus spoke of going to hell “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” quoting Isaiah 66:24 three times as a warning to encourage pure conduct (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). Peter speaks of the “Day of the Lord” in which “The heavens will pass away with a great noise,” and “the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” This will be followed by “New heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:10-13). This appropriation of Isaiah’s language suggests some relationship between Old Testament and New Testament understanding of its meaning.
If Isaiah is prophesying about eternity (and I believe that he is), he seems to teach that the righteous will not only know the fate of the wicked, but that their fate will continue to be a source of encouragement and a motivation for reverence towards God. Wickedness is not gone and forgotten. The continual suffering of the wicked will confirm the justice of God and the evil of sin.
The apostle Paul wrote about the sins and punishment of ancient Israel in the wilderness, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Those who insist that God is loving and merciful must remember that he is also just and righteous. One trait does not negate the other. Never underestimate the evil of sin, and the need for justice.