Salted with Fire: Annihilation and Mark 9:49

Conditionalists frequently respond to the traditionalist argument from Mark 9:48’s undying worm and unquenchable fire. What doesn’t appear to come up as often, however, are Jesus’ words which immediately follow verse 48: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Occasionally this verse is pointed to in defense of the traditional view of hell. As John Gill writes,1

that fire shall be to them, what salt is to flesh; as that keeps flesh from putrefaction and corruption, so the fire of hell, as it will burn, torture, and distress rebellious sinners, it will preserve them in their beings; they shall not be consumed by it, but continued in it: so that these words are a reason of the former, showing and proving, that the soul in torment shall never die, or lose any of its powers and faculties;

Leading up to my recent debate, when my opponent asked me how I understand this verse I did not yet have an answer. But with the help of some friends and fellow conditionalists I developed a confident response—and I’m glad I did because it came up briefly during cross-examination. Here I’ll explain in further detail the answer I gave.

Weston W. Fields wrote a paper published in the 1985 Grace Theological Journal in which he noted that “the meaning of Mark 9:49 … has long perplexed interpreters,” pointing out that “Bratcher and Nida have counted at least 15 different explanations of the verse, and Gould calls it ‘one of the most difficult to interpret in the New Testament’.”2 Adam Clarke admitted that “there is great difficulty in this verse.”3 James Burton Coffman wrote that “this is a difficult verse, and all kinds of notions have been advocated as the meaning of it.”4 Albert Barnes speculated that “perhaps no passage in the New Testament has given more perplexity to commentators than this; and it may be impossible now to fix its precise meaning.”5 It is readily apparent, then, that no interpretation of this verse is so certain as to serve as the lens through which the rest of the biblical testimony concerning final punishment is to be read.

But just what did Jesus mean? One common interpretation is the one that Gill offers above. Clarke likewise wrote that “it is generally supposed that our Lord means that, as salt preserves the flesh with which it is connected from corruption, so this everlasting fire … will have the property … of making them inconsumable like itself.”6 Barnes said, “The common meaning affixed to it has been that, as salt preserves from putrefaction, so fire applied to the wicked in hell shall have the property of preserving them in existence.”7 But as common as this interpretation may be, surely it is entirely speculative. Salt may preserve meat, but Jesus doesn’t say everyone will be salted with salt. He says they will be salted with fire. The connection between the preserving function of salt and the alleged preserving function of this fire seems dubious.

Some commentators do not see verse 49 as having anything to do with the damned. Barnes rejected what he called the common meaning, offering instead that “the passage has not reference at all to future punishment.”8 Coffman writes, “If we understand ‘fire’ as a reference to the persecutions and tribulations that invariably beset the Christian pilgrimage, it means that none shall be saved except through the endurance of the world’s scorn and opposition.”9 Pointing to faith tried by fire in 1 Peter 1:7 and 4:12, William L. Lane interprets it similarly: “While verse 48 applies to the rejected, verse 49 has reference to those who are true to God in a hostile world … The disciples must be seasoned with salt, like the sacrifice … through fiery trials.”10 If Barnes, Coffman, and Lane are right, then conditionalists have no explaining to do.

Lane finds support for his view not only in the fiery trials of 1 Peter but also from the same connection made by some scribes early in the history of this text’s transmission. One, for example, includes, καὶ πᾶσα θυσία ἀλὶ ἁλισθήσεται, translated “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.” Bruce Metzger writes, “At a very early period a scribe, having found in Lv 2.13 a clue to the meaning of Jesus’ enigmatic statement, wrote the Old Testament passage in the margin of his copy of Mark.”11 In Leviticus 2:13 grain offerings are to be seasoned with salt before being burned up “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering.” Unlike Lane, however, John Gill interprets this connection as meaning that12

the wicked in hell shall be victims to divine justice, and sacrifices to his wrath and vengeance; and that as the sacrifices under the law were salted with salt, these shall be salted with the fire of hell, and shall never be utterly destroyed;

It seems strange that the seasoning of Levitical sacrifices by salt, which were subsequently destroyed, should be seen as support for the salting of the damned by fire which never destroys them. In fact, an argument could be made that this connection favors annihilation. After all, what happened to those grain offerings which had been seasoned with salt? They were burned up. Again, conditionalists have no explaining to do.

However, I concur with Edward Fudge who, in the third edition of his book The Fire That Consumes, writes:13

Perhaps the most promising explanation of Mark 9:49 relates to the premise that Mark used a Hebrew source for this passage, which included Hebrew idiom lost on later Greek readers … The expression ‘to salt with fire’ is an idiom, says Fields, for the practice of destroying a place and sowing it with salt to make its destruction permanent.

Fudge and Fields are not the only ones to see salting with fire as an idiom communicating permanent destruction. Apparently some early scribes understood it that way too. Bruce Metzger notes that14

The opening words of this verse have been transmitted in three principal forms … Other modifications include πυρὶ ἀναλωθήσεται (Θ, “…will be consumed with fire…”), θυσία ἀναλωθήσεται (Ψ, “…sacrifice will be consumed…”) … and πᾶσα δὲ οὐσία ἀναλωθήσεται (implied by it, “and all [their] substance will be destroyed,”…)

Fields points out that Israeli New Testament scholar Robert Lisle Lindsey, as well as German Hebraist Franz Delitzsch and the UBS Modern Hebrew New Testament, suggest מלח as the Hebrew translation of the Greek ἁλισθήσεται (“salted”). While מלח is usually translated “to salt,” Fields notes further that Hebrew linguist and lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan defines another usage of the word as “to destroy” and “to erase,” and that Israeli lexicographer Reuven Alcalay translates a phrase literally meaning “to sow a place with salt” so as “to destroy completely.” If conditionalists are correct, that the preceding verse’s unquenchable fire and undying worms communicate irresistible, permanent destruction, then it would make sense for Jesus to use this idiom to refer to the fate of the damned in final punishment.

Traditionalists might object to this interpretation on the grounds that Mark 9:49 was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and that we should not base our interpretation on what is speculated to be Mark’s Hebrew source material. Fields could be said to have done just that, suggesting that “a Hebrew expression was translated literally into Greek, not dynamically,” and indeed this does seem a little speculative. However, it is not primarily the language that is being appealed to but the idiom. Even if Mark was not translating from a Hebrew source document into Greek when he penned Mark 9:49, he may have been writing this expression literally in Greek, one familiar to him and his Jewish readers but lost on his Gentile readers.

Understandably, Fudge and Fields are not dogmatic in proposing this as the best interpretation of this text. Neither am I. Admittedly it is speculative—as is the alleged preserving nature of the fire, as well as the alleged connection to the Levitical sacrifices and any interpretation based upon it. As such, this very annihilation-friendly interpretation is at least equally plausible.

We have examined, then, several possible interpretations of Mark 9:49’s “salted with fire.” The only one which favors the traditional view of final punishment makes a dubious connection between the preserving nature of salt and that of the fires of hell. Another sees it as having nothing to do with final punishment. Another sees a connection to sacrifices seasoned with salt and then destroyed, requiring no explanation from conditionalists, some of whom lean toward still another interpretation that may favor their view but are not dogmatic about it. If Bratcher and Nida are correct, then there are perhaps a dozen other interpretations, and many commentators have frankly admitted the difficulty in understanding it. It simply will not do to make a case for the traditional view of hell from this text, and critics of conditionalism should avoid attempting to do so.

  1. Gill, J. (1999). “Commentary on Mark 9:49.” New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. []
  2. Fields, W. (1985). “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Grace Theological Journal 6(2), 299-304. []
  3. Clarke, A. (1832). “Commentary on Mark 9.” Adam Clarke Commentary. []
  4. Coffman, J. B. (1983-1999). “Commentary on Mark 9.” Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament (Abilene Christian University Press). []
  5. Barnes, A. “Commentary on Mark 9.” Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. []
  6. Clarke. []
  7. Barnes. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Coffman. []
  10. Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans), 349. []
  11. Metzger, B. (2005). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Ancient Greek Edition (Hendrickson), 87. []
  12. Gill. []
  13. Fudge, E. (2011). The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed. (Cascade), 126. []
  14. Metzger, 87. []
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  • Thomas Larsen

    Perhaps verse 50 might aid in understanding verse 49. It reads, “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

    • wtanksleyjr

      Thomas, I really worked on that connection in a study, but to little avail. It seems very important, but it’s still not very clear.

      One possible reading I came up with is that being salted with fire has a double meaning: it means going to hell above, AND it means dying to your sins below. The Lutheran concept of mortification has a strong connection here: when you repent of your sins you’re understanding that sin and sinful desires belongs to the Old Man, the dead body of sin, and you’re assigning those desires within yourself as belonging to a dead body. In a sense, you’re killing a part of yourself, or at least you’re reckoning it as dead.

      So “everyone will be salted with fire” ties the two passages above and below it together. Above it means “these people will be destroyed entirely by fire”, while below it means “you should accept that fire now and let it burn out the corruption.”

      Finally, “have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with all men” might possibly mean that this repentance is not just toward God, but also among each other, and it’s saying that we should repent to each other in a similar way to how we repent toward God, confessing our sins and accepting forgiveness.


  • Dave

    I wonder if you’ve ever come across this version of what it means for salt to lose its saltiness: apparently (according to the speaker in a DVD Bible study my small group did a while back, another use for salt besides preserving meat was to throw onto a fire and doing so would make the fire burn hotter. Once the fire was done though, the salt you might collect from the remains of the fire would no longer have that effect. I was curious about that and tried looking it up, but couldn’t find any reference to that use. ( I’m sure the guy wasn’t just making it up, though). Have you ever heard of such a thing? if true, that might throw some light on the passage in the context of annihilationism.

    • wtanksleyjr

      Trained chemist here — he’s making it up, or quoting it from someone who’s making it up. In addition to being factually false, it strikes me as being entirely too obvious and simple — that verse has been puzzled over for many generations, and that explanation is simply the shortest path to draw all the data points together. If it were in fact true it would be widely accepted; whereas if it were merely a folk legend that Jesus was referencing, we SHOULD find some evidence of that folk legend somewhere.

  • Pingback: Strange Fire: Distorting a Biblical Symbol | Rethinking Hell()

  • Andreas Ike

    I wrote a book in this regard, but totally clueless how to get it published. The preface however, I share here:

    The popular contemporary notion is that the Antichrist is close enough to appearing, and that his people are preparing the world for a program designed to occur well into the planned reign of Antichrist. But much as am dazzled by the movie “Omen” this piece I here present sidelines all those concepts as Dark Age-childish.

    This piece is poised to show that though the phoenix is believed to be a mythological bird, the very order of her renewal is no myth. It is not about some bird, but all about certain humans, the “Gods”, if you chose to call them, because they’ve ceased to be as mere natural men. There mode of transmutation and transmogrification is revealed in all the mythologies of the world, but more directly and completely detailed in the Bible than all the other religious or mythological books put together. All the curious promises of Christ are in nothing short of all that is taught about the Order of the Phoenix.

    To show angels/gods are raised from men and that the Prometheus’ Fire, the element used in turning a mortal man into a preternatural, was meant for the creation of the subterranean man. What we do with fire, the gods have no need to be outraged. The mythologist should have known better: that mankind have stumbled upon wild bush fires not started by anything but extreme weather storm that Prometheus never needed to carry it to them. But you read that when the sons of Aaron made something called “Strange fire”– God killed them instantly:
    And Nadab and Abihu died, when they offered strange fire before the LORD (Numbers 3:4)

    What is strange about the fire?

    Prometheus is now being punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man, when Zeus was set on destroying humanity. Fire would give man the means for survival

    Why not say that fire would give man a chance to immortality?

    And we created the Jinn before that from the smokeless flame of fire
    And the jinn did We create aforetime of essential fire (Quran 15: 26-27)

    This book also is emphasizing that the promise of Christ to literally offer his flesh and blood to be eaten and drunk is no allegory. That it was actually fulfilled in that Bible in the name of “Judgment of the Great Whore”. That as far as theosophy is concerned, the Beast is the judgmental Christ on one side, and the judged Whore fulfills the notion of the sacrificial Jesus who gave His flesh as bread of immortal life to the select few or as He [Jesus] hinted, for “self-replication” via as many as to partake in this Last Supper in its most literal sense . I can’t say if it’s the reason the Roman Catholic Church take the Eucharist too seriously, but even that isn’t the aim here. Those, however, are mere terminologies used in conveying the ancient science code of ultra-extended mortality that reigned in Noah’s era.

    It redefines the concept of Hell and (the First) Death by the roles they play in the making of an immortal, and thereby showing that though alien hunters claim the gods left the clues to immortality in coded language, I dare say they left them in PLAIN language.

    The important lesson to note here is that the book of Revelation is no longer to be seen as a war between God and the Devil, but a team work of a couple of individuals, were one offered to be treated as sacrifice and the other had to perform the rites, for the ultimate end of proselytizing selected mortals into the arcane life of immortals, all in the name of what the Churches hope would be conferred on them, in anticipation of the so-called “Redemption”.

    One would rather require a lot of faith to digest these verses. Call ‘em ‘The Illuminati verses” in the Bible, because like the role of Lucifer, they sure shed light on the grey areas of the scripture. To me it is how fascinating and intriguing the understanding of those sayings are to the breaking of Bible Code of Ages, where the Revelation is no longer seen as prosaic religious book but the most intriguing literary work of all time;

    A Living Sphinx

    Of fact that all the secrets of the bible are hidden in the things they tag “Evil”.
    That all the promises of Christ are fulfilled in the One called “The Beast”.
    And in the New Testament, the one that bares “Harlot” prior to the book of Revelation signifies the future all the way.
    The interpretations here are way opposed to all the religious ones made in the past. Rather like Yeats, it reconciled the manifestation of the beast as the anticipated second coming of Christ. This, the author believes, is what kept the theologians, as well as the futuristic scientists from discovering the shaded path to immortality or how the Dark Sentences attributed to Christ meant it.

    Like Hitchens wrote: We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.
    Zuckerberg was raised a Jew, and afterward, he became an atheist.
    I didn’t become atheist.

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