Guest Article by Rod MacArthur: What Does Unquenchable Fire Mean?

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My friend Rod MacArthur has sent this brief but intriguing and challenging article for  your consideration. Enjoy!


Again I’m reading in Jeremiah when I happen upon this: “Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh, ‘Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched’” (Jer. 7:20, NASB). As he warned of the impending invasion by Babylon, he spoke of Yahweh’s burning wrath that would not be quenched. In as much as a mere 70 years after it began the Babylonian captivity was over and the people restored to their land, God’s wrath obviously was no longer burning.

This highlights a curious word in the NT, especially as it pertains to “final things.” John B. warned of an unquenchable fire for the cut-off branches and discarded chaff (Matt. 3:10–12). And Jesus taught that His disciples should rather cut off their hand than be thrown into Gehenna and the unquenchable fire (Mk. 9:42–50). It is customary at these two passages to understand the term unquenchable to mean something like “burning forever.”

However, when we take Jeremiah into consideration—as sort of a glossary or dictionary of terms for the NT—another meaning of unquenchable fights its way to the top. Clearly the not-to-be-quenched wrath of God against Jerusalem lasted less than a century. The idea of “never ending” was not attached to the word as it was originally used. And, applying the principle that when NT writers used OT terms, they kept the original meaning of that term, we are compelled to rethink what “unquenchable” meant to John and to Jesus.


Since “quench” means to put out, as a fire, the phrase “unquenchable fire” describes a flame that is not snuffed out. It is possible, is it not, to let a fire burn itself out? If I had a bonfire, I could do three things: I could continue to add fuel so that it never burned out; I could add no more fuel and let it burn out; or I could extinguish the flame before the fuel was consumed. “Unquenchable” only addresses this third possibility.


In simple terms, God planned a fire for Jerusalem that He would not allow anyone or anything to extinguish. But, when it had completely burned up the hewn branches and discarded chaff, it would go out for lack of fuel. “Unquenchable” does not speak of endless time, it tells of thorough incineration (burned until burned-out).