“What did Jesus mean in Mark 9:43ff when he said if the hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin to cut the hand or foot off or pluck the eye out? I have heard sermons where it was said that Jesus did not mean that literally. I could accept that if it were not for the fact the he goes on to say that it would be better to enter life with one hand, foot, or eye than to have them both and be cast into hell.”
The language employed by Christ in this context does employ a figure of speech that is common to all languages. It is called hyperbole. The term is derived of two Greek components, hyper (over, above), and bole (from ballein, to throw), hence “to throw above.” It is a specially designed exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis.
My mother, with somewhat of a twinkle in her eye, used to say, “Son, if you do that again, I’m gonna skin you alive.” I knew she was speaking figuratively; nonetheless, I got the point!
In the context of Mark 9:43ff, Christ was emphasizing the supreme value of pursuing the kingdom of God above all else. To illustrate this principle, he chose, for illustration purposes, items that are very precious to us (e.g., eye, hand, or foot).
The obvious meaning is this. Recognize the value of eternal things; don’t be derailed by temporal and physical distractions.
Moreover, the language in the latter portion of the passage in no way negates the symbolism employed in the warning.
That this is the fair meaning of the passage is obvious from the fact that a mere amputation of hand or foot, or the removal of an eye, does not alter the condition of the heart. Such actions, therefore, drastic though they are, would not provide sufficient motive for a transformed heart (cf. Mk. 7:1ff; especially, vv. 18-23). The surgery is spiritual, not physical.
The point is this. The value of being eternally with the Creator makes all of earth’s circumstances seem trivial.
Those who disdain the Savior’s strong word of caution will spend their eternity in hell (gehenna), where “their worm dies not” (Mk. 9:48). Surely the figurative nature of the language is apparent in the term “worm.” There are no literal worms, gnawing on literal corpses, in the eternal order of things. There will be eternal suffering, however, in a non-material realm.
A comprehension of at least some of the basic figures of speech utilized by the Bible writers is absolutely essential for a correct interpretation of Scripture in many cases. And a lack of such understanding has resulted in a variety of errors—some of which were painfully experienced.
Origen, a theologian of the early third century A.D., misinterpreted Jesus’ admonition about becoming a “eunuch” for the sake of “the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12). As a consequence of his misguided exegesis, he emasculated himself. Eusebius, the fourth century historian, noted that Origen’s method of interpretation was “too literal and puerile in a sense” (Ecclesiastical History, VI.VIII). The historian paid a rather high price for failing to understand a significant biblical figure of speech.
The Savior’s teaching in the context cited above, therefore, is to be viewed figuratively—not literally. There is virtually no controversy among serious Bible scholars about this matter.