Q&R with Brad Jersak: “What is the worm that never dies?”
I have read a Q & A you have answered on Mark 9 and found it really thorough and very interesting. The one thing I do not see is what the worm represents in this passage in Mark 9. It says “the worm never dies.” I have heard that it represents the eternal worm that basically torments you for eternity in hell. I haven’t been able to find an explanation for was the “worm” means. Would you be able to explain the best interpretation you know? Thank you very much. I really appreciate you.
In Mark 9, we see Christ is simply citing the imagery in the very last verse of Isaiah:
- 24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
This image, if taken literally, describes the fate of those Jews who rebelled against Yahweh. Note what lasts and what doesn’t. The worms and the fire continue … but the people are now simply corpses. The rebels are not enduring ongoing torment. They’re simply dead. Malachi goes further–the wicked are reduced to “ashes under the soles of your feet.”
Note, too, who they are. Not generally ‘unbelievers’ or those who didn’t get with the program but specifically ‘rebels’ or in Malachi ‘the wicked.’ Their fate is literally to become “worm food.” Stark imagery.
By the time of Christ and in the centuries thereafter, Jewish and Christian teachers learned to read such texts spiritually. But Christ’s own use in Mark 9 should surely be our guiding light. He’s the Word who rightly interprets the Scriptures. While elsewhere he reads such passages as warnings of Jerusalem’s destruction, here we have a spiritual reading of our “salting with fire” that Christ deems restorative (“good”), describes as internalized (“in you”) and calls for our participation (“make sure you have”). But he doesn’t say what the “worms” represent.
Happily, those who came after him (such as Isaac of Nineveh) thought about this carefully and I find their proposals resonate with me. The worm, they said, is the worm of regret–our own conscience accusing us of the folly of turning from perfect Love. People experience the gnawing worm of the regret in this life and beat themselves up for the failures. Yet that never seems to free them. Addicts and abusers are continually afflicted by the condemning conscience–the worm never dies. But it also never heals. And until we surrender ourselves to perfect love, it is a relentless judge.
Isaac imagines that the worm of regret would follow us all the way into death and it is the accusing conscience, not Christ, that will judge us when the book of our lives is opened. BUT, Isaac knew the infinite love of God and was convinced that divine Love (Jesus Christ) always has the final word.
Happily, the good news of Jesus Christ is that metanoia (turning back toward Love or humbling ourselves before Love) changes the situation. The last verse of Isaiah is not God’s last word. Rather, Christ’s death and resurrection become the new punchline, where corpses rise and worms wither because “I AM the resurrection and the life!” So, even in Mark 9, Christ begins to reframe Isaiah’s vision from a hopeless verdict into a restorative process and he will bring this work to completion on our behalf when he becomes the new Dawn of hope on Easter Sunday.