The Worm That Never Dies — Mark 9:48

by Dr. John Roller FDTL Iss 44

Dr. John Roller sends out regular emails answering questions on matters related to the Bible from a Conditional Immortality perspective. More information about Dr. John Roller, including more free Conditional Immortality resources can be found on his website .

What follows are Dr. Rollers remarks – Editor.

Question of the Month

Q: What is meant by the biblical expression “the worm dieth not”?

A: In Mark 9:48, Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, a passage in which Isaiah presents the LORD (see Isaiah 66:23) as predicting something that will take place on the “new earth” (see Isaiah 66:22). He says that “they [referring to the ‘all flesh’ mentioned in Isaiah 66:23] shall go forth, and look upon the CARCASES [not ‘immortal souls’] of the men that have transgressed against me: for their WORM [the maggot that feeds on those ‘carcases’] shall not die, neither shall their fire [the fire that burns up those ‘carcases’] be quenched: and they [the people that have transgressed against God] shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” This “picture” is that of a city dump, where maggots feed on dead bodies and fire burns up trash: it is not a picture of a torture chamber where demons with pitchforks prod living human beings into fires that burn them alive but never actually harm them (because, if they did, they would eventually destroy them altogether). I can’t imagine that Jesus, in quoting the passage, meant to teach anything other than what the passage itself taught: so Mark 9:48 must mean the same thing that Isaiah 66:24 means. The idea of the “never-dying worm” is a symbol for the fact that as long as there is a dead body to be chewed on, there will always be a worm to do the chewing – not that any individual worm is immortal! Anyway, the human being in this picture is most definitely DEAD, not alive. “Carcases” don’t suffer pain, and they aren’t aware that worms are eating them; and, after they have been in fires for a while, they burn up, and they don’t exist anymore. I see NO justification for “natural immortality” in either of these verses, and I can’t imagine how anyone who reads Hebrew and Greek could.

Comments

  1. brando Bobier says:

    Some believe the worm is a referring to pangs of conscience that condemned people suffer in hell. Isaac Watts for example allegorized the gnawing worm into the remorse and terrible exquisite of conscience which shall never be achieve “and waken the unquenchable fire, des pairs and anguish which come from without (Isaac Watts, The world to come, Leeds; Davies and booth, 1918). pp. 300-301

    John Calvin asserts that the plain meaning of the text is, that the wicked shall have a bad conscience as an executions to torment them without end… and finally, that they shall tremble and be agitated in a dreadful and shocking manner as if a worm were gnawing the heart of a man, or a fire were consciousness it and yet thus conscience he did not die (John Calvin, Commentary on the book of the prophet Isaiah, vol. 4 rep. grand rapid: win B. E. Edvans Pub. Co., 1948). 4:438

    According to Archer and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (vol. 2, Moody Press, 1580) pp. 571-972, the worm in Isaiah 66:24 means “worm maggot or larvae… of certain kinds of insects, primarily flies, moths and beetles which devour decaying matter including corpses”. A worm especially one which springs from putrefaction Ex. 16:20; Isa.14:11; 66:24

    In other words neither Isaiah nor Christ was talking about immortal worms. The vermin of which they spoke – maggots – do not die because they turn into flies. The flies then lay eggs that hatch into more maggots (the larvae of flies perpetuating the cycle. It is a wounds which occur in decaying organic matter or in soros [ex. 16:20; Isa. 14:L; 66:24) TISBE, vol. 14, Hendrickson Pub. James Or. Ed, 1939] p. 310

    This helps us better understand Christ’s words. In that time, when the bodies of dead animals or executed criminals were cast into the burning trash heap of Gehenna, those bodies would be destroyed by maggots, by the fires that were kept constantly burning there, or a combination of both. The worms are mentioned in connection with the dead bodies because they hasten the decomposition and represent the ignominy of corpses deprived of burial (Jer. 25:33; Isa 14:11, Job 7:5; 17:14; AcB 12:23

    Observe the presence of the word “carcasses” (Hebrew, pegerim) in that passage and think for a moment of what it means. What is “carcasses”? That is simply, a “lifeless corpse” or “dead body” of human being. The same book describes what is meant by “carcass” of men. “Thou art cast out of thy grave…as a carcass trodden under feet” (Isa. 14:19). “Behold they were all dead corpse” (Isa. 37:36).

    A “lifeless corpse or dead body” cannot be suffer a conscious torment in anyway; because to torment is for the ‘living while ‘destruction and decay is for the dead. In other words, the fire and worms in Isaiah destroy dead corpses; they do not torment living human beings. And those are said to be the same fate happen to Gehenna. It is the picture of corpses thrown into a garbage dump of the universe where they are destroyed by a process that will not stop until it has completely purified God’s creation from both sin and sinners (Isa. 66:22-24).

    Any interpretation of Mark 9:48 should not contradict the passage in Isaiah that gives it its true setting. The final verse of Isa. 66:22-24, says that the fire and worms destroy dead corpses. They do not torment live human beings. Neither the fires nor the worms of Gehenna preserve anything; both are agents of destruction. We read in verse 24 that “”people will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me, their worm will not die, nor will then fire be quenched and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

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