Category Archives: Christian Anthropology

Christian Anthropology: Are We ‘Worthless Worms?’

 

“What is man that thou art mindful of him.”

 

I recently took someone to task for referring to themselves (and, by implication, all humanity) as a “worthless worm who deserves hell.” This is a very common sentiment amongst evangelicals, inspired perhaps by the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. However, it’s one that has no substantial biblical warrant and which faces insurmountable contrary biblical testimony. I’m not referring to the “deserves Hell” part, but rather the attitude of conceiving any human being as a “worthless worm.”

What possible biblical warrant could such a label claim? There are a few verses to which defenders of this view appeal:

(1) Job 25:4-6: “How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of a woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot – a human being who is only a worm.”

(2) Psalm 73:22: “I was senseless and ignorant, a brute beast before you.”

(3) Psalm 22:6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”

(4) Isaiah 40:17: “Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.”

Regarding (1), the general rule when it comes to the book of Job is “proof-text at your peril!” The words quoted are those of Bildad, one of Job’s “comforters,” whose theology takes one hell of a battering in the book. There is no indication that what Bildad says to Job is what the book is intending to teach. On the contrary, the words of Bildad are hardly a reliable guide, particularly given Job’s bitingly sarcastic response in the following verses. With respect to (2), there is nothing here concerning the Psalmist’s worthlessness. The contrast is between the Psalmist’s knowledge and understanding and that of God. The Psalmist – compared to God – is as stupid as a beast. (3) is clearly a case of hyperbole. The Psalmist is, in fact, a man – not a worm! The point is how lowly the Psalmist is in the eyes of other people. A similar term appears in Isaiah 41:14 in which the term refers to Israel’s weak and despised condition as a people in exile. What then of (4)? Again, there is no indication that human beings are themselves worthless. The power of nations is being contrasted with the power, glory, and splendour of God through a serious of poetic phrases, metaphors, and hyperbole.

None of these verses gives us any reason to think that the correct biblical view is that human beings are worthless. Moreover, there is substantial biblical testimony that human beings are, in fact, of immense value and dignity.

Firstly, human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the very image of God. Whilst there’s some debate as to precisely what that is, it seems to me to refer to the fact that human beings are rational, moral persons. Now, some will hold that the image of God was marred. I don’t wish to discuss that here, but I note simply that this does not mean the image of God has been utterly effaced. In fact, even the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t mean fallen humans are utterly depraved and lacking in any goodness or value. It means that there isn’t a single aspect of our lives that is untouched by sin, and thus that we cannot save ourselves. Secondly, it’s clear that God loves human beings. To love someone is to treat them as possessing immense value. Something that is worthless cannot be loved; to be worthless is to be unlovable. Thirdly, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement itself shows us exactly the value that God ascribes to humanity. That the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, died, and rose again to save a fallen humanity suggests we are much more than “worthless worms.” Fourthly, we are capable of relating to God in prayer. The creator of the universe listens to us, engages with us, and draws us to Himself to share in His life. Fifthly, Christian faith holds that we are called to partner with God in world mission – the bring God’s love to other people whether or not they are Christians. That speaks very strongly against the doctrine of human worthlessness. On the contrary, God is actively pursuing people and commands us to share his love with them, such is the value of people in His eyes. Sixthly, human beings are endowed with eternal life and have the opportunity to share in the glory of God forever. All of this weighs heavily against the notion that humans are “worthless worms.”

I suggest we drop this kind of language. Word matter. They affect how we think, and how we think affects our attitude towards ourselves (and thus our self-esteem) and towards others. Sadly, Christian history is littered with examples of Christians treating other people as “worthless worms.” It’s not biblical language, and it’s not remotely psychologically healthy.

You are not a worthless worm. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

 

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. 

 

Stephen J. Graham

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