In the end of his catechism, The Law of God, new-martyr Daniel Sysoev makes the observation that there will be “material worms” in Hell. As we know from the Scriptures, these worms devour the damned eternally.
There is nothing impossible or strange about the teaching of literal worms, as Hell is material and it is popularly believed that demons can shape-shift–presumably taking a form of a worm. In any event, the emphasis of early church fathers appears to be figurative instead of literal. As follows are a few quotations:
Saint Ambrose on Luke 14:
There will be tears and gnashing of teeth. What are the darkness of the outside? Will there also be prisons and latomias? In no way; but whoever is excluded from the promises of the heavenly commandments is in outer darkness, because the commandments of God are light (Jn, xii, 35); and whoever is without Christ is in darkness, because the inner light is Christ. So it is not a question of the creaking of the material teeth, nor of some eternal fire of material flames, nor of a material worm. But this is to note that, as excess food causes fevers and worms, so too, if one does not somehow cook one’s sins by using sobriety and abstinence, but if, piling up sins on sins, one contracts as indigestion old and new faults, one will be burned by his own fire and devoured by his verses. So Isaiah says, “Walk in the light of your fire and the flame that you have lit” (Is., L, 11).
The fire is the one engendered by the sadness of faults; the worm comes from the fact that the insane sins of the soul attack the mind and the senses of the guilty, and gnaw at the entrails of his conscience (Sag., XII, 5); as the worms are born of each, so to speak of the body of the sinner. So the Lord said it through Isaiah, saying, “And they shall see the members of men who have averred against me; and their worm will not die, and their fire will not be extinguished “(Is., LXVI, 24). The grinding of teeth also expresses a feeling of indignation, because too late we repent, too late we moan, too late we take it upon ourselves to have sinned with a perversity so tenacious.
The Catena Aurea on the Gospel of Mark also has many similar interpretations:
Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: Then He introduces the witness of prophecy [p. 188] from the prophet Isaiah, saying, “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” [Isa 65:24] He says not this of a visible worm, but He calls conscience, a worm, gnawing the soul for not having done any good thing; for each of us shall be made his own accuser, by calling to mind what he has done in this mortal life, and so their worm remains forever.
Bede: And as the worm is the pain which inwardly accuses, so the fire is a punishment which rages without us; or by the worm is meant the rottenness of hell, by the fire, its heat.
Saint Augustine’s comments are drawn out like Ambrose’s:
Augustine, de Civ. Dei, 21, 9: But those who hold that both of these, namely, the fire and the worm, belong to the pains of the soul, and not of the body, say also that those who are separated from the kingdom of God are tortured, as with fire, by the pangs of a soul repenting too late and hopelessly; and they not unfitly contend that fire may be put for that burning grief, as says the Apostle, “Who is offended, and I burn not?” [2 Cor 11:29]
They also think that by the worm must be understood the same grief, as is said: “As a moth destroys a garment, and a worm wood, so grief tortures the heart of man.” [Prov 25:20 Vulgate]
All those who hesitate not to affirm that there will be pain both of body and soul in that punishment affirm that the body is burnt by the fire. But although this is more credible, because it is absurd that there either the pains of body or of soul should be wanting, still I think that it is easier to say that both belong to the body than that neither: and therefore it seems to me that Holy Scripture in this place is silent about the pains of the soul, because it follows that the soul also is tortured in the pains of the body.
Let each man therefore choose which he will, either to refer the fire to the body, the worm to the soul, the one properly, the other in a figure, or else both properly to the body; for living things may exist even in fire, in burnings without being wasted, in pain without death, by the wondrous power of the Almighty Creator.
In conclusion, it appears that the fathers have the same view of damnation as Saint Gregory of Nyssa. In short, damnation is the eternal experience of one’s own sinfulness with some other bad stuff thrown in. Human pride and self-justification thinks this takes the “edge” of Hell, but it is my view that the Scriptures compare the experience of damnation to such horrible things because the eternal experience of unrepentant passions must be that awful to even equate the two.