A story about hell

We hear less about hell nowadays than we used to: at least most of the time. The subject has been in the news in the past twelve months for reasons to which we will return later, but in general it has been a great deal less fashionable in the 21st century for preachers to preach what used to be thought of as “turn or burn” sermons. Many people who don’t know much about Jonathan Edwards, the great American thinker, have heard of his famous sermon on the theme of “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”, where people cried out during the sermon, wanting to be saved. There is probably not much of an appetite among many of today’s congregations (or among many of today’s preachers) for a style of preaching that, at least on the surface, seems to be based on the idea of dangling people over the flames of hell in order to get them to call out for mercy.

And that is probably how many of us have heard Jesus’ story of Lazarus preached. Perhaps you can recall sitting through services where a stern preacher pointed his finger across the pulpit, echoing the words of Abraham to the rich man: “son, remember.”

The problem with that kind of preaching is that it reduces Christianity to little more than a fire escape from hell: it is too one dimensional. But the problem with an overreaction to that kind of preaching – the problem with any kind of pendulum swing – is that we end up so far in the opposite direction that we never want to talk about something which the Bible encourages us to take seriously. We don’t want to be thought of as narrow-minded or old fashioned. We don’t want to be associated with a primitive kind of Christianity, filled with images of little figures with horns and pitchforks. It’s embarrassing; and perhaps deep down inside we are not sure if such ideas belong in the sophisticated world of the 21st century.

Then again, it is an uncomfortable idea. Who wants to think that many of the people whom God created will end up in hell? It’s especially uncomfortable when some of those people are dear to us. Some things seem too good to be true: this seems too bad to be true.

So hell has been relegated to the sidelines.

But not entirely.

Earlier this year, Time Magazine asked this question on its front cover:

What if there’s no hell?

Hell had made it to the front cover of Time because of a book that had caused a huge stir. Rob Bell’s Love Wins raised the question of whether what has traditionally been understood to be the biblical teaching on the subject was actually true. Or was it “misguided and toxic”, something that “ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear”?

Yet here is Jesus, in Luke 16, talking about hell.

I don’t think we should take this story as representing all we need to know about hell. There are puzzling aspects to it. For example, how was the rich man able to dialogue with Abraham when he was in hell? But there are a couple of things that Jesus makes clear in the story which are reinforced by his teaching elsewhere.

Hell as a place of separation.

The two men ended up in two different places. The separation that they had experienced in life was repeated in death. But this time nothing could be done about it. While the two men were alive, the rich man had it in his power to do something about the separation. It would have cost him, for sure, but he could have done something to come alongside Lazarus, even to invite him into his house. Now the separation is fixed. No one can travel between the two places because between them there is a great chasm.

Which raises a question: why would someone want to travel between the two places anyway? We can understand why someone would want to escape from hell, but why would someone want to go the other way? Might Lazarus, out of pity and free from any grudge, have wanted to bring relief to the man who had ignored him during his suffering? It was not possible.

Rob Bell has suggested that the reason the gates of the New Jerusalem are left open may be that there will always be an opportunity for someone to have a change of heart and come in. But that does not appear to fit the context; nor does it tally with what Abraham says here.

Luke 16 runs against universalist ideas that suggest that everyone will end up in the same place. As does Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where he says that there will be people against whom the door will be shut. There is an inside and an outside. Such ideas may be out of step with the inclusivistic aspirations of our century, but we have to deal with what Jesus said and not what we wish he had said.

It is interesting that the rich man never asked to get out. The best he dared hope for was for Lazarus to bring him some water. The next best was that his brothers would be warned so that they would not end up in the same place.

Someone has said that “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into eternity.” In other words, how you choose to live now is what you will be then. Who the rich man was in life had determined where he would be in death.

Hell as a place of suffering.

Both places – Abraham’s bosom, and hell – are places of conscious experience. The experience of Lazarus in heaven was an experience of comfort. What he had suffered in his lifetime was left behind; where he had suffered, now he was comforted.

The rich man’s experience of hell was an experience of conscious suffering. Fire is a terrifying picture and it is one that is used quite a bit in relation to hell. Jesus sometimes spoke of Gehenna. This was a place, outside the city, where people burned animal carcases; previously it was a place where children were sacrificed to idols. Jesus talked about a fire that never went out. Later, at the end of the book of Revelation, John wrote about the Lake of Fire: anyone whose name was not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life was thrown into this place of torment.

We might ask whether the flames are literal, or whether this is a figure of speech. After all, if the flames are literal, then why are its victims not eventually consumed (some believe they will be: this is known as annihilation)? Whether it is a figure of speech or not, it is impossible to miss the fact that this is an experience of conscious suffering. The rich man was suffering so badly that even a drop of water on the finger tip of Lazarus would make a difference.

The awful thing is that hell is a place without mercy.

There are not many easy ways to read what happens to the rich man. Why would anyone choose to end up in a place like this? Why would anyone choose a path that was going to lead to destruction? Why would anyone choose to be on the wrong side of a great chasm or the wrong side of a closed door?

Especially when there is an alternative.

For the greatest barrier to hell is the cross of Jesus; for it is here that God demonstrated his love. It is at the cross that Jesus experienced our hell. Here is how God loved the world: he gave his Son so that whoever believes will never perish.

Previous: introduction.

Next: a story about wealth.


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