Read Luke 16:19-21
Heaven and Hell make for interesting conversation but difficult theology. The Bible is replete with descriptions and allusions. You generally don’t get a lot of intense discussion about heaven—like it’s all good—but hell is another story. Your personal opinions probably shape the way most of the biblical references to hell are read.
In general, there are three groups to consider as we look at hell. First we have those who believe it is a place of eternal torment. It is a place where you will be tormented but you cannot die and make it go away.
Then there are those who believe hell is just annihilation. You somehow cease to exist. Poof! You are eternally separated from God because your spirit has been disintegrated. You are destroyed.
Then come the Universalists. They see hell as real but not permanent. They see God realizing the desire of his heart that none will perish and all come to eternal life.
There are ample scriptures for each point of view. Most people generally fall into one of these three main viewpoints and thus view the other two from the lens of the one they find most compatible with their comfort zone.
Then we come to this most unique parable in Luke and it just messes up everyone’s theology about hell.
There was a rich man that Jesus called “the rich man.”
There was a poor man—a beggar—that Jesus called Lazarus. This is not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead in the 11th chapter of John. This is a man who obviously was not in the best of health as the dogs came and licked his sores. This was a man treated on the same level as the dogs who licked him. He waited for scraps from the table.
We might presume that Lazarus was not able to work for some reason.
Injuries of unknown origin?
Some other reason?
He is not characterized as lazy. His is just a beggar. Most beggars couldn’t get other jobs. The parable tells us that he was set by the gate of the rich man, so we might infer that he had friends or family that dropped him off and picked him up.
In any case, Lazarus had to beg for a living.
The rich man was rich. That’s what we need to know about his time on earth. He was rich and lived in luxury.
Both died. Evidently, Lazarus didn’t get a funeral. He went straight from death to being carried off by angels to Abraham’s bosom. Is this heaven or some other interim stop? Well, that should get your theological wheels spinning.
The rich man died and was buried. We don’t know if he had a prepaid funeral plan or how many people came to the funeral or which purple robe he wore for the event. He died and he was buried.
Without any judgment scene, the rich man next appears in Hades. Hades may or may not be hell. It is simply the place of the dead, but evidently this place of the dead has some torment as one of its amenities. There is fire and there is agony and the rich man would really like a drink of cool water. Even drop of cool water had the promise of some relief.
Now while the accommodations are not optimal here; there is certainly a heavenly view. Somehow, someway, the rich man can see Abraham and Lazarus from Hades.
The rich man calls out for help to Father Abraham. He doesn’t call out to Lazarus who he recognizes from sitting at his gate all of these years. He calls out to a man he has never seen. Somehow he knows this is Abraham.
And the crazy thing is that Abraham hears him.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with cool water.
Abraham says, “Don’t think so. You had plenty of good things in your lifetime. Lazarus had plenty of bad things happen to him.”
Abraham explains that the tables have been turned. Lazarus now has comfort and the rich man has agony.
Whoa! There is door to extrapolate a theology of rich is bad and poor is good. Health and wealth are bad and poverty and sickness is good, really? That sort of is what Abraham is saying.
“You had good things during your life. Now you have agony. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
But there is a supplemental reason given by Abraham. He says, “We can’t get there from here. And oh by the way, you can’t get here from there.”
It seems that there is a huge chasm between these two locations that prevents folks on one side from going to the other—even if it’s just for a visit—but the acoustics of this chasm are great. You can still carry on a conversation and see what’s happening on the other side of this divide.
The rich man obviously accepts the geographic limitations of the situation and does not pursue this request. Instead he asks that Abraham send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s five brothers that the place of torment is real.
Abraham replies, “The prophets have already warned them.”
It seems that the rich man listened to neither Moses nor the prophets and he didn’t expect that his brothers would either. They needed something extra. They needed some sort of nudge to help them understand.
If they saw Lazarus who used to sit at the gate and beg before he died come back to life and warn his brothers, surely they would heed his words and repent. Surely such a sign would be enough to open their eyes.
Abraham tells the rich man that if these brothers had not listened to Moses or the prophets, they wouldn’t believe a man who was raised from the dead either.
And the parable ends.
It doesn’t tie in neatly with what comes before or after. It doesn’t do much for anyone’s definitive view of heaven or hell, if in fact these depictions were of heaven and hell.
It doesn’t help us much with our picture of the resurrection. John’s gospel tells us:
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.
This gospel has people coming out of their graves to life and to condemnation. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus sees these two already in their ethereal destinations.
So what is this parable about?
Let’s look at the rich man. He is in a bind and sees Abraham and Lazarus and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. In the rich man’s mind, Lazarus has not been elevated in status. He is of a servant class, a person of no value; he is an expendable that could be assigned this basic task.
But if there is no hope of redemption for this rich man, what’s the point in looking at his mindset?
Let’s look at this man named Lazarus. If you are mentioned by name in the Bible, there is usually some importance attached to that. Jesus could have just said “a certain man” but he opted for a man named Lazarus.
It is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār meaning “God has helped.”
God surely helped Lazarus in this parable, at least once he died. He was escorted to his resting place by angels.
God surely helped the Lazarus in John 11. Being raised from the dead falls under the general category of divine help.
But the value of this parable seems to lie in neither man but in the words of Abraham, and these words speak to us even today.
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Someone would rise from the dead.
Jesus would give up his life freely and take it up again.
Jesus did rise from the dead.
Christ is risen. Truly, he is risen indeed!
Someone rising from the dead sounds pretty convincing to me. If I were to witness a man who was out of blood and all of his bodily fluids expelled upon the ground after being pierced just to make sure he was really dead, and this person came back to life; that would surely fall into the category of a significant emotional event.
I would remember that.
That would be convincing.
Or would it?
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he stood before the disciples and many other witnesses. This was the resurrected Jesus in person, and some believed but still some doubted.
This was a man that was raised from the dead but still many eyewitnesses did not believe.
Even Thomas the disciple would not take the word of his closest friends that Jesus was raised from the dead. Really, was there a 10 man conspiracy in the works just to deceive Thomas?
But Thomas saw and believed.
Jesus said, “That’s fine but those who believe without seeing are the ones who are really blessed.”
And so in a parable apparently about heaven and hell or about living in luxury or living in poverty; we really come to this issue of faith. We come to the point where we ask, “What do we believe?”
To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.
Some who heard the truth from Moses and the prophets and even bore witness to the resurrected Christ speaking to them before their eyes still did not believe.
This is the message of the parable. Some just refuse to believe. Some continue to doubt.
And for those who come to worship services expecting to hear good news—and that should be all of us for we are people of good news—we might just ask, “Well where is the good news in that?”
Some just won’t believe, really?
For while we desire the heart of God—a heart that desires none to perish—we are liberated from the burden of those who just will not hear.
We continue to proclaim. We share the gospel in different ways: drama, door-to-door, online, and just good ole traditional preaching and witnessing. We plant seeds, we water, we fertilize, and we harvest; but whether a person believes or not is not a function of how eloquent our words are or if we picked the perfect drama or if the preacher used enough Greek and Hebrew words in the sermon.
Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
We follow him. We obey his commands. We are his vessels and he will shape us as he sees fit. We try to please him with our lives. We take the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere we go, but we don’t carry the burden of everyone’s decision.
Our hearts ache for the lost. We know mercy and compassion, but we never trade in our victory for hopelessness because some will not believe.
Let’s get back to where we started: Heaven and Hell. The decision of who goes where is not one that we bear.
We have decided to follow Jesus.
We trust in the Lord with all of our heart and we don’t rely on our own understanding. We acknowledge God in everything that we do and know that God will put us on the right path.
We proclaim good news. We follow Jesus.
We who believe carry each other’s burdens, but we are not called to carry the burdens of those who refuse to believe.
We have mercy, compassion, and love for those who remain blind.
We witness and share the gospel every day with those enslaved by the prince of this world.
But we do not participate in the hopelessness of those who refuse to believe, for some will still refuse to believe.
In our lifetimes, we will experience many who simply refuse to believe. We can question ourselves and ask, “What more could I have done?” That line of thinking may produce guilt and may rob us of our joy and our peace.
We need to trust, obey, love, witness, and proclaim the gospel realizing that we are not in command. We follow Jesus and do the things that we are commanded and commissioned to do.
We must fully accept that while we are at the top of this creation—we are the crowning glory of what God has made—we are the first fruits of his creation; we are not in command. We have stewardship—we are entrusted with the care of creation—but we are not in command.
We grow up learning and teaching responsibility and we feel responsible for what our kids and sometimes friends do or fail to do.
If we are the boss or the commander, we are responsible for what those entrusted to us do or fail to do.
But we are neither the commanding officer nor the CEO of creation or eternity. We follow by trusting, obeying, loving, witnessing, and proclaiming the good news.
Still, some will refuse to believe.
Some will resist even the most eloquently arranged and passionate presentation of the gospel.
Some will resist the truth and live the lie.
What can we say to that?
I say, take heart—take courage—for the decision to believe in God and follow Jesus is not in our hands.
Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light. That burden does not include how and when and where people respond.
Even our own profession of faith was initiated by the Holy Spirit. Our faith is a gift.
We believe that God acted redemptively in Jesus Christ and that he continues with the same intent in the Holy Spirit to call every person to repentance and faith.
We trust God, obey him, love one another, witness to others, and proclaim the good news of life in Jesus Christ. We follow Jesus.
That is our part!
God uses the Holy Spirit to complete the work.
So if we trust, obey, love, witness, and proclaim the good news to the best of our ability; we do not get caught up in the hopelessness of those who simply will not hear or do not believe. For some, no matter how great our efforts, will just not believe.
We have authority from God transferred to us by Jesus in the great commission, but we are not the final authority.
If everything rested upon our shoulders, we would never get a night’s sleep. We would preach the gospel day and night until we dropped from exhaustion. But the very God who sends us into the world also lets us live abundantly in the world.
This is paradox not dichotomy.
The truth is that we proclaim Jesus as Lord with everything we have, love as much as we can, reach out to the lost every chance we get, and know a peace that others can’t understand.
We run a race of faith and yet are content in all circumstances.
We work hard at all we do as if working for the Lord, but know that even when we are exhausted, God will fill us up again.
We take good news and God’s love into the world, knowing that we will only reach some and only some of those will respond in our presence.
For as much of a High-D or Type-A personality that Paul must have been, he said that he became all things to all men so that some might be saved. He knew he couldn’t do it all.
This is to say, “I will do all that I can, but I can’t do it all.”
I will do all I can, but I can’t do it all.
We have faith that all we are called to do is our part.
We do our part earnestly and fully, but without anxiety, for it is only our part.
We trust in the Lord, in the mystery that is God, that the consummation of all history is completely in his hands.
We trust, obey, love, witness, and proclaim good news; and in so doing are free to live fully, abundantly, and faithfully as we follow Jesus.
Reinhold Niebuhr in defense of universalism noted it, “unwise to claim with any certainty the furnishings of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The truth of that statement spoke less to his position than to the mystery of God.
We are loved by God.
We have God-given purpose.
We have God-given gifts and talents.
We have a mission.
We have a commission.
But we are not judge, and we don’t try to scare people out of hell by the picture that we paint. We are not the New York City taxi driver that received head of the line privileges at the Pearly Gates because he spent his life scaring the hell out of people.
So we need not spend much time on assessing the nature and logistics of heaven nor the rules and parameters of hell; instead, we focus on fully living this life we know now by:
Proclaiming good news.
And by following Jesus wherever he leads us.
We live out our faith because we do believe in a man who was raised from the dead.
We believe, and neither the furnishing of heaven nor the temperature of hell have any bearing on us for we follow Jesus.
We follow the One who was raised from the dead, knowing that is our part of this eternal equation.
God will get people to the right place at the right time. This is not our part. This is not our burden.
Thanks be to God!
Read Heaven and Hell by Tom Spence: Why some people can’t get off the subject and get on with living.