The Great Reversal
So both the characters kick the bucket and here’s where Jesus pulls the big switcheroo on his listeners. Everyone was assuming they had Jesus’ story figured out, and then the no-name dude that everyone picked for their old school Hebrew madlibs ends up in hell. That’s embarrassing.
Now hang on. I know some of you are probably mentally checking out at this point because I said the word “hell”. Maybe some of you don’t even believe in hell. My simple and short answer to you would be this: if you believe the things Jesus said about heaven, you have to believe at the same time the things he said about hell. Jesus was constantly talking about both heaven and hell in the same breath, with the same types of words, and to the same degree of urgency and gravity. It is intellectually dishonest to take Jesus literally when he talks about heaven but say it’s all allegories when he talks about hell.
But there are lots of bad and wrong ideas about hell out there. On one end, hell is characterized as a divine torture chamber, where God sics the demons on all the bad people. On the other, we have people (pastors and authors even) that say hell is temporary, or a metaphor, or a lie altogether. Interestingly enough, this very passage clears up some of the myths and wrong ideas people have about hell.
Myth #1: Hell is eternal punishment for temporary sins. This is a shortsighted view that makes the false assumption that all that matters--the only good or bad we can do--is in this life. It assumes that we only have five, ten, seventy-five, eighty years and then our poor next self is stuck dealing with all the bad decisions our ignorant selves made in this life (which, if you think about it, is really close to a reincarnation view). However, the Bible doesn’t divorce our physical selves and our eternal, resurrected selves like this at all.
Tim Keller, in his book The Reason for God, asks the question this way: “We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?” Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”
This makes sense to us when we think of our prison system. Nobody bats an eye at a lifetime prison sentence for a repeat offense criminal (perhaps a rapist, child molester, or serial killer) who is unreformed and certain to continue unless they are permanently incarcerated. No just judge would release a prisoner who only has a growing hatred for the judge and the community that put him there and a growing tendency to do the very things that landed him there in the first place. Hell, like prison, is both punishment for--and confinement of--evil for the good and flourishing of an eternal society.
So consider now the story that Jesus tells. Do we see any hints of the trajectory of the rich man’s soul in hell, any indication of his continued sin? In life, the rich man completely disregarded Lazarus because Lazarus had nothing to offer. The rich man’s functional god was his comfort and his status. In death, the rich man still considers himself so above Lazarus that he refuses to address him directly but doesn’t hesitate to ask Father Abraham to send Lazarus into hell to serve him. In life, the rich man’s idol--his god--was his own comfort and self-importance and it caused him to hoard money, use people, and see them merely as means to his own greater comfort. In death, he was no different. Quoting Tim Keller again: “Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity”.
Myth #2: Hell can’t exist if God is fair and loving. The idea of hell seems so contrary to fairness and love, that I thought it might help to quote a couple authors who have spent some time wrestling with this tension. Becky Pippert says, “God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
Tim Keller also addresses this in The Reason for God saying “I always start my response by pointing out that all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love. If you love a person and you see someone ruining them--even themselves--you get angry . . . The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity”.
And in regards to fairness, Tim Keller says, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?”
Finally, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people--those who say “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says “Thy will be done”. All that are in hell choose it.”
It is telling in Jesus’ story that the rich man never asks to get out of hell. He never asks to cross the abyss into heaven. And when Father Abraham addresses him, he doesn’t call him “you wretched sinner”. He calls him teknon, “child”! There’s pathos there, there’s pity, like a parent watching a grown child in a self-destructive cycle or addiction. Jesus’ story gives us little hints into the fairness and the love of God even in hell. There is another, infinitely deeper way that hell shows us the love of God, but I’ll address that later.
Myth #3: Hell will be full of repentant people whom God refuses to forgive. This again is based on the false assumption that people just need more time, more information, more proof and then everyone would repent, that when people see the truth of God and the error of their ways, everyone will have a fundamental change of heart. But the things that the rich man never says while in hell are as telling as the things he does say. Notice he never repents, he never asks for forgiveness! In fact, he never even asks to get out of hell, he only asks that Lazarus be sent into hell like a water boy! Notice also, that the man doesn’t address Yawheh God, he addresses Abraham. Even in hell, he is still trying to justify himself in the eyes of men! He’s still trying to save face, but this time it’s in front of the ultimate Jew, the uber Jew, Abraham.
And twice he tries to imply that he didn’t get enough information, and twice Abraham corrects him. Abraham says two important things that we shouldn’t miss:
- The message of the Bible is enough to point to God and to repentance.
- Those unconvinced by the preaching of the Gospel will be unconvinced even by the miraculous (“even if someone rises from the dead” Abraham says.)