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Jesus on heaven and hell?

on June 13, 2011
A dear friend (whose blog I thoroughly recommend) sent me the following words of Jesus in answer to my previous post. You can see her comment there. My reply is below:

Luke 16:19-31:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

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.’

I’m not yet sure whether my friend is making the point that Jesus spoke of heaven vs hell, or some other point. But I’m going to assume the former for the sake of debate. 🙂

The interesting thing about this parable is the one thing Jesus does not say but we somehow assume he did:

Jesus does not specify that the rich man was a non-believer, or that the beggar was a believer of any sort. So this division into suffering and rewarded was not done on the basis of faith – at least Jesus doesn’t say so. And if he doesn’t say so, presumably that wasn’t the point of his story.

You could of course quite reasonably argue that as Jesus is speaking to a mainly Jewish audience, we can assume that his characters are all Jewish believers too. But even assuming that, we still have a situation where this is not about faith at all.

Now, the character of Abraham does specify that the rich man received good things in his life, whereas the beggar did not. I receive good things in my life. So do you, if you’re reading this. So do most Westerners, Christian and non-Christian alike. So is this parable telling us that you and I are going to hell, while many poverty-stricken (non-)Christians in Africa and India will be with Christ (or possibly Abraham) in heaven?

I hope not.

But more on that in a minute, first let’s look at a couple of other things.

– It appears that in Jesus’ story there could be communication between “heaven” and “hell”, which is something that most people’s mental version of heaven does not include – the ability to see our loved ones in torment? Or alternatively to see them enjoying themselves, from our own torment? Why does our vision of the afterlife not include these elements?
– What of the verses that state that Jesus went and preached to the souls in captivity, after his death? What was the point of that if, as the character of Abraham says, no one can cross over?
– The parable of the shrewd or dishonest manager almost immediately precedes this one. That’s the one in which Jesus appears to recommend acting dishonestly with our boss’s funds. Yet we Christians usually have a sense that we should avoid dishonesty in our business dealings. What’s the deal here?

The answer is obvious, and of course you’re way ahead of me already. Not every detail of a parable is meant to be analogical. Heaven and hell may not be exactly how Jesus describes them, but if the rich man can’t see Abraham or talk to him, the story doesn’t get to happen. And if Lazarus could cross over, the story might end there, or there would have to be some other reason Abraham couldn’t send him, so as to move it along to the final discussion, which is the essence of the parable. Parables are all about the punchline. Jesus’ point in the dishonest manager parable is to use our worldly wealth wisely – like the “pagans” do – because it will be of no use to us in the next life otherwise. And in this parable, the issue is not who is rich and who is poor – as Dumbledore might say, who you are is down to your choices, not your circumstance.

So here the clue lies in the final lines about listening to Moses and the Prophets, and, finally: “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”.
Who is “they”? Well, the wealthy (perhaps powerful) brothers of the rich man. And by extension, the rich/powerful in general.
Convinced of what? Of the existence of heaven/hell? No, because Abraham originally responds that the brothers should listen to Moses and the Prophets, who were distinctly hazy about what happens in the afterlife, but extremely clear on how one should treat others, especially from a position of power. Some of those prophets even specified that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was in fact oppressing others (check out Isaiah 3) and being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49)*

I conclude that this parable is about treating others how God commands, or perhaps about using our wealth to help the poor and needy. Not about what the afterlife looks like, or what happens if you don’t believe in Jesus, or even what happens if you are rich (or not). Many non-Christians treat others more like God commands than many Christians do (sadly, I can include myself in this rather damning report). Many non-Christians use their wealth at least as well as “we” do, sometimes better. This parable does not give us any reason to believe that God will shut “them” out of heaven while letting “us” in, because this parable does not mention faith but only *gasp* works.

Finally, we mustn’t forget the final punchline, in which Jesus accurately predicts that just as the rich and powerful of his day (and throughout history) didn’t listen to Moses or the Prophets, they would also not listen to him, even after his death and resurrection. What did he tell us after his resurrection? Well, interestingly he did not warn us against hell. But you can read it for yourselves in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20.

In conclusion, this parable does not prove or disprove the existence of a fiery hell for unbelievers. And I hate the idea that there is a clear, visible-to-us in-crowd and an equally clear and visible-to-us bunch of rejects. A “them” and an “us”. Something we can use to keep other people away from us, to declare them unclean, not-worthy, less-than. Jesus appears to have felt the same way, based on the company he kept and people he was willing to touch. Which is why I very much like the response given by Brian McLaren recently to a question on the current (post-death) whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden:

(…) I think OBL’s destiny is to face the living God who is ultimately and absolutely and beautifully just and loving. (…) Whatever is wrong and evil in OBL will, I believe, be named, exposed, revealed, and dealt with appropriately, in the perfect light of God’s justice and love. Whatever remains of God’s good image inside OBL will be distinguished from the rest and dealt with appropriately, again in the perfect light of God’s justice and love. Whatever from his story can be healed will be healed. Whatever cannot will be dealt with in some other appropriate way. Somehow, grace will have the final word. Somehow, love will win – not at the expense of justice, but through and with and in justice. Beyond that, I have no desire to speculate … only to live my life in harmony with God’s justice and love.

(You can read the whole post at his blog here.)

*The idea that sexual perversion was the main problem in Sodom comes from Jude in the NT – Genesis does talk about them trying to rape the angels who came to see whether their sin was as great as God had heard, but does not say that this was their only sin or even the main one. Even Lot doesn’t appear to think that rape is a problem per se, since he offers them his daughters instead, but rather that raping his visitors is inacceptable. Elsewhere in the Old Testament punishment is meted out for raping a woman, so the issue here is not necessarily homosexuality either. This is not particularly reassuring for us, since being arrogant, overfed and unconcerned is just as rampant in Western society as “sexual perversion”, if not more so.


3 responses to “Jesus on heaven and hell?

  1. In Luke, there is story-telling from Christ’s birth to the crucifixition and beyond. These stories build upon each other. For example, earlier in Luke, Jesus says, “ 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. “
    “God knows you heart” – Hold on to that thought.
    The rich man says in his discussion to send someone to warn his family so that “they might repent.”
    Remember, “God knows your hearts.” I have always thought this was the story of a rich man who followed the rules but showed no compassion or had no heart in the rules. And the poor man followed the rules with heart. When you combine all the teachings from Luke – it is like a conversation building from one story to another.
    In Luke 15, there is the parable of the Lost Sheep, where “teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners.” This is followed by, “There is rejoicing in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This is followed by the story of the Prodigal Son – who sinned, returned to his father and repented.
    The rich man is in Sheol because he did not repent. He did not love his neighbor as himself.
    Jesus says that the chasm cannot be crossed after death. As a result, it is important to have that relationship with God now. To love your neighbor as yourself now.
    Yes – each of Jesus parables (stories) are filled with individual lessons – but those stories also need to be put into the context of all the stories.
    I don’t think I’ve ever read anywhere that talks about a chance of redemption after death. I have read about sinners being burned and consumed in the great fires of Sheol (hell).
    I do think one of the characteristics of our culture today is that “if God is so loving and wonderful, he won’t punish me because, well, He is supposed to be so loving a wonderful. If he punishes me, well, that just proves He’s not so wonderful after all.”
    But a Loving parent 1) punishes wrong-doing on many different levels and 2) sets healthy boundaries to protect their children.
    I think the only reason “rich” and “poor” were involved was because of what each position meant in the community. Rich implied blessed by God – but you can read plenty of Psalms where many rich people loved their money and position too much. The rich often judged themselves as being better than anyone else – while the poor, well they were poor because they had sinned. Right? Just like a barren woman was barren because she was hiding sin. Rich men who were leaders in the community judge themselves righteous in God (think Sadducees and Pharisees) – they loved the law but not the people.
    This is all about any man can come to heaven, rich or poor. It is the condition of their relationships with God.

  2. I don't have time for a full reply right now, but the perspective I'm coming from is not “God won't punish me because he is loving” but rather “God will deal with me appropriately because he is loving and just”. Appropriately being the key term. Eternal conscious torment is not appropriate for anything. Many humans (myself included) even feel that temporary torture is not appropriate for any human being, regardless of what they may have done to “deserve” it. And so the automatic assumption that anyone who does not believe (with or without heart) is going to be rejected by God without further ado, forever, is weird.

  3. You say God will deal with you appropriately because he is loving and just – implies that you are seeking after Him – that you are in relationship and drawing closer day by day, even though you might miss it.

    I am thinking of people (not giving names here) who don't seek relationship, don't draw close but still expect to receive the good things – putting all the responsibility on God “to do the right thing.”

    Just thought I'd share with you what I read this morning: “Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
    when the splendor of their houses increases;
    17 for they will take nothing with them when they die,
    their splendor will not descend with them.
    18 Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
    and people praise you when you prosper—
    19 they will join those who have gone before them,
    who will never again see the light of life.

    20 People who have wealth but lack understanding
    are like the beasts that perish.” (Psalm 49: 16-20).

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