The Bible's Toughest Teaching
20081123 – The Bible’s Toughest Truth – Luke 16.19-31
[Video Clip from Seinfeld episode]
How many of us like the idea of hell? It is a hard teaching!
The idea of hell has been called cruel, inhuman, and barbarous by people who are not believers. People deny its reality or question its justice. And, though neither Jesus nor the Apostles avoid the topic of hell, Christians often have a hard time facing the reality of eternal punishment.
Thinking about eternal separation from God is a horrible reality. No wonder we have such a hard time with it. And we ought to have a hard time dealing with the reality of a hell. If we don’t, something is wrong. I’m not sure anything we look at this morning will make that easier. In fact, if we’re serious about hearing what the Bible has to say, it may get a lot harder.
The New Testament contains three words we translate “hell.” Hades, which means “the unseen” and is a generic reference to the realm of the dead, is used 10 times – one of them in the passage we just read. Tartarus means ‘prison’ and is used once to describe demons being locked away. Jesus used the toughest word – Gehenna. He was the only one who used it. About 12 times he spoke of this smoldering garbage-dump image of hell which came from a valley just south of Jerusalem.
A theology of heaven and hell should not be based on Jesus’ words here. This is a parable. However, the images he assumes with this parable cannot run against the truth he wanted to communicate to his followers. So, lets look at some of Jesus’ assumed characteristics of hell.
MOVE 1 – WON’T EVERYONE… / Separation
Sometimes when the thought of hell offends, people imagine that a loving God would certainly in the end choose to save all people. We call that idea ‘universalism.’ Have you heard someone say, “Well, in the end we all go to the same place.” As much as we might hope for a full heave and an empty hell, that’s not the picture we’re given here.
The Rich Man and Lazarus in Jesus’ story both died and they did not go to the same place. They are separated. There’s a big difference – in this case a complete reversal of fortunes.
By the way, Jesus didn’t make this story up. It was borrowed from rabbinic traditions at the time. Almost thought for thought EXCEPT for one important feature unique to Jesus’ telling of it: That feature is the chasm fixed between the two. Some rabbis saw it as a wall, or even a handbreadth of separation – but not Jesus. He describes it literally as a “yawning” gap – unbridgeable.
That yawning gap is created by sin. And the reason the difference is so great is not because Lazarus is holy and the Rich Man the worst sort of sinner. It is there because holiness and sin are both bigger ideas than we have allowed them to be. We cannot begin to imagine God’s holiness and perfect love and justice. And, we cannot begin to imagine the extent of our own sin. If you begin to entertain the idea that most people are basically good, then it is really hard to understand how God could allow some to suffer hell. If you begin to see the truth of scripture and understand how much all have sinned, it begins to make more sense.
By the way, the Rich Man’s robes are a special color. Though we read ‘purple’ the color is the same one Isaiah refers to in Isaiah 1.18. It was “Tyrian” purple, from a die extracted from fish glands, and was so indelible that a small pot of it found under Pompey had retained its color under volcanic ash and through 1800 years! That’s the stain of sin – and the one only Jesus can remove.
Name anything that comes from God or is Godlike—joy, peace, hope, love. All these are reflections of God’s own character. So those who reject God and reject the character of God separate themselves from the kingdom in which all these values will be perfectly realized. Mark Littleton wrote hell is the habitation of those who want nothing to do with God. And as a natural consequence, they also lose everything He has to offer.
Universalism can only be held by ignoring the considerable biblical evidence for a final separation. That isn’t just found in this parable. Jesus talked about the separation of wheat and weeds in Matthew 13. In the same chapter, he described people as a catch of fish which would be finally sorted out, some good, some not. In Matthew 25, people are separated like sheep and goats, some to eternal punishment and some to eternal life. Paul, in writing the Thessalonians (2Thess1.8-9) says those who reject the gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction and separation from God. And in Revelation 20 there are those whose name is written in the book of life and those whose names are not.
Universalism speaks to a longing we all have to know that others are okay – but it simply isn’t reconcilable with scripture.
MOVE 2 – WON’T UNREDEEMED PEOPLE JUST PERISH?
Some of the language in the Bible suggests the destruction people are headed for if they reject we God’s grace. That language has led some people to believe that those who are not part of God’s heavenly kingdom will just painlessly cease to exist. Again, that’s an attractive thought. We shouldn’t wish worse on anyone – even an enemy! Yet, again, that’s not the picture this parable – or the rest of the New Testament – gives us. The Rich Man in Jesus’ story has thirst and anguish, regrets and longings. And he is left with them. He remains unsatisfied and separated.
If people separated from God in eternity just disappeared, why would Jesus urge us to do away with anything that causes us to sin, rather than suffer ‘body and soul’ consequences in hell? (That’s in Matthew 18).
By the way, sometimes people say that the worst regret will be separation from God. In a sense that is true. To be left alone is terrifying. The Rich Man in the parable find himself in an awful solitude. Curiously, he fears that his brothers will suffer the same fate, and wants them to be with Abraham, not where he now finds himself. But in another sense separation is not all there is. Those who reject God, when their fate is sealed, are separated from God’s love – but not from accountability to God. Not from God’s wrath.
Some excellent scholars have pointed out that some of Jesus’ own language in the gospels and some of the language in the epistles speaks of destruction of those who are not saved by God’s grace. However, the word used – appolumi – in all the New Testament never means ceasing to exist. It does mean to kill, but also to become useless, or to be lost. It’s used of ruined wineskins, spoiled food, and of lost sheep in Matthew 15. Besides, references to “everlasting” destruction are made in such a way that we can only conclude an undoing that goes on and on and on.
So as much as we would like not to think about it, there will be for some the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” regrets Jesus suggests in Matthew 8. Along with all the figurative language it should be taken figuratively. Our human depictions of subterranean chambers, Satan with a pitchfork, and the like are just that – human depictions. And biblical images like a lake of fire or outer darkness or gnashing of teeth are just that – biblical images. However, remember: Every time an image is used to describe something we cannot begin to imagine, the reality is bigger than the image. Whatever heaven is, its better than we can imagine. Whatever hell is, its worse than our caricatures.
And hard though that is to our sensibilities, can you imagine God saying to an Adolf Hitler, “You’ve done evil and have destroyed millions of lives precious to me. Therefore, you won’t know the difference – you will now cease to exist?” And for those who have not done great evil in our thinking, but have sinned and have not welcomed the grace of God, we need to understand that God who is perfectly loving and merciful is also perfectly just.
It is a lot nicer to imagine that those who miss out on God’s kingdom simply miss out. But again, that’s not the message of Jesus or the Apostles.
MOVE 3 – IS HELL PUNITIVE, OR PURIFYING?
Some have suggested that the goal of punishment is to instruct. Therefore, shouldn’t hell be the temporary abode of those who have yet to repent of sin and receive God’s grace?
We punish our children hoping to help them become better people. We even incarcerate hardened criminals with some hopes that they will change their ways, be released one day, and live as productive and peaceful citizens. So some naturally ask – isn’t that what God would do?
Actually, the Bible word “forever” can be used in some contexts to refer to a very long – though not infinite – time. However, it is used in this context to refer to both heaven and hell. (In Matthew 25, for example). BOTH go on forever. Sometimes the emphatic “forever and forever” is used. Revelation 14 and 20 use that, not only of peoples’ eternal destination but of God himself. So unless God can cease to exist, neither does heaven… or hell.
Another interesting and sobering element in Jesus’ parable is this: The Rich Man hasn’t essentially changed. Though his regrets are real and he does express the desire that his brothers be warned, he still sees Lazarus as someone to serve his own needs. He’s not ashamed to ask a favor of the one who never received a favor from him. He’s still self-centered. He doesn’t confess sin or express remorse for the way he’s lived his life. And, we’re not led to expect that he will change. He would just much rather not be where he is. We could hardly call him rehabilitated.
Rehabilitation should have happened before he died! As with his brothers, he had more than enough opportunity to listen to the law and the prophets! In fact scripture is clear that the reason Jesus takes his time with this world and shows such patience is that his followers might witness to his salvation and others may yet turn and follow. (Read 2Peter 3.9) God cares very much to see people change and embrace the life he offers! That’s what this time is for! But apparently when its over, its over.
Now, all that is extremely bad news. It’s the wages of sin and it is awful to think about. But think about the grace of God for a moment! John Piper says, If this is the fate Jesus delivers millions from, imagine how infinite must have been the torment of the Son of God who took our place!
What do you do with that grace? C.S. Lewis once said there are two kinds of people, in the end. There are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” And there are those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” Lewis contended all who end in hell will have chosen it by not choosing Jesus. I’m not sure if Lewis was right about that. I do know that God is just. I do know that God can be trusted to do what is right and good. We may be surprised to discover one day that God’s grace has saved at the 11th hour some people we were worried about. We may be dismayed to learn that others were masquerading as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. The Rich Man here had apparently considered himself a “son of Abraham,” and part of God’s covenant people.
We can’t always discern where others are in their relationship with God. Which is why we need to ask, and share our hope! Any people of goodwill who believe what the Bible says about hell will both want to avoid it themselves, and to passionately help others to avoid it.
Jesus showed in this story that not even a visit from the grave will convince one whose heart is closed to God’s grace. On the other hand, when we commit to loving those who are disconnected and alienated from God, we may expect to see the Holy Spirit prepare hearts and transform hell-bound lives before our eyes.
“You should be trying to save me!” Remember the line from the TV show? May we never think of Hell without giving our all to respond to that challenge.