To be completely honest, I have a hard time believing in Hell. Call me Pollyanna, but I want to believe everyone goes to Heaven. I don’t want to believe that a God who created everything and called it good would create a place of eternal torture. Then, I read a text like today’s. And, I am forced to consider Hell.
I have a friend from seminary that loves to debate with me. He sees every one of my questions as disbelief. He doesn’t understand that my struggling is a search for a deeper understanding, to move beyond what I question to a new belief. When I talked to him about my struggle with Hell; he said, “Tracy, you may not believe in Hell, but it believes in you.”
So, here I am with a text that Jesus teaches that there is a Heaven and Hell. I’m forced to put my questions aside and believe that there is a place of eternal torture. I still don’t like it. I know there are other places in the New Testament that Jesus taught about separating the weeds from the wheat, but I still don’t like believing in Hell.
The Challengers class is using a study guide called Heaven based on a book called Heaven by Randy Alcorn. He is an American Protestant writer. Alcorn proves his beliefs about Heaven using various Scriptures. He draws a lot on the book of Revelation. The class has as many questions as he tries to answer. I’ve offered to answer some of their questions in a sermon series I plan to do on the book of Revelation next summer. Today, I may offer a few theological answers.
Our text today is a sort of play with multiple scenes. I’ll walk through the scenes of the drama and provide some commentary about the development of the belief in Heaven and Hell. This is a parable of a rich man and Lazarus, a beggar, which illustrates God’s eternal punishment and reward.
In the first act, there is a rich man who is not named in the New Testament. However, there are ancient manuscripts that name him Dives, so I’ll call him Dives. I like people to have a name when I’m talking about them. Dives is a very rich man who eats sumptuous meals. He wears purple linens which are a sign that he is a high-ranking official in Rome or a member of the royal family. Dives lived in a house that had a gate to keep people away, either for privacy or security. He ate well and dressed well a sign of his wealth and had everything anyone would want.
Then, we’re introduced to Lazarus. He is the only character in Jesus’ parables that is actually named. Lazarus is a crippled beggar with sores on his skin like leprosy. He is said to want to be filled with the crumbs from the man’s table. At a feast, bread was used like a napkin to wipe grease from one’s hands then tossed under the table for the dogs. Lazarus would have been happy with a piece of bread tossed aside.
Lazarus dies, probably starvation or his leprosy at Dives’ gates. The lives of Lazarus and Dives were separated by a gate and we’ll see that throughout this story that their lives are always separated, in life and in death.
In the second act of the drama, Lazarus and Dives both die. Upon death, Lazarus is taken to Heaven where he is greeted by Abraham. There is no mention of his burial. Dives died and it is said that he was buried. The grave is another separation between Lazarus and Dives.
I need to make a sidebar here about the belief in Hell. And, I have to go to a book that is not in our Bible to show you how the belief in Heaven and Hell developed. In the 3rd century, a king in Egypt asked 70 scholars to translate the Jewish scriptures into Greek. The scholars translated the Jewish Scriptures as well as books in a group called the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha was deemed true for the Jews of that time and included in the first Bible of the early Christian church. The Apocrypha is still included in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Protestant Bible that we read. I have 2 Bibles with the Apocrypha in them if you want to read them.
Two of the books in the Apocrypha are called 1st and 2nd Maccabees. These books were believed to have been written at the same time as the prophet of Daniel. The books are named after the ruling family during the time who were the Maccabees which was the 1st century BCE, about 200 years before Jesus.
The Maccabees had outlawed Judaism and tortured anyone who practiced Judaism. There were many Jews willing to suffer rather than give up following the Law. Up to this point, the Jews believed in Sheol which was a general place of the dead, no punishment, no reward. But, the torture of Jews caused those faithful to look to God for answers.
A belief in an afterlife evolved believing that a just God would do something about those tortured and killed for what they believed in. The Jews began to understand that there was a place of punishment for the wicked, evil people killing and torturing them for remaining faithful to God and a place of reward for those who remained faithful in the face of certain death. It is during this time of the Maccabees that the Jews develop the idea of Heaven and Hell.
Then, Jesus comes on the scene and shares with His Disciples a parable like the one of the rich man and Lazarus that shows that He holds to the belief of a place of eternal punishment and a place of eternal reward that evolved from the time of the Maccabees. During this time there also developed a belief in purgatory. But, I’ll save that for a another sermon. So, back to our story.
Dives and Lazarus are in an afterlife where Dives, who disregarded God in his earthly life, is visible to but separated from Lazarus and Abraham. Again, Dives and Lazarus are separated, in life by a gate, and now by a great chasm the Bible says. You may think of Lazarus as enjoying a great feast in Heaven while Dives is starving and thirsting. The tables have turned from this life to the next.
In the third and final act of the narrative, there is a dialogue between Dives and Abraham; Lazarus never speaks. We aren’t told that Lazarus was a righteous man or that Dives was wicked. We can only assume that is the case because of where they ended up in the afterlife.
To begin the conversation, Dives calls Abraham father. Abraham was considered the father of the Jewish people so by Dives calling him father Dives claims that he is a Jew and descendant of Abraham. Dives asks that Abraham have Lazarus give him just a drop of water. We can then assume that Dives knew Lazarus and knew of his plight in the former life, but he still thinks of Lazarus as someone who should serve his needs.
I can imagine Abraham thinking, “you want him to do for you what you weren’t willing to do for him in the previous life?” What Abraham does say is, remember you had good things in the former life and Lazarus was in agony; now, you are in agony and Lazarus has good things. This is a fulfillment of the Beatitudes that Jesus taught in Luke Chapter 6. Blessed are those who poor, hungry, and mourn, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.
Dives then asks that Abraham send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about the place of torment so that they can repent and be saved from Hell. Again, Dives shows that Lazarus can still serve his own personal desires; though, he is finally thinking of someone other than himself. Abraham tells Dives that he and his brothers had Moses and the Law and the prophets to warn them and he did not listen. Abraham says, “let them hear them,” that is the prophets. Abraham’s response gives credence to the continued authority of the Law and the prophets. Dives’ last appeal is that someone raised from the dead might convince his brothers to believe the Law and the prophets and repent of their sin.
The main point of this parable is the call to repentance. By this parable, Jesus shows the importance of repentance while staying focused on the theme he had been teaching about through the whole of Chapter 16, that is faithfulness with money. Like the parable of the dishonest manager, this parable teaches that with riches one has the duty to care for his or her neighbor. If the rich man had been faithful with his money, put his responsibility to the poor, hungry and sick ahead of his personal indulgence, he would not have found himself in Hell.
I have the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn which the Challengers class is studying. I haven’t read the whole book, but I’ve read part of it. There is something Alcorn wrote that stuck with me. He wrote, for some, this is the closest they’ll know to Heaven; for others, like us, this is the closest we’ll know of Hell. I suppose that if that quote has stuck with me 9 years since I read it that it is something I believe. This is the closest some will experience of Heaven and this is the closest we will experience to Hell.