“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21 NASB)
This parable isn’t one of the more difficult to understand, it’s just one of the more disturbing that Jesus tells. It’s possible there are some literary genius elements in it, like that Lazarus is the only named character between the two, but never speaks. But other points, primarily the details of the setting after death are particularly troubling.
For instance, does it bother anyone else that heaven and hell are within sight, and close enough to discern actual people? Does it bother anyone that in heaven it’s possible to see tormented people in hell? I think, if you’re like me, you sort of figured that they would be “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” for eternity. I just never thought about it actually. You, know, except for now.
Does it bother anyone that Abraham and the unnamed rich-guy can talk across the gulf that no one can travel across? There’s no bridge, but they can shout at each other. Isn’t that a bit too close for “comfort”? How is the blessed existence of heaven possible when you can witness the torment of those who refused the kingdom of God? That sounds a bit morbid or at least sadistic in nature.
So now the real question: If all that is accurate about the parable, did Jesus intend for it to be an accurate depiction of heaven, what John saw from Patmos? I have heard it various ways: heaven & hell prior to the cross, heaven & hell prior to the final “new heaven/new earth” (during the “church-age” – nonsense), and so on. Jesus simply leaves that question unanswered.
John’s vision on Patmos was different in a lot of ways, but some details he simply didn’t mention. For instance, John mentions the “lake of fire” but doesn’t say whether it was visible from the “New Jerusalem”. He has an abyss, but again it sounds like a lockable hole, temporary place for the Devil prior to the final battle. Still no mention as to the “layout” and whether there was this “chasm fixed” that no one can cross. So, it’s possible that John’s vision and this parable describe very similar settings. How’s that for uncomfortable?
One of the real problems here is how this depiction seems to cast God in a unloving light, at least by our definitions of love. Even if people in rebellious ignorance chose to go there, why leave both places within sight of each other for eternity? Can you imagine an eternity of worship before the Throne of God with tormented souls as “backup”? You can see them and hear them while worshiping with an unnumbered throng before the throne. Seems some how discordant.
So what do we do with this depiction? My favorite choice is to go with the main point, and trust God for the setting. The main point is that the wealthy need to reach out to the poor in recognition of the Sovereignty of God; viewing themselves as equal with the poor. It’s a matter of responsibility with the resources God has provided us, rich, comfortable, getting by, barely making it, stretching, or homeless.
If I focus on the obvious point, and let God worry about the “setting” after this life, then I’m not distracted sitting as judge over the Maker of the entire universe. See the problem? When we call God’s character into question, we do so at a very core level. It erodes our faith just to do so. If we believe that Scripture is inspired, that Jesus actually said these things, then draw the conclusion from those beliefs that Jesus reveals God as a very unloving harsh God; we reject other passages that say otherwise.
Part of the problem we face on this side of the “afterlife” is that we have little idea what we will be like on that side. It could be that “the glory to be revealed” so far surpasses our ability to comprehend now that any vision of the torment of others actually becomes incorporated into the glory of God and His character. To say that’s not possible from this side is fine, but impossible to actually know. So the challenge is to learn the obvious lesson, and also hang on to what we already know about God.
That’s my view through this knothole…you? What do you see?
Hi Matt. Loving your insights here. I’m a Christian who struggles with various aspects of theology, and one thing I find difficult is to equate the ‘all-loving’ God that many Christians profess with the idea of hell. You confront this predicament in your post in a very helpful and candid way. I will subscribe and will be interested to read about what else you see through those knot holes… 🙂
Steve, thank you for your comment. You are right about the struggle with “all-loving” and what a lot of Christians mean by that. In philosophy, where atheists and agnostics like to drag us is to the logical problem of evil and suffering: all-loving + all-powerful = evil sounds impossible, therefore God must not exist. The problem is in the definitions of these terms. We want to define them for God and He would prefer for us to learn the meanings from Him.
It’s like the garden, the tree of life, but then there’s this tree of the “knowledge of good and evil”. The temptation was to define good and evil for ourselves. That’s gets missed a lot, and winds up being the same problem today.
Of course, my response is a lot of shoulder shrugging and “I don’t know”. What I do know is that God’s love is defined in Jesus and the cross, and His power is defined in the resurrection. Evil, well, I’m not sure there. But if redemption includes letting Him define those terms (i.e. a reversal of the garden), then I’ll have to become comfortable leaving that in His hands.
Good struggle! Keep on!
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Your comment reminds me of a post on my blog entitled ‘Living with the Question’ (https://perfectchaos.org/2013/05/17/living-with-the-question/). I find myself immersed in a battle of reason vs faith. And so far I haven’t been able to reconcile the two. It’s difficult for me to go out on the streets and proclaim the gospel when there are aspects of Christian theology that don’t make sense to me. And yet I know God exists and I read the Bible every day, believing it to be His word.
I’m glad you mentioned the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as I’ve often wondered if that is God saying “Don’t try and figure this out – it is sinful to do so”. Do you believe that’s the meaning of that passage in Genesis? In all my years of reading theology I’ve never actually heard that explanation, though I’ve often thought that might be what God is trying to say.
Steven, in my opinion, it’s even simpler than that. Whenever you start a project, join a group, or even play a game; a basic question is who’s in charge and who makes the rules that guide us? I think in the garden the choice was made to make the rules ourselves. That would have worked had we actually made the world we live in. As it is, it was disastrous because we didn’t make the world, and have no idea how it works. We chose to build a model with no instructions. I believe part of redemption of people includes taking on God’s instructions, definitions, and explanations. If they don’t make sense, well, neither does the universe, so that fits perfectly.
“Isn’t that a bit too close for “comfort”? Matt, remember a parable is a fictional story Jesus told to teach us a moral lesson. For me, the lesson in this parable is humility.
Whenever we place ourselves above another – whether it’s spiritually, educationally, culturally ethnically or economically – we block the light and love of God. His intent is to have that light and love shine through us. It simply can’t when we place our ego in priority before His love and grace.
Susan, I agree, that is precisely the point of the parable. It doesn’t make the setting any less disturbing though. It’s a parable, not a fable, so the setting is part of what makes the story meaningful and drives home the point. I suppose it could be manufactured, but it could also be actual. It could be accommodating the beliefs of the Pharisees of that day, and not an actual depiction of heaven/hell at all. It’s still disturbing.