“So you actually believe God sends people to Hell!” one student commented during a spiritual discussion group I facilitated on campus. He meant to ridicule another student for saying she believed Hell was real. After several others shared their opinion he reasserted, “I don’t understand how anyone can place their hope in a God who would send people to Hell?”
“What do you believe Hell is?” I asked.
He believed hell was a dangerous idea used to control people. He thought it was unjust because the punishment exceeded the crime which was usually committed in ignorance. He said it was unloving because people were treated without dignity. He mixed his argument with absurd images of Hell portrayed in media and concluded the doctrine of hell belonged to humanity’s primitive past.
While this student didn’t respect organized religion, he still respected Jesus. So we looked at Luke 16 to see what Jesus said about Hell. What he discovered challenged his assumptions.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus contrasted two men: Lazarus and a rich man. During his life, the rich man had everything; designer clothes, wealth, status, and comfort. But Lazarus begged daily for food at the rich man’s gate while dogs licked his sores. Both men eventually died. The rich man was buried. Dignitaries likely attended his funeral. Jesus mentioned no burial for Lazarus. The nauseating implication was that the same dogs that licked Lazarus’ sores consumed his body. Lazarus was dishonored. He couldn’t get any lower. However, the rich man was on top and honored continuously. Seemingly the only thing Lazarus had over the rich man was a name. (Lazarus, the Greek version of Eleazar, means “God is my help“). But some commentators disagree and argue that “Rich Man” was not merely a description but actually the name Jesus used to refer to him. “Rich Man” was his true identity. In other words his riches, not God, gave his life ultimate meaning.
However, after death things flip upside down. Now Lazarus was on top. He sat at the place of honor at Abraham’s side. The Rich Man sat far away in dishonor. In the agony of hell, the Rich Man called out for pity.
To accurately understand what’s happening, you must slow down and read Jesus’ words very carefully. When you do, you will notice several things that contradict people’s assumptions about Hell.
- Contrary to popular belief, the “Rich Man” never asked to get out of hell. Instead he attempted to pull Lazarus into his hell.
- In hell the “Rich Man” had lost all status but lived in denial of that new reality. He still treated Lazarus like a servant who should be sent to relieve his thirst. Like an addict, the Rich Man clung to his illusion even when it yielded no satisfaction. He refused to relinquish control even after he’d lost all power.
- The chasm between heaven and hell is uncrossable, but not due to distance. Abraham had a conversation with the Rich Man, but could not connect to him. Jesus’ picture of hell was unyielding stubbornness that results in impenetrable isolation.
- The rich man never asked for forgiveness because he never admitted he had done anything that required forgiveness. He defended his innocence by arguing that Abraham needed to send Lazarus to his living brothers to give them fair warning — something he believed he had been denied. Abraham refused and reminded him that Moses and the prophets gave everyone fair warning. In the story, Jesus exposed the convenient lies those in hell continue to tell themselves.
- Abraham rebuked the Rich Man saying, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. The issue is stubborn hearts, not ignorant minds. Ironically, after telling this story, Jesus raised another Lazarus from the dead and it only provoked greater hostility (see John 11). But the greatest irony would be Jesus’ own resurrection.
Contrary to popular belief hell is not excessive punishment for a crime committed in ignorance. God simply gives people what they demand — a life on their own, apart from Him. Since the main Biblical metaphor for heaven is “a wedding” between God and His people; it’s appropriate to think of hell as “the great divorce”.
I asked my skeptical friend, “If God finally grants a divorce to those who’ve demanded it their whole lives, does he dishonor them? Does he prove to be unreasonable, unloving or untrustworthy?”
“I need to rethink things.” he admitted. “But I still think God should comfort them!”
Another student didn’t miss a beat. “But what if they don’t want God’s comfort? What if they insist that their comfort comes from elsewhere?” She paused then continued, “It would be like an alcoholic whose thirst grows unquenchable simply because alcohol cannot quench it. That’s what happened to the Rich Man. Riches were his god, so he refused comfort from the only one who could give it.”
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