I received this week an email from a parishioner with questions of universal significance. Below I share his questions and my responses.
In today’s gospel (Luke 16:19-31) Jesus tells us about a rich man who dies and is sent to Hades to be tormented while Lazarus is carried away by angels to be with Abraham. This passage is threatening and raises some questions for me including: 1. Why is the rich man in hell?; 2. Is there a hell?; 3. If humans are saved by God’s grace why is anyone in hell?; 4. Does God love this rich man? and 5. If God loves him why is he in hell?
These are complex questions that don’t lend themselves to the sound-bite answers that are increasingly preferred in our culture. That said, some summary answers can be given, recognizing that lots of unpacking of these is needed in an appropriate forum.
1. Why is the rich man in hell?
The rich man is not in Hell. He is in Hades. The English word, ‘hell’ carries much more freight than what is indicated here. In the parable, Jesus is deploying popular folklore motifs to make clear what constitutes a proper response to the kingdom that has drawn near. These folklore motifs were common in early Jewish writings such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the Psalms of Solomon. We also find similar stories in Egyptian and Greek literature of the era, from Plato and Plutarch to Lucian. Kline Snodgrass notes that those common folklore motifs included “a descent to the underworld, reversal of circumstances, and denunciation of the rich for their neglect of the poor.” It’s important to recognize that Jesus is not endeavoring to make a doctrinal statement about the nature of the afterlife here, but rather using a parable to make a point about the right response to the advent of the kingdom of God.
2. Is there a hell?
Yes, “Hell” is an important theological concept. The word has no meaning apart from the reality of Jesus Christ. It can only be understood by first contemplating what constitutes a proper response to an encounter with Jesus Christ. In that encounter, eternity irrupts into the temporal, the sacred interrupts the profane, and we are invited to participate in Christ’s life through a personal relationship in which we experience ourselves as addressed by Christ and in which we respond rationally to Christ. Such participation in the eternal life of Christ is the destiny of all humans, though we can, in our freedom, reject that destiny. So how do we speak of those who do reject that destiny? ‘Hell’ is the noun we use to denote the life of those who reject their call to participate in the eternal life of Christ. The Bible says very little about Hell. Most of the imagery associated with Hell is derived from Greco-Roman mythology and medieval ideas rather than Scripture.
3. If humans are saved by God’s grace why is anyone in hell?
Our grammar in speaking of Hell is important. Being ‘in’ Hell makes sense only as shorthand for “living the life we denote by the word ‘Hell.’” Hell is not a zip code, not a geographic location, but a description of the life chosen by those who reject participation in Christ’s eternal life. Why would anyone choose such a life? As Karl Barth put it, such a choice is the “impossible possibility.” It is impossible that anyone should choose to reject participation in Christ’s eternal life, for such a choice is utterly self-destructive; it is a fundamentally irrational choice. Yet such an impossible choice is possible precisely because God has created us in God’s image, and thus we have freedom which includes the capacity to deliberate rationally. It is possible for us to remain obdurate in our choice to reject Christ’s offer of participation in his eternal life. That choice is a choice for the life denoted by the word, “Hell.’
4. Does God love this rich man?
God loves his creation completely and is actively engaged in sustaining and reconciling it. That includes all humans. God loves the rich man and calls him to his destiny of participating in Christ’s eternal life. God desires that all humans respond rationally to that call. Yet just as God is ultimately loving, God is ultimately just and true. God’s general will is that all persons will respond rationally to God’s call by living the transformed life that reflects a decision to participate in Christ’s eternal life. Because God is just and true, God justly and truthfully names as false the lives of those who persist in rejecting the good as Christ reveals it. God loves the rich man, but truthfully names his actions as false and justly accepts the rich man’s decision not to accept the gift of participation in Christ’ eternal life.
5. If God loves him why is he in hell?
In the parable, Jesus appropriates the folktale of a rich man who has suffered the reversal of his role vis a vis the poor man. The roles of the two are completely reversed. The rich man, in his mansion, is separated from the poor man via a gate through which are thrown food scraps scavenged by the wild dogs that roamed first century streets. The poor man is ritually unclean by virtue of his oozing sores and the fact that such scavenger dogs lick him. The rich man does nothing to respond to the plight of the poor man outside his gate, though God – through Torah and the prophets – clearly revealed that the good to which he was called was to use his wealth to deliver the poor from their plight. In Hades, which is simply the place of the dead, all this is reversed. The unclean poor man is the one who rests in the place of honor on the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man can see him but not reach him, and now scavenges for even a drop of water.
This parable must be understood within the context of the story Luke is telling. In the Magnificat of his first chapter, Luke made it clear that he is telling the story of the great reversal associated with the coming of the Messiah. The Incarnation, Luke implies, is the Day of the Lord which the prophets foretold, and as such, Christ has inaugurated the eon in which all things are being made right. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-3). Contrary to cultural appearances, the rich man who is blind to the poor at his gates is not the heir of God’s promises to Abraham, and the poor man, deemed by cultural norms to be unfit for the Temple, lies in the place of honor at Abraham’s bosom. This is indeed the kingdom of God drawn near, when things are being made right.
This story is indeed threatening to all who live like that rich man. It is a tale of caution, intended to clarify what is at stake when we ignore the poor at our gates, and refuse to see them as brothers and sisters with whom we are to share the wealth God has entrusted to us. As such, the parable is simply an unpacking of the gospel messages of both John the Baptizer and Jesus, who implore us to “repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near.”