Luke 16:22-26 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’”
Our conviction and premise when we read these words is that the man who spoke them is the most loving person this world has ever known, and that he tells this history to you now because he loves you personally. He is also Jehovah Jesus the one true and living God. The message of this incident is that it is utter folly to have gained the whole world but to have lost your own soul. It is possible never to achieve anything in life and end up sleeping on the street, a sick beggar licked by mongrels, glad of the crumbs that fall from another’s table, and yet to end in heaven. While it is equally possible to have everything that this world has to offer, live in luxury and yet end up in hell. We believe that such a plain reading of this parable is the only legitimate understanding of it. You say it is too simple, but we are simple people. The fact is that Jesus often spoke of hell; the most solemn utterances about it fell from his lips; he wept over a city that rejected his teaching. The truth of the reality of hell may not be removed from the Bible. If it is then many other Christian teachings are affected and you have a different Christianity. In no way does it contradict Jesus’ own exhortation not to judge others. By that he was speaking of censorious self-righteous judgments. He was not warning us about evaluating what we hear and being thoughtful and weighing up claims and offers we meet. We have to make judgments of what we see and hear every day, but we are conscious that they are not infallibly perfect assessments. However, we ultimately to face the final judgment, the last judgment, God’s own judgment of every life which he has been sustaining and evaluating for we have lived and moved and had our being in him. The outcome of that judgment is either guilty or not guilty; it is either heaven or hell; it is either for Christ or against him. The beggar was justified and went to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man went to hell.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RICH MAN?
There are three clear emphases in the New Testament, all of which come from Jesus Christ.
i] What the rich man was deprived of in hell. All that was humane and loving and familiar was his no longer. He had five brothers and some affection for them, but they were with him no longer and he had no desire for them to be with him in hell. Was that merely because they would have made things worse for him there? A theologian friend of mine has expressed his conviction that all that reflects the image of God in man will not be found in the people in hell. In other words, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Phils. 4:8) then it could not be anywhere in hell in the rich man or anyone else. Those virtues will not be found in hell. So the people in hell will not be the same people you’ve known and loved and admired in this life. It is a state of being shut out from all God’s goodness. The picture Jesus used when he spoke of it was ‘outer darkness.’ It is being absent from a bright city of light and bustle and holy energy. It is being absent from a magnificent feast. The door is closed to prevent you sharing in that celebration. Hell is to be shut out from all joy, and community, and life. It is characterized by tears; it is simply a place of relentless sorrow, of total unalleviated distress, the wailing and sobs of hell.
The Lord Christ has one particular graphic image of hell. He describes the inhabitants as ‘gnashing their teeth.’ The Bible itself explains the meaning. A man called Stephen was the first Christian martyr. His story is recorded for us in the New Testament in chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Acts. He was a bold witness for Christ with a great intellectual gift.
Stephen had brought such a powerfully convicting message to the Jerusalem authorities who were opposing Christianity and had so refuted all their arguments and proved his case that we read, “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54). They hated him so much that they went on to stone him to death. They couldn’t speak because they were bursting with so much fury. All they could do was gnash their teeth. In hell are people who have been at enmity against God all their lives. When they had a chance of killing Jesus of Nazareth they found the most fiendish lingering way of torturing him to death that one could imagine. Death has changed nothing in these men and women. What was contempt for God beforehand when they walked this earth is contempt still. Hatred before is hatred still, and now they show it by gnashing their teeth against him. In bitter anger men and women grind their teeth. They are in such a depth of fury towards God that is impossible to express in words. So the rich man was deprived of all that was true and good and lovely.
ii] How the rich man was punished in hell. We are told that “In hell . . . he was in torment” (v.23). He says himself, “I am in agony in this fire” (v.24). This is how Jesus reported the rich man’s condition. To the south of Jerusalem in Bible times there was a valley called the valley of Hinnom, or in the Greek Gehenna. At one time it had been associated with the worship of the pagan god called Molech, to whom children were sacrificed. But there’d been a true religious awakening under the Old Testament king Josiah, and it had led to that idol shrine being smashed to pieces. But the reputation of the place lived on and the valley was made into the sewage pit of Jerusalem. Dead animals, the corpses of criminals and everything that was counted as rubbish were thrown into the valley and set on fire. The fire there just burned continually, a pall of stinking smoke hung over the place. So the valley became a symbol in common speech for hell.
Jesus endorsed that image. He himself used it as a picture of what hell is like, a place of ceaseless unquenchable fire. Jesus never tired of correcting the misconceptions of his day. One only has to recall that repeated refrain from the lips of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . . .’ He was anxious to sort out people’s fancies and errors and prejudices. Yet Jesus never said, “You have heard people talking of the fires of hell, but I say unto you it is not like that at all . . .” Rather he confirmed the idea of eternal fire. In other words, he saw the consequences of sin as terrifying.
He saw sin as leading people to this place of indescribable torment and agony, and so he told us of the rich man and Lazarus. He was shockingly urgent and direct in his warnings. He said, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:7-9). Jesus wasn’t talking about mutilating yourself, but he was using this strong language to drive home the fact that hell is such a horrendous and unthinkable destiny that we should spare nothing to avoid the rebellion and indifference to Jesus Christ that takes people there.
The rich man said, “I am in agony in this fire” (v.24), and we are asked, ‘Are these things to be taken literally? Are we to think of literal fire and literal darkness?’ Generally we say that it isn’t wise to make a guess when Scripture is not explicit. We know that the fire is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). They are spirits and so the fire must be something more than physical fire, but because it is in part picture language, it does not mean that we can read the words without feeling apprehensive. Let no one here think that the fire is only symbolical and so not very terrible. Rather think this, that if the symbol, the mere picture of fire, is already awe-inspiring and fearful, how horrific must the actual reality be. Whatever is clear from the history of the rich man and Lazarus, it is that Jesus doesn’t want us to toy with the possibility that hell might be bearable. It was unbearable to the rich man. He who had lacked nothing in his life was now begging for a single drop of water to fall on his tongue to cool it. His tongue burned with heat. The mere symbol of something is never greater than the thing itself. The reality itself is always greater.
iii] Hell is a place of disintegration. The rich man can see things getting worse. Should his own brothers arrive there, it would be worse for him. It can never get better. He can never think “Tomorrow will be different.” How did Jesus make that vivid? By saying, “the worm does not die there.” Our Lord is actually quoting from the prophet Isaiah. He is describing constant dissolution. Hell is a place where people disintegrate and personalities disintegrate. Think of a sleepless night as you toss and turn with worry. You can’t think of anything else, and you can’t stop worrying about this. No rest. No acceptance. No peace. No coming to terms with it at all. The worm doesn’t die and stop its gnawing away at you; you face eternal disintegration. So that is what happened to the rich man in hell.
IS HELL FOR EVER?
Will hell ever end? Will there ever be a time when those there will be freed from it? Abraham speaks to the rich man and tells him, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (vv.25&26). A great gulf has been fixed between heaven and hell. It has been fixed by God himself, and the result is no one may leave either place, ever, and no one wants to. The rich man in hell does not say, “I long to be in glory with the Lord.” He did not say that when he was on earth and he does not say it in hell. The torment there has not removed his hatred of God. It has given him no longing for God. He wants the agony to be alleviated, that is all. He does not want Jesus and heaven, but he cannot get there, and those in heaven never want to leave that blessedness. So will hell ever end? Three points:-
i] Jesus spoke of both heaven and hell as the final states of men and women. He gave no indication that hell was temporary, or that there was another state after hell of non-existence achieved by annihilation.
ii] Jesus spoke plainly of the ‘eternity’ of the punishment and eternal fire. He used the word ‘eternal’; he chose that word. Eternal does not mean temporary; it means for ever. It is sometimes argued that the New Testament word ‘eternal,’ has more to do with the quality of life than the duration of life. Of course it also embraces quality, yes, but its primary meaning is duration. Any Greek lexicon confirms this; the Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon records just three meanings of the word ‘eternal.’ It means ‘without beginning,’ or ‘without end’ or ‘without beginning or end.’ I’m saying that its fundamental meaning concerns duration. The connotation of endless conscious anguish can’t be avoided.
iii] Jesus spoke of both heaven and hell as being eternal. At the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells us of the rebels, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:36). There is an exact bifurcation of destinies. They are there in parallel. The same word ‘eternal’ is used to describe both heaven and hell. If we take the position that hell is capable of termination then, to be consistent, we must believe that the same could be true of heaven also, but, from the rest of the Bible, that is plainly not the case. Heaven is for ever; we are bound to the plain meaning of the word ‘eternal.’ Hell is as eternal a state as heaven.
3. HOW CAN THE FATHER OF JESUS CHRIST SEND SINNERS TO HELL?[In this section I’ve had help from Paul Helm’s The Last Things, (Banner of Truth)].
We are asked how can a just and loving God send anyone to an eternity in hell? In other words the person asking that question assumes that love is the dominant characteristic or attribute of God, and that God’s love is overwhelming, that it is the only characteristic of God that matters, so that every other attribute of God may safely be ignored. So, they think, if love – pure benevolence – is what God is (‘love is all you need’ sang the Beatles) – then how can there be anyone in hell? Exactly, if God were pure benevolence.
But God is not only benevolence, not if the Christian gospel is true. We may wish that he were only benevolence; we may long that God were another sort of God, but when we see who God is in Scripture he is not only benevolence. And wishing he were, and imagining he were, and longing that he might be only love is not going to change the character of God one iota. What is the rational approach to thinking about God and judgment and eternity? How is the thinking man to respond? More, what is the man who worships Jesus Christ as the true man, and the wise Messiah, and the incarnate God to think of judgment and hell? Surely he must adjust his thinking to the facts. They may be unpalatable facts, and unpleasant facts, but they claim to be a revelation of the only God there is, and he is love, yes, praise God, but he is also light and in him is no darkness at all, and he is a consuming fire, and his wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. To bring that into consideration is to think like a Christian, and to think in the light of Scripture. Not to think like that is to indulge in religious make-believe.
Men and women, what I am saying to you is central to an understanding and an acceptance of what the Bible says, and what the fate of these two men in Luke 16 described by our Lord is saying, and what the Christian church has taught and confessed about hell. If God is supremely just, and just in a sense which is recognizable as just by his human creatures, and if hell exists, and exists because it is ordained by God, then hell must be just. If hell is where one callous rich man received his deserts at the hand of God, then those deserts were just. For hell is not a place of corruption; it is not a diabolical society; it is not a community out of God’s reach. Hell is where corruption is impeccably punished, and punished according to strict justice. God had reigned over this rich man during his life as he reigns over the whole world and all of you today. He gave this rich man every good and perfect gift, and all the extra luxuries that this man knew, hour after hour, day after day, because he lived and moved and had his being in God. Every day God blessed him and God spoke to him through the creation around him and through his conscience. He warned him when he drove out of his gate in his chariot and turned his face away from the outstretched arms of the poor man. The rich man defied God and was content to live his life without God in a totally selfish way. Now the God who during his lifetime reigned over him and decreed what day by day would happen to him is continuing to reign over this man in hell, but now he has taken his toys away. Nothing that is not in accordance with the strictest justice is permitted to enter hell, or to take place in hell. Please understand that hell is not a place of demonic anarchy where the devil and his legions do what they like to sinners. That is the cartoon world of red devils with horns and scales and tails holding tripod spears. Hell may be a place of pain, but it is not a place of defiance or resistance. It is not a demonic colony which has gained unilateral independence from God. It is under the authority of Abraham, that is, under the authority of the God of Abraham. The rich man has to address Abraham and listen to what Abraham’s responses are, and that is it. There is in hell a full recognition of God’s justice. In hell God’s character is vindicated, and hence glorified, even by those who in this life have defied him and who suffer for it.
God reigns over hell as he reigns over heaven, and so we can be satisfied that whatever happens in hell is just and scrupulously fair. No-one may complain about hell from this world; no-one may complain about what is happening in hell from heaven, and no one may complain in hell that what is happening there is unrighteous. The people in hell hate God still but they don’t say that what is happening there is unjust.
It may be difficult to you to believe that what happened to the rich man was just. This is because you have preconceptions, and anticipations of what hell must be like, most of them drawn from fiction or drawn from your own imagination. But Jesus Christ himself, the wisest and the most loving man that the world has seen, he who is the incarnate God, is telling us of these two men, the rich man and Lazarus the beggar. He is doing so because he wants to save you from entertaining fanciful and erroneous preconceptions as to what hell is or is not like, and who will be there. That is not obvious. There will be surprises; men will cry out, “But Lord, Lord . . .” but we will see the perfect justice of God and we will adore. Nothing ought to be judged before the time (I Cor. 4:5) and in any event it is not we who are the judges; God is the Judge (I Cor. 4:4). But Scripture says that many that are first will be last, and the last will be first. Many will be shocked by the divine verdict; the self-confident will be overturned, while those whose confidence is only in Christ will be vindicated and delivered.
So how can God consign unbelieving rebel sinners to hell? Because only the God before whom the angels hide their eyes and cry, “Holy, holy, holy!” – he alone knows what sin is, and what sin deserves. Hell is a place of divine justice, where divine punishment is dispensed not in accordance with the warped and partial and ignorant procedures of human society, but immaculately, in accordance with the standards of him who is supremely just. There will be no cause for complaint. Every factor will be brought into consideration; every mouth will be stopped, not forcibly but by the recognition of the justice of the proceedings. And every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:11), even the tongues of those who are justly condemned in hell. But there is another objection that we hear . . .
IF SALVATION IS BY GRACE WHY SHOULD ANYONE GO TO HELL?
If God actually secures salvation for sinners through the work of the Son and the Spirit, why doesn’t God so arrange things that none is lost? Why should any be lost, if God could save all? There is no answer to this question. There is no explanation in the Bible. This is one of the secret things that belong to God. Scripture is silent about this. All we have in the Bible is the affirmation of the sovereignty of God – “Even so Father for so it seemed good in they sight.” If you press questions like that long enough and far enough, you come down to the matter of the nature of God himself, his ultimate will and purposes. It’s children who ask such questions: Why is there a universe at all? Why is there a universe like this? Why are there precisely the numbers of people that there are? Why is sin allowed? Why is salvation provided for sinners? Why is the Christian message made known extensively in some places and some eras and not in others?
To all such questions the only possible answer, and the only satisfactory answer, is that this is God’s universe, and he has willed it in this way. The reasons why things are as they are concerning those questions are secret things that belong to God. Who are you dealing with? Who are you interrogating? You are face to face with the divine sovereignty, and there is no avoiding it.
We know this, that this sovereign Lord is not whimsical or capricious in anything he does, but all he does he does for a good purpose, and in accordance with the holiness and goodness of his character. I say that we do not know what the reason is why every single person doesn’t go to heaven because it has not been disclosed to us.
One thing we certainly know, and it is that what the rich man had to suffer in hell – the endurance of everlasting punishment for sin – was in no way the triumph of evil. People say, “Look at that rich man with his evil nature, unregenerated, untransformed, self-centred, God-hating, and remaining like that for all time. This universe at the beginning was not like that. It was created all-good, but because of hell it will remain for ever less than all good; it will contain evil people. So evil has triumphed.”
Is hell the triumph of evil? There are two reasons for thinking that it is not. One is that while there is pain in hell (and pain is in some sense an evil), the pain of hell is deserved pain. It is penal pain. If pain per se is an evil, then hell is the triumph of evil. But if, on the other hand, hell is a just place, because none suffer there except those who deserve to suffer, and none suffer more, nor less, than they deserve, then hell is not evil. Furthermore, from the point of view of the original creation, and looked at in isolation, hell may be an anomaly. Of course the Creator determined to create an all-good universe, and he did so. Hell is the final culmination of the sinful departure of creatures from the original order of things, but hell is not an anomaly from the point of view of God’s purpose or decree. For it was God’s nature to punish sin in hell. It is required by God’s holiness, and by the enormity of sin as rebellion against God. So that although according to Scripture hell is a place of indescribable woe, nevertheless in hell, no less than in heaven, the justice of God reigns. Heaven is founded upon the justice of God in accepting Christ’s righteousness on behalf of sinners; hell is founded on the justice of God in punishing sinners. But it is impossible to probe the matter further, and to ask why this particular beggar Lazarus is in heaven, and why this rich man is in hell. The answer to all such questions is, in the final sense, where it properly belongs, in the hands of God.
Christians have thought of this for years, and older Christian writers claim that, far from being an anomaly, or the triumph of evil, hell demonstrates the glorious justice of God in a public, unmistakable way. His justice against sin is manifest in punishing vile rebels. His grace is demonstrated in providing his Son as a substitute for repentant sinners who are as undeserving of the saving goodness of God as are any one in hell.
The trouble is that many people who go to church tend to measure a doctrine not by how scriptural it is, nor from a perspective which naturally and habitually places God at the centre of his creation, but from a perspective which places mankind there, and then it is hardly surprising that the problems begin to pile up.
Unbelievers face the same problem with the rich man being kept in hell for ever with the great gulf stopping him ever escaping anywhere. Many people will nod and say that they’re quite willing to accept the existence of a ‘fantasy island’ like purgatory. But, they ask, how could everlasting punishment ever be justified? Isn’t it monstrous that an action which has had only limited evil consequences, or a desire which has had no public evil consequences at all – for example lust or covetousness in my heart – not registering in any outward action at all –how can it be just to punish such finite sins without limit? Isn’t it monstrously disproportionate? How can there be justice in that?
This is to forget what is basic to what a man or a woman is with his dignity and image of God and human responsibility. God is sovereign, yes, but man is accountable to his sovereign. In other words, our accountability is fundamentally directed towards God. Each of us lives primarily in God’s sight, and only derivatively in the sight of others. All other responsibilities, to individuals and to communities, derive from this basic responsibility, and that can’t be ducked or shed.
Hell is without limit because the offences being justly punished have been committed against a God of infinite, immeasurable holiness and goodness. And heaven is without limit because the atonement of the Saviour is of immeasurable value. Hell’s purpose is not remedial; it is not to amend the life of anyone; the time for such change has passed. There is no grace and no redemption and no sanctifying Spirit in hell to transform sinners. The purpose of hell is to mete out with exact and final justice what every unrepented-of sin deserves. Hell is not the result of the petulant temper of a capricious and unstable God; it is the scene of exact and righteous justice.
The rich man in hell defined and recognized hell for what it is “I am in agony in this fire,” and the justice of being there. Otherwise hell would be a breeding ground for further injustice, and further resentment, and further sin. Hell is a place of sinners, yes, but there is no reason to think that it is a heaven for sinners, a fool’s paradise. As we see from the position Abraham occupies in hell the place is under the direct control of God.
What does Scripture teach us? We are informed that before Christ the Judge every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11). And this language implies that the rich man recognizes the essential justice of his plight. He too had to recognize Christ’s Lordship, and he confessed him, not with love and adoration as a Saviour, but as the Lord God Almighty, his just Judge..
HOW DO WE PREACH HELL?
Fire and brimstone preachers are figures of fun. They are amusing and sad because they have one string on their banjoes. I have never met one such a monomaniacal preacher, and I am glad of their rarity for such a figure would be unacceptable to me or to any sensible Christian who want balance and all the counsel of God preached and Jesus Christ preached most of all. It is enough for us to know that here before us in this part of Luke’s gospel is the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ on hell. Hell can only be understood in terms of the central message of the gospel, that we deserve hell because we are sinners, but Jesus Christ because he loved us endured hell for us on Golgotha, that if we entrust ourselves to him we shall never perish in hell but have everlasting life. Hell is separation from all of that, from the grace and salvation of God in Christ. There unrepentant sinners will bear the just consequences of their own sin and folly. It is in hell that the judgment of God upon sin is experienced. It is often known in this life, but more often withheld and postponed until after death. The goodness of God is in order to lead sinners to repentance. Remember that the fact of hell is not sadistic; hell is not revealed so that perverted people can gloat over the thought of suffering or write beautiful poetry about the inferno. Jesus preached on hell to warn men and women. We are told of the wrath to come and urged to flee from it. How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? There is a wrath to come, and preaching on it is aimed at encouraging every hearer to run to Jesus who welcomes every one who comes to him giving them rest.
11th September 2011 GEOFF THOMAS