Time to Talk About Hell (And Other Unsettling Things)

Oh boy.

Oh…boy.

Buckle your seatbelts, friends. It is time to talk about hell. And hell may not even be the most upsetting thing about this passage!

Luke 16:19-31

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

So here is the thing about this passage: it is really offensive to our sensibilities. And if we do some work to try to understand it and clear away the difficulties, it may become… even more offensive!

(Kinda glad I’m not preaching this week).

This lesson falls in the middle of a series of teachings about, well, stuff. Immediately after last week’s stories about the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son, we get a series on the theme of faithfulness with wealth and possessions. In short order we hear: the Story of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9), which leads into a series of miscellaneous stories about the dangers of wealth (“You cannot serve God and wealth” –v.13.).

Then comes this unsettling story about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man lives the high life while Lazarus suffers at the rich man’s doorstep. Both die. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man clearly ends up in hell –a graphic, miserable, terrible hell. Why has this happened? Verse 25: But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

Ouch.

So the rich man pleads that Lazarus be allowed to go ad warn his family. Abraham demurs, and the story concludes ominously, with words that point beyond this story to something else: 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

What will we do with this story?

Let’s start here: this is a story about hell. And it does not come across as a metaphor or as poetry, but as a literal place where the rich man goes to be tormented when he dies. I don’t see any way around it: this is a story about hell.

Sort of.

I guess I want to make two points here: First, Jesus may have believed in a literal hell. As a 1st century person, that is entirely possible –likely, even. But that does not mean that I have to believe in hell.  This is one of those moments when the whole “taking the Bible seriously not literally” thing really pays off.

But secondly–and more importantly–hell is not really the point of this story. Hell is the means of making a point that is very important to Jesus.

And this point will probably offend us as well.

Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God has a very different set of values than the ones we usually live under.

Call it the “Great Reversal.” Call it (as one of my teachers did) “the Upside Down Kingdom.” The reign of God—the kingdom to come—is like someone took this world and turned it on its ear. The last are first. The mourners are comforted. The meek inherit the earth.

I talk about this theme often enough that I hope it seems somewhat familiar. But today’s text poses the question: what does wealth look like in the upside down kingdom of God?

Let’s start with how it looks in our world. For our culture, wealth and success are often seen as their own justification. It doesn’t matter how the hamburgers taste; they get to say “Billions and Billions Sold.” Who am I to argue? We have a long legacy and deeply ingrained habit of conflating wealth and virtue. Max Weber famously argued that we should blame the Puritans, but the idea predates Plymouth Rock. Back in Jesus’ day, most people assumed that wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

So the shock in Jesus’ story isn’t about the torments of hell; it is about the wealthy man being the villain. Two related points to conclude this post:

First, we are indebted to 20th century liberation theology for the notion of God’s preferential option for the poor. Simply stated: God loves all people equally, BUT God judges societies by the well-being of the least well off. (In biblical parlance, “the widow and the orphan”). When we have a heart after God, the least among us will form the center of our concern. The rich man in this story is condemned for failing to care about Lazarus.

Second, many many Christians—including me!—have a hard time living as if we believe this is true. You may have heard of the Prosperity Gospel. (See Kate Bowler’s excellent history of the movement). An outgrowth of the Pentecostal movement, the Prosperity Gospel preaches that God wants all of God’s children to have health and wealth here and now. When we hear it proclaimed by slick televangelists, it is easy to dismiss.

But it takes more subtle forms as well.

In January of this year, the Washington Post ran an Op-Ed by Michael Horton, a professor of theology at the very conservative Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.  The piece was occasioned by President Trumps’ inauguration, but it wasn’t really about politics; it was about theology, and what this particular cultural moment has to say about our nation’s beliefs. Professor Horton noted the role of certain certain prosperity Gospel preachers (Paula White, for example) in the inaugural ceremonies. And he made this provocative claim: “The prosperity gospel may be our nation’s new civil religion.”

I think Professor Horton has a point. (I also think the developments he describes long predate the current President’s religious associations). The prosperity Gospel may be more pervasive than we think.

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is supposed to unsettle us. Do we really live according to the values of the reign of God? Do we even want that?

If you’re not unsettled, you’re not paying attention.

 

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