If you are anxious to prove a doctrinal position on Hell, the Gospel of Luke is going to be your friendliest gospel. Luke's Gospel contains a parable that most readily fits the stereo-typical Western view on eternal, post-mortem judgment. Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man is nearly exactly they way that many of us view the after-life: 19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 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. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31
Many people would want to conclude that nothing more needs to be said on the subject. Jesus obviously endorses the traditional view of Hell. But not so fast. There are a number of questions that we ought to ask before we jump to this conclusion. To begin, if you have been reading Luke's gospel in anticipation of finding the split-level world, that most of us assume, where righteous people go to heaven and wicked people go to hell at the end of the world, you might have found yourself fairly bored with Luke's gospel up to this point. Luke has not been eager to tell us what we have been eager to hear. If our interest in Luke's gospel has peaked only with the reading of this parable, it is a sign that we are looking, not to understand Luke's message, but to affirm a position that we already held before we read his gospel. Secondly, if Jesus is sharing a "super-natural glimpse into the spiritual realm" as I have heard well-known radio preachers claim, there are a number of questions that should come up in response. First of all, if the poor man is already in Abraham's bosom, and if that is the ultimate destination for all of those who are "justified by faith", then why was it necessary for Jesus to die? If Lazarus is already being comforted in heaven, what would Jesus' death accomplish? And if the answer should come back that Jesus was dying for sins already forgiven or that Jesus was "slain before the foundation of the world", then I would want to ask why He did not die sooner in His earthly ministry (or at the foundation of the world for that matter)? Why did He slip away from crowds that wanted to stone Him (Luke 4:28-30)? Why did the angel tell Jesus' parents to hide from Herod because he was wanting to kill Jesus? Furthermore, what did the apostle Paul mean when he claimed that "When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son?" Galatians 4:4. If Jesus had been slain from the foundation of the world in God's reckoning of time, and if the benefits of His sacrifice have been experienced since that time as well, what was the point of a three and a half year long earthly ministry? And what is this business about the "fullness of time"? I realize that none of these questions disprove the traditional view of Hell or final judgment, and it is not my ambition, necessarily, to disprove those traditions anyway. The direction that I do want to point to is to say that we need to hear what Luke is trying to tell us rather than what we are trying to hear. If our assumptions speak louder than the gospel narrative itself, than we must put our assumptions aside for a bit and let the text speak what it wants to speak. I.E. What if Luke did not care to prove the existence of Hell (as though a simple parable could do that!)? What if Jesus was not actually trying giving us a supernatural glimpse into the supernatural world? What if Luke is trying to convey what Jesus taught about the nature of hardheartedness and unbelief? And what if Jesus was simply using a picture based upon ideas and concepts that people already had? "Hades", "Abraham's bosom" etc. were obviously already part of the mental furniture of Jesus' contemporaries. Jesus wasn't giving fresh revelation of eternity, but a warning about the nature of unbelief and lust for power and wealth. As Jesus said in another teaching, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God." If we read Luke's Gospel in hopes of finding out what he says and teaches about Hell, I think that we will find very little of the stereo-typical picture, but we will find plenty of warnings about non-repentance. The warnings are not so much about being thrown into a pit of fire and burning torment when you die, but about the fact that Hell is a lot closer to us already than we are willing to admit. When He (Jesus) approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." Luke 19:41-44
Where you go when you die is important, but I think Luke would want to ask us "Where are you right now?"
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