He never saw it coming. There he was one moment, enjoying the comforts of his home, surrounded by all the good things he’d worked hard for during his earthly life and the next thing you know the lights go out and he wakes up in the house of horrors. What happened? What’s he doing here? What went wrong? It’s the rich that enter into the Kingdom of God – right? Wealth is a sign of blessing; prosperity comes from God, therefore God must be pleased with the wealthy otherwise they wouldn’t be wealthy – right?
I guess he got that wrong. Like so many of us, we often get spiritual things wrong. Money, earthly success and prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God’s favour, otherwise most New Zealanders would be going to heaven. Have a look at the The Global Rich List. Type in your annual salary and click “enter” and it tells you where you are positioned financially in the world. According to their calculations, I’m in the top 1% and so are you if your annual household income is over 60k. Even someone receiving the minimum wage or on a benefit in our country is in the top 5% of the richest people in the world. Three billion people live on less than $2 a day. 1.3 billion get by on less than a $1 per day. And 70% of those who live on less than a $1 a day are women.
No, the well-off don’t automatically enter into heaven. In fact, Jesus said wealth makes it harder for them to get to heaven. Why? It’s quite simple: when you have money you don’t need God. What God won’t give you, money will. The rich young man who came up to Jesus one day thought he was on the way to heaven until Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor and then come and follow him. Oh dear – that was not what he was expecting. He walked away we are told, “sorrowful” (Matt. 19:22).
There’s another thing wealth does: it can make you incredibly selfish. You become anesthetized to the suffering of others. You look at the impoverished in life, the down-and-outers, and you think, “What’s their problem? Why can’t they work for a living? Why should I give them any of my hard-earned money?” Wealth, if you are not careful, can make you proud, callous, and cold-hearted.
And then there’s Lazarus. This guy is in a bad way. He’s poor – dirt poor, and sickly. He has no money to feed himself, clothe himself or get medical help. Jesus tells us, “even the dogs came and licked his sores.” What a sorry sight. These dogs are not family pets; they are scavengers. I saw them roaming the streets when I was in the Ukraine. They are horrible things that skulk around the place and hide down dark alley-ways. And poor old Lazarus had to endure these fiendish creatures constantly pestering him and licking him, aggravating his pain and suffering.
We are told in verse 22 that Lazarus dies and the angels come and escort him to “Abraham’s side.” That’s the Jewish term for paradise, or heaven. At the same time the rich man also dies. But unlike Lazarus he is not escorted by angels to heaven. No, he wakes up in Hades. Hades is the Greek word for the abode of the dead or the grave; the world of departed spirits. Hades is where those who are without Christ go when they die while they await the resurrection and final judgment. It’s not Hell. Hell comes later. It’s a preview to Hell. However we do learn here some important truths of what hell will be like:
1. In Hell people will be fully conscious of their condition
The rich man is fully conscious of what is going on. He has memory for he knows who Lazarus is. He has sight because he sees Lazarus far off. He can speak – he cries out for help. And he feels pain. He looks up and sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side and calls 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.” (v.24)
You know something of what it is like in this life, to crave and not get, to want and not be satisfied, to have your eyes on something that you think will make you happy and then as soon as you obtain it, you feel empty all over again. Take the feeling of frustration and multiply it a 1000 times over. That is what Hell will be like – a perpetual burning of desire that is never fulfilled, never gratified and never quenched.
2. In Hell our eternal destiny is irrevocably fixed.
Abraham answers the rich man’s plea by saying,
“Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” (vv.25–26)
Hell is not purgatory. Purgatory, so the theory goes, is a temporary holding place that souls go until their sins are purified by punishment. It might last a few years or a few million years, depending on how bad you’ve been. With a few good prayers from your relatives (and perhaps a little money) you might get out sooner. But no such place exists in the Bible. Once you die, your eternal destiny is fixed. There are no second chances, no purifying of the soul by suffering, and no possibility of escape. What is done is done. What has been lived has been lived. And what has been decided by God has been decided.
3. In Hell people will know what they are experiencing is fair and just.
Notice that the rich man doesn’t argue about being there. He doesn’t try and contend his sentence. On the contrary, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his father’s house to warn those he left behind:
“Father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’” (vv.27–28)
Some might think the man would have preferred to have his brothers join him in hades, to keep him company. But he was more than willing to never see them again if only he knew they could be on the other side of this gulf, this chasm.
4. What people will learn in Hell they will learn too late: the only way to escape Hell is to hear and believe the gospel.
Have a listen to Abraham’s answer. The message is crystal clear:
“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’” (v.29)
God has already provided ample information and evidence about both the danger of their present predicament and the remedy for escape. People don’t need anything else. They don’t need some special messenger. They don’t need Lazarus or some angel coming and telling them. They just need the gospel. But the Rich Man knows his brothers won’t listen to that. He knows it’s not going to do any good for someone to say, “Just read the Bible!” So he says to him,
“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” (v.30)
‘If they could just see something amazing, something supernatural, like someone rising from the dead, then that would do it. Then they would wake up and repent.’ Abraham replies,
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (v.31)
When Jesus told this story, he had not yet died on the cross and rose from the dead. Yet today, even though the evidence of his resurrection is overwhelming, people continue to ignore and disbelieve it. There are better things to do – like make money.
It’s a shocking story isn’t it? It’s meant to be. Jesus intends to jolt us from our spiritual slumber so that we might start thinking about what we are living for and more importantly, where we are heading. It’s meant to frighten and horrify us. Hell is a place I don’t want to go to and I suspect you don’t either. The good news is you don’t have to. There is a way out. On the cross God’s righteous and holy wrath was unleashed on Jesus so it wouldn’t have to be unleashed on you. He endured the horrors of hell so you wouldn’t have to. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. But it’s not going to do you any good unless you understand it, believe it and act on it.
If you ignore Jesus’ words you ignore God’s warnings to you. And if you ignore God’s warnings there is no hope for you. There is no plan ‘B’ for those who reject God’s Son.