In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and on hell. Now it is a fact that we live in times where many consider the teaching on Hell to be untenable. Many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by Jesus himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think it has to go.
But this reading goes a long way to address some of the modern concerns about Hell and so we ought to look at it. Prior to doing that however it might be important to state why Hell has to exist. I have done that more extensively on this blog here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/ However I summarize that lengthier article in the next paragraph
Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: “Respect.” God has made us free and respects our freedom to chose his Kingdom or not. Now the Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these values are realized and experienced perfectly in heaven.
The values of the Kingdom of God include: Love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, God at the center and so forth.
Now the fact is that there are many people in our world who do not want a thing to do with chastity, or forgiveness, or being generous and so forth. And God will not force them to adopt and live these values. While it is true that everyone may want to go to heaven, heaven is not merely what we want, it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and the values thereof in all their fullness.
Hence there are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in such a way that they consistently demonstrate that they are not interested in heaven, since they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom values. Hell “has to be” since God respects their freedom to live in this way. Since they demonstrate they do not want heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”
In a way this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel when he states clearly that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). So in the end you get what you want, light or darkness. Sadly many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference and God respects even the preferences he would not want for us.
Now this leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.
I. The Ruin of the Rich Man - As the Gospel opens we see described a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.
Now it is clear he lives very well as has the capacity to help the poor man, Lazarus, outside his gate. But he simply does not.
His sin is not so much one of hate, but of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values, that of the love of the poor. His insensitivity is a “damnable sin” in the literal sense since it lands him in Hell. So the ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.
Now the care of the poor may be a complicated matter and there may be different ways of accomplishing it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt from caring for the poor if it is in our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgement for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading from Amos regarding those who are insensitive to the poor: The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (Amos 8:7) God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12) but apparently, trampling the poor and disregarding their needs isn’t one of them.
Hence this rich man has willfully and repeatedly rejected the Kingdom and is ruined by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell since he doesn’t want heaven where in the poor are exulted (cf Luke 1:52)
Abraham explains the great reversal to him: ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man- Now you might expect the rich man to be finally repentant and to have a change a heart but he does not. Looking up into heaven he sees Lazarus next to Abraham. But rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water in order that the rich man might be refreshed. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him). He sees Lazarus as a “step and fetch errand boy” and wants him to come to Hell.
Notice too, the rich man does NOT ask to be admitted to heaven! He is unhappy with where he is, but still does not seem to desire heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. So he has not really changed. He is regretful of his currently tormented condition but does not see or desire heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. He wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.
Now this helps explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person which we must come to accept. Namely, that we come to a point in our life where our character is forever fixed, where we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear. Perhaps it is death that effects this fixed quality.
The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, changed and fashioned. But there comes a moment when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (and fire is an judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)) and in that fire it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed.
The rich man now manifests this fixed quality. He has not changed one bit. He is unhappy with his torments and even wants to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change, or somehow experiences his incapacity to change.
Hence, the teaching that Hell is eternal since, having once encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be subject change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God in sadness respects) is forever fixed.
III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – As already noted, the rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. Perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn his brothers they would repent!
Now let’s be clear, we are the rich man’s brethren. And we are hereby warned. The rich man wants exotic measures but Abraham says no, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man replied, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'”
Of course, this reply is dripping with irony given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
That aside, the fact is we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of saying, they have Scripture.
And the scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to heaven and we have but to follow it. We ought not need an angel or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church are sufficient.
Their instructions are clear enough: Daily prayer, daily scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We are more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, self controlled and so forth.
In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice.
You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. This Gospel also makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed.
The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.
Herein we ought to consider ourselves reproved, if we have any non-biblical notions in this regard. Popular or not Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many (sadly) prefer the darkness of it to the light of God’s Kingdom.