The Hell There Is – A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

092813In 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: 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.

32 Replies to “The Hell There Is – A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year”

  1. Frightens when the Gospel reads, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.”… “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

    ah oh… Scripture is important and has been placed upon a table or shelf!

    Thank you again Msgr.

  2. This parable addresses a mistaken belief that is rife in the Church, namely, that you can have a Catholic religion in which there is no sin and hell. There are many who would prefer this comfortable religion, a type of social Catholicism that would leave guilt and conscience alone. Through this parable Jesus teaches mankind that sin is a reality that could cause a child of God to end up in hell. One cannot be a relation of God, a member of His Trinitarian family in his Church in one’s own way, or a Catholic, bishop, priest and religious according to one’s own style. Being a member of the body of Christ is a gift. With this gift and privilege comes the responsibility to make God’s ways known and to witness with the totality of one’s being to His merciful, saving love as revealed by his only begotten Son. Each and every Mass is a realization and revelation of what it means to be a child of God in Spirit and in Truth. The rich child of God could not see himself responsible for his brother Lazarus’ state. Out of love for mankind, this is what God did and continues to do in the world through His Church.

  3. Some theologians say that the rich man is in purgatory because if in hell he would not be capable of a charitable concern for his kin. Any comments?

    1. Yes, such theories abound. But the overall data suggests that this is the Hell of the damned. There is a fixed barrier over which no one may cross, the fires are tormenting fires, not purifying fires. Further, his request is rejected. The presupposition that souls in Hell are not in any away concerned about others is just that, a presupposition. And even if he is concerned what does that have to do with getting out of Hell? The context of a fixed situation and of lasting torment where souls in heaven cannot help is not the context of purgatory, but of hell….

      1. Great response, Monsignor. Also, as C. S. Lewis points out so bluntly in The Great Divorce, mere biological ties are not sufficient; we share this with animals, after all. It’s a sobering passage–almost shocking–but echoes clearly what our Lord says in Matthew 12:46-50, not to mention John 1:13. Thanks for a fine posting.

  4. Hi Father

    I just finished a diaconate weekend and our class was on biblical inspiration and intro to Catholic Theology. We discussed this reading at one point during the weekend. Our instructor suggested the rich man was in fact not in Hell, he was in purgatory. The reason he gave was that the rich man was concerned about his brothers and that no soul in Hell would be focused on anything but itself. It seems to be a good point but either way it doesn’t change the basic lesson of the reading of suffering for the sins of pride and greed and indifference. I would be interested in what you think of this interpretation of this Gospel reading. I really enjoy reading your articles and appreciate your insight.



    1. Yes, such theories abound. But the overall data suggests that this is the Hell of the damned. There is a fixed barrier over which no one may cross, the fires are tormenting fires, not purifying fires. Further, his request is rejected. The presupposition that souls in Hell are not in any away concerned about others is just that, a presupposition. And even if he is concerned what does that have to do with getting out of Hell? The context of a fixed situation and of lasting torment where souls in heaven cannot help is not the context of purgatory, but of hell

  5. When I read this particular gospel, I always have one question, why did our lord in the vision the rich man has after he dies, he sees Lazarus in glory with Abraham, instead of Jesus Father? I know the Lord spoke in parables, and Abraham is a father figure for the Jews. Could it be that he is using the image of Abraham to represent the figure of God the Father?

  6. Here is an example of the Rich man (oh, he made millions killing babies) in hell (prison) who appears unrepentant. Case in study – Kermit Gosnell, the infamous abortionist who had the time to think of what he did (convicted of killing 3 babies born alive during 3 separate abortions) but INSTEAD chose to compose poems to justify his murders. Below, is an example of his poem:

    Abortion Providers
    Are Labeled Killers!
    Horrendous, Exploitive
    Barbaric, Inhumane
    Not Physicians, Oathed To Heal
    Lest We Forget,
    What Chance Have Those?
    Those Without The Support
    Of Their Parents
    Their Families
    Their Communities
    Their Societies …
    So Many
    Without Sufficient Support
    Stumble Into Drugs
    Into Crime
    Into Mental Illness
    Into Institutions … And …
    Languish in Jails …

    His poem reveals that he is All Knowing, and that he is the Final JUDGE and EXECUTIONER.
    Even in jail, he justifies his position. This is the perfect example of the rich man in hell.

    Read more:

  7. He’s in Hell, and his concern for his brothers is meaningless. He may very well be concerned for them, just as he probably was on earth. But he also continues to exhibit the same pride and indifference as he did on earth, even as he’s tormented by flames, toward another brother, Lazarus, and toward Heaven and God.

  8. Father,

    I always appreciate your insights. I think about why he’ll has to be terrible. I have a friend who lives to golf. Why wouldn’t God let him golf in the afterlife? But, then it hit me, even if he had the freedom to golf all day for eternity, how could he enjoy doing so after finally coming to know the Truth at Judgment Time? Maybe the anguish would be that much the greater, knowing what he was missing, but not being to take part in the wedding feast. Not truly wishing to participate, but knowing the joy of others, and his own wretchedness at turning away from the invitation.

  9. Some good insights about the arrogance of the wealthy man (seeing Lazarus as below him), imo, monsignor.

  10. One of the great questions, What is hell like? One thing is for sure. There is a hell. Remember that God’s mercy is infinite. Pope Francis called it a bottomless pit. Even the worst of sinners can go to heaven if he repents. Hell is filled with the proud and unrepented. Hell is the measure of all fears for the sinner. The fought of hell centers my life. When Christ descended into hell , Satan must heve been shaken. Here was the sinless Son of God, visiting the one place wher Satan thought he was master. It must have been a hell within hell for Satan. God almighty we thank you for your gift of salvation. Please do not allow my sins and pride to overwhelm me and to consume me. Give me strength to see things the way your son did while here on earth. Mary mother of our Lord Jesus, pray for me now and at the hour of my death. Thank Lord Jesus for teaching me how to pray to your father. Thank you Lord for showing me the way. Amen.

  11. Thank you for approaching the subject of Hell candidly, unafraid and with the Truth of Scripture. I did not hear the word “Hell” (that four letter word) said once in the Homily at Mass today. “Complacency” was mentioned though… God help us.

  12. Interesting discussion and I appreciate the reply by Msgr. Pope. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I didn’t believe in hell or that was the idea put forward in class. I certainly do believe in hell, so does the Dr. teaching our class, and I’m happy to say, so has every priest that I’ve ever known. Jesus is very clear on the reality of hell so it’s hard for me to see how some attempt to deny this. I just thought it was an interesting take on the reading and one that I had not heard before and was glad to hear Msgr. Pope’s reply to this. His insight is always spot on.

    1. Thanks, the interpretation of this passage is debated because of the use of the term Sheol (Netherworld). In Jewish antiquity the Hell of the damned and the “hell” of the dead to which Jesus descended were not always distinguished as we do today in the aftermath of the Resurrection and Ascension. Further Jesus often used the word “Gehenna” to describe the hell of the damned, but not here. But the, use of the world “Sheol” here does not seem to withstand the context of the parable where there seems to be a definitive exclusion from heaven and an abyss or boundary over which no one can ever travel. Hence a purgatorial scenario seems excluded.

  13. the name Lazarus means “God is my help”, and if any of us noticed, this remains the only parable of Jesus that includes names, none other, the Rich Man was in actual sense poor (for he had no treasures in Heaven), now after suffering the ills of earth, Lazarus is comforted, but after misusing the gifts at his disposal, the rich man is condemned (NOTICE: the rich man is the only character in this parable without a name, truly “those who love God are known by Him [I Cor 8:3] ), do not wait for Elijah to return to preach to you, do not always wait for miracles to believe, the WORD is enough, miracles are further proofs, just sit for a moment and close your eyes to the world, look inwards, looking inwards is the only type of looking that does not need the EYES, so LOOK IN

    1. We should take the advice Mary gave the servants at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.”(John 2:5). If more Catholics took this advice seriously our lives would be truly blessed, including some miracles!

  14. I worry about being sent to Hell because I stopped giving to Catholic Relief Services because of an article about them supplying funds to a population control group. Started giving to another agency, but I worry…

    1. Well, not much. It is one man’s opinion. Of course we can surely hope that all be saved. But the Scriptures seem pretty replete with the sobering notion that “many” are lost. I think Balthasar’s influence in this matter has been far to heavy, and has caused Pastoral harm. I recommend Ralph Martin’s treatment of this Issue in his last book “Will Many be Saved” wherein he delves more deeply into the actual thought of Balthasar and Rahner et al.

  15. Thank you Msgr. for your insight on this parable. I have one source of confusion to ask about and that is referring to the place Lazarus ended up at, in the story, as heaven. I have always been told that heaven was not open until after Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and Ascension. Would you elaborate on this teaching please?

    1. Here too we encounter difficulties in simply reading current realities back into the Gospel which Jesus spoke to Jews in a Jewish context as you point out pre-resurrectional. That said, most Jews had a notion that even though all the dead went to “Sheol” there was some distinction to be made or that would be made between the good and wicked, when Christ entered the scene. Perhaps it is this reality to which the Lord speaks. But given the rather murky notions about the afterlife among the ancient Jews it is difficult to sort all this out. Perhaps the best we can do is to assume that the Lord meant it not only for them, but even more so for us on who the end of the ages has come (cf 1 Cor 10:11). What it means for us is clear enough.

  16. towards the end of Pope Clement’s Universal prayer is the asking to “…understand the shortness of time and the length of eternity.” I confuse this most of the time. This Sunday’s Gospel has always been one of my favorites. It was terrifying as a child and sobering as an adult.


    Of course there are exceptions: e.g. certain specific areas of Appalachia. However, in the cities there is rarely true poverty, which is always a relative term. How many “poor” people do we see with: a car or other form of transportation; stylish clothing; cell phone (often a good one!); access to health care and education; access to arts and cultural experiences; access to food (how many “poor” are NOT fatties?) roofs over their heads with modern kitchens (refrigerator, microwave); air conditioning and central heat; secure doors; etc etc etc.

    Here in America, the “poor” live better than most everyone in Africa, and even better than many in Europe of the middle classes there!

    I’ve been to genuinely poor countries where you see naked and starving people actually lying on the sidewalks, or wading through open sewers (nothing like that in America). With nowhere to lay their heads at night, and no security from predators.

    Please don’t tell me about the POOOOOR in America. They largely do NOT exist. But go to Africa or the Middle East or much of Asia and see the real poor, who lack the opportunities here in America to better their situation even if they wanted to do it!

    1. I believe we do have poor – those who are the working poor who are one step away from financial disaster, those who are elderly on social security and no one to help, etc. Not that I disagree with some of your assertions, but there’s more to the story. I think our poor are mainly invisible to us.

      I donate a small amount to a secular charity each month: . It’s focused on those people who are on the edge of a disaster but if helped can stay out of destitution.

      Fr – I recommend it as a resource for any of your needy parishoners.

  18. My question is regarding the Rich Man – I wondered about this in Mass Sunday. Our assumption is that he is in hell but could it be purgatory? I ask this due to the concern he showed for his brothers and my understanding is that those in hell will hate everyone and not have such concern. I thought that, though he wasn’t benevolent to Lazarus, perhaps he wasn’t wicked. I understand it’s a parable

  19. This story by Jesus is the Lucan equivalent of Matthew 25:31-46. The difference is that Jesus in Matthew’s account is addressing a final judgment and addressing plural individuals “Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you? Or when did we see you thirsty and not give you drink?” etc.
    This parallelism, and the finality specific in Matthew’s account strongly support the concept that the rich man is in eternal torment.
    For those familiar with classical music, a couple of centuries ago Rafe Vaughan Williams composed a tone poem called “Lazarus and Dives”, where “Dives” is supposedly the name of the rich man. Music composers in past centuries seemed much more familiar with and inspired by Scripture than composers today. Sad!

  20. Several decades ago, I got to know a good and decent Catholic family man who was obsessed with whether he would be in a state of grace at the moment of his death. I tried to reassure him that the Scriptural warning that we know neither the day nor the hour at which the Son of Man shall come should be taken as a sign of eager anticipation and not of fear. I wonder whether my advice did the poor fellow any good. His sort of obsession was not at all uncommon 40 or 50 years ago. What a change half a century can bring! The salient mark of the 20th century, as Henry Kissinger has said, has been sudden, unanticipated, sometimes catastrophic change. So it has been in the living out of the Catholic faith. All too many Catholics today seem to assume they have some sort of constitutional right to heaven. So many seem not even to believe that hellfire or eternal damnation are possible. What makes them wrong, and made my old acquaintance equally wrong when he obsessed over his salvation, is that there is a health tension between our confidence in God’s mercy and our willingness to see justice done to persons who have become corrupted by sin, to use Pope Francis’s words. Pope Benedict pointed out in his wonderful encyclical Spe Salvi that we should indeed watch soberly and await our judgment at the hands of God with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). But for most people, he says, (he must have had in mind people like “tibbie,” who blogs here with anxiety over switching charitable contributions away from Catholic Relief Services) there really will be a muddling through, as Monsignor Pope claims. Pope Benedict tells us that most of us will not be stained or defiled forever, if we continue to reach out to Our Lord. We can be assured, Benedict says, that even though we may have to endure a time of burning to purify us, we can go to our day of judgment knowing that the Judge is also our parakletos, literally our legal advocate or defense attorney (1 Jn 2:1). Even that reactionary old Council of Trent advised the faithful that they should concentrate not on fear of eternal punishment but rather on the mercy of God, lest they doubt that their sins have truly been forgiven. All too many Catholics forgot this admonition or were never taught it. We have now lurched into the opposite extreme of doubting whether our sins have even convicted us. We must move back to the healthy median point. Fear hell yet hope for salvation with great confidence.

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