The Hell There Is – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 26th Sunday of the Year

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:   However I summarize that lengthier article in the nest 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?) 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 wnat heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

Now this  leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.

1. 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.

2. 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 seems Lazarus next to Abraham. Rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send him 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 (judgment day (cf1 Cor 3:15)) and it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed. The rich man 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,  Hell is eternal since we will not change there. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God respects) is forever fixed.

3. The Reproof of 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 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.

This Homily can be heard here:

30 Replies to “The Hell There Is – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 26th Sunday of the Year”

  1. “Hell is one of the eternal guarantees of human freedom, for it admits the right of a free man to cry out non-serviam through all eternity.”
    -Archbishop Fulton Sheen

  2. I wanted to share a quote from St. Thomas of Villanova that spoke so very deeply to me, both to my poor self years ago, and now to my richer self now: If you want God to hear your prayers, hear the voice of the poor. If you want God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask you. Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to bed. To make them ask for alms is to make them buy it.

    Thank you always for leading us closer to God, Father. God Bless you.

  3. Hell is difficult. For years I railed against it as I did the notion of Purgatory also…until I returned to the Catholic Church. Since that time I have been forced to examine both concepts and feel I have come to some understanding.
    Not all who reject Christ, or even the notion of God, do so from an informed mind. Rather, our culture has so poisoned its participants against all things Christian that most react in rote recital of secular doctrine. I believe this is also the case in Europe. Yet, deep in all our hearts we want there to be a God, and we want to have a way to connect.
    I believe Purgatory is the opportunity to experience the reality of God on the other side of physical life, and there to repent of our ignorance. For those whose hearts are so hardened against God that they cannot or will not yield their fate is sealed.
    It seems to me, from my very meager record of significant spiritual experiences, that no one who catches even the slimmest glimmer of God’s light can resist wanting more. Millions and millions go to their graves having been denied by their culture even the right to think about God let alone to explore the message of grace and hope that is the foundation of the Christian gospel. To be turned against God from the cradle by a twisted relativism cannot be grounds for eternal punishment, even more so by indoctrination to party doctrine or grossly distorted religious intolerance.
    Purgatory represents to me God’s final provision to redeem all so poisoned; Hell the final resting place of those whose hatred of Him is unbending. He is not willing that any should perish.

    1. Yes, I think you are right, without purgatory in the mix Hell is even more shcking. Purgatory provides us a cushion against our stupidity and ignornace and shows forth the final mercy of God.

  4. True Phil. Hell IS difficult. That is why you want to avoid it in the first place.
    At all costs.

  5. I am reminded every day that whatever I give to the poor, it is not enough as long as I am comfortable and they are not. Part of me wishes very much to live that ideal of holy poverty, but a stronger part of me, fearful, doesn’t and hence, I do not. Our prayers today specially hit home: On those of us who add to our wardrobes, while others shiver in the cold… On those of us who eat too much when others are hungry…On those of us who enjoy comfortable homes while others are homeless…Lord, have mercy. I pray for the grace to grow in charity in this world (and give thanks when I see my progress) even as I realize this is one of those things God will probably have to purge fully from me in the next. Thank GOD that in His mercy He has both patience and means to help my better self overcome my sinful one, if only I’ll let Him—even if it takes a while….

  6. Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist in Rome, has this story to relate:

    “One day Father Candido [Fr. Amorth’s teacher and mentor] asked a thirteen-year-old girl, ‘Two enemies, who hated each other all their lives, hated each other to death, and both ended up in Hell. What is the relationship that they will share now, since they will be together for all eternity?’ And this was the answer: ‘How stupid you are! Down there everyone lives folded within himself and torn apart by his regrets. There is no relationship with anyone; everyone finds himself in the most profound solitude and desperately weeps for the evil that he has committed. It is like a cemetery'” (An Exorcist Tells His Story, p. 76).

    Sartre was wrong: Hell is the absence of other people, especially God. And some people are already there, even though they haven’t quit breathing yet.

  7. I fear that, as the world turns the more away from the Natural Law and from love, it will soon find itself questioning the reason behind almsgiving.

  8. Pope Benedict disagrees with you irt the status of the rich man and says that he is not in hell in Spe Salvi nos. 44-45.


    1. Yes I have read these interpretations before that the torment described is purgatory. There are a number of biblical scholars, mostly Catholic who hiold this. I suspect the Pope is not attempting here to impose this as the the only way to understand this parable but surely as one of them. Biblical interpretation in the Church allows for different traditions as a general rule unless a doctrinal point is at stake. I think this is what the Pope means when he says in # 45: “We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive….etc” He thus admits that there are complex issues at stake in understanding what the “hell” referred to here means and states, that the main point is that at death our life-choice becomes definitive. It would seem that the Jewish notions (and Jesus did direct this parable to the Jews of his time) did not have the rather developed notions we have of the afterlife and so I fully admit that the term “hell” here may not mean exactly what we mean by it today.

      Interesting question emerges though, are we to conclude that Jesus never meant Hell like we do? Or perhaps was he speaking past his times and their notion of hell unto the Christian era which developed a more specific notion of Heaven, hell and purgatory? The Pope seems to step away from these questions as not for this moment and simply calls them “complex”

      Hence I don’t think that my approach here is opposed to the Pope. He is correct in saying there are other ways to see this parable. I have chosen one which has a different emphasis but which is acceptable. I am confident that the Holy Father would concur. If you have a chance to ask him and he says “No” I’ll take downt the post! 🙂

      At any rate, I’m a big believer in purgatory to be sure and if this text can help advance that notion, great. I just haven’t heard it used too often in that regard. I prefer other texts.

  9. I believe Jesus used the term Hades in this parable, which is not hell. When Jesus referred to hell, he used the term Gehenna. Hades was the realm of those who died physically and were waiting for Jesus to open the gates of Heaven (Abraham’s Bossom). The fact that the rich man showed concern for his brothers is an act of charity which could only be committed with the grace of God. If it were hell, the rich man would have had no grace and thus no concern for his brothers, or anyone else for that matter. I’m more inclined to think this was purgatory.

    As an additional thought, why do you suppose Jesus names the poor man Lazarus in this parable, when he usually doesn’t name anyone in his parables? Perhaps we are to fill in our own name for the rich man?

    1. Yes, I think you are right that the words Hades is used here. What makes the parable a little puzzling is that Jesus is speaking to people at a time when heaven was not yet opened and everyone went to Hades (Sheol) when they died. Hence it is difficult to distinguish who is to be saved from those who will be condemned. Jewish notions of all this were a bit murky and disputed. Even more confusing is that, if heaven is closed, what is Lazarus doing there (‘in the bosom of Abraham)? So is heaven open or not? Is Hell (Hades) now become Gehenna or not? Or is Hades still just the abode of the dead? And if so, why are there torments there? Other descriptions of the the dead in Hades describe them as asleep, not in torments necessarily. So there is a lot of overlap in ideas going on here it would seem. My only point here is not to dispute you, but just suggest that the parable is able to be interpreted in various ways and that any way leaves some questions open. Liguistically Hades would refer to the limbo of the fathers not usally place of the damned. But why then the torments, why is the rich man awake and why is Lazarus not there? and so forth…..

      1. Thank you for the parable and instructions. I am curious for the name Lazarus as if it was chosen for any special meaning. Would this Lazarus be the same person as one He later raised? How many times this name was reffered to in the Bible? Would it be also important to note God’s power and goodness. God bless.

  10. I agree that we sometimes act like the rich man in the parable. We do not even notice the poor living right under our noses. Not because we do not care, but because the poor are invisible to us. We simply do not see them. Their invisibility stems primarily from geographic, occupational, and social barriers that block one group from seeing another. We might have compassion for poor people in a general sense, but they are often hidden from our view. They live someplace else. They are socially and geographically isolated. Unlike the poor man Lazarus, the poor these days are often without name or face.
    Yet, these are the very ones Jesus urges us to love with real care and support. This is why John Paul II spoke of the need to abandon “a mentality in which the poor…are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced” (Centesimus Annus ,1991, n.28). Thus, in my view, the point of this parable is more on helping the poor and much less on avoiding hell. The latter is too immature a response to the reality that poverty imposes on its victims.

  11. Msgr. Pope,

    I agree with you and Fr. Barron in your interpretations of what Hell is, but I wonder sometimes if we are not relying too much on our own logic to the detriment of the plain words of Our Lord Himself. I trust the Church’s interpretations above my own, but I don’t know what the main-line of Catholic thought has been on this topic.

    The problem is this: I would love to explain Hell to people in the fashion you just have in your post, but I would feel uncomfortable in doing this because I am uncertain about whether there in fact is any grounding in Sacred Tradition for such a conception of Hell. Both non-believers and non-Catholics might say, for instance, “That’s a nice concept, but Jesus is talking about people being thrown into Hell for being bad, not that they are getting what they want. Where’s that in the Bible?” I would love to cite the development of how we think about Hell as Catholics, but I don’t know where that development is. Obviously, we don’t rely on the Bible alone, nor on a purely literal interpretation, but again, I’m at a loss.

    God Bless,

    1. I think you are right to be concerned that we not get too far from the Biblical text. I think what this line of reasoning tries to do is balance a number of biblical notions that balance eachother. For example, Many passages speak of God’s tender mercy and that he wants the sinner to live and not die. Other texts show him casting sinners into a fiery pool. Hence the whole biblical tradition contains a lot of things that need to be balanced. Somehow then as we reason with the scriptures we strive to connect all the dots rather than see one text or pericope all by itself.

      That said, you asked about “sinners getting what they want.” I am not sure this is a fair assesment of my description. It is not so much that they are getting what they want but rather, they are not getting what they don’t want. If we do not choose God for whatever reason we will not get God and his Kingdom. God respects our choice. I don’t mean to say in this article that sinners want hell, they just don’t want God and his Kingdom values. Hence they are given “other arrangements” That they expereince this as a place of torment does not, it would seem, make them wish to change.

      One passage you might consider in this regard is when the Lord speaks of the narrow road that leads to heaven and the wide road that many follow. A choice is made to follow that wide road even having been warned as to where it leads. Perhaps they prefer the scenery perhaps something else but what ever the case it leads away from God.

      Another Passage is of the king who had a banquet for his son. And when everyone invited was told to come it, they said, one by one, “no.” So the king burned their town and fills his hall with others and those originally invited are excluded. It is not so much that they wished to be univited or have their town burned but rather that they did not want to come into the King’s banquet. Life outside the banquet isn’t very pleasant.

      At any rate I hope my distinction above helps a bit. I recognize that when we reason from scripture, holding many traditions therein carefully in balance that this is more work. Many like a simple proof text, and sometimes it isn’t that simple. Sometimes one text without reference to other balancing texts is in authentic and misleading.

      I remain open to being challenged on my “balancing act” for it sometimes happens that one teeters a bit and needs to be steadied. I admit being more than a little troubled by some of the terrifying judgment texts out of Jesus’ mouth (e.g. “Dpeart from me you evildoers into the flames perpraed for the devil and his angels….) I struggle to hear these words and try to balance them with other notions of the Lord’s mercy and prayer to the father that we be saved. I don’t claim to always have the balance right but in the end I’m trying to keep all the balls in the air. I appreciate your admonition that we not stray to far from Jesus’ actual words.

      1. Msgr. Pope,

        My reply was by no means an admonition, but rather a request for at least some grounding within the Tradition of the Church from among the standard sources: Scripture, the Fathers, etc. Although there is no clear tradition handed down on how to think about Hell, I still think you and Fr. Barron are correct in your thinking. It simply makes more sense to me, much more than a simplistic “be good or burn” understanding of Hell.

        You are correct about my description being too simplistic. I carelessly described it as “people want Hell,” whereas it is actually “people don’t want Heaven.” There is a definite difference.

        Finally, I think this is the most pertinent: “Hence the whole biblical tradition contains a lot of things that need to be balanced. Somehow then as we reason with the scriptures we strive to connect all the dots rather than see one text or periscope all by itself.” Yes, that’s right, which is missing from the Biblical-literalist and non-Christian critiques. Your quote from one of Christ’s parables was also good. I would add His parable about the brides-maids and their lamps: those who are careless and indifferent are communicating a lack of desire for the highest form of existence, while those who persist and cherish their Faith shall merit (as best as they can, anyways) eternal life.

        God Bless,

    2. Jesus and other scripture generally describe Hell in two ways — (1) a place of fire, and (2) the night, where there is gnashing of teeth.

      Now, obviously, these are in direct contradiction to each other. A place of fire would be hot and bright because of the flames. But nighttime, with gnashing of teeth, would be cold and dark.

      So, if we rely solely on scripture, which is right?

      Well, of course, we cannot apply sola scriptura here, and take a literal reading, because of the conflict. Rather, we must apply reason to our reading of scripture. And reason tells us that BOTH descriptions are true. They are both true because these are not meant to be literal descriptions, anymore than the Book of Revelation is meant to be strictly literal. Rather, the imagery used is meant to tell us that Hell is a very, very, very unpleasant place, and that we would be miserable there, such that we should want to avoid it.

      1. Bender,

        That’s a good point about the contrast between fire and darkness. I suppose a literalist could come back with “well, it’s a fire of darkness” or something, but he’d be missing the point.

        God Bless,

  12. To Dives
    by Hilaire Belloc

    DIVES, when you and I go down to Hell,
    Where scribblers end and millionaires as well,
    We shall be carrying on our separate backs
    Two very large but very different packs ;
    And as you stagger under yours, my friend,
    Down the dull shore where all our journeys end,
    And go before me (as your rank demands)
    Towards the infinite flat underlands,
    And that dear river of forgetfulness —
    Charon, a man of exquisite address
    (For, as your wife’s progenitors could tell,
    They’re very strict on etiquette in Hell),
    Will, since you are a lord, observe, “My lord,
    We cannot take these weighty things aboard !”
    Then down they go, my wretched Dives, down
    The fifteen sorts of boots you kept for town,
    The hat to meet the Devil in; the plain
    But costly ties; the cases of champagne;
    The solid watch, and seal, and chain, and charm;
    The working model of a Burning Farm
    (To give the little Belials); all the three
    Biscuits for Cerberus; the guarantee
    From Lambeth that the Rich can never burn,
    And even promising a safe return;
    The admirable overcoat, designed
    To cross Cocytus — very warmly lined :
    Sweet Dives, you will leave them all behind
    And enter Hell as tattered and as bare
    As was your father when he took the air
    Behind a barrow-load in Leicester Square.
    Then turned to me, and noting one that brings
    With careless step a mist of shadowy things :
    Laughter and memories, and a few regrets,
    Some honour, and a quantity of debts,
    A doubt or two of sorts, a trust in God,
    And (what will seem to you extremely odd)
    His father’s granfer’s father’s father’s name,
    Unspoilt, untitled, even spelt the same;
    Charon, who twenty thousand times before
    Has ferried Poets to the ulterior shore,
    Will estimate the weight I bear, and cry —
    “Comrade!” (He has himself been known to try
    His hand at Latin and Italian verse,
    Much in the style of Virgil — only worse)
    “We let such vain imaginaries pass !”
    Then tell me, Dives, which will look the ass —
    You, or myself ? Or Charon ? Who can tell ?
    They order things so damnably in Hell.

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