In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and Hell. We live in times in which many consider the teachings on Hell to be untenable. They struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful, and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. Despite the fact that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture as well as by Jesus Himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and so many think that it has to go.
Today’s Gospel goes a long way toward addressing some of the modern concerns about Hell. Prior to looking at the reading, it is important to understand why Hell has to exist. I have written on that topic extensively here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/. Here is a brief summary of that lengthier article:
Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: respect. God has made us free and respects our freedom to choose His Kingdom or not. The Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these 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, and the centrality of God.
Unfortunately, there are many people who do not want a thing to do with those values, and God will not force them to adopt and live them. While everyone may want to go to Heaven, Heaven is not merely what we want it to be; 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, because they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom’s values. Hell “has to be,” because God respects people’s freedom to choose to live in this way. Because they demonstrate that 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 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). 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 that, even if it is not what He would want for us.
This leads us to today’s Gospel, which we will look at in three stages.
I. The Ruin of the Rich Man – As the Gospel opens we see 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.
It is clear that he lives very well and has the ability to help the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside his gate. But he does not do so.
The rich man’s sin is not so much one of hate as of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values: love of the poor. His insensitivity is literally a “damnable sin,” as it lands him in Hell. The ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.
The care of the poor may be a complicated matter, and there may be different ways of approaching it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt if it is within our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgment for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading 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 disregarding the needs of the poor 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 because he doesn’t want Heaven, where the poor are exalted (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 – You might expect the rich man to be repentant in the end 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 recognizing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water to refresh him. The rich man still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him); he sees Lazarus as an errand boy and wants him to come to Hell with water.
Notice that the rich man does not ask to be admitted to Heaven! Although he is unhappy with where he is, he still does not seem to desire Heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. He has not really changed. He regrets his current torment, but does not see or desire Heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. The rich man wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.
This helps to explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person that we must come to accept: that we come to a point in our life when our character is forever fixed, when we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear; perhaps it is at death itself.
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 point when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (fire is judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)), at which time its 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, even wanting to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change, or somehow he is unable to change.
This is the basis for the teaching that Hell is eternal: once having encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be able to change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision that God, in sadness, respects) is forever fixed.
III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – The rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. He thinks that perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn them, they would repent!
We are the rich man’s brethren, and we are hereby warned. The rich man wanted exotic measures but Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” “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 that we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the prophets” is a Jewish way of saying that they have Scripture.
The Scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to Heaven and we only need to follow it. We ought not need an angel, or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church should be sufficient.
Their message is 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 become more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, and self-controlled.
In the end we must be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist, because we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer it.
You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. This Gospel makes it clear that our ongoing choices lead ultimately to a final and permanent choice, at which time 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.
If we have any non-biblical notions in this regard, we ought to consider ourselves reproved. Popular or not, Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many prefer its darkness to the light of God’s Kingdom.
The care of the poor is very important to God. Look through your closet this week and give away what you can. Look at your finances and see if they are pleasing to God. The rich man was not cruel, just insensitive and unaware. How will you and I respond to a Gospel like this?