What's the story with hell?
If you missed part one you can find that here.
If you missed part one you can find that here.
When trying to make sense of “hell” it is important to pay attention to words, their meanings, context and implications. If we don’t there is every likelihood our understanding of “hell” will end up either popular or pagan – neither is a good option. The goal though is a biblical appreciation of what is going.
It’s also important to pay attention to whole passages of scripture, their meanings, context and implications. This isn’t necessarily an easy task, but if you’re game, I’m game. We’ll have to work hard though. Well actually you will, I already have. There is a lot for you to read here, a long post but I think one that would be worth your while. A tweet wouldn’t really cut it.
So, in this post will look at three things…
Some thoughts on the Greek underworld.
Some thoughts on the first half of Luke 16.
Some thoughts on the second half of Luke 16 – the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Some thoughts on the first half of Luke 16.
Some thoughts on the second half of Luke 16 – the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Hades and the Greek Underworld
Let’s quickly summarise the two words we have looked at so far; sheol and hades.
Sheol – death, the grave, gravedom, 6ft under, pushing up daisies. It is the end of one’s life, the end of one’s story, it’s inevitable but also problematic in that it severs relationship with God and the rest of creation. In the Old Testament there is a trusting hope that death is not beyond the reach of God but little more in terms of a well-developed eschatology.
Hades (biblical context) = death, the grave, gravedom, 6ft under, pushing up daisies, a negative reality of life, the end of one’s relationship with God and others, the end of one’s story. It is used at times with allusions to the Greco-Roman understanding of the underworld but not as an endorsement of this mythology. The New Testament offers great hope in regard to death and hades will be defeated and of resurrection life.
Hades also needs to be understood more specifically in its Greco-Roman context as we move forward.
Hades (Greek mythology) = the underworld separated from the land of the living by two rivers and ruled over by the Greek god Hades. The dead are transported there by The Ferryman (Charon), with the Gates of Hades guarded by the three-headed hound of hades (Cereberus).
There is more to hades than that though.
In the Greco-Roman culture of the 1st Century, Hades was understood to have different parts to it, where you’d “go to live” when you were dead.
The Asphodel Meadows – This was the place in the underworld for the ordinary or indifferent. Those who had neither committed great sins nor lived a life of any great distinction or virtue.
The Mourning Fields – This was a realm for those who wasted their lives on unrequited love. They loved greatly but were not loved back. This is where all the Vodafone Warriors fans would end up.
Elysium – This was the destination for the distinguished, where they would have an easy afterlife and no labor. The abode of heroes, demigods, and the virtuous. You might remember Maximus in the movie Gladiator addressing his troops; “Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!”
Isle of the Blessed – When you reached Elysium, you could either choose to remain or be reborn, if you chose to be reborn three times, and each time landed back in Elysium, you would then be granted entrance to the Isle of the Blessed also known as The Fortunate Isles. This was paradise, but you had to live three honorable lives to get there. Clock the game three times to get there you could say. Some would settle for Elysium, others would return to do it all over again.
Tartarus – This is where you would go if you had bad teeth and had died of tooth decay. No, Tartarus was a deep abyss, a prison, a dungeon of torture – it was where the wicked received the divine punishment of Zeus.
Hades was thus the destination for all who died, a place where the righteous and unrighteous would end up. For some, it would be a place of eternal punishment in the abyss and for others a place of eternal rest in Elysium, or even better in the Isles of the Blessed.
This Greek mythology is important to keep in mind when we look at the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus in the later part of Luke 16.
It is also important to keep in mind the first half of Luke 16 (and Luke 15 but we don’t want this post to blow out into a book).
So, read on! Though you should probably pause first and read Luke 16.
The Shrewd Manager – Luke 16:1-13
In this story a steward (the go-between for a rich landowner and his tenants) is discovered to be cooking the books. Receiving a salary from the landowner and a one-off fee from the tenants each time a lease negotiation is settled on the land – it appears he is also skimming off the top. Likely he is taking some of the produce of the land that actually belongs to the landowner as annual rent. He has been found out and will certainly be thrown into prison.
Everyone hearing this story knows how things will unfold with the steward’s demise and incarcerated future assured.
Jesus’ stories always have unexpected twists though.
As it turns out the steward isn’t cast out and thrown into prison, instead, he is just fired. Basically, he is told to go and pack up his office and move on. There are hints of generosity and mercy in this response from the landowner.
What is the steward to do? He sees himself as too old to start over as a laborer (no one in the community will employ him as a steward now) and too proud to beg. He’ll have no home and no means to support himself (and his family if he has one). Having been asked to clear out his things though, he has a small window of opportunity. No one knows he has been fired and he seizes the moment. He calls in those indebted to the master, tenants due to pay their lease with the produce of the land (grain, grape, goat etc.), and lowers their bill. It’s like a Briscoes sale! In doing so he ensures their favour and they’ll be obligated to return a favour to him. He ensures for himself a place to live once he leaves his current abode.
More than that though, he is shrewdly entrusting himself to the generosity and grace of the master who, without realising it, is gaining a reputation as a generous and a virtuous man. No doubt the village is celebrating and toasting his health and wellbeing.
When the master hears all of this he commends the steward as shrewd. What the heck!?!
In this first-century context generosity is about reciprocation, about earning the favour, goodwill, and indebtedness of others. As well though, generosity is also a primary quality of a nobleman. This puts the master in a bind, he could try and explain what has happened but would soon be understood as stingy rather than as generous, and as tight rather than as noble, or, he can remain quiet and receive the praise and reputation that is coming his way. What is he to do?
We have already seen hints of his character as a generous man in not immediately throwing the steward into jail. Now we see that he is indeed a man of generosity. Reflecting, he commends the steward. In a back-handed way, the actions of the steward are a compliment to the master who values his reputation as one who is generous. The steward trusts the master to continue in generosity.
You could say it like this… The steward risked everything based on the master’s tendency towards generosity and mercy with the master paying the full price for the steward’s salvation. That’s a sentence worth reading again (even though there is a lot of reading going on here). The steward risked everything based on the master’s tendency towards generosity and mercy with the master paying the full price for the steward’s salvation.
Do note: the shrewdness of the steward is not his dishonesty, that isn’t what is being commended. The shrewdness of the steward is the way he entrusts everything to the master’s reputation as one who is generous, merciful and kind.
Jesus in telling this parable is using a rabbinic method of teaching– kal vahomer – the light and the heavy. If something is true in a “light” thing (a small or minor thing), how much more so will it be true in a “heavy” thing (an important or weighty matter).
If this dishonest steward solved his problem by relying on the mercy and generosity of his master (the children of this age being shrewd in dealing with their generation) – a light thing, how much more will God help the children of light who throw themselves before his mercy and generosity, the heavy thing.
The steward is aware of the generosity of his master (the light). How much more should God’s children be aware of the generosity of their master!?! (the heavy).
Jesus then encourages those listening to use worldly wealth to gain friends, so that when it is gone, they’ll be welcomed into eternal dwellings. This is a bit mysterious.
Bear in mind that generosity in this first-century context was all about reciprocation, you’d give, you’d be generous, you’d develop friendships, with people of an equal or greater status to you. They would in turn be indebted to you and in time would return some sort of favour; open a door for you, speak well of you in a certain context, give you their vote.
However, Jesus offers a different perspective in Luke 6:32-36 – If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Disciples of Jesus aren’t to give in order to ensure favours. They are to give to those who cannot pay them back, who cannot reciprocate the gift; give to those who are in need, and whom can’t advantage you in any way – the poor and the outcast. And thus in doing so, they are making friends with those who can’t repay the favour and in the system of the day are setting themselves up to lose or to miss out. From God’s perspective though thay are actually storing up treasure and investing in an eternal dwelling.
One is to be faithfully generous according to the way of the Kingdom with their worldly wealth (the light) and will thus inherit the true riches of the kingdom of God (the heavy).
The Pharisees weren’t super excited about this.
The Pharisees – Luke 16:14-18
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
Rather than using money to make friends across social-class boundaries, the Pharisees are instead friends with money.
He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
The Pharisees are seeking to be well esteemed in the eyes of others, the well to do. If they do happen to be generous, it’ll only be in a self-seeking way that pursues the values of this age. Their main concern is their own interest rather than the interests of others, they’re not up with the play with what God is doing.
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is urged to enter into it.
This is a new and expansive era of God’s grace; the good news is particularly directed towards the poor. But, despite being a new era; It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
This new kingdom of God thing doesn’t do away with the prophets or the law though, it is a fulfillment of all that comes before. The ideals of the kingdom are embedded within the prophets and the law already.
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Divorce is still divorce, and while there are some biblical reasons for divorce, you (the Pharisees) have twisted things if you are buying into the idea of “for-any-reason” divorce. (That’s another topic for another day). What Jesus is advocating in terms of the Way of God’s kingdom is already embedded in the Law and the Prophets, but the Pharisees miss it there and in the teaching of Jesus.
All in all, the theme of Luke 16:1-18, at least so far, is the appropriate use of wealth to overstep social boundaries between rich and poor in order to participate in a form of economic redistribution grounded in kinship. One that reflects the kingdom of God, the justice, mercy, kindness, and grace of God.
Give generously and extend hospitality to the poor, to those who cannot reciprocate – it secures one an eternal home, that is, stores up treasure in heaven. That is, instead of entrusting oneself to reciprocation and the advantages that come with generosity that is extended to those in high places – cast yourself entirely upon the goodwill, generosity and kindness of the master.
Which brings us to The Rich Man and Lazarus – what do you think this story likely to be about? Hell or issues pertaining to material wealth?
The Rich Man and Lazarus - Luke 16:19-31
“There was a rich man…
So, we need to pause right here.
You may have heard well-meaning preachers suggest here that we are therefore not dealing with a parable, after all… “There was…” means there was. And thus this story is to be read literally, as the facts of the matter regarding the state of The Rich Man and of Lazarus when it comes to life-after-death. They might be well meaning but they are heading down the wrong track.
Modern scholars agree that this is a parable with Luke introducing many of his parables in a similar fashion to this introduction in Luke 16 – words to the effect; “There was a man…” (Luke 10:30; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1, 16:19; 19:12; 20:9). This parable (of the Rich Man and Lazarus) is part of a series of parables – back-to-back-to back – Luke 15:4-16:31.
Not only is this a parable that Jesus is telling, it is Jesus’ take on a parable well-known to Jesus’ audience at the time. It was a story already floating around (about seven different versions) common to the people that Jesus takes and adapts to suit his purposes and in order to make his particular point(s).
So, let’s start again, clear that this is a parable…
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen…
This is the finest of attire. Fine linen would have been white garments, nearly impossible to keep clean or to wash in a first-century context, and purple garments were the costliest of garments given that about 10,000 little sea snails had to be sourced and crushed up to get purple die. This kind of regalia was the same as what the priest would wear on Day of Atonement. This Rich Man is OTT.
…and lived in luxury every day.
The idea of luxury here is that of feasting. In the story of the Loving Father, a fattened calf was butchered in celebration of the youngest son returning home. This is the kind of luxury that this Rich Man lives out every day. Again, it is OTT.
At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
In stark contrast to the Rich Man we have Lazarus. He is literally just outside, just there on the other side of the gate. Lazarus is not dressed in fine linen though, rather he is clothed in sores. Lazarus isn’t feasting, instead the dogs have started feeding on him. This is OTT in the other direction.
For the audience of the time none of this is particularly shocking. For them it is almost a “black comedy” of sorts. The contrast between the two characters in the story is so extravagant it is almost hilarious. This will be a great story about a Rich Man who is obviously someone favoured by God (hence the incredible wealth) and Lazarus who is obviously someone under God’s fierce judgement (he is covered in sores and cursed even as Job appeared to be). No doubt those listening are looking forward to finding out what comes next.
Well, what happens next is an unexpected reversal.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
Here we should note that the use of Hades in this context is plucked straight from Greek mythology. The term isn’t being used to simply speak of the grave, of death, of being six feet under (as in sheol in the Old Testament and hades in most of the rest of the New Testament). Hades here is literally in the sense of the Greek underworld. Jesus runs with the conventions of the story.
The unexpected reversal is that Lazarus ends up at Abraham’s side and the Rich Man in a place of torment. This is a real curve ball.
Abraham was a distinguished and virtuous character, he’d of course be in a good part of hades, Elysium. Surely the Rich Man must have been a man of virtue as well, his wealth was a sign of God’s favour and blessing - wasn’t it? Surely when he died he too would end up at Abraham’s side, in Elysium?
And Lazarus, well, clearly Lazarus would end up in the torment of Tartarus – a continuation of the torment he knew in life as someone under the judgment of God. At best Lazarus could perhaps hope to land in the Asphodel Meadows – for the ordinary and the indifferent. What’s going on?
What’s going on is the kingdom of God which doesn’t operate according to the schemes of the world. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor and the downcast – blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those persecuted.
There is a big hint in relation to this embedded in the story – Lazarus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means: God is my helper. God is Lazarus’ helper.
Let’s carry on…
So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
Even in this position the Rich Man doesn’t get it, he still sees himself as privileged and Lazarus one who should help him in his difficulty, “get Lazarus to come and dip his finger in water and let me cool my tongue.” He is still interested in only himself – even as he had been in life.
As a side – we’ve another pointer that the story isn’t literal when we consider a drop of water as some sort of relief in the agony of fire. It’s hardly going to make a difference.
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
In life, it was just a gate that separated them, for the Rich Man to open it and invite Lazarus in would have been so easy. Now the Rich Man discovers an uncross-able chasm. There is no Ferryman to make the trip.
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
Still the Rich Man wants Lazarus to be his servant, still his concern is only for his own, his family, his five brothers – now he wants Lazarus to go and warn them. Which, if Lazarus is in Elysium, he could choose to do. Remember you could choose to leave Elysium and live again and if you lived three virtuous lives you’d be promoted to the Blessed Isles.
But the Greek mythological ideas in relation to Hades and the underworld aren’t the point of the story. They exist within the story that Jesus is appropriating for his own purposes. But, they are not the point of Jesus story, they are only a vehicle. Jesus' use of this story shouldn’t be understood as any sort of endorsement of what the underworld or the “afterlife” is like.
In fact… if we are using this story in Luke 16 to paint a picture of heaven, hades, hell etc. we’ll end up painting a picture that is pagan not biblical.
There is next to nothing that we should take form this parable in relation to our understanding of hell. Those issues, quite simply, aren’t the point of the story.
Here is the point though…
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The point of the story is a massive rebuke of the Pharisees who are privileged and have easy access to both the Law and the Prophets but still can’t figure out how to live the Way of God in relation to the poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged.
The five brothers (other Pharisees) have the five books or Torah and the prophets and a beggar they know who sits at the gate of the Rich Man (a Pharisee) but still can’t figure it all out. Someone coming back from the dead won’t cause them to repent and rethink everything either.
The point of the story is that the Way of the Kingdom is not the same as the way of the world. The story is a colourful conclusion to everything that Jesus has already talked about earlier in Luke 16 and in relation to the use of material wealth.
The Pharisees are not using their earthly wealth wisely – that is, to bring food and provision and redemption to those in need, to those who’ll not be able to reciprocate the generosity. They need to realise that God’s kingdom is breaking in, everything is being turned upside down (or right-side-up) and they need to get on board. If they were to do so they would secure for themselves treasure in heaven (Sermon on the Mount term), or eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9). Instead they are storing up treasure (fine purple linen, feasting etc) where moth and vermin will destroy it.
The kingdom of God is breaking in and God is doing a new thing – lost coins are being found, lost sheep are being found, prodigal sons are finding their way home, but elders brothers are missing it (Luke 15). Even dishonest and broken stewards are finding grace and mercy as they throw themselves entirely upon the generosity of the master (Luke 16), but the Pharisees are missing it.
The kingdom of God is breaking in, there is hope for the poor and the downcast – the Lazarus’s in the world should know that God is their helper even though the religious system of the day has let them down.
The point of it all is to be faithful with earthly wealth, use it generously to bless the poor and to give to those that cannot reciprocate. You’ll likely not get a “return on investment” in this life but will inherit heavenly treasure. Love your neighbour as yourself!
What does the story tell us about hell?
It isn’t a story about hell.
It isn’t a story about hell.
We do of course also have a prophetic nod to Jesus, who will rise from the dead as the resurrected Son of God but still not be accepted by many.
Aren’t we meant to be looking at “hell” and our understanding “hell?” It seems that this big long post hasn’t offered anything new or insightful?
Perhaps – but hopefully it has cleared away some of the thinking that gets in the way of a biblical understanding of hell. Even though it is parts of the bible we are clearing away. That is, looking to interpret more carefully.
There is still much to consider: gehenna, tartarus, worms, gnashing of teeth, lakes of fire, eternal fire.
We’ll get there.
Let’s not miss the challenge of Luke 16 though. Who are you in the story; the Rich Man or Lazarus?
If you’re the Rich Man…
In God’s kingdom the wealthy are to use their resource to overstep social boundaries between the rich and poor, and are to participate in a form of economic redistribution grounded in kinship, that reflects the love, justice, mercy, kindness and grace of God.
We’re to give generously and extend hospitality to the poor, to those who cannot reciprocate.
God is my help!
Often we are both.