Thursday, March 22, 2018

On Books and Strategies for Reading

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish I read more,” or, “I’d love to be more of a reader,” or, “so many books, but so little time,”? If you have, I've got a couple of suggestions in regard to how you might become a more proficient and prolific reader. 

Firstly, I’d encourage you to start thinking about books as you do various Netflix or television shows. Picture a book as a series and the chapters within the book as episodes.

Secondly, select three books that you’d like to read. Think of them as three different television shows that you’d like to have on the go. Maybe get some recommendations from friends in regard to something they’ve read and thought was top shelf – just like you do with Netflix. Of course, don’t (when starting out) choose three ridiculously large or complicated books, rather choose something with approx. 200 to 300 pages in it and ten to twelve chapters.

Thirdly, pick a night of the week that your “show,” your book, is going to be on. Let’s say one on Monday, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, and then choose what time your show starts each night (appreciating that it’ll be an hour long) – let’s go with 8:15pm.

Fourthly, be aware that reading is a discipline, far more so than watching television. It takes energy, effort, and concentration. Reading is in one sense a muscle that you have to exercise and develop. When you first start there might be some heavy lifting, but you will grow stronger. Commit to your hour reading each night, with each book. Don’t worry if at first you can’t complete a whole chapter in the allotted time, a whole episode, you’ll become a faster reader by simple perseverance.

Fifthly, if one of your books gets really good – feel free to binge read.

Sixthly, if you commit to the discipline you’ll get through between ten and fifteen 250-page books every year, between one hundred and one hundred and fifty books every ten years. And that’s not accounting for the improvements you’ll make in terms of becoming a stronger reader every month that goes by, nor for the occasional binge read. 

"Books shape us, dynamically molding our minds and souls. You are never the same person when you finish a book–even one that is read purely for escape or entertainment. A.W. Tozer has aptly stated that “the things you read will fashion you by slowly conditioning your mind”. What it means is that what we read matters and directly affects what we become. We are fortunate with the wealth of books at our fingertips.  - Scott Larsen

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In Regard to Hell – Part Three

He’s heating up. He’s on fire! – NBA Jam (Sega Mega Drive – 1993)

We’ve covered a bunch of stuff so far, this one, part three, is probably the most interesting as we get to what Jesus is saying when he talks about "hell."

First a bit of a summary…

Hell is an Old English word that is used in our English translations of the Bible as a substitute for sheol, hades, Tartarus, and gehenna. 

Sheol is a Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament. Essentially it means death, the grave, gravedom, pushing up daisies, 6 ft under. If, when we read “hell” in our Old Testaments, we start imagining some sort of tortuous furnace we are reading ideas into the text (popular and/or pagan) that simply aren’t there. We're best to leave sheol as sheol rather than translate it as "hell." Many English translations do. 

Hades, more-or-less, means the same thing when it appears in the New Testament. There is one slight development though, as hades in the Greek is the name of both the Greek god of the underworld and the underworld itself. Sometimes the New Testament use of hades makes allusions to this reality. In one instance Jesus tells a story in which the Greek understanding of the underworld features as a vehicle to make a point – the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. This isn’t an endorsement of Greek mythology nor is it a story that offers any insights into “hell.” We'd do well to simply let hades be hades and not translate it to "hell." That leads us astray. 

All of the above is covered in a lot more detail in part one and part two of this series on “hell.”

Now for some new territory, Tartarus and gehenna. 


There is one passage in the New Testament where hell is used as the English translation of the Greek word Tartarus.

2 Peter 2:4
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.

If you’ve read part one and part two in this series you’ll know that Tartarus is a domain within the Greek underworld, a prison, an abyss, a dungeon. Here Cronus, king of the Titans, imprisoned the one-eyed Cyclopes, and it is here that Zeus imprisoned many of the Titans themselves when the gods of Olympus triumphed over them.

Here in 2 Peter, Peter borrows this term straight from classical Greek literature and mythology as an appropriate simile by which to point out that in the eschaton there will be a judgement for fallen angels. His audience would have instantly understood what Peter was trying to explain in drawing parallels between God and Zeus, between angels and Titans, and between imprisonment and final judgement. Even these “heavenly” creature would be judged in good time.

In terms of our discussion of “hell” and the final judgement of human sinners, this passage is of little help. It is focused on sinful angels not people, and is concerned with the detention of these angels not with punishment post the judgement of God.

All in all, that leaves us now with gehenna, the third Greek word that in our English Bibles is translated as “hell” and the one that Jesus uses.    

Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament, in Matthew (x7), in Mark (x3), in Luke (x1), and in James (x1). We’ll have a look at these verses but will do so within a bigger discussion of judgement and punishment.

Let’s start in Matthew 25.

Matthew 25:46
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ comes in glory. We’ve the resurrection of the dead. We’ve a judgement. And, some “go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Our focus is on the nature of the eternal punishment and our understanding of “hell.” What is going on here? More specifically, is the punishment of the unrighteous eternal in consequence or eternal in duration – are they destroyed forever, or forever being destroyed?

How should we understand “hell”?

The fate of the wicked in the Old Testament

Yep, sorry, before we consider the words of Jesus we need to back the truck up a little. Well not a little, quite a bit actually. We’ve got to go all OT (Old Testament).

Throughout the Old Testament the consistent message / threat / promise that comes from God in relation to the wicked is that they will be destroyed; they will be annihilated.

In Deuteronomy 29:20, God warns Israel that those who turn to false idols will be cursed and their names blotted out from under heaven – they’ll simply be no more.

The prophet Isaiah warns…

Isaiah 1:28, 30-3128 But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
    and those who forsake the Lord will perish.30 You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
    like a garden without water.
31 The mighty man will become tinder
    and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
    with no one to quench the fire.”

The metaphors are those of total annihilation, of perishing. There is no one to quench the fire, it will do its work, it’ll burn everything up until nothing remains. There will be no rescue.

The book of Psalms is loaded with this kind of imagery.

Psalm 1 – Those who delight in the Lord will be “like trees planted by streams of water,” the wicked, however, will be “like chaff that the wind drives away,” “their way leads to destruction.”

Psalm 2 – The wicked will be dashed to pieces like pottery that is smashed.

Psalm 50 – The wicked will be blotted out of the book of life, not listed with the righteous. (Like in Deuteronomy, cease to exist, not even remembered).

Psalm 92:6-7
Senseless people do not know,

    fools do not understand,
that though the wicked spring up like grass
    and all evildoers flourish,
    they will be destroyed forever.

Obadiah 16 – For the wicked, it will be as though they had never been.

Again and again, the imagery is of the wicked being extinguished, annihilated, destroyed. Plain and simple they will cease to exist.

The fate of the wicked in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, the imagery continues, both that of fire and of total destruction 
and annihilation.

John the Baptist in Matthew 3, regarding the righteous and the unrighteous… “the axe is at the root, and trees that don’t produce fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire,” and, “the wheat will be gathered and the chaff thrown into the fire.” No one would imagine a tree or chaff surviving in the fire, the imagery is one of total destruction.

Jesus as well talks about bad trees being thrown into the fire in Matthew 7:19, and then also about being the true vine and that the branches that don’t remain in him will be thrown into the fire in John 15:6.

Again, what happens when branches or chaff are thrown into the fire? They are destroyed, burnt up, vaporised, turned to ash. They cease to exist.

“Go and grab me that branch you burnt in the fire yesterday please?” It isn’t happening. The branch is gone.

We’ve other passages too.

Matthew 7:13-14
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Destruction and life should be seen as opposites. Not as two different types of existence.

Hebrew 10:27
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 

Here we’ve a raging fire consuming the enemies of God. That is what fire does. It consumes things, it destroys things.

The Apostle Peter refers to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as being burnt to ashes and as an example of the fate of the ungodly.

2 Peter 2:6
He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.

The idea again and again is that of total and utter destruction – ceasing to exist – annihilation.

So, what about “hell,” doesn’t Jesus even talk about “hell”?

Well no. Not if you come back to the point I was trying to make in part one of this series. Jesus doesn’t mention “hell” even once. Jesus talks about gehenna whereas “hell” is an English translation of a Greek word and not one that necessarily helps us given the pagan and popular ideas now embedded within the concept of “hell.”

In terms of our use of “hell” in the English language, where did that word come from?

Hel is the name of a Nordic goddess, Loki’s daughter, who ruled over the Nordic underworld, also called Hel. To “go to Hel” when one died was to go to this goddess and her underworld abode. All-in-all a similar idea to that in Greek mythology of hades ruled by Hades. Evolving from these Nordic origins, hel inherited an extra “l” and came to mean in Old English both “underworld” and “concealed place,” as well as, “to cover,” “to conceal,” and “to hide.” 

When the Bible was eventually translated into English, “hell” was the word chosen to translate what Jesus spoke of – “gehenna.” Thus, one commentator writes; a pagan concept and word was fitted to a Christian idea. “Hell” then, like “hades,” is a word that potentially imports ideas into the Bible rather than being an idea we can read out of the Bible. We have to pay attention to language.

Like sheol and hades, “hell” is such a loaded word, I think we’d be better to just leave our Bibles with the Greek word “gehenna.” This is what Jesus talked about and is what we need to try and get our head around.

So, gehenna…

Gehenna is the Greek translation of what in Hebrew was “the Valley of Hinnom,” a valley south-west of Jerusalem. This valley is referred to in the book of Joshua (15:8 and 18:16), and in the book of 2 Kings (16:3), as well as in Jeremiah (7:31 and 19:2-6). It was a place of child sacrifice where children were burnt. Not a pleasant place at all. Isaiah (30:33) refers not by name, but as “a burning place” (topheth) in which the Assyrian army will be destroyed, and in 66:24 as a burning place for those that have rebelled against God… “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Some have suggested that by the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom, gehenna, served as Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Supposedly, as an incinerator, located near the Dung Gate of Jerusalem, and would have seen a constant flow of waste deposited into it with fires burning day and night. It would have therefore been a place of stench and decay with rotting fish and animals, as well as the bodies of vanquished enemies as well. It seems however that there is very little evidence for that.

Notwithstanding that, Jesus’ use of gehenna nevertheless conjured for his listeners this kind of imagery. the Valley of Hinnom as a place of fiery destruction. Flames, flies and maggots consuming defeated enemy corpses, destroying and vaporizing all that we are thrown into it. It wasn’t a nice picture. It wasn’t meant to be.

The long and the short of it though, whatever was thrown into gehenna would be burnt up and consumed. It would cease to exist. It would be no more. It was not a placed you wanted to be cast into.

For Jesus, the fate of the wicked is some sort of fiery demise, and he uses this imagery of gehenna, The Valley of Hinnom, as the best way to paint the picture.

Matthew 5:22
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehenna.

Matthew 5:29-30
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into gehenna.

Matthew 10:28
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna.

Matthew 18:9
And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Matthew 23:29-33
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to gehenna?

The passages in Mark and Luke are Mark and Luke’s version of these passages in Matthew.

James 3:6
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by gehenna.

Again and again, the judgement of God is the destruction of the wicked. Partly why it is better to only lose and arm or an eye, than to be thrown into gehenna. It’s a place of total destruction, which is a concept entirely in keeping with the Old Testament, and other imagery we find throughout the New Testament. 

Everything (in terms of the imagery) in the New Testament points towards the fiery punishment of the wicked in a gehenna-like-punishment with the result being that of total destruction rather than some sort of ongoing or everlasting tortuous existence.

A one-time punishment with eternal consequences, rather than a punishment that is continually unfolding.


Eternal in the Bible is a word that has both qualitative and quantitative implications.

It is qualitative in the sense of being “of the age to come,” e.g. eternal life, the age to come quality kind of life, that can be experienced here and now, but won’t be known in full, until the other side of Christ’s return. But it also quantitative in terms of a period of time, eternal life, not in this age, but in the age to come will be everlasting life.

The task when we read the word eternal is to work out what it is in the verse that is qualitative (as in from the age to come) and what is quantitative (as in enduring for eternity).

Here are a few…

Eternal salvation in Hebrews 5 is the salvation that will come with resurrection life, in the age to come (qualitative), in terms of time, the effect of salvation will be everlasting (quantitative). It isn’t that someone will be “in the process of being saved forever and ever.” Rather it is a one-time age-to-come action with everlasting implications.

Eternal judgement in Hebrews 6 is not the process of being judged in an ongoing manner. It is a one-time judgement, in the age to come (qualitative) that has consequences that will extend forever (quantitative). It isn’t being judged forever, it is being judged once, but then the judgement stands forever.  

Eternal redemption in Hebrews 9 is not a process of being redeemed in an ongoing manner. It is a one-time redemption, in the age to come, resulting in a redemption that is everlasting.

Eternal punishment in Matthew 25, our verse from the start, is not a process of being continually punished, it is an age to come punishment (qualitative) with eternal consequences (quantitative). In that it is a punishment in the age to come, a one-time punishment that will have consequences that last forever.

Eternal destruction in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, not an everlasting process of deconstruction, it is a onetime destruction (qualitative) that is everlasting in consequence (quantitative).

There is one judgement. One punishment. One destruction. And the result is eternal.

If you think about a house of cards, I can destroy, destruct, or deconstruct a house of cards forever – i.e. knock the cards down, rip them to pieces, burn them in a fire. The house of cards has now been eternally destroyed and isn’t going to be rebuilt. But I can’t be in the process of destroying them forever. The only way to do that would be if simultaneous to the destroying there was ongoing restoring - which is a dilemma that Augustine faced.

Augustine was a great theologian from whom the church has inherited much that is commendable, as well though, he got a few things hopelessly wrong. His answer, conclusion, belief was that; “God has the power to do such things that transcend ordinary nature. He will employee his power to perform miracles to keep [those in hell] alive and conscious in the fire.” Or in other words, will simultaneously destroy and sustain in order to torture them forever.

Oh my goodness!

So now, we’ve a God who scripture tells us again and again, has anger that lasts a moment and love that endures forever, who in Jesus told us to love God, love our neighbour, and, love our enemies, who in Jesus on the cross, declared, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” also miraculously sustaining finite beings, the pinnacle of creation, in order to torture them infinitely. That’s abhorred. Even earthly Father’s know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more your heavenly Father!


There is no hiding the fact that Jesus speaks of a judgement and punishment for the unrepentant wicked who reject God. What is that jdugement and punishment? It is their final and everlasting destruction.

Everlasting in consequence, not, duration – not being worked out forever and ever.

When it comes to the Bible we’d be better off leaving sheol as sheol, hades as hades, Tartarus as Tartarus, and when it comes to the words of Jesus - gehenna as gehenna.

“Hell” is a word that is loaded with popular and pagan misconceptions to the point that “hell,” as popularly understood, has become a blight on the Christian gospel.  It is an odd and appalling doctrine that degrades God into our image rather than lifts us to grow more fully into the image of Christ.

That eternal punishment turns out not to be an eternity of torture makes it no less dreadful. Rather it is what makes the second death, death. It’s what makes death the enemy. It is the end of your story. It is the end of relationship. It is a grim prospect. It is to miss the purpose for which one was created, to pass into oblivion and miss out on a relationship with God, self, others, and creation.

It doesn’t have to be cruel, vindictive, or torturous to be terrible.

And yet, we have great hope as we entrust our lives to Christ and live the way of the kingdom.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In Regard to Hell - Part Two

What's the story with hell? 

If you missed part one you can find that here. Following this post there is a part three

When trying to make sense of “hell” it is important to pay attention to words, their meanings, and context. 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 is a biblical appreciation of what is going.

It’s also important to pay attention to whole passages of scripture, their meanings, and context. 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.

We’ll do this because in this parable Jesus talks about hades and we need to figure out what is going on. What is Jesus saying? What isn’t Jesus saying? Some people use this passage of scripture in an attempt to paint a picture of hell and the “after-life” and we need to see if that is fair-game or not. 

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 the face of death; hades will be defeated and resurrection life comes into the picture.

Hades also needs to be understood more specifically in its Greco-Roman context.

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 6:32-36If 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.

Not ideal.

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.

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.

If Lazarus…

God is my help!

Often we are both.

You can find part three here