Heaven and Hell. Some people assume that Christianity is a religion that if followed carefully and precisely enough, entrance into a personal heaven of safety, peace, love and joy can be attained. Some assume that Christianity poses impossible commands and rules to follow that ultimately doom us to the looming hand of a judging God anxiously awaiting the opportunity to throw us into a fiery eternity in hell in order to punish us for not being perfectly like him. While these assumptions are entirely incorrect and based entirely on sources outside of the Word of God, this two-pronged understanding of Christianity’s take on the afterlife is prevalent in today’s world.
In this section we will forego a discussion concerning heaven and focus on the existence of hell. As is the case with many topics in the Bible, we have very little actual description of hell as it is mentioned in the Bible. However, one can argue that not knowing the entire scope of hell actually is a sign of God’s grace, in saving us the complete and detailed nature of hell. What we do know is that hell is a place that God wants us desperately to avoid and we in turn should have a strong desire to avoid it. In the Bible, God paints a picture of hell with few colors, but the colors he does use are enough to know what we need to know about this place called “hell.” In the bible we know that hell is three things. We learn that hell is:
1) A Place of Suffering
2) A Place of Loneliness
3) A Place of Delusion
By examining these three aspects of hell we can hopefully come to a better understanding of why God gave his Son for us in order to spare us of this terrible place.
(While there are many references to “hell” or “gehenna” in the Bible, our examination will focus primarily on the passage of scripture found in the Luke 16:19-31. In my opinion, this description concerning the two figures of the Rich Man and Lazarus that Jesus illustrates provides us with more than enough to come to a complete understanding of hell.)
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 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.
“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. 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.’
“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.’
“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.’
“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.’”
1) A Place of Suffering
Describing hell as “a place of suffering” is obviously nothing new. Most people with no experience with Christianity would agree. Throughout the years, hell has been depicted in art and the media as a fiery place of torment and torture. When most people hear the word, “hell,” immediately they think of demons, devils, screaming, fire, blood, all under the terrifying and brutal umbrella of “suffering.” An oft-used tactic from the pulpit has been to illuminate these images in the hopes of scaring the congregation into an increase in attendance or in giving. Not all churches deploy this strategy, of course: many pastors illuminate these images out of sincerity to the truth that hell is a terrible place that we should be terrified of. However, whether used from a self-centered or Christ-centered pulpit, hell equals suffering.
Reading the passage in Luke’s gospel, some might be surprised to learn that the Rich Man is actually speaking from inside of hell. Aside from the mention of the burning that apparently consumes the Rich Man, the stereotypical images of hell are mysteriously absent. Where are the demons? Where are the torture tools? Where is the terrifying Satanic imagery?
What one does find is in many ways more terrifying and far more relatable. In the place of the physical suffering we often equate with hell due to the plethora of images depicting torture, we find that his suffering has much more to do with “satisfaction.” We learn that he has a thirst that cannot be quenched. We learn that he feels a burning sensation from within that he cannot escape. This is the suffering of hell that Jesus illustrates in this story. And it is this idea of suffering that should connect with all of us.
While most of us can live out our lives avoiding physical torture, what none of us can avoid is the internal desire for satisfaction that we can never satisfy. We all want things we cannot have, and we all have felt that aching pain of lusting after something that is forever beyond our reach. From infancy there is nothing more torturous or cruel than the idea that there is something that we are being prevented from having. What we learn from the Rich Man is that hell is where that complete dissatisfaction goes on eternally. Hell is a place where we can never be satisfied and will remain forever unfulfilled. Jesus teaches that unity with him and the Father is where we, as the children of God, find complete fullness, where our cup is allowed to overflow. Therefore, hell is a place where God is absent, the occupants remaining out of reach of that fellowship with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, forever suffering an eternal emptiness. Hell is Godless and thus, utterly hopeless.
2) A Place of Loneliness
Whereas the previous section discussed a suffering of longing and emptiness that all people can relate to, if asked what remains as another fear common to all, most would most likely answer, “loneliness.” We were created for fellowship. Even before we were brought into this world, God designed us for fellowship with him.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Then, being brought into this world by our parents and family, we were born and raised to be “with” people, loved, cared for and nurtured by them.
As we get older and our lives separate from family and home, we find ourselves apart from people more than we find togetherness with them. While independence does have its place in human development and is an integral part of finding unity once again with the Father who created us, fellowship with people is where we are given the fullest sensation of fellowship that we were designed to experience. Thus, the prospect of being constantly alone is a fate that few would desire. Most are terrified and tormented by the prospect.
The Rich Man, aside from his eternal dissatisfaction and longing for relief from his suffering, is completely alone in hell. He is left alone to ponder his condition. He is left alone to ponder the absence of a solution to his suffering. He is alone, with no one to listen to his problems, no one to offer any empathy or compassion.
When confronted with Church or Christianity, many people view both ideas as a burden. For many people (especially in the modern Western world), individuality and the freedom it seems to give them is enough to give them the brash and prideful overconfidence to look God in the face and say to him, “I don’t need you! Leave me alone!” What we learn from the state of the Rich Man in hell is that hell is a place where we are finally given our way. Hell is a place where God hears our request for isolation and gives us what our hearts desire. In effect, we request to be alone and God ultimately respects our desires and leaves us alone. Therefore, where many people view hell as a sort of large jar with people scrambling like insects to escape, only to find the judgmental, jealous and cruel God firmly tightening the lid, according to Jesus, hell is quite different. Hell is a place that the people residing there have in their heart of hearts requested, and who have received what they demanded.
We are often our worst company, our worst comforter and our worst coach. On the other hand, Jesus Christ came into this world as “Emmanuel.” Jesus is, “God with Us,” and hell could not be more radically different. Hell is “Man with Himself.”
3) A Place of Delusion
Most people can relate to chasing the elusive, longing for more and satisfied with less. We desire fellowship, love, and presence, and often drive it away or can’t hold on to it when we have it. The tragedy is that for the amount of awareness we possess about our problems, most of us do little to change the state we find ourselves in. We go year after year chasing things that repeatedly leave us dissatisfied. We go year after year making choices that do more to isolate ourselves from others than unite us with them. If we know this to be true, why don’t we do anything to change and stop the cycle?
The answer lies at the center of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. While the Rich Man is open to his suffering and loneliness, what he isn’t open to is his desire to leave the place he is in, or to admit to where he is. Not once does he ask Abraham to take him out of hell. He instead requests satisfaction be brought to him in hell. He even believes that he remains the master to Lazarus even after Lazarus is in the Kingdom of God and the Rich Man in hell. The Rich Man is hopelessly delusional about his problems and his fate.
The terror of hell does not end suffering and loneliness. The scariest aspect of hell is that the Rich Man is hopelessly delusional about himself and his condition. In the same way an addict will deny the damage they have caused to themselves and others, an occupant of hell is forever in denial. The nature of sin is such that a person bound in it is so obsessed and fixated on themselves that although they suffer and although they are unhappy, they are addicted to the very suffering and loneliness they want to escape.
Sin tempts us with things that God knows will not satisfy us. But under the influence of sin we are willing to damage anything, anyone, even ourselves to have them. Sin creates delusion, and hell is the end result of sin in a human life cementing eternal delusion on what is good for them and what they actually need.
Only Lazarus is named in Jesus’ story. This subtle detail is actually not subtle at all, if one sees that the choice to only name Lazarus was made in the context of a lesson regarding hell. The named man Lazarus has an identity. He is real. He is accepted. He is loved. He is forever at peace with the Father, as Lazarus. The unnamed “Rich Man” is eternally anonymous. He does not know who he is. He does not know what he needs. He does not know how to fix what he knows is wrong. He is eternally separated from the God who gave him life, left to live out eternity in isolation, forever searching for what he will never find. His life was consumed by wealth that replaced God as the focus of his worship. Thus, his eternal state in hell echoes the priorities of his worldly life. In eternity as in life, he was simply “the Rich Man.”
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
Therefore, in hell, he remains nothing more than, “the Rich Man.” While Lazarus has been found by God and rests in the peace of God’s fellowship, the Rich Man is forever lost.