In an episode on Every Loves Raymond, Debra and the kids got to church while Ray stays home. When they go home, the following conversation takes place:
Debra Barone: Honey, show daddy what you drew.
Ray Barone: That's okay, I can figure it out.
[Ally hands Ray a drawing]
Ray Barone: Um, lets see. A big wall of red?
Ally Barone: No.
Debra Barone: Ally told me that was a picture of you in hell.
Key Biblical Concepts of Hell
In order to work through a perspective of hell that best fit the truths of the Bible and makes rational sense, let's look at the story of Lazarus and the rich man told by Jesus. To set the stage, Jesus has finished saying that a person cannot have two masters, money and God. The Pharisees laugh at him which brings Jesus to tell this story.
19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' 27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- 28 for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
Jesus says a man named Lazarus would sit at the rich man's gate longing to eat the crumbs from his table, but was never fed. Both of them died, the poor man going to Abraham's bosom, the rich man to Hades.
In the NRSV, the translation leaves in the Greek word hades, which means "the place where the dead go or the depths of the earth." When hades is translated to English it is normally translated as "hell." The Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament is sheol. In the New Testament the word hades, is found 10 times. All of the references refer to a general place where the dead dwell and only Luke 16:23 mentions hades as being a place of suffering.
In the New Testament the Greek word gehenna is the word normally translated as "hell." Gehenna is found 11 times in the gospels and once in the book of James. Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew word ge-hinnom meaning "The valley of Hinnom," which was located outside the city of Jerusalem. It was in this place that forbidden practices took place, including human sacrifices. King Josiah put an end to this by burning the down the high places. In Jesus' day it had become a place where people burned their trash and a burial place for criminals, thus becoming the "place where the fire never goes out." By Jesus' day gehenna was associated with everlasting punishment for the wicked and most of the time gehenna is used, it is associated with fire.
A Hell of a Story
As we dive into the story, it is important for us to remember the initial reason for Jesus telling the story. He tells it because Jesus has just told those listening to him that they cannot service two masters, either God or money. Luke then tells us that the Pharisees were lovers of money.
Notice the comparison between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was wearing fine purple linen which would be very costly and he ate well everyday. Lazarus was covered not in purple clothes but sores and he begged to be filled with the scraps from the table. Notice too, that Jesus tells that the dogs licked his sores. The dogs were probably the ones getting the left over table scraps instead of Lazarus. In this story, the dogs were the only ones to comfort him. They would come and lick his sores.
Their fates change quickly after they die. The rich man is suffering in Hades while the poor man is comforted next to Abraham. In some ways, Jesus is showing that the values of the world are the opposite in God's economy and the rich man is paying the price.
When he looks and sees Lazarus he wants Lazarus to come and comfort him. He never repents for the way he treated him throughout his life. The only thing he is initially concerned with is his self, which is really the very thing that has gotten him in this place to begin with. As the passage goes on, the rich man does ask that someone go to his brothers and warn them. This seems like a generous thing to do initially. I agree with Jerry Walls that while this seems nice, it is really just an attempt at "self justification." He may even think that if he does a good deed, his suffering will relent. Obviously Abraham picks up on this and denies his request. What really gets me is that when Abraham denies request to send Lazarus to his family, the rich man argues with him as if he knows better.
The ending of this parable is noteworthy. Notice that Abraham refuses the rich man's request to send Lazarus for this reason: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In others words, they have all the knowledge they need to respond to the truth.
Jerry Walls puts it like this,
The point of the parable is that the rich man is not in hell because he lacks compelling evidence. Just like his brothers, he had compelling evidence. Just like his brothers, he had available to him Moses and the Prophets…. In resisting the truth, he failed to form the sort of character that he would have developed had he responded to the truth that he was given.
A Hell of a Choice
I have always had some difficulty with one aspect of this parable and that is the issue with the rich man being able to go cross of the gulf. Abraham says that the gulf cannot be crossed, which means that this parable would teach that once our verdict is sealed in this life, it is decided.
After thinking about the parable, a though crossed my mind. What if, this gulf is not so much a physical barrier, but a spiritual one? What if the only thing keeping the rich man from crossing is the rich man himself.
In C.S. Lewis' little book The Great Divorce different ghosts (being someone who is not a true person) meet people from their past life who try to get them to repent so they can enter heaven. One person cannot forgive the person who murdered his son. One person is caught up in their intellectual pursuits. One person cannot get past their love for their child.
Lewis sums up why these people refuse to believe in God as the narrator is talking to George McDonald who has been sent to help him understand the realities of what he is witnessing. He says,
The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words "Better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy- that is, to reality. Ye see it easily in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.
The rich man would not cross over because that would require him to see Lazarus as a true person and admit that he had been wrong. Instead, he chose to stay where he was. That is a hell of a choice. I believe the same thing is true for us today. There are spiritual barriers that come between us following the truth set before us.
The Pharisees allowed money to come between them and God. The question for us is this: What is it that keeps us from following the truth set before us? Is it giving up things we want to hold onto? Is it our love for money? It is our issue with control? Is it not being able to forgive someone?