Jesus shared a parable that seriously calls everything we think about hell into question. It’s the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Frankly, I think any discussion of hell in America should include this parable.
You might be familiar with this story. There’s a rich man who is living well by the same standards we like to measure success. He has a lucrative lifestyle, nice house, fine clothes, good food, and lots of friends. Then there’s Lazarus, a poor beggar who is covered with disgusting sores that the stray dogs can’t keep from licking. Well, they both die and Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man ends up alone in hades in a place of torment.
Now, this passage makes me very uncomfortable because if I’m honest I have much more in common with the rich man in this story than Lazarus. I think most of our churches resemble the rich man more than Lazarus too. If you disagree just try to find a seat at Panera on a Sunday morning!
This begs the question, is Jesus saying all rich people are going to hell and all poor people going to heaven? This wouldn’t be the first time Jesus gave this impression. Earlier in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “woe to those who are rich.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus draws the eternal lines of judgment between those that show compassion to the poor (incarcerated, immigrant, uninsured, and unemployed) and those that don’t. As I heard one pastor say, no one gets into heaven without letters of recommendation from the poor.
So is hell for the rich?
Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus is saying. Think about this: King David was rich and Scripture says he was a man after God’s own heart. His riches did not make him so proud that he couldn’t cry out to God, “I am poor and needy” in the Psalms. And Barnabas was rich but he was willing to sell his property and give it to the apostles to be distributed to those in need. Being rich, in and of itself, is not the defining issue.
It’s the rich man’s apathy toward an impoverished Lazarus. He passed him daily on the street and offered no relief or compassion. He was indifferent, unconcerned, and unresponsive. Perhaps the rich man didn’t even see him. Arloa Sutter, Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago, writes in her book, The Invisible, that the poor and homeless are largely invisible in our society. Whether it was willful neglect or an obliviousness to the plight of others-t–he rich man does nothing.
And so, in an ironic twist, the rich man who neglects the beggar ends up begging Father Abraham to send Lazarus to come quench his thirst in hell.
The rich man refers to Abraham as Father which reveals he is a religious Jew. He probably went to synagogue every week. He may have prayed, fasted, and even given significantly to the building fund. But his relationship with God did not carry over into his relationship with the man who suffered at his gate. He knew Abraham as his father, but he did not recognize Lazarus as his brother. This failure to recognize the brotherhood of humanity created a chasm between him and Lazarus in this life that carried over into the next life.
In this context, hell is not meant to create dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians, but to draw our attention to the chasms we create between ourselves and others, especially the invisible and ignored. Hell is not meant as a religious weapon we use to threaten others that have different religious beliefs as we do, but as a warning for us not to ignore the poor and suffering in our own backyard.
I have friends who are turned off to Christians because they’ve been told they are going to hell if they don’t believe. Being a Christian has always been more than just believing the right things. It was about following a revolutionary Jesus who keeps overturning our social and economic assumptions and systems in order to make more room for the very ones we (religious and non-religious) try to distance ourselves from.
If we continue to distance ourselves from the ones Jesus says are blessed then we will be distanced from God’s Kingdom because the kingdom is theirs.
What’s so striking about this story of the afterlife is that it brings our attention to right here, right now. There’s urgency in the parable. It forces us to examine the chasms between ourselves and the poor (the chasms between us citizens and those without documents, the chasms between us who are free and those who are locked up, the chasms between us who live in safe neighborhoods and those who live in fear of violence, the chasms between us who eat well and often and those that don’t).
It challenges us to narrow the chasms between us NOW!
Jesus came to bring good news to the poor–which means all of us. The poor are those that know we’re all beggars in need of grace. The damned are those whose riches (and pride) blind them to their own poverty and the poverty of others. Hell is the warning against building chasms between ourselves and others, and thus ignoring the dignity and needs of our brothers and sisters.
Shawn Casselberry is the National Program Director/Director of Recruitment for Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18-29 year olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. You can follow him on Twitter.