I’ve been known to express some pretty progressive, even radical, ideas here. As always, I hope that I’ve also been clear that, in sharing my beliefs, I have no expectation that others will share them, nor that anyone would agree or understand them as “right” just because I said them. Rather, I hope to make people think and wonder for themselves in the further hope that it might expand their own sense and understanding of how they know God.
Sometimes, I find something I believe - that I’ve shared - appears to be contradicted by a biblical text. Even, say, by something Jesus himself says. “Aha!” you might think, “what do you have to say to that, Robin!” And I say thank you, Jesus, for this opportunity to challenge my thinking and make me think even more.
There’s a great example on tap this week. The gospel story is from Luke. It’s Jesus telling a story about a rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. While the rich man feasts, poor Lazarus suffers in agony at his gate, cast aside and ignored. When each dies, Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven, the rich man is consigned to torment in Hades. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to help him, but Abraham says no, the rich man had his good times, it’s Lazarus’ turn, and now there’s a great chasm between them. So the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about how they could end up. Again Abraham says no, that’s what Moses and the prophets are for, and if they won’t listen to them, they won’t listen if a dead man comes back to visit them. (Just as an aside, Marley didn’t have any success with Scrooge, either, he needed the ghosts.)
Okay, so there’s probably a lot to unpack here, but, just for now, can I focus on where Jesus challenges my beliefs for a moment. I think it’ll actually get us to the heart of the story faster.
Jesus says the rich man goes to “Hades.” If you’ve read me before, you might know that I don’t believe that there’s a hell, not in the traditional sense. I believe that God’s love and grace is for everyone. To me, that means we all come from God and we all return to God. No one goes to hell for eternal torment.
I double down on that, too, because I believe that sin is the choices we make that distance us from God, however we understand God. I’m still loathe to use the expression, but if there’s a hell, then this is it. When we sin, here, it puts us as far from God as we can get.
So what do you say, Robin, when Jesus himself says there is one?
Well, first I’d say I’m not entirely convinced Jesus did mean hell in this story, not the way we understand it anyway. But that’s a bigger, more academic debate for another time and, besides, it’s not my real answer. Hang on, this is going to be one of those “what if Jesus meant this?” answers.
What if Jesus wasn’t really interested in the future destination of the rich man and Lazarus? What if the point of “the great chasm” (Luke 16:26) that separates them after death was simply meant to point you back to the great chasm that separates them in life?
What if the point of this story was to draw your attention to the relationship or, more importantly, the lack of relationship between the two characters? The rich man seems to ignore Lazarus in life, but in the afterlife he knows his name. But even then, the rich man doesn’t talk to Lazarus, he talks to Abraham.
What if the rich man had engaged Lazarus in life? What if he got to know him, helped him and shared with him? It wouldn’t be just Lazarus that would benefit. If nothing else, the rich man would have a friend, but maybe Lazarus would have been more than that. If nothing else, the rich man would have taught others, his family included, about living the love that’s in us and built a sense of community. If nothing else, their relationship with each other would then reflect their relationship with God. It would reflect God.
And wouldn’t that be heaven? Both of them engaging in a relationship of mutual understanding and support: that would bring the God’s kingdom to earth now.
What if that’s what this is all about?