I recently began a series on the topic of “hell”. My main premise is that, for some time now, there has been some off-base teaching concerning this topic. Some thoughts have gone “prodigal,” if you will. And I believe this is due to a few reasons: not knowing the the terminology used throughout Scripture, conflating different biblical terms, and being driven by a post-biblical abstract theology rather than the Jewish, narrative of Scripture.
I sat out in part 1 to primarily give the background to two major terms used in Scripture: sheol (Hebrew) and hades (Greek). Simply stated, they are the realm of the dead, the place of the grave for all humanity. Nothing more, nothing less. That means they are neither a place of eternal bliss or conscious torment.
However, for some, in an effort to show that hades and “hell” (or gehenna) are basically the same place, and that hades is actually a place of torment, a particular passage is brought to the table. It is found in Luke 16:19-31. We get a sample in these few verses below:
22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’
While it seems clear from this text that hades is a place of fiery torment, there are few things to note about this passage.
If we read the verses leading up to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we see who and what is ultimately being addressed: “Pharisees, who loved money.” Jesus would then exclaim: “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” (vs14-15).
Consequently, Jesus is not addressing what happens post-mortem, much less any details of torment. He’s addressing a group of Jewish leaders who love money. And they are about to get the shock of their life when they hear Jesus speak about the reversal of fortune for both the rich man and this disgusting beggar!
Did I also mention that this is a parable, a storied account given to teach? It will do us well to remember that, in parables, the goal is not to give a story in which each detail carries a spiritual meaning for something real in life. The goal is to provide one major point of instruction (or challenge). That is what’s been done here by Jesus, the great parable-crafter: the Pharisees, the great lovers of money, rather than God and people, are being challenged as to their evil heart’s intent. Even more, they will receive a surprise that this beggar, who was covered in sores, longed to eat scraps from the floor, continually licked by the dogs, was the one who would be welcomed into Abraham’s kingdom. Very scandalous in the eyes of these leaders! But no real instruction on the post-mortem details of humans.
Now, I do understand that there might have been some Jewish and other ancient writings that mixed the concepts of hades and gehenna. However, do we think this one instance allows for a strong case that Jesus is teaching hades is a place of fiery torment? Can the case be made from a storied parable that has a teaching focus of condemning the money-loving ways of the Pharisees? I think this is an argument that holds very little water.
As highlighted in the words of Andrew Perriman’s work, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, Jesus is probably “evoking such traditional stories in order to construct a vivid and populist critique of the complacency of the wealthy.” Remember the focus of the narrative!
Edward Fudge, one of the prominent teachers of annihilationism (that unbelievers will be brought to destruction, burnt up, rather than eternally tormented), states it this way:
“Few serious interpreters attempt to take the details of the story literally. To do so would require us to imagine the saved and the lost conversing with each other after death, in full view of each other and at close range…
Even if this story were historical narrative rather than parable, and even if Jesus had told it in answer to a question about the afterlife (which, of course, he did not), and even if we ought to understand all of its details literally (which no one says we should), the parable of the rich man and Lazarus still would tell us absolutely nothing about the final destiny of the damned.” (Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, p41)
Though Fudge’s focus is a little too modernized for me, using conceptual categories a bit foreign to the more ancient Jewish narrative of Scripture, his point is still well taken.
I, too, echo this overall problem of viewing the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as teaching that hades is a place of eternal conscious torment in fire. It seems clear that this is beyond the text of Luke 16, as well as the tenor of Scripture as a whole. Instead, as suggested, hades is the neutral realm of the dead, signified by the grave itself.
I’ll move on to the topic of gehenna in the next post.