Jesus on Hell

There are multiple references to “hell” in the Christian New Testament. But there is only one detailed description that Jesus of Nazareth ever gives of a place he calls hell (actually “Hades”). And it comes in the form of a story.

Step down into this parable carefully. There are teachings here to confound both the fundamentalist and agnostic:

Stepping down into Gehenna, one of four biblical terms translated as “hell” and still a little populated valley just beyond the Jaffa Gate and western city wall of Jerusalem.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.’ 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. 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.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’

– Luke 16: 19-31 (NRSV)

There is plenty in this passage to trouble the fundamentalist who espouses the view of hell as a place of never ending torment reserved exclusively for the damned:

  • First, the term used for “hell” in this story is actually “Hades,” a word similar to the earlier Hebrew Sheol which is the abode of all the dead – both God-fearing and otherwise.
  • Second, the rich man is not cast off into outer darkness but can actually see across the chasm toward the more pleasant side of Hades and even communicate (and even attempt to negotiate) with Abraham as the great patriarch of God’s chosen nation.
  • Third, there is no statement in the parable that the rich man’s punishment is to be never ending; it could last a day, a millenium, an eternity – Jesus doesn’t directly say.
  • Fourth, Abraham refers to the rich man as a “child.” Does this mean that the punishment is like that of a child – a time for correction and learning?
  • Finally, Abraham’s refusal to send Lazarus to the brothers of the rich man to obtain repentance is due not to any inability to make this journey happen, but rather because Abraham believes the mission will be ineffective. He knows the hardness of their hearts; the mission is not worth the effort.

Now for those who are skeptical (or agnostic) about the prospects of an afterlife (let alone punishment), Jesus tale suggests extreme caution:

  • First, the hot side of Hades is not a pleasant place to be; the rich man is in agony – a condition that is likely psychological as well as physical.
  • Second, there is no readily apparent way to cross this chasm between the two realms of the afterlife; you can dimly see and even hear across the divide but you can’t get there – at least not on your own. And Jesus doesn’t offer much more, at least not as part of this little peep into the future.

Jesus often exaggerated for effect. But this guy is definitely not all bark and no bite. He is painting a picture intended to provide cause for pause. And, so it should be for all of us.


For a more in-depth discussion of Hell Re-Considered, click:


Church, State & Contraception – An Update

The Obama Administration has at least partially conceded the separation of church and state by shifting the requirement for free birth control from Catholic universities and charities to the insurance industry. It remains to be seen whether this end-around quells or further inflames the opposition.

In either event, the need and the opportunity remains for persons and institutions of faith to demonstrate their commitment to tolerance for diverse perspectives and practices while still asserting the right to practice consistent with personal and corporate conviciton. If America is to avoid “one size fits all” health care, we alo need to move away from the concept that there is just one true course of faith. Our God is well beyond “one size fits all.”

Church, State & Contraception

The Obama administration has mandated a new rule intended to require health insurance plans including those offered by Catholic universities and charities to offer birth control to women free of charge. Catholic and other faith groups have risen in opposition to what is perceived as an unwarranted and perhaps unconstitutional breach of the distinctly American separation betwen church and state. 

What would Jesus say? Perhaps it would be that persons of faith first clean their own house before asking secular authorities to do the same.

Jesus famously stated that “I will build my church.” Beyond this declarative, he offered little guidance as to what form that church would or should take.

Self-appointed apostle Saul of Tarsus assumed much of the responsibiity for defining the early rules of the road for church doctrine and governance. But even as much as the (renamed) Paul attempted to enforce a monolithic church unity and discipline of his own making, he was forced to recognize the contributions of others – even those with different understandings or values. Writing of his sometimes rival Apollos to the Corinthians, Paul admits that God can work through both, commenting that: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

The early chuch was marked more by diversity (or heterodoxy) than orthodoxy of Christian doctrine and practice . That forever changed when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD. Church and state experienced a shotgun wedding. In the western empire, Roman Catholicism triumphed and no countervailing form of Christianity would be countenanced for over a millenium.

The Protestant reformation seemingly unleashed but almost as quickly suppressed renewed heterodoxy. Luther, Calvin, the Anglican Church, Puritans and other “reformers” adopted the winner-take-all attitude of the Catholics, each within their own respective enclaves. Tolerance extended no further than the doctrinal boundaries of each particularized denomination. All others be damned.

So, today we have the heirs to religious intolerance asking for secular tolerance, to a respect of religious and ethical diversity. For America, there is much at stake.

In a recent web post for National Review, Yuval Levin writes that the “administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state and to clear out civil society – clearing out the mediating layers between the individual and the state … The idea is to leave as few non-individual players as possible in the private sphere, and to turn those few that are left into agents of the government.”

This is a time for persons of faith to take the moral high ground in favor of a society that includes the individual, the state and a continued mediating layer of diverse civil and religious institutions in-between. Advocating for a more tolerant polity depends on religious values that first embrace the diversity of views and practices within the realm of the spiritual as well as the secular.

Jesus on Mitt Romney & the Poor

Mitt Romney’s recent views about poverty in America have been boiled down by the press into one very simple statement: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Would this (admittedly simplified) synopsis of what Mitt had to say square with the views of one Jesus of Nazareth?

The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. Jesus’ concern for the poor certainly comes through in at least one of four gospels written about the life of the master teacher. In Jesus’ infamous Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the poor.”  Jesus goes on to note that the poor are those that populate the kingdom of God. He then goes on to blast the rich. Whether he’s focused on the 1% or his remarks are also aimed at the middle class of his day, Jesus doesn’t explicitly categorize. But he does condemn those who eat well saying: “Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.”

Matthew’s gospel gives the only other account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but with a decidedly different take. Rather than “Blessed are the poor,” the Jesus of Matthew is quoted as saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew’s gospel also excludes all of Jesus condemnations of the rich from what are also known as the “Beatitudes.” And Matthew’s Jesus is the one who dryly observes that “you have the poor with you always.”

For Matthew, the blessing of the first Beatitude is based on poverty as a spiritual condition rather than material condition; for Luke it’s all about economic and social condition. Luke is also the only gospel to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story where the social outcast and not the prominent leader helps a man who has been robbed and beaten.

The other two gospels – those of Mark and John – or of less utility in this debate. In the parlance of the 21st century, Mark could be considered the gospel for America’s cynics – those who (like Ron Paul) see the country going down the tube with every Wall Street businessman and banker a crook, every governmental action a form of conspiracy. Every person for himself (or herself). The gospel of the libertarian (or the survivalist).

John’s gospel is of even less utility, but rather more mystical and spiritual – focused on individual salvation and regeneration – being born from above. Are there those who view America in spiritual, almost mystical terms? Well, yes. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the spiritualists fall into two camps. On the left, there are the true socialists (in an earlier time known as communists). They are a step beyond Luke – who view saving the planet not simply as the right thing to do, but as a spiritual imperative. Who value salmon over humans.

On the right are those who revere “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith. The preservation of the free market no matter who suffers. Libertarians, gold fanatics and monetarists who view gold specie as having a power of its own. Tea party activists bent on destroying government at all costs.

So back to Matthew and Luke. Think Matthew and prophecy fulfilled, like the sense of “manifest destiny” that propelled the United States to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to today’s concept of “America first” and to the notion of exporting the grand experiment of democracy worldwide. It’s the theology of Ronald Reagan’s America as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of democracy, market capitalism and hope for the rest of humankind.

And so, we’ve come full circle again to Luke. We can spot him as the house Democrat a mile away. An advocate for social justice. Or in today’s world, the one-time civil rights crusader morphed into environmentalist.

No Republican fits this bill, unless its Newt Gingrich and  his advocacy of creating a work ethic for children in poor neighborhoods who have “no habits of working and nobody around them who works.” But that’s likely a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?

So, is Jesus in step with Mitt Romney? Or is he marching to the beat of a different drummer?

On this issue, all sides can find common cause with Jesus – as each can find a biblical writer supporting their point of view. Which leads this observer to suggest, it not about a helping hand versus the stiff arm. It’s about both – carrot and stick. Because that’s the kind of guy Jesus was and is.