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:
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: http://jesustheheresy.com/hellreconsidered.html