Is it real? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Do people really go to hell? -- the short answer is an emphatic “yes.” One of the overarching teachings of the Bible is that our response in this life has meaning. Do we accept God’s offer of salvation? Do we promise to live a life dedicated to glorifying Him and serving Him, no matter the cost to ourselves? Do we promise to repent when we fall into error? In this age of pluralism, it might be tempting to want to believe that the sufferings of Hell and the eventual Judgment described by Jesus in the Bible are metaphorical or not-really inspired. Yet over and over Jesus describes both as a reality. For those who accept Him, glory for all eternity awaits; for those who reject Him and His offer, a tragic and serious reality awaits.
In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus describes the anonymous rich man as in agony. Worse, it is a permanent agony. “A great chasm has been fixed.” What’s even worse, though, is that he sees the situation with his own eyes, the rich man’s hardness of heart continues. “Yo, Father Abraham, send that bum Lazarus to care for me, please.” Even in the afterlife, the rich man thinks that Lazarus is beneath him. Seemingly, because of His wealth, he has forgotten the vertical relationship between himself and God (love the Lord your God with everything), and, as a consequence, been unable to hear God’s call upon his horizontal relationships (love your neighbor as yourself). That hardness of heart continues even after death!
And while Jesus’ words often remind us of the reality of both heaven and hell, so does His witness. Our society might like to tell us to mind our own business, that all faiths are equal and that all people are basically good and going to heaven, if it exists at all; yet there remains the wisdom and foolishness of the cross. If our responses in this life have no real consequence, then why the cross? If everyone is basically good and going to heaven, why was He tempted, tormented, and killed? Was He most to be pitied as the victim of a cruel circumstance? Or is He the God Incarnate, Man divine who died and rose again that we might be brought back into right relationship with our Father in heaven for all eternity? Our answer, and the answers of those around us, have incredible consequences: one of eternal joy and the other of devastating torment.
That all being said, of course, Jesus does not spend a ton of time dwelling on hell. Is it a place of actual fire and physical torment (I lean to this given His discussion of fire and even the rich man’s thirst)? Is it a place of exclusion, of knowing that one has rejected the source of love, the hope of eternity, and so a place where one agonizes over bad choices? Does it really matter? In either case, the agony would be unbearable. There are a few statements which acknowledge its existence or reality, but Jesus’ manner of ministry is not to scare us out of hell but to love us into His Kingdom (For God so loved the world. . . ). And, as His disciples, we are charged with the same mission: love and serve others so that they will want our joy, our peace, our hope, and His promise. For us, hell ought to be, perhaps a motivator, but not our focus. If the Gospel writers were inspired to remember what God would have them remember, and if Jesus meant what He said and was not trying to trick us, and if the cross was really required to atone for our sins, the existence of hell probably ought to startle us at those moments of sloth or procrastination; but it should never be the focus of our faith. Rather, our faith and our focus ought to be on the prize and a desire to share that prize with as many as we can in this world.
How do you respond to His call on or in your life? Do you love your neighbor as yourself and serve them as He first served you, in hopes of drawing them into that wonderful embrace in their Father’s bosom? Or do you step around, step over, avoid at all cost the consequences of the needy in your life. We don’t stand on street corner’s pronouncing that others are condemned to hell (He is that judge). Yes, as we have discussed the past few weeks, the calling might be temporarily costly; but the rewards of faith last eternally with each of us in that loving embrace of our Father. Our job is to remember that He came not to condemn but to save, and to share that Good News wherever we go, and to act as first-born inheritors of His power and resources to the glory of His name!