“If there is a Hell and according to most denominations of Christianity the majority of mankind will go there, could you really enjoy heaven knowing your mother or father or children or best friend are suffering everlasting tortures the likes of which would make the Holocaust seem like a picnic? If the Rich Man and Lazarus story (Luke chapter 16) is real and NOT a parable, then we will be able to converse with our loves ones who did not make it into heaven. Would heaven really be paradise if this were true?” (The Hell Test)
These are typical questions by universalists. How could we “enjoy” Heaven if our loved ones are suffering everlasting torture? Notice the emphasis on “our” enjoyment, not God’s justice and glory. Then there’s the question about whether the story in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus is “real” or a “parable.” That’s an important question since truth is always the key to faith. Jesus told the story about Lazarus and the rich man for a reason. We need to know why He told it and how it impacts our life and the lives of the people we know and love.
It’s interesting to see the universalist’s question about whether Heaven could really be paradise if hell was true. That’s not an honest way to approach truth. We cannot and should not base our acceptance of what’s true on whether we like it or not. If we trust God, then His truth will always be the right thing.
With that being said, let’s put The Hell Test to the test.
“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” Luke 16:19-31
The Hell Test asked whether Jesus’ story was real or a parable. The only way to know for sure is to know what Jesus was thinking when He told it. How can we know what someone is thinking when they speak? Listen carefully for the language, usage, context, and intent. Jesus was always precise and focused with His Words. Compare what He says about hell here with what He says about hell in other settings. Do they complement or compete with each other? Do they support a growing understanding of the doctrine or cause conflict in comprehending truth?
People have used parables for thousands of years to make specific points about real issues. An example from the Old Testament is the parable the prophet Nathan told King David about a rich man and a poor man who lived in the same city. Instead of giving a traveler a lamb from his own flock, the rich man took the only lamb the poor man owned and killed and prepared it for the traveler to eat. King David was so angry that he said, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6) Nathan responded to the king with these words: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan told the story about the rich man and poor man to show David how wrong he had been in having Uriah the Hittite killed and taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba to be his wife (she was already pregnant with David’s child) (2 Samuel 12:8-9). The parable Nathan told made a specific point about a real issue in the king’s life.
The purpose of parables in the Old Testament was to point people to the God of Israel so that they might praise Him and glorify His Name.
“Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.” Psalm 78:1-4
We find Jews using parables as early as the period of the Judges (Judges 9 and 14). God instructed Ezekiel to speak in parables – “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, pose a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 17:1-2) – “Again, in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, write down the name of the day, this very day—the king of Babylon started his siege against Jerusalem this very day. And utter a parable to the rebellious house, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 24:1-3) Isaiah spoke the parable of the Disappointing Vineyard – “Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1) – then explained its meaning – “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.” (Isaiah 5:7)
Jesus was the “Master” of using parables to bring home powerful points about real-life issues. The Gospel of Mark explains Christ’s usage of parables – “And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34) Here’s how Jesus answered His disciples’ question about why He spoke to people in parables:
“And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Matthew 13:10-17
Most of the Lord’s parables dealt with the Kingdom of Heaven since that was the primary purpose of Christ’s ministry on earth – “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) – “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15) – “Now when it was day, He departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowd sought Him and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from leaving them; but He said to them, ‘I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:42-43)
Some of Christ’s parables were shared in two or three of the Gospel accounts, but many of the Lord’s parables are found only in the Gospel of Luke (e.g. Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, Barren Fig Tree, Lost Coin, Prodigal Son). The question before us is whether the story in Luke about the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of them. The short answer is “no.” The longer answer next time as we continue to put The Hell Test to the test.
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
Building Confidence Through Evidence
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”