Jesus’ bizarre depiction of heaven and hell – Luke 16:19-31

1 Feb

Do pastors lie at funerals?  Though we sound confident, usually that the deceased is in heaven, do we really know that?  You can read my thoughts on that in the intro post.  The question I asked in that post is: “So, what happens when we die?  Is it possible that we can know now what our eternal destiny will be?  It sure would be nice!”

My sermon yesterday tried to address that question.  We have been studying the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke, and the sermon was about a really bizarre parable he told in Luke 16:19-31.  Before you read any further, I urge you to read the parable and see if you can discover any details that depict heaven and hell in surprising ways.

So now that you’ve read the story, did you see what I mean?  Did you find anything odd?  Here’s what I found that was surprising:

  1. There is a wide chasm between heaven and hell that is so huge you can’t cross it, but it is not so big that you can’t see across it or have a conversation across it.  And people in heaven and hell can see each other and talk with one another.
  2. When the die, people are carried by angels into heaven.
  3. People in heaven could possibly go back (be raised from the dead) and influence people on earth.

Is he for real?  Is Jesus using a literal approach to his teaching? Did we just get a lesson in how heaven and hell/Hades work? I highly doubt it. Actually, it seems much more feasible to understand Jesus teaching a larger principle that is based in this metaphorical story.  It is possible, scholars tell us, that Jesus is a story form that was commonplace in his day.

What do I mean by a story form?  Well, it is like the stories we tell in our day about going to see St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter stories are fabled versions of what will happen when we die. And there are plenty of them.  Here’s a good one I found:

A man died and approached the Pearly Gates. St. Peter told him heaven was getting crowded so he had to test people with the point system. If he got to 100 points he could enter. The man told Peter that he gave to the poor. Peter marked him down for 3 points. The man thought again, then said that he gave to the church. Peter added one point. The man, desperately searching his memory, finally said that he never cussed. Peter added 1/2 a point. By now the man got very frustrated and said that at this rate he could only get in by the grace of God. Peter replied, “Come on in!”

It seems Jesus is using a familiar story form like that, adapting it to his purposes.  And what does he teach us through this metaphorical vision of heaven and hell?

First, Jesus is once again trying to address heart attitude.   Compassion for the poor. Being concerned for the position of others. Not following the letter of the law, but the heart of the Law.  Having eyes that see the neighbor who needs help shoveling snow.

Getting involved in community efforts to alleviate poverty in our school district. I continue to be so proud of Faith Church in this regard. Not only do we collect food in our lobby for the food bank at Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, but we have people who volunteer there every single week. Some are loading food bank shelves, some are working with food bank clients, helping them select groceries. Some are preparing Weekend Blessing bags of food that go out to over 150 children in our school district. Some are delivering food from Faith Church to the food bank. Some are delivering boxes of weekend blessings bags to our schools.

Remember what Jesus says in Luke 14:11? “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  I see that in action in the people of Faith Church so often!  It’s a beautiful thing.

One scholar says that this parable: “…is mainly a call to the rich to examine how they use their wealth. They should know that God is not pleased with a self-indulgent lifestyle that has little care and compassion for those in need. As such, the parable is a call to the rich to repent of their inappropriate use of wealth.”

Next, the parable teaches about the finality of life. The men in the story made choices in their lives, and they were sealed in eternity. I wish I could tell you exactly how this works. The Bible is not precise.   You might respond by thinking “Well, maybe it happens exactly like this parable suggests?” Maybe, but I would say unlikely. There are too many other passages that speak about eternity differently.

What does happen then? Well, one day after we die we each will find out. But I don’t want to leave you in the dark. The Bible teaches that we can be ready for eternity.

One thing I can say for certain is this: Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Or as Paul says in Romans 10:9,10 “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead and you will be saved.”

Putting them both together, we must surrender our lives to be disciples of Jesus. It is a combination of head, heart and hands that all live for Jesus. Then we can be assured, then, as John tells us in 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

So I urge you, choose the way of life, which is the way of Jesus. If you are not as certain as what John writes, then I would love to talk with you.

Likewise, eternity is not something that just randomly happens after death. What this parable teaches is that eternity happens now. Did you see how the life choices of the rich man and the beggar impacted their life after death? Eternity starts now.   Our life choices now impact life after death.

This seems to be the heart of what Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer when he prayed “Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that they could live out the Kingdom of God in the here and now.   Maybe not perfectly as it is in heaven, but they could strive for ushering God’s Kingdom into the here and now.

Disciples of Jesus are people who have the privilege of ushering God’s Kingdom into their lives now. As you move and live and breathe in your world, you have the wonderful privilege of taking God’s Kingdom with you.  At work, in your neighborhood, in your school, in your homes, wherever you are, you are an agent of the Kingdom of God. You are seeking to infect all of your surroundings, all the people you come in contact with, with the gracious, joyful, abundant life of the Kingdom of God.

Thirdly, then, this parable is an illustration of how to bring the Kingdom of God into the world we live in now. Last week we saw that in verses 16-17 that Jesus is talking about the Law and Prophets. They come up again here in the Parable as Abraham says that the rich man’s brothers can learn about what to do in the Old Testament, the Law or Moses, as he says it, and the prophets. Jesus is giving a bit of indication, as he did in verses 16-17, that saw within the Old Testament something of great value.

In this case, the OT has plenty of important things to say about human relationships, about what it means to pursue righteousness in relationships, especially in loving one another. Remember what Jesus would say in another place about the most important commands in the OT? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.

This is why the mission statement of Faith Church is Loving God, Loving People. If you could summarize the teaching of the Bible into four words, Jesus tells us that is it.

But there is a problem.

The brothers, the rich man tells us, would not listen to the Word of God. They have major issues. He thinks, however, that they will respond to a radical sign, a resurrection.   But Abraham’s response in verse 31 gets us to Jesus’ fourth main idea in the parable. If their heart is hard, they won’t even respond to a resurrection.

The issue is the heart, and that is the fourth teaching in the parable.

One scholar says this: “Only a responsive heart will listen to God’s message and respond to his great works. No amount of wonder-working can change a heart that is unwilling to be challenged by God’s demand for righteousness. A lack of signs is not why people reject Jesus. Rather, people willfully reject him. The heart cannot see what it is not looking for. Jesus’ message is a call to recognize the need to repent.”

I want to ask you, then, who is your Lazarus? Put yourself in the role of the rich man? Not that you are rich. But put yourself in a position to serve, to give, to love. Who is need around you?

I heard again this past week how Sunday morning is the most ethnically segregated place in America. My school district is at least 25% populated by ethnic minority, why do we not see that here in my congregation?  Perhaps we need to do more to be at a place of readiness to see needs. Eyes wide open. Ready to serve in a moment’s notice.

I recently heard a story from someone at our church who was recovering from surgery in the hospital.  A guy walked into the room and introduced himself as cleaning staff.  But this guy saw his life as much more than cleaning staff.  He struck up a congregation with our church member.  They had great conversation, and finally guy said “can I pray with you”, and it was a great encouragement to our church member.

Can you remember a time when someone reached out to you when you were desperately in need? When the Lord put someone in your life to show interest in you, to encourage you?   Didn’t that feel awesome? What could it look like for you to supply another’s need?

Be willing to provide childcare for free. Mothers with young children could really use the help.

A family from Faith Church who has an elderly neighbor lady, and she lives alone.  A widow. Our church friends will have some extra dessert, which their neighbor lady loves, so they will take it over to her.  Their loves are busy, so they want to drop the dessert off and get back to their tasks at home.  But what the neighbor lady really wants is not dessert.  She loves the dessert.  But what she really wants to do is talk, and talk, and talk. So my church friends will often say to each other, “You give her the dessert this time,” knowing that the person who gives the dessert could be stuck there for a long time.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves in what has been called ministry of presence. The way to care is to be there. To give of yourself. Give of your ears, your eyes, not thinking about what you are going to say next, think next, or eat for lunch. Just being there for people, to listen to them can be so powerful.  I learned of a counselor who said “I think people pay me to be their friend.” Lots of people come in and sit there expecting her to fix their problems. But she waits. Eventually they start talking. And they realize that in her they have a found a person who will truly listen.

So I ask, where is your heart? Are you sensitive to the signs of how God can you use you?  Will you ask him to make you humble, teachable and ready to follow his leading? Will you say, “Lord, examine me. Change me. I want you to use me.”

Finally, are you ready for eternity?

Feel free to listen to the whole sermon here.

2 Responses to “Jesus’ bizarre depiction of heaven and hell – Luke 16:19-31”

  1. Brian Betsworth February 2, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    I have a question, Joel? What if Jesus really does mean exactly what He said in this story? He tells it in a very straightforward, matter of fact way without hinting that it did not actually happen. He even uses the man’s name, Lazarus. Why would he do that in a fictitious story?

    Also, why should we find this depiction odd or surprising? Does not Jesus want us to know as much as possible about such things? He talked about heaven and hell very extensively after all.

    In other words, what reason is there for us to consider this lesson to be metaphorical? Is there something in it that seems objectionable or that contradicts modern science? I’m just asking, because others have asked me.

    I have actually changed my position about the parables of Jesus. I think He told real tales about real people, just as the rest of the Bible does.So many commentators and scholars like to “allegoricalize” his teachings, suggesting that the stories where just hypothetical and not actual, literal stories about real people. They like to sound profound and sell books, I think.

    Jesus is God. He knows everything about every person who has ever lived, including every single event and occurrence in every one of those lives. Isn’t it likely that He really was relating lessons learned form actual people’s lives? And then, wouldn’t they, therefore, be even more applicable to our real lives today?

    I talked about this in church once and someone asked me, “What difference does it make? Does it really matter if the stories actually happened or were hypothetical?’ I answered with a question, as Jesus often did. “If it makes no difference, then why do we question or even consider that the stories were not real? Why would we doubt them?”

    Hope you find this feedback helpful and though provoking. God bless!

    • joelkime February 3, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

      Great questions, Brian. I do find your feedback helpful.

      This parable could be a literal description of heaven & hell. CS Lewis uses something like this parable as the basis for one of his depictions of heaven and hell, though he was likely being symbolic too. To answer your question about why he used the name Lazarus, it could be that he was emphasizing the mercy of God to the beggar, as that is the meaning of “Lazarus”. Some have speculated that it was a reference to his friend Lazarus whom he rose. But that seems unlikely. I suspect the former is all that Jesus was going for.

      I don’t think there is objectionable material, and nothing that contradicts science. I would say that it might contradict other teachings from the Bible. I’m not an authority on the theology of heaven and hell, so I’d have to study more on that. But I am pretty sure this is the only reference to the possibility that people in heaven and hell can see each other and talk with one another. If it is the only reference, that is a bright yellow caution flag to me. Further, if this story would be in contradiction to the biblical theology of heaven and hell, since we know Jesus wouldn’t contradict scripture, we can conclude that he is using a story form. That said, I am not eliminating the possibility that he could be speaking literally. I just personally doubt it based on the evidence I’ve stated and the scholars’ opinions I sought.

      Like you, I agree that most of his parables are likely scenarios based in real-life that he used to teach principles. Some might have been true stories, but I do not think it necessary to believe they had to be. Have you ever read Kenneth Bailey’s work on the parables in Luke? It is excellent.

      I find Jesus’ description odd in the sense that it is so different from the prevailing view of heaven and hell as being infinitely separated from one another. And I have a hunch that Jesus is just using a story form, as I stated in the post, with the express purpose of teaching a principle. When I use the St. Peter & the Pearly Gates story form above, I am not intending to teach about how heaven works, but instead to teach a spiritual principle. I think Jesus is doing the same.

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