Surveys suggest that about 70% of people in the UK believe in the human soul, with over half believing in heaven and in life-after-death. That’s a fascinating fact because we live in such a secular country where God is rarely mentioned. The US isn’t as secular as we are yet and this is reflected in the fact that 72% believe in heaven and 58% believe in hell. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these figures as we read in God’s Word: ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart…’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
What happens to us when we die? Do we just cease to exist or do we live on? Will there be justice for us in the life to come? Who will be in heaven and who will be in hell, and what will this be based on? Is this fair? The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is so precious because it answers many of these questions; questions which are of the uppermost importance, even if they challenge our own thinking and make us feel uncomfortable. Jesus, the most merciful and loving man who ever lived, is warning us here that our eternal destinies hinge upon our response to God in the ‘here and now’. So, let’s begin in the ‘here and now’ of the 2 men outlined in the parable.
1. Let’s compare these two men as we find them at the start of the story
We read first of a rich man. We know very little about him. We don’t know how he made his money, whether he inherited it or earned it. We don’t even know his name. But we do know that he wore extremely expensive designer clothes. Purple dye was so expensive that only the richest could afford it. The mention of fine linen, perhaps imported from Egypt, underlines that he had the best of the best. He enjoyed the best of food and the best of wine, perhaps with his wider family. He lived like a king.
We’re not told of any particular sin which he has committed. However, we are told that he had a gate, which he would probably have entered several times a day. At his gate was laid a beggar called Lazarus who was in urgent need of help. But the rich man is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t even seem to notice Lazarus, and if he does notice he certainly doesn’t care. The rich man is a hedonist – he lives for pleasure and lives for himself. He has no interest in God, in the things of eternity, or even in the poor who are quite literally on his doorstep. There are many people like this in our country today. Perhaps they aren’t quite so well off, but they are living mainly for pleasure, and for themselves, and have little or no time for the needs of others, or for finding out about their Creator and what he requires. But God has made us for much higher purposes. We aren’t just consumers, like animals, but have been made to live for and love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
What do we know about Lazarus? Again, not too much. He’s given a name and his name means ‘God helps’. He is so hungry all the time that his stomach craves the leftovers from the rich man’s table, reminding us of the prodigal son’s hunger in the pigsty. Lazarus is covered with sores, is probably quite disabled, and even the wild dogs lick his sores, making him ceremonially unclean. As we compare these two men on earth, the contrast is so stark. One man had all he wanted and the other had nothing. Few would want to swap places with Lazarus.
2. Let’s now compare these two men in their life after death
Death brings about a spectacular reversal in the circumstances of these men. We don’t know if Lazarus had any kind of funeral of if anyone really missed him. Perhaps his body is taken outside the of the city to the dump. No burial us mentioned. However, as soon as he enters the life to come, he is treated with enormous honour. Angels carry him into Heaven and he is positioned next to Abraham, of all people. Perhaps you would have expected Moses or King David to be beside Abraham, but no, it is Lazarus. Has the Lord made some kind of mistake? There is no mistake. It is clear that Lazarus lived a life as a servant of God, and trusted in God for his salvation. During his short time on earth, he was a ‘nobody’. But now, forever and ever, he enjoys a place of feasting and joy and is honoured.
The eternal state of the rich man could not have been more different and is sobering to read about. ‘In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.’ (Luke 16:23) In the New Testament, Hades is never used for believers, but only for unbelievers in their place of punishment. The rich man is in hell. He is in agony and is unable to get relief. The rich man is able to see Abraham and Lazarus from his place in hell, and begs for even a tiny drop of water. However, Abraham informs him that this is not possible. There’s a great chasm diving heaven and hell, which no one can cross. In other words, our eternal destinies are permanent and cannot be changed. That’s why rejecting Jesus on earth is the most serious mistake we can ever make.
Abraham reminds the rich man of the time on earth when he could have brought great relief to Lazarus’ hunger and physical pain, but did nothing. And now he is asking Lazarus for relief. What he measured out to others in the past is being measured to him, in a permanent way. In this sense, the rich man is receiving justice for living for himself for all those years. Living without God will lead to eternally dark consequences. It is so tragic, because the rich man wants mercy, but it is now too late for God’s mercy. The rich man chose a life without reference to God, and now he is receiving that eternally.
What can we learn this morning from Jesus’ parable?
3. There is life after death
Some people might think it is convenient to think that there is no life after death and no accountability with God, because then they can live any way they please with total impunity. But Jesus wants us to know the unvarnished truth. There is a heaven and there is a hell, and death is but a gateway to one of those destinations. There is no such thing as the annihilation of the soul. Again, this means that the choices we make on earth have eternal consequences. This means we must make sure we have placed our faith in Jesus while we still can.
4. Hell is a place of suffering.
Which of us would want to swap places with the rich man in hell? He is in torment. I’m not exactly sure what is represented by the fires of hell, but this image, coupled with the fact that there is no relief from the punishment, means that Jesus is warning us that this place is to be avoided at all costs. Christianity is about people being saved from hell, to heaven, through the cross.
It speaks of a conscious agony. Abraham says, ‘Son remember’ how you lived for yourself. You took the gifts and ignored the giver. You ignored Lazarus. Your heart was hard when you saw Lazarus. If we have no respect for the poor then we have no respect for their Creator. God will not be mocked. Sin must be paid for. Either at the cross by Jesus or by yourself. ‘Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.’ (Hebrews 4:13)
RC Sproul: “It is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or harsh than the crime. Cruelty in this sense is unjust. God is incapable of inflicting an unjust punishment. The Judge of all the earth will surely do what is right. No innocent person will ever suffer at His hand.”
5. Why does the rich man end up in hell?
Is it because he was rich? No! Job was an extremely wealthy man, but used his wealth for others. (See Job 31) The rich man seems to be religious in a way. He speaks of Abraham as his ‘Father’ so it seems that he is a religious Jew. He probably went to the synagogue.
So why does the rich man end up in Hell? In a nutshell, it is because he did not believe the Bible, and turn from his sins and trust in God. He should have listened to the voice of God as the Bible was read. He should have trusted in God rather than in his wealth.
Even in hell, it seems the rich man blames God for his destination. He claims that he did not have enough evidence. ‘… if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent…’ (Luke 16:30) This has a very modern ring about it. So many people today say that if God is really there, why doesn’t he show himself, and send a sign, and then we will believe in him. He did! Jesus left heaven and came to earth.
However, the Bible is clear that when God visits us with signs, the human heart is so hard that we still don’t believe. Think of the miracles in the days of Moses. The Red Sea was parted and the 10 plagues were signs which were crystal clear. Even then, God’s people reverted back into unbelief. Think of the miracle on Mount Carmel. It didn’t take long for the people to turn from God. Think of Jesus’ resurrection itself. The religious leaders knew it had happened, but did they turn from their sin and trust in Jesus? No, in fact they made up a story that Jesus’ body had been stolen.
There can be no truth for those determined not to believe. H Marshall: “Miracles will not convince those whose hearts are morally blind and unrepentant.”
6. The Bible is all the proof we should need
Listen to the words of Abraham: ‘Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:30-31)
It’s so tragic that the rich man paid no attention to the Scriptures. He failed to listen to God’s voice. He failed to respond to what God was saying there.
What about you? You might want a miracle from God. But God tells you what you really need: you need to listen to what God says in the Bible. And what does God say?
‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.’ (1 John 5:12)