The elephant is a question, and the question is: “Is God evil?” Some people say it doesn’t really matter, but I think it does matter.
Many American Christians today argue that heaven is a place where we “Christians” sit at the table of the Lord and forever feast on His sumptuous banquet of grace, aware of the fact that most of humanity is tortured by God with a living death–burned but not consumed–forever without end.
They even say that this makes the feast that much better, for we’ll be grateful for the good choice we made or grateful for the good luck to be chosen to choose grace. We’ll be forever grateful that we are not them– those burning in flames– we are separate. “That’s heaven,” they say.
In Luke 6, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good. . . and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. . . be merciful even as your Father is merciful.”
Is endless torture merciful? Or, is God merciful except for endless torture? (That’s quite an elephant in the room.) Is God love, except for the fact that He consigns most people to an endless, living death?
In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells the story of a rich man who lived lavishly and a beggar who laid at his gate. Both the beggar and the rich man die. Lazarus, the beggar, is carried to “Abraham’s bosom,” but the rich man ends up tormented in Hades (“Hell” as the King James version translates it).
The rich man requested mercy from Abraham and requested that he send Lazarus to give him cool water. But Abraham said, “Son, remember…you received your good things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides…between us and you, there is a great chasm fixed (we cannot cross over to each other). The rich man requests that Abraham send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers so they can repent, but Abraham said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”
Is that the point of the story? To care for the poor and suffering now, so we can feast in heaven and ignore the poor and suffering (in hell) for all eternity? Did Jesus tell the story to turn His followers into infinite and eternal compassion-less rich men who feast in heaven, while the rest of humanity burns in hell?
There’s an elephant in the house of love. Maybe the elephant is a lie from the devil, and Jesus wants to kill it with His revelation of the Truth. Or maybe the elephant is the Truth in the story begging us to take a second look at the lie!
In my experience whenever you encounter a problem in Scripture, or in life for that matter, the way out is never around; it’s always through. It’s not avoiding the elephant, but staring it down and even wrestling with it if need be. Eternal conscious torment during dinner is not the only confusing thing about the story. The story raises other questions so let’s look at it more closely.
Firstly, Jesus didn’t tell the story in a vacuum. He told it to Pharisees. The Pharisees justified themselves with works of the law. They worked for their money and their righteousness. He once told them, “You are of your father, the devil.” In Luke 16, Jesus also tells them: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
And so He tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man to Pharisees (and we’re reading it today). But why did He mention sores, and dogs? Well, “sores” is important, for open sores were not allowed in the temple. And the temple was a banquet, where God and His people feasted on roast lamb, bread, and wine. “Dogs” is a reference to Gentiles. So this beggar appears to be a hated Gentile, full of sores, shut out, lying just outside the gate… but upon death, He is carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man is tortured.
So the rich man and Lazarus are not ending up where the Pharisees would have expected them to. And the rich man is in Hades being tormented.
“Torments” is the Greek noun, basono. It literally means, “touchstone,” or “test stone.” And it refers to testing precious metals, by scraping them on the stone. It’s not something you do to something already condemned, but to something you expect to be very valuable.
The King James version translated Hades, “Hell,” but there really are no Greek or Hebrew words equivalent to the English word Hell. Hades translates the Hebrew word, Sheol. Both Sheol and Hades are often translated as “grave.” In the Old Testament, Job talks about hiding from God’s wrath in Sheol. But in Deuteronomy, God reveals that His fire reaches even to the depths of Sheol.
According to Psalm 6, in Sheol/Hades, no one remembers God. And yet, God remembers them. In Psalm 139, He’s even with them. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to say, that all men (good and bad) go to Hades. So it would not have been clear to Jesus and His listeners that Lazarus and Abraham were in what we refer to as “heaven” . . . but they must have wondered.
Did you notice in Luke 16:24 that the rich man cries out for mercy from Father Abraham, not God? Isn’t that strange? He isn’t begging God for mercy, (it is as if he doesn’t know God or see God). And he refers to Lazarus as if he is the family slave: “Tell him to fetch me a drop of water to cool my tongue.” What a weird request! Is his tongue on fire?
The book of James says, “The tongue is a fire, set on fire by Gehenna,” and Scripture says that Gehenna is set on fire by the breath of God. Maybe the rich man is rethinking something he said about Lazarus: “Tell Lazarus to put water on my tongue for I’m tormented,” And here he uses another word for torment. It doesn’t really refer to physical pain, but psychological pain–it’s mental anguish. This flame in Hades is causing mental anguish in the rich man.
But Abraham said, ‘Son, (Abraham calls him a son. He really is a son of Abraham) remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. (Luke 16:25)
Jesus did say, “The measure you give is the measure you get in the judgment you pronounce (with your tongue) is the judgment you receive.” But endless conscious torment is a measure infinitely greater than a few years of suffering the snubs of a rich man while lying at his gate. And endless bliss and heaven is hardly something that could be earned by Lazarus, no matter how well he took his temporal suffering.
If you’re rich and you don’t share your riches with the poor, you will “justify yourself” and “vilify the poor.” You will convince yourself that you deserve what you have and the poor deserve what they don’t have. You will convince yourself that you deserve heaven and others deserve hell. If you justify yourself, you separate yourself from others with arrogance and pride – that’s self-justification. And if you justify the fact that you’re “in” and others are “out,” don’t be surprised to find the others “in” and yourself “out”–outside…tormented by an unquenchable flame.
“Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, “Eliezer.” Eliezer means “God is my helper.” And there’s only one Eliezer in the Old Testament of whom we really know anything. And that is Eliezer of Damascus . . . Syria. In Genesis 15 we learn Eliezer was Abraham’s Syrian servant set to inherit all of Abraham’s riches–if Abraham had no heir. But Abraham’s heir was the Promised Blessing (the Seed) through which God would bless ALL the nations of the world . . . including Syria.
Eliezer swore to find Isaac (Abraham’s son) a bride to advance the Promised Seed that would be passed on through the loins of Isaac’s grandson, Judah. See? If it weren’t for Eliezer and his faith in the Promised Blessing, Judah wouldn’t exist; the Jews wouldn’t exist; the Pharisees wouldn’t exist and, according to the flesh, Jesus (the Promised Blessing) wouldn’t exist, and you wouldn’t exist! That’s quite a plot twist. It seems that this Eliezer had faith in that Promised Blessing.
So Eliezer of Damascus was Abraham’s servant who appeared to be rejected but is thoroughly accepted. He lost everything for the Promised Blessing, but Abraham was “blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the world,” including Eliezer. So, of course, Eliezer is in “Abraham’s bosom;” and of course Judah still tries to boss him around, and of course Judah is in torment. He is jealous of Lazarus, and he cannot justify himself. An unquenchable flame is consuming his ego. Will it go on forever without end? No! Because Hades can’t go on forever without end: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death” (Revelation 20:14) “…and death will be no more…” (Revelation 21:4).
The Lake of Fire is the death of death–the end of death. So the torment is not endless and the torment has an end. It has a telos, a perfection, a purpose. It doesn’t pay for Judah’s sins, but maybe it is discipline for Judah’s soul. He needs to feel what Lazarus felt so he can truly know what Lazarus knows: Lazarus knows that God is “His Helper” – El – Azer – God is help.
Well, Jesus is the End, and Jesus is the Life. The life is the end of death. And you may say, “What about the chasm that none can cross?” Well, does that include God? Can God make a chasm so big He can’t cross it? And did you notice? Something is crossing the chasm. Words are crossing the chasm and those words are the Word we are wrestling with now. Jesus is the Word through which all things are created, including chasms. And even if none “can cross the chasm,” we know that Jesus will destroy all chasms. That’s what He came to do.
John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness of the Jordan Rift Valley quoting Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord . . . Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made a low (Literally be humbled) . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Revelation 21:4)
Abraham can’t cross that valley, but God will level it. When Jesus is crucified, there is a great earthquake, the tombs are opened; Hades is opened. The exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted; the first became last and the last became first. And we will all see that what is “exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of the Lord.” “By works of the law no man will be justified in his sight,” writes Paul (Romans 3:20). In his sight, “no man can justify himself” and “in Christ, ALL men are justified.” “As in Adam ALL die, so in Christ, ALL will be made alive,” writes Paul (1 Corinthians 15).
And now one last question: Where is God in this story? We know Jesus is the end: “the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13), but what about the middle–the plot? Well, He must be suffering with Eliezer, “the last and the least of these.” So, what we do to Eliezer of Damascus, Syria we do to Jesus. But what about the rich man in Hades? Isn’t the rich man “the last and least of these?” If you consign someone to hell, don’t you send Jesus there with Him?
Well, what is that flame?
In Hades, there is a flame that torments “sons of the kingdom.” Is it trying to kill them–this flame?” The Greek word is phlox…. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8 Jesus appears as a flame of fire and works ekdikesis: He “brings out the right.” He is the Judgment of God. See? No man can justify himself in “His sight.” And now here in Hades, that flame burns the arrogance of the rich man.
In Song of Solomon 8:6, there is a word that appears nowhere else in all of Scripture: Shal-he-beth-ya(h)–Flame of Yahweh. The verse reads like this: “. . . Love is strong as death, jealousy . . . Fierce as the grave (that is Hades/Sheol) Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very Shal-he-beth-ya(h)–the very flame of the Lord.
I’m saying: God is not evil. God is love. And His Word is the Shal-he-beth-ya(h).
This devotional was prepared by Kimberly Weynen, Peter’s assistant. It is a compilation of excerpts from his sermon “Lazarus, the Rich Man, and Dr. Evil.” You can watch, listen to, or read the entire sermon here: Lazarus, The Rich Man, and Dr. Evil