I wanted to preach a message at our church about the doctrine of hell. So, last November I preached a message at my church called “Hellfire and Damnation”—uplifting title, I know.
The text was Luke 16:19-31, Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In the message I presented four reasons we can glean from the text showing why Christians believe in hell.
#1: We believe in hell because God is just.
In the story, the Abraham says the rich man is getting exactly what he deserves.
What Jesus calls attention to is this rich man’s utter lack of love for God and other people. He had unimaginable wealth at his disposal, and he wasted it all on his own appetites. He was utterly selfish, totally in love with himself. He lived to show off his wealth and surround himself with comforts. A poor beggar is literally placed at his doorstep, and he does nothing. It’s as if he is totally blind to the sufferings of others. In the story it seems he just accepted without question that he should live in luxury and Lazarus should be covered in sores and begging for table scraps.
The punishment fits the crime. What is the rich man’s crime? No more than a few verses before this parable Jesus is says in verse 13, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Jesus is saying the real problem with the rich man was that money was his replacement for God. He knew who God was. He knew about God’s power and greatness. But he chose to revolve his life around and worship something else: this was his crime against the God of the universe.
#2: We believe in hell because the risen Christ taught us about it.
The rich man even makes a suggestion to Abraham: Send Lazarus back from the dead and have him appear to my brothers; have Lazarus warn them about this place. That will get their attention!
Jesus includes this detail in his story because already in Luke’s Gospel, chapters earlier, He made a startling prediction that he would be rejected by the elders of the people, be put to death, and rise from the grave three days later. The rich man’s suggestion is a foreshadowing his own coming resurrection.
Send someone back from the dead: that will prove that the afterlife is real. Who better to tell us about life beyond the grave than someone who has actually been there?
And this is why we take Jesus seriously about hell: because He is the one man in human history who can speak to this subject with authority. Because of the resurrection, we are not allowed to sift through Jesus’ teachings like we do any other human teacher and just pick out what we like. The resurrection singles Jesus out as not just any human teacher or martyr. As Paul writes in the book of Romans, Jesus Christ was “declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, HCSB).
#3: We believe in hell because the inspired Scriptures taught us about it.
Abraham says he will not send Lazarus back from the dead. Why? He says the rich man’s brothers already have the writings of Moses and the Prophets to warn them. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
The rich man, like his brothers, had no excuse. He was a son of Abraham. He knew his Bible. He had heard the words of Moses and the prophets. And it doesn’t take long to look through the Old Testament and see how many prophets strongly condemned the kind of selfish, materialistic, self-absorbed, idolatrous lifestyle the rich man led.
The Old Testament prophets, who accurately predicted the rise and fall of nations, also wrote dozens of prophecies about coming judgement. If, in the face of this kind of prophetic history, we don’t heed the warnings, then another miracle isn’t going to change our minds. Abraham is putting his finger on the source of the problem: the reason people don’t believe in hell or do anything about it is not because we don’t have enough proof, but simply because we don’t want to believe in it. It is an inconvenient truth that challenges our autonomy and our desires and we want to put as far out of their minds as we possibly can.
#4: We believe in hell because heaven is not for everybody.
Often one of the biggest objections people have to the concept of hell is because they have a picture in their minds of a fiery lake with countless souls are crying out for mercy, crying out, “God, just give me one more chance,” and God is there saying, “Too late! You had your chance!” That that image of hell and judgment is very misguided, and this parable demonstrates why.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that the rich man doesn’t ask to cross the great gulf to be with Abraham. He wants Lazarus to come to him. Yes, he wants relief from his suffering, but never once does he ask for one more chance to make things right. Not once does he even attempt an apology. He still is blind to the error of his ways. Look at how he still treats Lazarus: like his water boy. “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” He still sees Lazarus as a servant: “send him to my father’s house.” Even when the rich man asks for his brothers to be warned, behind his words there is really something of an accusation, isn’t there? “If I had only been warned, things might be different.” The rich man, even in hell, is still just as self-absorbed and deluded as ever: filled with denial, blame-shifting, and spiritual blindness.
This parable is a testimony to the real power of sin. Even hell doesn’t convert somebody from their self-idolatry into a true worshiper of God. For someone who has not really repented, for someone who has not been transformed the Spirit of God, heaven isn’t something they really want anyway.
Of course everyone wants the amenities of heaven. If our concept of heaven is just a blissful place to go when we die, surrounded by lost loved ones, wonderful comforts, then we have really missed the centerpiece of what heaven is all about. Heaven is not ultimately about us. It’s about God. Heaven is a place where God is supremely worshiped which makes it a most unnatural place for a person like the rich man.
People often object that hell seems so cruel. But really, hell is actually the greatest monument to human freedom there is. Cruelty would be sending idolaters to a place where they must worship God alone. Instead God allows men to be exactly as they have chosen to be, and to be like that for all eternity.
In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller sums up the misery of hell well when he writes:
We see raging like unchecked flames their pride, their paranoia, their self-pity, their certainty that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is an idiot! All their humanity is gone, and thus so is their sanity. They are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self-centeredness, and their pride progressively expands into a bigger and bigger mushroom cloud. They continue to go to pieces forever, blaming everyone but themselves.”
Hell is the logical conclusion of people free to choose their own god.
Listen to the Message
Again, listen to the whole message if you are interested. I go into more detail.