Tuesday 19 April 2016

Death, Hell/ Sheol and Eternal Life - and the parable of Lazarus and Dives

I cannot shake the conviction that Christians often misinterpret Christ's message by misunderstanding what is meant by death, 'hell and eternal life - when they occur in the Gospels.

My understanding is that Hell refers to what is called Sheol in the Old Testament - and this refers to the Ancient Hebrew belief (which is indeed shared by many pagans) that death means death-of-the-body and that afterwards the severed-soul continues to live in a shadowy realms as barely conscious souls that have lost memories, their sense of self, lost their will and purpose - and simply subists moment by moment in a state of 'lostness'.

In other words, if we are to take mortal human comparisons, 'Hell' is more like a state of severe dementia than like a state of being perpetually tortured.

The reason that Hell is like dementia is exactly that the soul is separated from the body. Therefore, when Christ offers us the gift of eternal life, what he is offering is the resurrection whereby the soul is restored to the body.

So the good news of Christ, which gives the name to the gospels, is that we are all saved from the state of demented spirits in Hell/ Sheol.

Heaven and Hell are therefore properly what happens after resurrection - and the overall tenor of the gospels is that what happens after resurrection is greatly preferable to Sheol. What exactly Hell is like is metaphorically described in very unpleasant terms - but nonetheless Hell is a chosen state; and we know from our own experience that even in mortal life there are many people who choose to live in some version of Hell - alone, tormented with burning regrets - but utterly locked into this state and inaccessible by pride and defiant despair.

We need this framework because, without it, it is so easy to misunderstand references to Hell. For example, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (aka. Dives) there are horrible depictions of Hell - but the point of the parable is not the literal truth of such depictions but the last verses 29-31:

Luke 16:
24 And 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.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The point of the parable is clearly not to give us a literal description of 'what it is physically like' in Hell but to emphasize the adequacy of existing revelations and therefore the absolute necessity for faith: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
In other words, there are some people for whom there is never enough evidence - they always want more, and more, and more 'proof'; because all evidence without exception requires interpretation.

Not everyone who saw that Lazarus rose from the dead - or Jesus - was thereby converted - maybe they didn't really die, maybe it was a trick, maybe they had experienced an hallucination?
Most people who experience miracles are not converted by them - they find some other explanations, or they say (quite accurately) 'yes - but...'

Anyway - let us not get distracted from the good news by misinterpreting it as being bad news - ie, the fallacy that Christ came in order to send everyone to a Hell of perpetual torture excepting a few who successfully negotiated that obstacle/ assault course which is human life.

The tortures of Hell are self-chosen and self-inflicted - and none the less real for that; but Hell is not a matter of being tortured because that is what God wants. It is because that is what the inhabitants have chosen. The real horror  of Hell is that people really will, really do - in mortal life, choose this.  


John Fitzgerald said...

C.S Lewis writes superbly about the self-chosen nature of Hell with the Dwarves in The Last Battle and the 'damned souls' in The Great Divorce. Hell is an incredibly try place, inhabited by minds that have totally shut in on themselves. Similarly, in That Hideous Strength some of the protagonists, on the point of death, see that redemption is still available for them, but they ignore it out of pride and carry on towards physical and spiritual self-destruction.

I fear that the same thing will happen, on the political and social level, in the contemporary West if and when our body politic begins to crumble, Many, in that moment, will recognise very starkly the contribution they have made to the collapse, but rather than repent and turn about it appears more likely that the usual scapegoats will be wheeled out for opprobrium instead. People (a lot of them anyway) will prefer to give in, die quietly and even go Hell than embrace God's love and light. We need to pray for a softening and warming of these hard hearts, especially, of course, our own.

William Wildblood said...

Are you saying, Bruce, that anyone who goes to Hell actually chooses to do so either because of pride, disbelief, stubbornness or some other failing which they will not renounce? A wilful refusal to acknowledge God, in short. This is what I believe must be the case, given a God of love and mercy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yes, I am saying that plus that people will be made aware of any sins (or even a single sin) to which they perhaps cling, and the absolute necessity to acknowledge that it is and always was a sin - and to repent this.

By repent, I mean to defer to the objectivity of reality, to acknowledge the divine order - which is God's reality (as creator).

To continue the CS Lewis theme mentioned above by John (and which I heartily endorse - the passage about the dwarfs in The Last Battle was an important factor in my own conversion) - this is depicted in The Great Divorce - perhaps Lewis's most neglected major work.

Here it shows various people who prefer to return from their 'visit' to Heaven and continue to dwell in Hell rather than acknowledge the sinful nature of their 'favourite' sin - which may be a relatively 'minor' sin, but it is one they will not give up.

The happens because in refusing to repent their pet sin they reject the structured reality of God's creation and prefer *their own* reality, where each Man personally decides for himself what is Good (that being the ultimate nature of pride).

God allows us to choose our own subjective reality rather than the shared objective reality of Heaven - indeed, God cannot do otherwise given the reality of agency/ free will (although it is of course a cause of great sorrow to God - as in the similar case when a parent must watch their child make choice after choice leading them into living a Hell on Earth, despite that at any moment they could repent).

Gerry T. Neal said...

The interesting thing about the Parable of Dives and Lazarus is that in it Jesus talks about two people whose identities are known, although only one is named (Dives not being a name but Latin for "rich man"), and makes His point by telling a story that is the reverse of what actually happened as described in John 11. In John 11, Lazarus dies, as in the parable, but contrary to the parable in which a request that he be sent back from the dead is denied, in actuality he was raised. When that happened, the response on the part of some was to conspire to put Jesus to death. John's Gospel names Caiaphas as being the head of that conspiracy. Caiaphas was a rich man, who "was clothed in purple and fine linen", i.e., the robes of the high priest, and whose father-in-law, Annas, a previous high priest, had five sons, who had also served as high priests. In other words, the Dives of Jesus' parable is very recognizably, Caiaphas, who was, of course, alive when Jesus gave the parable. Recognizing that Dives was Caiaphas, and that his actual response to the actual raising of Lazarus, was to conspire to put the One Who raised him to death (John 11:53), brings out the stinging irony of Abraham's final answer to Dives in the parable. One misses the point completely by trying to read the parable as a factual description of anything - the point is made by the parable's contrafactuality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gerry - That is a very interesting angle on the parable which I didn't know. It sounds reasonable; although it does involves several steps of reasoning spanning across texts that were probably intended to be free-standing.

(My inclination is to read and understand each gospel separately - with priority given to John; as that of a participant in most of the events described, and the disciple whom Jesus most loved and who, apparently - by his behaviour, most loved Jesus.)

I think one point that we moderns struggle to understand is that Jesus's world was one in which miracles were a fact of almost daily life - the main question was the nature of the power (divine or demonic) by which a miracle was done.

And this even applied in the extreme to raising from the dead: the dispute was (perhaps) less about whether it had really happened (although, no doubt, that was one debate - as indicated by the Biblical description/ evidence) than whether it was done by 'necromancy'.

Clear Waters said...

Important to understand hell as being 'the worst thing', and thus our limited human imaginations will tend to paint the worst thing we can actually imagine. God must describe it to us in such terms, because we cannot hear about the real hell and understand it. We'd need to experience it, and many will.

William Wildblood said...

The chilling thing is that we do love our sins nowadays and almost define ourselves in terms of them. We celebrate them. They are us. This shows how vital self-honesty and humble submission to divine will is. It's very hard for us moderns to think that God really does know better. That's our pride of course.

Bruce Charlton said...


I don't feel that the Hell as choice description has ever caught the gist of things. There are too many statements of Jesus about fire and punishment, like in this passage, that aren't read aloud very often or quoted by Churches that teach the Lewis view. When their pastors read a passage like this, the sermon tends to focus on how the passage can be explained, rather than understood.

However, I do think that these Churches are on the right track, but also that modification is necessary to the C.S. Lewis' view. It seems clear, from the teaching of Scripture, that once we are released from the demands, and noise, and passions of the flesh, at that point our sins, and especially our unrepented sins, will become intolerable for us, seeing as we will the infinite consequences of all or our actions. This seems to me to be a natural consequence of sin. Once we lose the enforced narcissism of the flesh, fully understanding our status and place, recalling and understanding the full ramifications of all our acts as sinful humans will have to be torture. This is all as it must be if there truly is eternal life, and if we really are to be spirit creatures of pure soul rather than the mixture of soul and flesh that we are now.

To me, the thing that is hard or impossible to comprehend in all of this is how Jesus can save us from it. Our own personal repentance seems too weak a tool. Yet the promise is that he will save us. And that promise prevailed against all the corruptions of man: false religion, politics, greed for money, and it finally overcame death to become the Gospel to those that would believe.

Nathaniel said...

I tend to agree with what you say, but there are many passages which paint God or Jesus very explicitly as a good Judge, or King, who passes a sentence an punishes those who have done wrong. (e.g. Matthew 25)

“Then the king will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me! God has cursed you! Go into everlasting fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels! 42 I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me into your homes. I needed clothes, and you didn’t give me anything to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t take care of me.’"

It seems to go along with the above passage, and appears to very explicitly state that those who don't help the suffering/needy will be punished, by the savior, eternally. It seems hard to reconcile with the idea that we simply chose the fate (e.g. in the parable, it appears to read quite plainly that one being punished is ready to repent, yet he seemingly can't in his state of eternal punishment)

Being as flawed as I am, I'd certainly prefer your view, though the more depressing belief seems to be made fairly plain.

360 Decrees said...

"...there are many people who choose to live in some version of Hell - alone, tormented with burning regrets - but utterly locked into this state and inaccessible by pride and defiant despair."

Or maybe they lack the knack of getting along with people, and the apparent pride and defiance are just a shield to protect a fragile ego. Many of these may hope to be cured by transfiguration.

Hope they're not disappointed.


"Defiant despair"-- well coined. It's certainly coin of the secular realm today, proffered boastfully by comedian, novelist, essayist, and raconteur alike. Some of the rest of us are hit with the realization that our own conversational reflexes have been conditioned by it.

Nathaniel said...

I'd be curious if you think this is on the right track. It popped in my mind (revealed?) while half-asleep last night:

As you've discussed the primary reality is love and relationships between living things. One way in which we reflect, or are made in the image of God, is in our ability to forgive.

If someone harms me, Christ teaches we should forgive them. That forgiveness repairs the torn relationship, but only if the person being forgiven accepts it and repents his sins. Repenting is necessary, because otherwise the person forgiven doesn't actually recognize the harm they've done - they are denying the reality of it. They are denying goodness, and therefore God.

In this we can see that it is real and true to say God condemns us to punishment and that the person is only condemned through their own choice. God has forgiven all of us, and we need to accept that forgiveness by repenting the real harm of our sins - repairing our torn relationship with God also requires accepting reality (or, God, and goodness, and actively reject evil). However, if we reject God, we view Him as a judge condemning us. It is His very forgiveness that becomes our condemnation and may be our eternal separation from God if we reject - because by it we eternally reject God Himself for our own false reality.

Bruce Charlton said...


That sounds right.