By Pastor Glenn Pease
On a cold December night in 1959 blazing machine guns found their victim. Roger Toughy, a former member of Al Copone's gang, was shot down in front of his sister's house in Chicago. It was only 23 days after his release from prison. He knew too much about the underworld, and they have a saying that says dead men don't talk. We would all agree that death is a great silencer, and that is why we are quite surprised by the parable of Lazarus and Dives for it is a conversation between two dead men.
We should expect such a conversation to arouse our curiosity and stimulate some questions, but less we ask questions for which it has no answers let us first ask the first two basic questions which we should ask of every Scripture passage: When was it spoken, and to whom? You might ask what difference does it make? In this case it makes the difference between understanding and confusion. By not keeping in mind that Jesus told this parable before the cross and resurrection we can get confused as to its teaching on salvation. We see little of the character of Lazarus and Dives. All we see is their condition, and it appears that one was saved simply by being a helpless beggar, and he other was lost because he was rich. Our confusion arises because we fail to realize that this is a pre-Christian parable.
Lazarus was not a Christian. He was saved on the basis of the Old Testament dispensation. This is the only parable Jesus told in which He gave a name to one of the characters. Lazarus means helped of God, or a man whom God helped. It indicates that he was one who found his only help in God. We notice also that there is no mention of the Gospel, but only Moses and the prophets. The parable is in pre-Christian terms. The Jewish concept of Hades was a place where all dead people go. The righteous dead go to a good part called Abraham's bosom, and the wicked go to a place of torment. There was only a wall between them and conversations between the dead were a common method of teaching by the Rabbis.
This means that what we have in this parable is a picture of the intermediate state under the Old Testament. The New Testament picture does not follow this same pattern. The fact of this being before the cross and resurrection changes the impression we should get as we seek to interpret what Jesus is teaching. It is also helpful to see that Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees. They based their hope of salvation on their genealogy. They were descendants of Abraham. They felt that they were in for sure and had complete security because of the heritage. You can imagine the shock they felt in hearing a story where a descendant of Abraham was on the wrong side of the gulf in Hades.
The fact of this being spoken to the Pharisees also explains why the rich man wanted someone from the dead to warn his brothers. It is likely another poke at the foolishness and blindness of the Pharisees who were always asking for signs and proof, but they never believed it when it was given. All they had to do was accept Moses and the prophets, but since they did not believe the Word of God, neither did they believe His work when it was before their very eyes. With this background in mind we need to ask some specific questions about this story which apply to all times.
I. WHY WAS THE RICH MAN IN HADES?
On the surface it seems that his greatest sin was in being rich, and there have been many in the past who taught just that. If we examine the life and teaching of Jesus, however, we do not find Him teaching that poverty equals piety nor that wealth equals wickedness. Money in itself is amoral. It is like electricity. It can be either good or bad. It can light a church or light a bar. Money has the potential for both good or evil.
Consider the life of Jesus. He was not poor in the extreme sense as was Lazarus. He was a hard working carpenter. When He called His disciples a treasurer was appointed and Judas carried the bag. We know there was money in it because when He left at the Last Supper the others thought He was going to take care of some financial matters. Jesus did not wear rags, but had such a beautiful robe that the soldiers gambled for it. He could not have worn such a garment had there been anything inherently evil about expensive clothing. The same holds true for the large meals He often ate with the rich, and for all the fuss Martha went through she must have put together quite a feast. There was praise for the man who turned his 5 talents into 10, and for the woman who poured a small fortune of perfume on Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man who buried Jesus in his tomb, and John Marks mother had a nice home she opened up for the disciples of Jesus.
Even in this parable Lazarus goes to Abraham's bosom, and Abraham was one of the richest men in Bible history. Neither in the Old Testament nor the New is poverty considered a virtue. Riches in both Testaments call for great responsibility. Whenever Jesus rebuked the rich it was not because they were rich but because they were irresponsible with their riches. Verses 10 to 21 make it quite clear that Dives was not a good steward of his riches. A poor man in misery was before his very eyes and he did not respond with compassion. It is like the story of a traveler who came upon a miserable wretch in dirty rags sitting in silence by the roadside. "Why are you dumb?" he asked. "Why don't you ask for help?" The wretch responded, "Can any mouth speak louder than my rags, sores, and skeleton bones?"
Lazarus represents and opportunity to serve God, and Dives represents a neglect of that opportunity. All Lazarus desired was crumbs from his table, but Dives was so self-centered that he did not care. We know he did not get crumbs, for when Dives asked for only a drop of water he too was refused. To add to his condemnation Jesus pictures the man's dogs as having more compassion than he did. By instinct they should more love with their healing tongue on his sores than Dives did with all of his riches and God-given capacity to help. Thank God not all men are without compassion. When Albert Schweitzer read this story it was the spark that touched off a revolution in his life. He concluded that Africa was the beggar at Europe's doorstep and he dedicated his life and talents to heal that beggar. There are too many who ignore the beggar and lack compassion, and that is why Madam DeStael said, "The more I see of men, the more I think of dogs." There is no doubt about it, we can learn something about compassion from dogs.
Dives was in Hades not because of his good food and fine clothes, but because he had no concern about the poor food and clothing of Lazarus. God's requirement is that we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. He failed to do any of these and was justly condemned.
II. WHAT DOES THE TORMENT OF HADES REPRESENT?
Verses 23 and 24 make it clear that Dives is in real torment, and he cries out to Abraham for mercy. All he wants is a drop of water from the tip of the finger of Lazarus. He realizes now how meaningful it is to receive the smallest mercies. If only he had known it when he had the chance to give Lazarus some crumbs.
Just in passing we want to notice that this is the only prayer in the Bible to a saint, and it was not answered. Abraham makes it clear that there is no help available now, for death determines destiny. If anyone prefers to call the intermediate state purgatory let them do so, but let them also note that there is a great gulf over which they cannot pass in spite of the their pleading with a saint. Too often we get our concepts of what Christ taught from the artist rather than from the examination of his own words. How often have we pictured hell as a place where men are raging in rebellion against God, and cursing the injustice of it all. Jesus pictures it just the opposite, for it is seen here as a place of great enlightenment. Dives saw in hell what he never saw on earth.
Dives was not raving against injustice. When Abraham points out the contrast between his life and that of Lazarus his conscience condemns him. He knows he is there justly, and he knows he never repented, for he pleads for his brothers to be warned because they may repent. It is almost as if hell made a better man out of Dives. He saw himself as he really was for the first time. He knew the truth, but now it was too late, and that is what hell is. It is truth known too late. The weeping and gnashing of teeth that Jesus often spoke of fits perfect with this picture of regret and sorrow for living a life without compassion.
What was his torment? The answer is found in verse 25. The essence of his misery was his memory. This is not only confirmed by biblical commentators, but it has been the conviction of great leaders such as W. B. Riley. He said, "I do not believe that hell is a 'lake of fire.' I do not believe that hell is a living, gnawing 'worm.' I do not believe that hell is a rushing foaming sea. These are all biblical figures of a greater or more terrible fact, and that fact is summed up in one word in this text-the torment of 'memory.'"
It is said that when a sailor falls from the masthead he sees his whole life pass before him before he hits the water. D. L. Moody almost drown on one occasion, and he said that the second time down his whole life flashed across his mind. He too believed that the worm that will not die is the memory. Where do the flames of torment come from in hell? A man takes them with him in his memory. The memory is perfect in hell. There is not a word or deed that is not recorded in your mind, and when we stand before the judgement seat of God every man's conscience will condemn them. The only things ever forgotten in this universe are the sins of those who have been forgiven by receiving the salvation of Jesus which He purchased on the cross.
Those who do not receive this gift of grace will live in torment with a perfect memory of the folly of rejecting that gift. It is to be a Cain with the cry of his brother Able ever in his ears. It is to be a mocker of Noah with a perpetual vision of the folly of rejecting the offer of escape. It is to be a Judas who can never forget that kiss in Gethsemane. It is to be a Pilate who can never get his hands clean. Imagine the pain of knowing you had dozens of opportunities to receive Christ, but you rejected them all.
This concept of hell is not only biblical, but it is a logical and ethical necessity. We cannot conceive of God allowing men to suffer without knowing why. A perfect memory is essential to the justice of hell. It also explains how there can be degrees of anguish, for not all will have been equally foolish. If men could not remember how they lived for self and rejected God there suffering would be unjust. It would be like the idea of reincarnation in which a man does not remember what he did in his past life to make him suffer in his present life.
We believe that God is just and no man will be condemned without having all the charges against him before him, and not only before him, but in him. He not only goes to hell, but he takes hell with him. Milton wrote, "Which way I fly is hell-myself am hell." That is why the gulf is impassible. Hell cannot enter heaven, and the man himself is hell. When parents bury a dead child it is not because they do not love the child, but because it is dead. When a man goes to hell it is not because of God's lack of love, but because he has died spiritually. He has refused the only hope of life, and so there is no alternative but that he should go to the burial ground of those with dead souls.
The important teaching for all to consider in this parable is that right now we are preparing for heaven or hell. It is one of Satan's lies that decieves men into thinking that they are not lost until they are dead. Dr. Sam Morris told of how he was hunting one day and took a wrong turn in the woods. He thought he was going back home, but after several miles he came to a farm which he recognized as being in the opposite direction from his home. It was at that point that he discovered that he was lost, but he had been just as lost all the time he thought he was going the right way. Some people will not discover that they are lost until he wake up in Hades, but they are just as lost right now. The essence of their torment will be remembering that they were on a road all the time marked-this way to hell, and they never turned off onto the highway of life, which intersected that road so often. They see it now, but hell is truth known too late.
III. IS THE BIBLE SUFFICIENT REVELATION TO ESCAPE HADES?
There are books filled with stories of the effectiveness of the written word alone. In what is called the Coffee Mountain Area of Brazil there is a well organized and active church of about 150 people. (this was in the 60's.) It all began over 30 years before when an illiterate Negro came their way selling Bibles. He had been set on fire by its message, and he devoted himself to bearing witness and selling Bibles. People were so impressed by him that they bought some Bibles and began to meet together, and they became a church founded on their common love for the Word of God.
Dives, however, seems to think that the whole problem with men is that they do not have an adequate revelation. They would not be such fools but would repent if only someone from the dead could go and tell them. This is a subtle way of blaming God for man's folly. It God would give man more evidence men would believe, but since they do not have sufficient evidence they remain in unbelief. Jesus says that if we seek we shall find, but the skeptic says that he will wait until he is blown over with facts, miracles, and wonders. This attitude reveals how attached men are to their folly. They are not taking any chances on giving up their sins until they are sure there is a pay off.
If Lazarus returned to the 5 brothers of Dives, they would probably try to kill him again for telling him their brother was in hell. How could he prove he was from the land of the dead? They would have to take it by faith, but they would find all kinds of reasons to reject him. It would be contrary to reason and so they would consider him a fanatic and reject him just as they did Christ.
Abraham seems almost harsh, but he makes it clear that if they will not hear Moses and the prophets they will not listen to one from the dead. And if the Old Testament was sufficient, how much more is the New Testament a sufficient revelation to escape hell and gain heaven by faith in Jesus Christ? Coming to Christ is an act of the will, and if one wills to come, even on only a shred of evidence, he will be received, restored, and regenerated, and more light will be given. But if a person will not come then all the evidence in the world will not move him. Dead men continue to talk, and what they tell us is that hell is remembering all the opportunities they had to go to heaven. May God help us to see the folly of those who never choose Christ as the Way.