Four Myths From Hell
Do you read the funnies? Have you noticed how frequently one of the comics on the bottom right hand corner of the first page is about hell? Yes, hell has been so de-fanged by liberal theologies and popular sentiment that people feel free to joke about it. Hell is like the Boogie Man under the bed. Modern man has outgrown this "myth." The real funny thing though is that while hell has been made a myth, the myths that come from hell have taken on all the force of facts.
The first myth from hell is that everyone goes to heaven. In America virtually everyone is regarded as going to heaven when they die. There is a life after this one. It's pleasant; it's better than here. All the dead are there. All those heroic police and firemen who rushed into the twin towers are in heaven most assuredly. All those who died in those two towers are now in a better place. All those on the planes who screamed in terror as their planes went down now sing with joy. Everyone goes to heaven. That's why we respond to tragic deaths in a public venue by sending in grief counselors. Do you think these people don't talk about where the dead have gone? Do you think those grieving aren't concerned about that question? No, where the dead have gone is the biggest question of all, and what other way could a grief counselor console someone except by saying, "They're in heaven."
But that's not true for everyone as Jesus shows in this parable. Some are in the agony of hell's fire. You know the Bible doesn't usually do this. It doesn't show you the panicked people pounding on the ark, the terrified people of Sodom rushing to escape the hellfire and brimstone falling from the sky, or the living dead in the Lake of Fire. The Bible usually doesn't give you Dante-like pictures of hell, but here Jesus does. Here's the flames, the heat, the parched lips, the cracked tongue and O the suffering. Not everyone goes to heaven. Some go to this; some go to hell.
A second myth straight from hell is that you can tell who goes where by looking. Modern people operate under the same false assumptions as those in Jesus' day. People with lots of riches are most certainly blessed; those with lots of suffering are not. Riches are a sign of God's favor; poverty is a sign of His displeasure. If you are blessed in this life, you are pretty well guaranteed that you will be in the next life, because the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Certainly what we see in the lives and deaths of the rich man and Lazarus seems to bear this out. At a time when people ate meat maybe once a month, the rich man ate it every day while Lazarus just wanted the bread the rich man wiped his hands with and threw away. While the rich man was dressed in purple and fine linen, which today would cost about 50,000, Lazarus was dressed in oozing, pus-filled sores. In life there couldn't be a bigger disparity. Nor could there be in death. Lazarus' dying is just the death of another beggar. He's hauled away and dumped in some hole. But when the rich man dies. He got a funeral with so many flowers, and did you see all the people and didn't the pastor have such nice things to say about him.
But it is a myth that you can tell whom goes where based on how blessed they lived, how royally they died or how nice or even biblically someone spoke at the funeral. No, you can't tell by looking where someone will spend eternity because there are unseen things going on. First, Jesus knows Lazarus by name not the rich man. "I know My sheep," says Jesus. "Depart from Me, I never knew you," He says to those He sends to hell. Second, God sends invisible angels to the ulcer covered, filthy, smelly body of Lazarus in order to bring his soul to heaven. No angels are sent to the rich man because the damned need no help getting to hell. Finally, though dirt is unceremoniously thrown on the sore-covered, dog-licked corpse of Lazarus and though people are standing around the rich man's costly coffin talking about how happy he looked, Lazarus is in the lap of luxury while the rich man is screaming his lungs out in the torments of hell that have only just begun.
I warn you. Stop thinking you know whom goes where based on who has what. Stop thinking that riches mean you have heaven and poverty means you have hell, or that poverty means you have heaven and riches mean you have hell. Stop thinking that if someone dies tragically there is a doubt about their salvation, and stop thinking if someone dies heroically there is no doubt about their salvation. Not everyone goes to heaven. Some people do go to hell to suffer there for time unending, and you can't tell who is going where based on what they have, don't have, suffer or don't suffer in this life.
The third myth from hell is that not going to Church is no big deal. We, I mean the Missouri Synod, have set you up for this. We've pounded into your heads that what matters is faith in the heart. If a person has faith in their heart, they are saved. So, we buried people who never came to Church because they had faith in their hearts. And what bothers you about this text is that you don't find the word "faith," or "believe" at all. How much more comfortable our LCMS minds would be if it just said, "Now Lazarus believed and the rich man did not." But it doesn't say that, so, you know what we do? We say the reason the rich man is in hell is because he was a jerk to Lazarus. The theme of the sermon then becomes: Now you who have more than others start being nice to poor people or you're going to hell.
Well, what did get the rich man sent to hell? He never hit Lazarus. Never shewed him away from his gate. By the way "gate" here is the word for a large, elaborate gateway into a city or mansion. It's not the word for a gate the size of the one in your backyard. The rich man probably didn't even see Lazarus. And do you really think the man who wore $50,000 suits was the one who tossed the bread out after a meal? Surely a servant did that. So what gets the rich man sent to hell? He doesn't blaspheme God. He was a Church member (He calls Abraham, "father'.). No sexual sins are named; drunkenness isn't alluded to, not even unbelief is mentioned, and look how he cared for the salvation of his brothers. The only sin specifically cited is "not hearing Moses and the Prophets," that is not going to Church because that's the only place he would have heard Moses and the Prophets.
Now don't misunderstand; faith in Christ certainly does save because it receives the forgiveness, life and salvation found in Him, but you are fooling yourself if you think this faith can exist apart from actually hearing the Words of Christ. Faith can no more exist in the heart apart from the Word striking it, than a drum note can sound apart from the drum being struck. Going to Church really does matter for that is where the Word sounds forth. Faith in the heart comes about through the Word striking our eardrums. The Word about the blood of Christ cleansing sinners strikes the ear, travels to the heart, and causes faith which says, "My sins were cleansed." The Word about Jesus suffering the punishment for the sins of the world strikes our ear, travels to our hearts, and causes faith which says, "That means my sins were suffered for." Lazarus goes to heaven because he hears Moses and the prophets. The rich man goes to hell because he does not.
Are you in Church hearing the Word in your ears, receiving it on your Body in Baptism, or in your mouth in Communion? Is the Word of atonement, payment, forgiveness, and salvation striking your ear drums, your skin, or your lips? Then have no fear, whether you be rich or poor, covered with sores or covered with fine clothes, eternal life is yours. But stop looking inside yourself to see if you can see a faith worthy of heaven. Do you think pus-filled, sore-covered, starving Lazarus did that? No, Lazarus went only by the Word not by what he saw or felt. The rich man ignoring the outward Word is the one who looked inside himself and concluded his faith was just fine.
But I know what really bothers many of you even though you are reveling in your sure salvation because of the Word. There are people close to you who live securely on ignoring the Word, wanting nothing to do with going to Church. If they die suddenly, like this rich man, then what? You long for their salvation so much that you so fall into the myth of believing that if only God would just do this or that miracle, your loved one or friend would repent. That's the fourth myth from hell, that miracles convert people.
The rich man labored under this myth. He is lost for all eternity in hell, but he isn't a bad guy. (By the way, that's another myth: only bad people go to hell.) He loves his brothers and he doesn't want them to join him in hell. He asks that Lazarus be sent back to warn his 5 brothers. He thinks like those churches do who put on "realistic" haunted houses that "hell" can be scared out of people. He believes that people can be led to repentance by someone coming back from the dead.
But he is wrong, and Abraham shows him this by going one better. The rich man calls for sending Lazarus back from the dead as a ghost to say, "Hell is real." The rich man says if this happens they will repent, their hearts will be changed by such a miracle. Abraham, however, says even if Lazarus would actually rise from the dead, which is a far bigger miracle than a ghostly appearance, they wouldn't even be convinced. "Convinced" is an earthly thing much less than repent, a heavenly, spiritual thing. In other words, Abraham says, "A far mightier miracle than you demand would not even produce a far lesser effect. If your brothers won't hear Moses and the Prophets, no miracle, no matter how big will convince them to change their ways let alone actually repent."
You know what that means to us who have people close to us headed for hell? Our Lord is doing everything possible to convert them, to repent them, to bring them into His kingdom. The Jesus who gave up everything, His body, His blood, His soul, His heavenly kingdom, and His earthly life for the salvation of our loved ones isn't holding anything back. The virtual dearth of miracles that the Church has known since the age of the apostles doesn't mean the Lord has given up on our loved ones. The fact that we don't see the dead raised now or many sick healed doesn't mean the Lord isn't doing everything possible to save our lost ones.
He's still sending the same powerful Word that created, that forgives sins, makes Baptism a life giving water rich in grace, and makes Bread and Wine the Body and Blood of Christ. The same Word that converted murderous Saul, delivered people from demons, and worked faith in the hardest of hearts is preached, read and studied right here. The same Word that forgives the unforgivable, reaches the unreachable, and saves the unsaveable is here for your loved ones and friends every week. And don't forget dear friends, that this Word on your lips is just as powerful as it is on mine. The Word of God you feebly speak is more powerful in the hearts of your loved ones than even raising the dead would be.
Hell is no myth. People do go there. But no one has to. The gates of heaven are open today for the rich, the poor, the obviously sinful and the secretly guilty. No one is so good that they can get to heaven without the forgiving Word ringing in their ears regularly, but no one is so bad that the forgiving Word is not meant for their ears too. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIX (10-14-01) Luke 16:19-31