It’s been almost a year, Father, since my last rant about Inclusion.
This is not an official synchroblog, but there is nonetheless a certain synchronicity at play. I refer to these other blog posts of the last few days:
I was once a proponent of the doctrine of hell. And then, in embarrassment, confusion or laziness, a hell agnostic. I just swept the question under the carpet. But in the last 2 years or so, with a lot of excavation and deconstruction, I have come to see myself as an active hell refuter.
The fruits of this “conversion” have been plenteous. I have become far less anxious about the life to come. I have begun to see all people as within the circle of grace. I have become much more motivated in the Mission of God by love, and less fearful of the stranger, the unknown and even death itself. I have had renewed energy to steward Gods gifts, and renewed excitement about living.
One of the anchors of the theology of what I call “endless punitive separation”, the belief in a literal hell awaiting sinners, is the story of Lazarus. As part of the “court case” that I held – Paton vs. the Doctrine of Endless Punitive Separation – I looked at the most difficult passages of scripture squarely. Many scriptures seem to support Universal Restoration, and many seem to support “Hell”.
But no single passage was as onerous to me as the Story of Lazarus, as told by Jesus, in Luke 16. Here he seems to declare, warn of and even threaten the world with the reality of eternal torment in the flames of hell. I am indebited to the material curated on Tentmaker, the Christian Universalism portal, and specifically their Lazarus material.
The Tale of Lazarus and the Rich man holds a special place for many; mainly because it upholds the notion that Jesus taught Eternal Punishment for the wicked. Certainly, the words “torment”, “flame”, “chasm”, “Abrahams bosom”, and “hell” as used in popular “Christian” religious parlance either evoke or trace their origins to this text.
The first thing to notice is its context. Looking at Luke 15, we see 3 parables, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost (Prodigal) Son. Then in Luke 16, we have the parable of the shrewd manager. What is the overall tenor of these illustrative stories? Most people are happy to accept that it is mans abandonment from God, Gods desire to reconcile to man, but I suggest this take: These stories are essentially about Inclusion and Stewardship (meaning responsible use of gifts or responsibilities).
Clearly the first 3 of chapter 15 talk of the bringing back to the fold. The one lost sheep is re-united with the 99, the finding of the Coin leads to a celebration of gratitude for the widow, and the Prodigal experiences his fathers grace much to the chagrin of his more obedient brother. More difficult to fit into this flow of divine logic is the chapter 16 parable of the shrewd manager. Suffice to say, the lesson concerns the responsibility of those having gifts, resources or capital, towards their benefactor.
At this point we need to remind ourselves of the original audience, the Jews. They had been entrusted with the promises of Gods blessings, but on the whole had not managed to faithfully administer these. The promise given through Abraham and his descendants was a promise to the whole world. The Jews however, were staunchly devoted to righteousness through the law, as opposed to grace. Furthermore their views of righteousness were very exclusive; to many, non-Jews were mere dogs. (Anyone of us Goyim met by a Hassidic Rabbi in a Hassidic household, as I have, will tell you what it feels like to be looked down upon!)
We now have some background to the Lazarus story.
Is this a literal, historical tale, used to illustrate a literal place of torment? Key to answering this is deciding who the 2 men were. The Rich man, many agree, is representative of Judah, the priestly clan, and by implication, the Jews as a nation. He has 5 brothers (See Gen 30), and he wears purple, for royalty, and linen, for righteousness.
Lazarus is a Greek name whose Hebrew counterpart is “Eleazar”, which means “He who God helps”. This is the key meaning. He is a Gentile, an outsider, kept away from the temple by his status.
Something that stands out is the fact that neither the Rich man nor Lazarus was described in terms of specific transgressions which might have resulted in personal punishment. Who was good, who was bad? We don’t know.
However, these 2 characters died, Lazarus was carried to “Abraham’s bosom”, and the Rich man to “hell”. This word, Hades in the Greek, simply means “unperceived”. (id = perceive, a-id = negation, unperceived, Hades = the place of unperception.) The Anglo Saxon “Helan” is applied to hiding, for example, potatoes under the soil. And “Abraham’s bosom” refers to closeness with the Father figure of faith.
A great inversion has taken place. He that was formerly excluded from the temple and the blessings of God, finds himself accepted, while he who was well off and had good things during his lifetime, rejected. A gulf which could not be crossed separated the two men. But this is not the gulf between “heaven and hell”, but rather between the Law and Grace. It might even be true that the only dualism perpetrated by God, is the dualism of Law and Grace. I think Paul agrees with this, anyway.
The Rich man was in torment. The Greek here is Basanois, which has 2 meanings: 1. Base, bottom, as in the lowest place to which one might sink. 2. The touchstone for proving purity of a metal.
The Rich one asks Lazarus to bring him water, for his tongue. I believe the correct interpretation of this is not to indicate the Fire of Everlasting torment, but needs to be seen in the light of other metaphors. Flame does indicate judgement, and it destroys what is impure.
However I think it more correct to relate this usage to the way used in Jeremiah 5: “I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.” It pertains to the nature of truth. Truth accepted sets one free, but rejected, will be a source of torment. Furthermore, this truth is closely associated with speaking, and the mouth. (Isaiah 30:27)
The Rich mans torment lies in his losing the privileges he once had. Why was this so? He failed to grasp that the blessings of God were bestowed on those who took hold of Grace through faith, not via works and the law. The Work of Christ was to fulfil the earlier, imperfect covenant of obedience to the Law with as new one based on Faith.
To put the parable back in context, that being Inclusion and Stewardship, The Rich man’s very exclusivity ultimately excluded him. His failure to steward the blessings of God on behalf of the World meant that he forfeited those blessings. From those to whom much is given, much is required.
I don’t think I am alone in stating that this story can in no way can be taken to uphold the doctrine of everlasting punishment, whether literal or metaphorical.
Here are some links to my other writings on the topic:
- Universal Restoration
- The Scandal of Bishop Carlton Pearson
- God in All, All in God
- Incarnation, Inclusion and Hell