Many Christians would read this parable as proof that there is a literal eternal hell of suffering and punishment. But is that really true?
An initial answer to that question is that this is a strange conclusion to come to, especially when we consider the true nature of what a parable is. Parables, by their very nature are metaphorical stories. They are not meant to be interpreted as literal descriptions of something, but rather as a kind of a parallel story, an allegory, a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.
Before getting back to a discussion on hell, I would like to make a few interesting observations of the parable.
Firstly, isn't it interesting that in this parable, Lazarus the poor beggar is given a name. But the Rich Man is not.
There is something quite unusual about that in the world of ancient literature. In the ancient world, reading and writing were the preserve of the rich and the well-to-do. And so almost all literature tended to be written by the rich, for the rich and about the rich. Because of this , in ancient literature, the rich were named, but in contrast, the poor masses were simply part of the expendable unnamed masses and their lives were regarded as being of less value than those of the rich.
Some would argue that things haven't changed all that much. In our world today, it is still largely true the more money you have, generally speaking the more value is put on your life. And in our world, generally speaking, the less money you have, the less value is put on your life.
But in this parable, this whole order of things is turned upside down. In this parable, the poor beggar is given a name. And by contrast, the Rich Man is left nameless. Very unusual in the ancient world of literature.
It seems to me a deliberate story-telling device to communicate the sense that the values of this world are not the values of God. In God’s scheme of things, lonely beggars on the street are named and valued. The way of Jesus turns upside down the ways and the values of this world. This is a major theme in Luke’s Gospel. In the Song of Mary when she praises God when she finds herself pregnant with Jesus, she speaks of how God will raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty from their thrones. In God’s scheme of things, lonely beggars on the street are named and valued.
Secondly, isn't it interesting that the dogs in this parable seem to care more for Lazarus than the Rich Man. The Rich Man seems oblivious to the Presence of Lazarus. It is like Lazarus doesn't even exist to him.
Have you ever had the experience when it felt like someone was looking right through you, as though you didn't even exist. Like you were just a non-person. In highly patriarchal cultures, woman often speak of this experience of being treated by men as thought they were not real persons.
That is the sense you get from this parable. How difficult would it have been for the Rich Man to let Lazarus eat from the scraps under his table.
What does this parable say about the state of the Rich Man’s soul that he could so easily and so thoroughly block out the need of a fellow human being and even pretend that he doesn't not exist at all. The Rich Man has cut himself off.
But look by contrast at the dogs. In his deplorable state, the dogs come and lick his wounds. When I first heard this parable, I interpreted this as simply pointing to the fact that dogs are disgusting, but when I allowed the image to sit in my mind for a while the thought struck me: Isn't this the way a mother dog would treat her little pups? Licking them to clean them, as an act of care. Isn't this how dogs would lick themselves if they were wounded?
What if that is the point of the imagery in this parable, that even the dogs show more love and care to Lazarus than the Rich Man? An animal, who we regard as sub-human shows more care for Lazarus than his fellow human being. Has the Rich man begun to lose his humanity?
Thirdly, isn't it interesting in the parable that when the Rich Man dies and is on the other side, that he is still primarily motivated by self-concern. The only reason he calls out is because he is now suffering. But even in the state of his suffering, his attitude towards Lazarus has changed very little. At least now he acknowledges the presence of Lazarus. This is progress. But even in his state of suffering he is still caught up in his old way of looking at things. Although he has finally acknowledged Lazarus’s existence and even calls him now by name, he still wants to use Lazarus as a servant for his own ends. He wishes to treat Lazarus as a servant to run an errand for him, bringing him a drink of water from across the great divide. Lazarus is not yet being treated by the Rich Man as a full human being of equal value and equal dignity .
It raises a question: What if hell is not a physical place at all, but rather a metaphorical description of the state of the soul? Is it a description of a human soul that has turned in on itself, self-obsessed, self-absorbed with a distorted view of the world and others and as a result cut off from others and as a result also from God, the source of all love and true joy. What if hell is a heart whose door is closed and locked from the inside. What if release from this hell can happen, the moment we awaken out of our own self-absorbed-ness.
There are signs of hope in this parable. Sometimes suffering can have its benefits. (Not all suffering). It would seem in this parable the Rich Man’s suffering has some impact upon him. At least now he sees Lazarus as a human being with a name. In his suffering we also see a glimpse of hope that there is still a glimmer of love and care in his heart... he is concerned about his brothers. He doesn't want to see them suffering. That is a glimmer of hope. Still there is a degree of self-concern in him. In some ways our families are like extensions of ourselves. Loving our families still has a large degree of self in it. I care for them because they are my family, because they are close to me. But still it is a movement in the direction of love. Loving our families is at least a start in teaching us the way of Jesus, the way of love, that will eventually embrace all things and all people... even our enemies.
Even in Stalin, the faintest glimmer of of the image of God remained in him. Despite all his murderous human rights abuses, Stalin still showed a love for his mother. And there lies the hope for all humanity, that ultimately, no matter how much it is covered up and covered over, there is nothing that can ultimately destroy the image of God within us.
And though the door of the heart is locked from the inside, a little further on in Luke’s Gospel (18:27) , we will read that what is impossible for human beings is possible for God.
And at the end of John’s Gospel, we hear of the ability of the Risen Jesus to appear behind locked doors, perhaps an image of the Risen Christ’s ability to appear behind the locked door of our hearts and souls to help liberate us from the hells of our own making.
In the end, as I have said before, I would have to label myself a universalist in the sense that in the end I believe all will be saved.
I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as an eternal hell. In the Bible, where in English we read about eternal suffering, the English word eternal is a very poor and misleading translation of the Greek word Ainos which speaks of a finite period of time that will come to an end. In this parable, there is no indication that the Rich Man’s suffering would last forever and ever and ever. In the Bible there are many scholars who will say that is no such thing as eternal suffering that will go on and on forever.
George MacDonald, the 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian who was a universalist, believed that those passages in the Bible that speak of the kind of suffering in this parable are referring to the suffering of purification. The fire in this passage that makes the Rich Man suffer is in fact the fire of God’s love that we experience as painful when God is purifying us from all that is not love within us.
There are strong arguments that the Apostle Paul was a universalist. When Paul speaks of suffering for the unrighteous, these are a provisional suffering. They are what George MacDonald would have called the suffering of purification. Like someone suffering from an ingrown toe-nail, we will all need to suffer the pain of the great physician as he operates on our ingrown hearts and souls. But in the end, what is often missed by many Christians, is that Paul has a very clear theology that God’s salvation offered in Christ will encompass and include all.
In 1 Cor 5:22 “For as in Adam, all die, so, in Christ, all will be made alive.” Not some... all.
In Colossians 1:20. “Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”. Not some things, but all things.
In Timothy 2:4-6 we read: “God desires everyone to be saved” And in Ephesians 1:11 we read that God accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will. If God’s desires all to be saved, then in God’s time God will accomplish all things according to his will.
And finally in 1 Cor 15:28 Paul speaks of the day when God will be all in all.This is the final end of Paul’s Theology: That God will be all and in all.
How can God one day be all and in all, if some are burning in hell for all eternity? God will only one day be all and in all, if in the end all without exception are saved and brought into the wide embrace of God’s love and mercy.