Want to put on my teaching hat a bit today in terms of an issue which the gospel today raises. It is the whole issue of the afterlife. What happens to us when we die? You don’t hear too much talk about that today. When last did you hear a homily about heaven or hell?
I once asked a priest the question “what happens after we die” and his response was “no one knows the day or the hour” quoting Matthew 24.36. But I don’t think that is enough. The expression heaven or the various terms that it implies is mentioned 577 times and the term hell, gehenna, hades, sheol is mentioned 47 times.
There are entire passages devoted to the topic of the afterlife. Matthew 24. Luke 21 and Mark 13. There is an entire book devoted almost entirely to what happened in the last days. The book of revelation.
Why is heaven and hell important? There is the very strong idea expressed in Christianity that our lives extend beyond the grave. Not merely in a passive way. There are all sorts of implications for this. The fuss and bother we make here is sometimes unwarranted. It is also a blow at our self-importance. Our plans and status. Everything. Your earthly importance will simply evaporate when we die.
Another implication comes from the thought, “what would life be like if it did not extend beyond the grave?”
So we need to kind of wrap our heads, so to speak, around this issue and it is triggered today by the gospel reading taken from Luke 16. There are also some radical differences between the Catholic and non-Catholic approach on this issue.
LUKE 16 says:
19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. 20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
Now there are some who believe that this incident really took place. Among the 38 parables this is the only one where names are mentioned.
Now the first thing that comes out of this is that there is some sort of retributive factor in life. And it is all over the bible. This idea that people will be repaid in life for what they do. You don’t just do things and get away with it.
Abraham's obedient response to God's call resulted in his being blessed and becoming the mediator of blessing to all the world (Genesis 12:2-3
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.[a]
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”[b]
In the book of Genesis Adam and Eve are banished and cursed for their transgressions:
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
In the New Testament this idea of retribution continues:
Galatians 6. 7-8
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life
All of this brings us questions about the when and how of retribution.
So let’s get back to today’s gospel. Because the notion of heaven and hell are presented as the final result of God’s retributive action
19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. 20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.”
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has left Bible readers wondering why the rich man had to go to hell. We are not told how he acquired his wealth whether by fair or foul means. We are not told he was responsible for the poverty and misery of Lazarus. In fact we are not even told that Lazarus begged from him and he refused to help. We are not told he committed any crime or evil deed. All we are told is that he was feeding and clothing well as any other successful human being has a right to do. Why then did he go to hell?
The poor man Lazarus was lying at his gate. And the rich man simply couldn’t care less. “Whatever happens to him there outside the gate is none of my business,” he probably said to himself. “I mind my business. People should mind theirs.” Next, the rich man probably phoned the police to report that a stranger was loitering outside his gate. In the meantime dogs went and licked Lazarus’ wounds. And the poor man died. And the City came and picked his body and buried it in an unmarked grave. And the rich man went in and had another cup of coffee. Of course he did nothing against Lazarus. But he has failed to do a good deed. He failed to reach out and share a little of his blessings with someone in need. His sin is that of omission, and for that he was going to roast in hell.
“I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”
Which is precisely the point, he didn’t do anything. You can go to hell for not doing anything.
So what is this hell that we are speaking of? We have to be careful. Today there has been an attack on hell. The doctrine has been modified and rejected so radically that it is longer a serious threat. Some people have abolished hell. Priests and pastors don’t like to preach about it.
But is that true to the biblical record?
Luke 19.22 says:
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
There are several words in the Bible for hell the two most common are Sheol and Gehenna. Gehenna is a place of suffering and pain. A place of eternal torment
Sheol in Hebrew Hades in Greek is an intermediate state, a waiting place. When we say that Jesus descended into hell it is sheol he went to open the gates
But the teaching is that hell is a real place. It is not an illusion. It is a place of eternal torment as
Mark 9. 47-48 says:
It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’[a]
All those who have committed grave sin will go to hell. Hell is not just a theoretical possibility. Real people go there.
11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
What about heaven
I have three problems with heaven as depicted in popular culture:
According to the biblical record three assertions are made about heaven:
A RELATIONAL PLACE
A PLACE OF REWARD
So though our reading today is a parable there is a certain realism to what is being said. We are warned to take the notion of the afterlife with utter seriousness:
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:13–14).