Our world finds hell too disturbing, too painful, too seemingly cruel, too convicting to talk about. Some pastors and teachers have watered down the orthodox teaching of hell, saying instead that hell is not painful, or not permanent, or not real. But Jesus’ teachings on hell are clear, and so are the lessons we need to learn from it. For the believer, if the reality of hell isn’t spurring on your evangelism, you don’t understand it well enough. And for the unbeliever, if the reality of hell isn’t causing you to turn to God for mercy, you haven’t yet realized the eternal judgment that right now awaits you—but can be avoided.
The Billionaire and the Beggar
The former Director of the CIA told the following story – true story – rather humorous – to this conference on global organized crime.
FBI Agents were conducting an investigation inside a San Diego psychiatric hospital, looking for evidence related to medical insurance fraud. After a long day, without having stopped so much as to eat a meal, as they reviewed thousands of medical records, one of the agents looked out the window and noticed there was a pizza parlor across the street.
So they pooled their money and this agent called over to order a delivery. The telephone conversation was recorded by the FBI, since they had been in the process of tapping all incoming and outgoing phone calls.
A pizza parlor employee – a young man – answers the phone and the agent says: “Hello. I’d like to order 19 pepperoni pizzas and 67 cans of coke.”
Pizza Guy says: “Okay – that’ll take about an hour – where would you like it delivered?”
“Across the street.”
“You want 19 pizzas delivered to the psychiatric hospital?”
“And who are you?”
“I’m an FBI agent.”
“You’re an FBI agent?”
“Yes, there are a number of FBI agents over here and we’re hungry.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right. And by the way, deliver the pizzas around at the back entrance – because the front doors are locked – we’ll see you soon.”
The Pizza guy said, “I don’t think so!” And he hung up.
I would too!
Have you ever thought about the fact that to our world today, to talk to them about the reality of a Creator God – the concept of coming judgment – the wrath of God and the judgment of an eternal Hell – most people out there today will assume you’re out of your mind. In fact, you might need professional help.
But if we’re honest, beloved, if it wasn’t for the Bible, and what God has described in His word, we wouldn’t believe it either.
But the truth is, the same Bible that introduces us to the truth about Heaven, and eternal joy, is the same Bible that introduces us to the truth about Hell, and eternal judgment.
Vance Havner, the evangelist from a generation ago, once preached in a country church on the subject of hell. After the service, a farmer came up to him, quite disturbed, and said, “Mr. Havner, I don’t think you should preach at all about hell – you oughtta just preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.” Vance Havner said, “Well, He’s the one who gave me the information – on the subject of hell.”
It’s true – Jesus spoke often of it – in fact, He warned His audience of it more than any other person in the New Testament.
J.I. Packer wrote, “Jesus is the chief exponent of the doctrine of eternal punishment; and since He created it – he knew what he was talking about; and he never forgot it or concealed the truth about it from his audience. (Edited from Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes (Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 428)
Jesus is about to give us the only testimony in scripture from someone who had died and gone to the place of torment. He’s going to reveal one of the most graphic and powerful warnings ever delivered to mankind.
You’ll find it in the gospel by Luke, chapter 16, where we left off before the summer series.
Now, before we dive in, this passage raises at least two immediate questions.
First, is this a parable? And second, is Hades a real place?
First, is this a parable? I don’t have time to give you all the opinions and answers out there, I only have time to give you the correct one.
One of the key reasons this is a real encounter is that in the Parables, the Lord never names anyone – they are clearly fictional characters, like the prodigal son or the man who discovers a valuable pearl, or the woman who loses a coin.
But in this text, Jesus gives us the name of the beggar – Lazarus. Now this isn’t the same Lazarus which Jesus raises from the dead. This is a different man.
Lazarus was a common name in those days. It’s the Greek form of the Old Testament name, Eliazar, and it means, “God is my helper”. That name will almost mock Lazarus here – it seems obvious that God isn’t helping him at all.
Now let me say – even if this was a parable – keep in mind that Jesus used parables to teach real truths.
And the truths the Lord delivers here effectively pull back the curtain and give us a glimpse of life after death.
By the way, what Jesus reveals here is consistent with His preaching on the subject of judgment and eternal torment.
In Matthew 13:36-42 we read that
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered … “The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Over in Matthew 25:46 Jesus says:
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Jesus uses the same word – eternal – for both punishment and life.
Now someone might say to us as Christians – you really shouldn’t talk about hell because you might scare people. Jesus wouldn’t want people to be afraid would He?
Listen to Jesus back in Luke chapter 12, and verse 5:
“But I will warn you whom to fear; fear Him who has authority to cast into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him!”
Sounds to me like He’s saying we ought to be afraid of standing before the judgment of a holy God.
Back in Matthew’s account, Jesus again says that we ought to fear God in His coming judgment; Jesus says:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Those who do not believe that hell and judgment are eternal will take this verse to mean that God will extinguish both the body and the soul after some length of time in torment, based on how wicked the person was in life.
That’s a philosophical argument, not an exegetical argument. In fact, Jesus makes a point to change the verb here – from “kill” to “destroy”.
The verb to destroy never means to annihilate, it means to bring to ruin – to bring it into corruption.
This is the same verb used earlier when Jesus referred to old wine skins being ruined and no longer able to do what they once did.
This verse is actually a warning that you ought to fear God more than people; because people might be able to kill your body – but God has designed eternal torment to affect both your material body, and your immaterial soul.
Your soul is your mind, emotions and will – your very person. Your physical body dies, but your soul lives on. People don’t have any power over your soul – but God does.
So Jesus is saying here that eternal judgment will bring every part of the unbeliever – both body and soul – material and immaterial – to utter ruin and corruption.
Whether Luke 16 is a parable or not – the content, the truth Jesus reveals in it, is consistent with the teaching of scripture.
So here’s the second question – what about Hades? Is that a real place.
And the answer is yes.
Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, when an Old Testament individual died, their souls lived on as well. Again, immortality is a distinct part of the human race.
Every person is made in the image of God – and part of what that means is that we are created eternal beings. So both believers and unbelievers will live forever.
Now the common Old Testament term for the realm where the souls of the dead went after the body died is called Sheol; the New Testament term is Hades.
Prior to the resurrection of Jesus, Hades is presented in scripture as having two compartments – one compartment is comfort, or Paradise, and the other compartment is torment.
Jesus will use the word “torment” four different times for the rich man. Lazarus ends up at Abraham’s side – that’s synonymous as the place of comfort or Paradise.
I would agree with many evangelical theologians that something significant took place at the resurrection of Jesus.
Now follow me here: when Jesus arose from the dead, he emptied the comfort side – the Paradise compartment of Hades; and victorious Jesus took all the Old Testament believers with Him to Heaven.
Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that:
When [Jesus] ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who descended is the One who also ascended far above the heavens/universe, that He might fill all things.”
So Jesus descended as it were into Hades – not to suffer, by the way. He never suffered in torment. Jesus never went to Hell to suffer – Jesus won the victory over sin and death from the moment He said, “It is finished”. He then you might remember, He committed His spirit – not into the hands of the devil, not into the confines of Hades, but into the hands of His Father – Luke 24:36.
Later on in the New Testament, the term Paradise becomes synonymous with Heaven. The apostle Paul talked about being caught up to Paradise, where he was given a tour of heaven (2 Corinthians 12:3).
So for us today, in this dispensation of the New Testament church age, all that is left of Hades is the torment side. To this day, when an unbeliever dies, their soul immediately goes to the holding place, so to speak, of Hades. It’s a holding place for the condemned who await their future judgement.
How do we know Hades still exists and unbelievers go there to await their future judgement?
Jesus says to the apostle John in Revelation chapter 1 and verse 18,
I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
At the end of the Book of Revelation, we’re shown that all the unbelieving souls of all time are resurrected and given their permanent immortal bodies; they are judged by Jesus Christ Himself, who sits on a Great White Throne; following that final judgment of all unbelievers, we’re told in Revelation chapter 20 and verse 14;
Then Death and – notice this – Hades were thrown in the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
In other words, death can’t hide anyone – the grave can’t conceal any unbeliever; Hades, the temporary holding place is now completely emptied as unbelieving humanity is thrown into the Hell.
In his commentary on Luke 16, Warren Wiersbe writes, Hades is a temporary jail, but Hell is the permanent prison for the unbeliever, and the suffering in both is real. (Edited from Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Courageous (Victor Books, 1989), p. 44)
Now for the believer, the Bible makes it clear that their souls go immediately to be with Christ in Heaven upon their death.
- The apostle Paul wrote, “To be absent from the body (in death) is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8);
- in Revelation 5, believers who’ve died are shown worshipping before the Lord – they’re not in limbo – they’re not sleeping – they’re fully awake and rejoicing in God’s presence;
- in Revelation chapter 6, believers who’ve been martyred during the tribulation period – they’ve just recently died – they are shown standing before God’s throne immediately upon their death.
So let me summarize this – and wrap up this introduction – every unbeliever who dies today, goes to the holding place of torment called Hades. The comfort side no longer exists, and believers today go immediately to the glory of Jesus Christ in Heaven.
Now Jesus begins this incredible description of life beyond the grave by introducing us to the first man, here in Luke 16 – notice verse 19:
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
This man is described as we might describe a billionaire today. He was dressed in purple.
A purple robe would cost 3 years of the average person’s annual salary. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 212)
The word here for fine linen is bussos which was the most expensive fabric known to the ancient world. (David E. Garland, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Zondervan, 2011), p. 669)
The word for feasting was reserved for the kind of banquet you might find at a wedding reception – the rich man ate this way 7 days a week.
Now his life is contrasted with the life of Lazarus, who’s probably never eaten one meal like this in his entire life.
We’re told here in verse 20 that:
At his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus…
The word for gate was used of temple gates, or gates to some vast estate – it more than likely included a gatehouse guarding the entry to this billionaires home – this was the most likely place for Lazarus to be seen – and hopefully, helped. (Edited from Garland, p. 670)
The expression here that Lazarus was laid at this gate, is the verb “to throw”. It implies that Lazarus has been abandoned there. You could put it: Lazarus was dumped off at the rich man’s gate. (Charles R. Swindoll, Insights from Luke (Zondervan, 2012), p. 399)
His only hope for survival is described here in verse 20:
Lazarus [was] covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.
This can be understood as the crumbs – the pieces of bread – that were left over.
In these days, everyone used their fingers when they ate in these days; the wealthy would wipe their fingers on pieces of bread which would be thrown away. (Barclay, p. 213)
So Lazarus is hoping to get some of that soiled bread to eat. He’s effectively living out of the dumpster.
If you don’t feel sorry for the hopeless and tragic picture given here yet, the Lord adds one more description in verse 21:
Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
Now don’t think to yourself, “Isn’t this nice – at least he’s found some nice dogs to keep him company.”
No – in these days people didn’t have pet dogs – dogs were scavengers; they ran wild – roaming in packs. They were dangerous. In fact, the New Testament uses the word dogs for evil unbelievers – treacherous false teachers.
Paul wrote in Philippians 3:2, “Beware of dogs – those evil workers”.
Dogs were considered unclean and dangerous.
Now if you don’t like dogs but you like cats – this is your favorite sermon ever. I had wanted to skip over this part.
So the picture Jesus is describing here is a man who is so weak and feeble – no doubt starving – that he can’t fend off the dogs who pester and no doubt frighten him.
Now verse 22:
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those you would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘they have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
I will quickly give you 9 observations from this description of life after death.
- Neither man went out of existence – they weren’t asleep in limbo – but fully alive.
We know from other passages that the immaterial soul/spirit is given a body whereby it can immediately experience enjoyment and food or suffering and thirst.
And that’s what happens here. Lazarus has a finger; the rich man feels heat; he’s thirsty – he wants cool water on his tongue. Abraham has a body too.
These are literal expressions of a temporary body given to the deceased upon death.
- Temporary bodies are recognizable and communication is rational in the afterlife.
The rich man recognizes Lazarus – in fact, he’s able to gather information that informs him that Lazarus is seated next to Abraham.
The rich man immediately begins talking to Abraham. He’s not communicating telepathically, or mystically, but physically, personally, rationally.
Three times, the rich man calls him, “Father” Abraham. And that isn’t because he learned a song about Father Abraham in Sunday school. He’s saying, “Hey, I’m related to you. I’m your physical descendant.”
And Abraham will acknowledge a physical connection by birth – but Abraham will deny any kind of spiritual connection by faith.
- Moments after death, a person is immediately aware of either torment or comfort.
The prevailing opinion in the Lord’s generation was that the spirit hovered over their deceased body for 3 days before moving on into the afterlife. That was simply superstition.
Paul’s statement that upon death, the soul – which is absent from the body – is immediately with the Lord.
- Life after death doesn’t eliminate someone’s personal memory.
We have this view that our minds are swept clean of any memory of life on earth. Our memories won’t ruin heaven for us – it’ll make the grace of God all the more wonderful.
Heaven isn’t ruined for Jesus because of His scars, retained in His hands and feet – they are reminders of His love.
Again, for this rich man to recognize Lazarus – that requires memory. He remembers this beggar he walked by, probably holding his nose.
In fact, his attitude doesn’t even change toward Lazarus – he still views Lazarus as incidental – nothing more than an errand boy. “Abraham, send Lazarus over to make my life more comfortable.”
For the believer, memory is part of eternity – our memories will be perfected in holiness – given the perspective of God’s wisdom – otherwise we’d never stop weeping over all our failures and sin as children of God.
But we will remember. In fact, memory will be necessary for the believer because the Judgment Seat of Christ will be a place where the believer is rewarded for profitable service for Christ during their lives on earth; that reward ceremony won’t mean anything if we have no memory of what happened.
The pastor/elder will receive a reward unique to that service (1 Peter 5:4); the martyr will receive a reward unique to their faithfulness unto death (James 1:12)
None of it would make any sense unless that elder or the martyr remembered their service.
You might notice here in verse 25 – this is one of the most tragic words from Abraham – where he says to this unbelieving man, “Remember!” “Remember your life on earth.
He’s gonna remember the services he sat through in the synagogue; conversations with followers of God. Pilate will remember Jesus standing before Him – so will Caiaphas and Judas. Memories will haunt the unredeemed.
- The chasm between Joy and Judgment is uncrossable, unchangeable and eternal.
Abraham says to this man, “You can’t come over here and Lazarus can’t come over there.” There is a chasm – and uncrossable, impassable region.
It’s fixed forever.
And would you notice that the rich man doesn’t protest his sentence. He doesn’t argue that he shouldn’t be there. And he doesn’t sit around saying, “This is a dream and I’ll wake up in a little while and this will be all over!”
This is an unchangeable verdict from God.
Dante wrote his epic poem in the 14th century called “The Divine Comedy”. In his poem he imagined a descent into Hell where he traveled the nine circles of suffering for sin and eventually ascended up into the levels of Purgatory where, after suffering, he finally emerges into Heaven.
Although the Roman Catholic leaders applauded his poem, primarily because it supported the concept of purgatory – which the Bible knows nothing about – and even though the western world took his poem as fact, it was still fiction.
There is no emergency exit – there is no post-mortem conversion.
And that leads me to observation #6:
- The reality of judgment made this rich man – and should make us – passionate evangelists.
This rich man remembers something else – he remembers he has five brothers. And he remembers that they are just as lost as he is!
He wants a miracle of resurrection, so they’ll be convinced! Abraham, do something! Send somebody. I don’t want my family following me here! They need to be saved!
I’ve had people tell me, “I’m gonna be with all my friends in Hell one day and we’re gonna party forever.”
Let me tell you, there’s no party in Hell. There are no friendships or relationships in Hell – only regrets, and sorrow.
But this man believes if his brothers had more evidence, they’d believe in God. But Abraham says, “No, they won’t” – here’s another observation:
- People are not in Hades because they lack information, but because of defiant rebellion.
They defy whatever they know to be true. The law of God written on their hearts – they hated it – they sinned against it. They ignored the complexity of creation all around them – they ignored that it pointed to a Creator.
The Jewish people had the Old Testament – which Abraham reminds this man – evidently a Jewish man – Moses and the Prophets were sufficient to lead someone to their Messiah, their Redeemer, the suffering Servant who was bruised for their iniquities.
And remember – the miracle of an empty tomb did occur – it didn’t change the heart of Caiaphas or Pilate or the Pharisees, or the citizens of Jerusalem.
In fact, Jesus will raise another man named Lazarus – ironically – from the dead – and what happens? The religious leaders will want to kill Lazarus to destroy the evidence! (John 12:10)
No these five brothers will defy everything – even someone from the dead – so they can live whichever way they wanna live.
And don’t miss this: even though this rich man now knows the reality of judgment and torment, he’s still defiant even here in Hades.
- He argues with Abraham.
- He never admits selfishness and guilt.
- He never apologizes to Lazarus.
- He never mentions sinning against God.
- In fact, he never mentions God.
He just argues with Abraham – “Moses and the prophets aren’t enough – God’s word isn’t enough.”
Our world is saying the same thing today. The Bible isn’t enough – it isn’t sufficient – it doesn’t know what it’s talking about – it’s legends and fairy tales – it’s all make believe!
That leads me to my 8th observation:
- There is no such thing as unbelief after death.
J.C. Ryle put it this way in his notes on this passage, more than 100 years ago, “Hell is truth known too late.
Everyone will be a believer one day –
- if you’ve never believed in the judgment of a holy God;
- if you’ve never believed in the reality of the wrath of God;
- if you’ve never believed in the reality of Hades and Heaven;
- if you’ve never believed that the Bible was telling the truth all along;
- you will believe all of that moments after you die – and it will be too late.
Your only hope and mine as well, is to receive the gift of salvation through faith in Christ alone.
- Even though acts of service will be rewarded, Heaven is not a reward – it is a gift.
For this impoverished beggar – Lazarus accomplished nothing in life that made him ever conceive of being given the seat next to Abraham – the seat of honor.
Here is this incredible reversal! Why?
Because in between the lines you discover “that this rich man had everything, but God. And Lazarus had nothing, but God.”(Adapted from Brownlow North, The Rich Man and Lazarus (The Banner of Truth Trust, original – 1859; reprint – 1960), p. 43)
Lazarus the beggar – abandoned – diseased – starving – alone – just think – the hymnwriter put it –
Like Lazarus – in a moment – there’s this eternal reversal – just think;
Of stepping on shore, and finding it Heaven;
Of touching a hand, and finding it God’s;
Of breathing new air, and finding it celestial;
Of waking up in glory and finding it home.