Reflections on Heaven and Hell

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  May 17, 2014

            There are many people who are absolutely certain who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Great formulas have been devised by Christians over the centuries to prevent people from ending up in eternal punishment, to determine who is at risk of such a fiery outcome at the end of their life, and legitimize how it is that those making and enforcing the rules for heavenly admission are sure to gain access.
            Pray the right prayer, attend the proper church, avoid the critical sins, give generously, love unconditionally, judge righteously, pray fervently, and follow the proper prescriptions laid out in the Bible and we can have all the assurance that we need that we will be going to heaven and not burning in hell. Right?
            Unfortunately, the answers are neither that simple, nor straightforward. Images of heaven and hell are very diverse throughout scripture. The symbolism and cultural influences imbedded in the biblical images of the afterlife and God’s judgment do not lend themselves to a single, solitary, and absolute doctrine. Consequently, when Christians talk of heaven and hell, we may not always be holding the same assumptions, the same doctrines, or the same perspectives.
            One of the many images of heaven and hell found in Scripture is a wonderful story told by Jesus. In Luke 16 Jesus offers a series of parables dealing with the Kingdom of God and among them he speaks of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus.
            Right from the beginning, we know something is up because the man of wealth, prominence, and luxury has no name in Jesus’ story. Yet the man society would rather forget and disown is given a name. Lazarus lives in absolute poverty, disease, and misery at the opulent gates of the rich man. At the time of his death, Lazarus is carried off into heaven to be with Abraham and the angels. At this point, his misery ends and he finds himself enjoying all the blessing that was denied him in his earthly life.
            The anonymous rich man also dies and finds a vastly different fate.  He finds himself in the realm of the dead and languishes in torment, fire, and misery. Amid his torment the rich man looks into heaven and sees Lazarus. Before, the rich man would ignore the poverty in his midst and now he addresses Abraham regarding Lazarus and calls him by name as he calls out for an order of service to his needs. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
            To this ardent demand for relief, the true character of the rich man’s heart is revealed and Abraham responds to say that a great chasm exists between them which cannot be crossed. Yet, it is not a chasm of time or space. It is a chasm of a closed and unrepentant heart. Even in the torments of hell, the heart of the rich man expects Lazarus to serve his needs—even to the point of leaving heaven to do so. Never once does the rich man repent of his ambivalence toward poor Lazarus or apologize to him for his past mistreatment of the destitute man at his doorstep. He simply demanded service.
            It is not the final say on the reality of heaven and hell, but the parable gives us a subtle and powerful reminder of what can more fully cut us off from God than perhaps anything else—our own cold, unrepentant, and self-centered hearts. Genuine compassion, empathy, and concern for all our human brothers and sisters right here in Carlsbad and throughout the world is perhaps more important for our salvation than any formula prayer or doctrinal principal.