This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.
One must understand the end toward which we are moving with God in order to interpret and understand the points along the biblical narrative’s trajectory.
In other words, if a person believes that eternity in Hell is the end toward which the majority of people throughout history are heading, then it is only natural that they would interpret specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible toward that end.
But, what if there is an end toward which we are moving that isn’t eternity in Hell?
And what if this end is the interpretive lens that will help us understand specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible differently?
I would suggest the end toward which we are moving, that is in line with the prophetic vision throughout scripture, has always been the restoration of all things.
It is the realization of a renewed cosmos in which God will be all in all, in which death will no longer prevail, and whole and healed individuals and relationships will flourish.
It is the belief that, at the right time, all things in heaven and earth will be brought together into perfect unity in the Christ, also known as the reconciliation of all things.
And this makes the goal of God’s justice restorative in nature, rather than retributive.
When I was in college and dating Jenny (who is now my wife), there was a Friday night in which we were planning to hang out. As the minutes, and then the hours, began to pass, I became increasingly impatient, frustrated, and angry that she was taking so long, not answering my phone calls, and basically ruining our Friday.
But after several hours of waiting in my room with no response, there was finally a knock at my door. And as she walked in, my anger was evident. I was fuming mad and peppering her with a litany of questions.
Where have you been?
What have you been doing?
Why are you so late?
Why didn’t you answer my calls?
I am certain I wasn’t listening to anything she was saying. There wasn’t an answer that would satisfy my anger.
But then, instead of trying to answer my questions, she just handed me a card.
And it wasn’t just any card.
It was a card that she had meticulously and patiently and lovingly crafted for me over the three previous hours. And it detailed, in overwhelming specificity, all the memorable moments we had shared together as a couple and how much she loved me.
I got very silent.
Like stick-my-foot-in-my-mouth silent.
And then, despite my anger and bewilderment, and the fact that it would have been easier for her to simply withhold the card, or just break up with me because I didn’t come close to deserving the card, she demonstrated her unwavering love by giving it to me anyway.
My anger turned to regret.
And it was her kindness, not her justified retaliation, that made me see my ugliness. It was her kindness, despite how I violated our relationship, that changed my heart.
When you are confronted with the reality of an undeserved kindness, it can be transformative.
And that is what we find in one of the most misunderstood parables of the Bible- The Rich Man and Lazarus. Many have used this moral story as a definitive proof text for eternity in Hell, but it is far from it.
In the parable are two characters- the rich man and Lazarus.
From the grave, or after his death, the rich man is confronted with how he treated Lazarus, a poor beggar, during his life. Upon facing the truth of how poorly he treated him, he was filled with sorrow.
So what do we know about this parable?
The rich man represents Israel. We know this because, in the last line, Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead.”
And like the majority of Jesus’ parables, this parable is an indictment of the arrogant religious leaders of Israel for how they viewed themselves and how they viewed and treated others. But more importantly, the parable is teaching them the necessity for living righteously in the present.
A few things to note.
In this parable we find words like Hades, torment and suffering.
So it seems pretty obvious that this parable is telling us about what eternity in Hell is like, right?
Not so fast.
What if I told you that, in facing the truth of his life, the rich man is being tested and refined? And what if I told that he is not being tormented by a wrathful God, but transformed and restored into a right relationship with God and others? And what if I told you that what he is experiencing is not suffering, but rather the pain of regret and the consuming sorrow of facing this truth about himself?
Well, that is what the biblical text actually suggests.
The rich man is experiencing odynáō, which is a Greek word that means consuming sorrow, not physical suffering.
More importantly, the word básanos, which is translated as torture in this parable, means a touchstone. A touchstone is a black silicon tablet, like slate, that is used to test the purity of soft metals.
To me, this implies that there is a process one goes through to determine the quality of one’s life.
This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes:
Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed (or tested) by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.
Interestingly, this is exactly what we find in another parable referred to as the Unmerciful Servant.
For context, Peter asks Jesus how many times a person ought to be forgiven. Jesus responds that we should not simply forgive seven times, but rather forgive “seventy times seven,” which is a direct reference to The Year of Jubilee within Judaism.
According to Jewish law, the Israelites were instructed to celebrate a Sabbath year at the beginning of every seventh year. This meant that every seventh year the land, animals, and people were to be given a rest from work. It was a time for rejuvenation and replenishment.
And then, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years (49 years) the people would celebrate by proclaiming freedom throughout the land, returning land to their original owners, and cancelling all debts. The poor would no longer be oppressed and all slaves would be set free.
This was The Year of Jubilee.
It was a time of resetting and righting inequities and injustices.
So what about a cycle of 70 Jubilees times seven?
Theologian NT Wright writes, “That sounds like the Jubilee of Jubilees! So, though 490 years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and lasting freedom.”
So to Peter, Jesus is suggesting that we keep forgiving until all is restored, that we keep forgiving until all is made right, that we keep forgiving until all are made free, that we keep forgiving until all are redeemed, and that we keep forgiving until every debt is paid.
That’s when he tells the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
It is a story about a king who forgives the debt of a servant who owes him ten thousand talents, or about twenty years worth of wages. The servant then goes to a fellow servant who owes him significantly less money and demands that he repay it immediately. But because his fellow servant could not repay it, he threw him in prison.
Based upon the context in which this parable was told, with the Jubilee of Jubilees hovering closely in the background, where do you think this parable is heading?
How do you expect the king to now treat his servant who was unmerciful to the other servant? And if the king represents God, how do you expect God to treat those who unmerciful to others?
The way the story is typically translated and understood by Christians is that, like the King, God will torture people in Hell who are unmerciful to others.
But shockingly, guess which word shows up in this parable?
It says that the king, in his settled, controlled anger (orgē), hands the slave over to the inquisitor, not to be tortured, but to face the truth of who he had become and to test the quality of his life until the debt is repaid.
But see, that is the kicker. What debt needs to be repaid to God?
The only debt that needs repaid is love.
In the context of the Jubilee of Jubilees, or in light of the “greatest redemption,” we know that God is a God of forgiving all debts in love, forgiving until all is restored in love, forgiving until all is made right in love, forgiving until all are made free in love, and forgiving until all are redeemed in love.
And that is the thing about facing the refining fire of God’s love, or facing the inquisitor, or being salted with fire, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is not for the sake of retribution and punishment. It is for the sake of individual transformation and wholly restoring a person into a right relationship with God and with others.
And to be honest, that’s why so many Christians misunderstand so many passages throughout the New Testament, because they read it as if the whole point is wrath and punishment rather than forgiveness, mercy, and restoration.
For instance, many Christians read Romans 9, not as a set of rhetorical questions that Paul is asking as a part of a larger thought, but as an apocalyptic horror story read without context in which God creates objects of wrath for the purpose of destruction.
I, however, read the larger thought of Romans 9-11 as a fitting end to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
It is about how God’s kindness and mercy will ultimately prevail and lead to Israel’s restoration, despite her unrighteousness.
In fact, Romans 11 ends by stating that, despite everyone’s disobedience and unrighteousness, God has “mercy on them all.”
Whether it is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus or the King and the Unmerciful Servant, or whether it is Jesus’ words about forgiveness and the Jubilee of Jubilees or Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, what we consistently find woven throughout every word and every account is a forgiving and merciful God who is always working for the restoration of people and relationships, who is always working toward Eden, who is always working toward shalom.
And it is this kindness of God that leads to repentance and transformation and whole and healed relationships.
Just like Jenny’s kindness when I didn’t deserve it.
It was her forgiveness and mercy that helped me see the truth of who I was and what I had become. Sure it produced a grief and sorrow within me that was painful to face. But it led to my own transformation and then to a restoration of our relationship… and then to a beautiful marriage with three kids.
The truth is that some people are able to discover the kindness and mercy of God, and then face the reality of who they have become. Some sooner than others. Some even be in this lifetime.
But whether it’s now or sometime in the future, we all will face the consuming fire of God’s love. But it’s not the fire of Hell for eternity we have been threatened with our whole lives.
I know a few of you were salivating and licking your chops, imagining that I left Hades dangling without address. No worries though. In HELL 8, we will finally get to HELL. Yes, we are going to go there. All the way.