Hell, the idea of hell, makes sense to me. It is not something I believe in myself, but I can understand why so many others do. Because hell is the promise of a moral order. Hell is a pledge of fairness in a manifestly unfair world. Hell says the jig is up to those who have made a joke of goodness and of decency and gotten away with it, gotten ahead even. Hell means that no one goes scot-free. Though evildoers may escape punishment in life, and though, yes, they may prosper, hell holds out to those who have been cheated, to those who have been wronged, to those who have been violated, hell holds out to them the hope that justice will yet win the day. Hell is a word of assurance to the victimized among us that their sufferings are seen by God, are wept over by God, are avenged by God. And Jesus honors this, our need to know that God will not be mocked. Jesus honors our need to know that the wreaking of grievous harm and horrible pain will not be met with impunity. Jesus honors our need to know that people who are kind, that people who are honest, that people who are generous, that people who are faithful will not, in the end, be proven fools.
The upright, the pure in heart will have their reward, and for the vile and reprehensible there will be a reckoning – it is this moral calculus which Jesus lifts up, which Jesus’ parable lifts up. It begins, Jesus’ parable begins, as a study of contrasts – there is a rich man, and a poor man, the one dressed to the nines, decked out as royalty, clad as a king, and the other exposed, with festering sores his only cover. The one feasts sumptuously, on three square meals and then some, eating his fill, and the other is famished, is starving, and is portrayed as being himself nearly eaten alive by packs of wild dogs. We might well assume that the wealthy man worked hard for what he had and that the wretch was a wastrel who reaped what he had sown. Indeed, the poor man’s longing for, pining for table scraps alludes to the story Jesus had only just told: about a prodigal son who sinned himself into penury, who, having hit rock bottom, would have crawled through pigsties for scraps and cast-off feed. So we might assume that justice is being served here, with one’s man life all but a heaven on earth, and the other’s a living hell. But there is a big pivot to this parable; Jesus confounds our assumptions. Evidently – appearances, as they do, sometimes deceiving, and with God alone privy to our hidden deeds and secret thoughts – evidently, the rich man is also a wicked man, perhaps a cruel, greedy, conniving man whose gains were ill-gotten, and the poor man knows affliction through no fault of his own.
For, as we see, in a great reversal of roles, when the two close their eyes upon this world and awaken, the rich man is in torment, and the poor man in glory. The one who wiled away his days eating, drinking, and making merry, the one who hosted those most splendid banquets and lavish feasts, he is the one we see reduced to grim ruin. Gone are the overflowing goblets, the rivers of well-aged wine; the rich man can now scarcely lift up his anguished gaze from the hellfire which engulfs him, can now only dream of a dribble of water. And the other, the louse who lay at the gate begging (and by the way, the word ‘lay’ is too weak a translation; the Greek is, literally, ‘was thrown down’ at the gate), the one who was thrown down, discarded as so much human refuse, he is gathered up, taken into the arms of angels, carried, held close, and ushered into yonder heaven, where there are, as the old Bibles put it, where there are many mansions. All told, Jesus’ parable shows us that whatever the fortunes in life of sinner and sinned-against, in death, they will face their fates, as deserved. Jesus’ parable puts forward a vision of perfect, sweet, poetic justice, a turning of the tables, par excellence. Its message is morally satisfying, the more so given the mismatch of blessings and woe that marked the men’s time on earth; in heaven and in hell, Jesus’s parable assures us, each finally receives his due.
I said at the start that hell makes sense to me, that, as Jesus’ parable shows, hell guarantees God’s promise of a moral order; I also said that, even so, I do not believe in hell. And the reason why, the whence of my incredulity is this parable of Jesus. My own yes-but-no on the matter of eternal damnation arises from this passage itself. Because at one and the same time, Jesus’ parable both teaches and subtly un-teaches the whole of the heaven/hell scaffolding. Look again with me: Lazarus and Abraham are in heaven. They should be strolling along streets of gold, playing harps, hugging great-great-grandparents, and praising God, but the cries of the damned rise up as if with the smoke from the hellfire and disturb the peace, troubling the spirits of the blessed. What Lazarus and Abraham hear up in heaven is not an angel choir holy-holy-holy-ing or singing hallelujah, rather, what they hear is the weeping and pleading of those in agony – help me!, please!, water!. The horrors of the underworld sour the mood in the sweet by-and-by. Pity for the suffering makes of paradise a hell all its own. And in the inferno, in the pit, in the realm of the unredeemable and depraved, the rich man is not cursing God, is not spewing forth blasphemies and expletives, he is begging that mercy be shown to his brothers. Love for his family lingers on. Love, which is of God, love lives on, in even this supposed bastion of godforsaken-ness. Love, which as Paul says, endures all things, is a bit of heaven there in hell.
Which is why I think: so much for that great and un-crossable chasm said to separate the two, separate heaven from hell. What separation is this, really? In Jesus’ parable, the weight of the pain of those in hell is borne, in part, by those in heaven, just as, so too is something of the goodness of God and of the glories of heaven tasted by those hell. They share together in a kind of fellowship, with one another … and with God – God, of whom the psalmist sings: If I ascend to heaven, You are there, and if I make my bed in the underworld, You are there, also; God, as the Apostle says, from whom nothing can ever separate us, neither angels, neither demons, neither heights, neither depths; God, as Peter preaches, for whom every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth; God, as the prophet foretells, whom all flesh shall see together. They share in a kind of fellowship, in a belonging-to-one-another-and-to-God, in a communion of kindred souls that transcends good and evil, heaven and hell, what is due and what is undeserved.
God’s presence, God’s love is, at the last, all in all. And to say that there is some barren corner of the universe beyond the sway of God’s healing, reconciling love, to say that there is some far reach of creation which God’s presence does not fill to overflowing, to say that God’s love, that God’s presence does not go all the way down, does not hit bedrock, does not inflame the lowest hell with fires of glory so that every gremlin or whatever falls on its face weeping praise, to say this is to speak heresy. To say that, when all is said and done, God’s love loses some, that God’s love loses is to speak heresy. God’s love leaves no one behind. God’s purifying, beautifying love burns the dross from all who, by the finally, simply irresistible pull of a goodness and a joy which brook no comparison, are drawn close, are drawn close to that One who is pure light. To come face to face with the fullness of Life itself and to be confronted by what we have made of our lives, to look into God’s eyes and see the sadness there, to see God cry for our sake, to cry for what we might have ben, to be with God, as we are, to be with God and to be taken into God’s arms, trembling, ashamed, frightened, small as we are – this will be mercy, this will be justice, this will be gladdening, this will be sorrowful, this will be reward, this will be punishment enough.