(The Destiny of Sinners)

(In September I wrote an article about Abraham's Bosom, (Luke 16:19-31). I gave a number of reasons why I believe this is an account of actual events, rather than simply a parable (a made-up story). One reader took issue with me. Here are his comments, and my responses.)

QUESTION: Doesn't the story of the rich man and Lazarus make more sense as a story about Israel's rejection of Christ than it does as a story about eternal reward and punishment?

The story doesn't say anything about either the rich man's or Lazarus' faith. According to the story the rich man is tormented simply because he is rich, while Lazarus is blessed simply because he was a beggar his whole life. If this story is about eternal reward and punishment, doesn't it nullify salvation by faith alone?

And why would God bother to put sinners in fiery torment immediately when they die only to resurrect them later, judge them and then send them to the lake of fire? Why take someone out of one fire pit just to put them into another?

And why are sinners punished unequally-Cain suffers more than someone who dies today, simply because Cain died at an earlier date, and thus has to spend more time in torment while waiting his resurrection?

I will not recognize or worship any God that is not just. Subjecting someone to an eternity of hellfire for a mere lifetime of sin is unjust.

Nobody is going to serve God simply because they are afraid of eternal torment in a lake of fire....Preachers that use eternal hellfire to threaten people into repentance are false preachers.

ANSWER: Thanks for your thoughtful response. You raise some interesting questions. I realize there are some who see this passage simply as another of the Lord's parables. But I think there's sufficient reason to believe it is describing actual happenings. Let me see if I can offer a few comments on what you've said.

1) You ask, "Doesn't the story of the rich man and Lazarus make more sense as a story about Israel's rejection of Christ?"
No, I don't think it does. Nothing is said, in the text about rejecting Christ, though the nation will certainly be called to account for that (Zech. 12:10). Nor is Israel as a nation the focus in the passage.

We are only told about the eternal destinies of two people. And the Lord's concern in the context is quite different. Riches and poverty take centre stage in the account for a significant reason. The Pharisees were "lovers of money," and they are the ones to whom Christ's words are addressed (vs. 14-15a).

The Pharisees became very rich by bending the Law to suit themselves (Matt. 23:14a; Mk. 7:9-13). They were also confident of their own righteousness, as they fanatically kept the minuscule man-made rules with which the Mosaic Covenant had become encrusted. (E.g. Was spitting to be considered work, and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath? Answer: To spit on rock was permitted, but spitting on the earth was like plowing, and therefore off limits!)

In the Old Testament, God promised that if Israel would keep His Law they would be materially blessed (Deut. 28:1-4, 11). But this promise was taken by some to mean that you could reason the other way round. That if an individual were rich, it meant God was pleased with him, that he was righteous. And if he were poor, it meant that he was wicked.

This issue is discussed at length in the book of Job. When all the material blessings were removed from righteous Job, his friends immediately concluded that he must have done something terribly wicked. The account of what happened to the rich man and Lazarus shows that such reasoning is a fallacy. At their deaths, the rich man is in torment in Hades, and Lazarus is resting in the bosom of Abraham.

2) You say, "The story doesn't say anything about either the rich man's or Lazarus' faith."
Though no direct comment is made on that score, the implication is so strong that nothing more specific need be said. The rich man ended up in torment. Therefore, he was not a righteous man, not a man of faith. Conversely, Lazarus ended up in the place of divine blessing. Therefore, he was a man of faith. A just God would not allow any other outcome for the two.

Also, I don't think it's reading too much into the account to say that vs. 19-21 imply a total lack of compassion on the part of the rich man for the suffering beggar at his gate. Caring for the poor was a commandment of the Law (Deut. 15:7). And while we are not saved by good works, it is clear from God's Word that our faith (or lack of it) is demonstrated and confirmed by how we live (Matt. 7:20; Jas. 2:20).

We can make a further inference from vs. 29-31. The problem with the rich man's brothers was that they had not heeded the Word of God. Again, it is not too big a leap to believe that the rich man likewise had ignored spiritual things. And if his brothers were hardened in their unwillingness to believe and obey the Scriptures, a ghostly visitor was not going to change their hearts.

3) You ask, "Doesn't [my interpretation] nullify salvation by faith alone?"
No, not at all. Sinners were saved by grace through faith in the Old Testament too (and these Jews were still living under the Old Covenant).

Before Christ died, His provision for dealing with sin was foreshadowed in the sacrificial system of the Law (cf. Lev. 1:3-4). When the offerings were presented in faith, they obtained real forgiveness for the offerer. But if the sacrifices were simply empty rituals, they were worse than meaningless. They were an abomination to God (I Sam. 15:22; Prov. 15:8; Isa. 1:10-11).

If these men refused to heed the Law, then they apparently did not avail themselves of the means God had provided for their cleansing. Even if they presented the sacrifices called for, but did so as empty rituals their sins remained unforgiven. That's an issue of faith, first and foremost.

4) You ask, "Why take someone out of one fire pit just to put them into another?"
As to this concern it is simply a matter of a sovereign God choosing to deal with all the unsaved of all the ages at one time, which He will at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15). At that time Hades, where the rich man was, will deliver up the dead that is in it (vs. 13), then Hades itself will be destroyed (vs. 14).

For some reason, it is important that the curtain come down on this present world's history, before final judgment is pronounced on lost sinners, and a new heaven and earth come into being (Rev. 21:1). We are not always able to explain why God does things as He does, but we can be assured that it is always the wisest and best way. It is, in fact, a sobering thing that the instant a sinner dies he enters a time of endless punishment, and that there is no room for repentance or change (Heb. 9:27; Rev. 22:11).

Your comment about Cain suffering eternal judgment longer than an unsaved person who dies today is interesting. The answer there is that eternity is so long that a few thousand years will seem less than an eye blink in comparison. A trillion trillion years from now, it will make no difference to those in the lake of fire that some have suffered a few years longer than others.

And perhaps, so far from Cain's time, we are unable to judge the true enormity of his sin. His father walked and talked with God, and no doubt communicated what he'd learned to his sons. Yet Cain was an unbeliever and history's first murderer.

Not only that, but it does seem that there may be some difference in the severity of God's eternal punishment of the lost. All not found in the Book of Life will be condemned (Rev. 20:15). However, the works of these individuals will be judged for some reason too (vs. 13).

5) Your phrase "a mere lifetime of sin," fails to grapple with the terrible state we are in.
"Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (Jas. 2:10). The sinner stands utterly guilty and "condemned already" before a holy God (Jn. 3:18, 36), with no hope outside of Christ (Eph. 2:12).

More than "a mere lifetime of sin" is in view, in any case. The whole human race (Christ apart) has been polluted by sin (Rom. 3:10-12). "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately [incurably] wicked" (Jer. 17:9). We sin because we're sinners, with a fallen sin nature. The wonder is not that God will save only a few of us, but that His grace extends to any.

I read some lines from the hymn Rock of Ages, recently, that struck me. The author says: "Foul I too the fountain fly, / Wash me, Saviour, or I die!" I was interested in that word "foul," so I looked it up in a dictionary, where I learned that it means: offensive, loathsome, stinking, dirty, soiled, morally polluted, and obscene." What a graphic description of the condition of the sinner! How we need the grace of God!

The Lord Jesus, in His years of earthly ministry, said more about hell than He did about heaven. He issued a sober warning. Was He therefore what you call a "false preacher"? Suppose a doctor says to his patient, "If you don't give up smoking, it's going to kill you." Is the physician "false," and lacking in compassion for that?

The inescapable truth is that sinners are destined for "everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). To preach about hell is not a matter of "threatening people into repentance." We must warn of eternal judgment with a broken heart, "as though God were pleading through us: we implore [beg others] on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:20).