Our text just can’t be for real. It provides content for a story book—that’s all. It in no way corresponds to reality. I’m sure that’s how many people might respond if they were asked the question whether or not what Jesus said in our text is true. Many people today don’t believe in the existence of heaven and hell—that includes people who consider themselves Christian.
Many people have more of a problem believing in the existence of hell than they do heaven. "If God exists and is a loving God how could He possibly send someone to hell? How could he have even created such a place? Hell is too severe a punishment for anyone. In the end everyone will be okay." This reflects the belief of many today.
So what do we do with what Jesus says in our text? Do we regard it as a story that we need not take seriously? Do we ignore it completely…just pretend that Jesus never said it and go on with life? Or does Jesus’ words merit our attention? My guess is you know what I’m going to say: our text merits our attention and deep contemplation.
Jesus said these words to encourage us to think about where we will spend eternity—either with Him forever or apart from Him forever. From our text we get an idea what existence will be like without God in the picture--nothing but pain and suffering. We get that understanding from what the rich man says in our text. He is extremely uncomfortable where he is. He realizes that it is a horrible place. He even asks Abraham to send Lazarus, who died and went to heaven, to comfort him. He doesn’t wish hell on anyone. As a matter of fact, he begs Abraham to send someone to warn his family so that they won’t end up where he is. So it certainly sounds like hell is a place we don’t want to end up in. That’s not where we want to go.
From our text we get the idea that hell is a real place. Of course, it isn’t located in our dimension of time and space reality, but it does exist. It’s not a pleasant place.
We could ask the question, why do heaven and hell have to exist in the first place? Why isn’t their something else after we die? Well, the obvious answer is that God created these two places. They are our rewards, so to speak, for the life we have lived on this earth. That means what we do now does matter. Our choices have eternal consequences. We aren’t autonomous units that are free to believe and do what we want without facing any consequences. In other words, we are accountable for all that we do before God, who determines where we spend eternity.
God didn’t create us to be exactly like Him. If we were exactly like Him, we would be able to call all the shots and make the rules when it comes to our eternal destiny. We wouldn’t have to answer to anyone. But that’s not the case. God has made us to be lower than He is. That means He calls all the shots. We have to play by His rules. He rewards or punishes us as He sees fit.
Now there are many people who believe they can defy God’s created order. We see a good example of that in our text for today. The rich man didn’t believe he was accountable to God for all of his actions. He believed he could treat others any way he saw fit. Look at how he treated Lazarus. The rich man had plenty to spare but gave nothing to Lazarus, who was in deep need. We see that the rich man paid the price as a result.
Heaven and hell exist as our reward or punishment for what we do on earth, which means that how we live does matter. If heaven and hell didn’t exist, then anyone could do as he pleased. And we could never hope for justice. All the Hitlers and Stalins of the world would be able to get away with all of their crimes against humanity. They wouldn’t have to pay the price for their actions if heaven and hell didn’t exist. Heaven and hell exist to show us that our God is a God of justice and gives to each person as he deserves.
Heaven and hell are permanent. If a person winds up in hell, for example, he can’t jump across into heaven. Our text makes this very clear. Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm separates the two and that those desiring to go from one to the other can’t. So where a person winds up after he dies is where he’ll stay forever.
Now if you ask me, shouldn’t this information about the afterlife deeply concern us? Shouldn’t it shape the way we live our lives and look at things in the world? What we do here determines where we’ll exist for eternity. That’s enough to blow one’s mind. Life as we live it has much more meaning than we ever thought. But I look out into the world and see how relatively few people give this much thought. They’re too busy living life in the moment. They’ll worry about the afterlife when they get older. Or they may never worry about it at all. "Whatever happens to me, so be it."
What an unfortunate philosophy to live by. I think what is even sadder is that warnings from the Lord don’t deter many people from living by such a philosophy. When the rich man found himself in hell, suddenly things got real for him. Hell was no laughing matter. It was a shame that he never heeded God’s warnings while he was alive on earth. He didn’t think it was important enough at the time. But he changed his tune in hell. He begged Abraham to send someone to his family to warn them. But what was Abraham’s response? "They have the Law and the prophets." In other words, they have the Bible which tells them how to live so that they won’t end up in hell. That is their warning.
Things haven’t changed. Today, we have God’s word in the Bible. It tells us what is and isn’t acceptable in God’s sight. It tells us about heaven and hell. So we can’t say that we’ve never been informed.
I hope that we will not take the warnings of our Lord lightly. Heaven and hell really exist. And all of us are going to spend eternity in one of two places. For our sakes I hope we all end up in heaven with Jesus. Now is the time to think about our eternal destiny.
I know this talk about hell can be unsettling. We don’t want to think about it, but it is to our advantage if we do. If we aren’t living for the Lord, we still have an opportunity to do so and avoid the fate of hell.
Now if we believe in the Lord, we don’t have to worry about hell. Jesus tells us that He will make sure we live with Him. That’s His promise to us. He didn’t come into the world to die on the cross and rise from the dead for no reason. He died for the world to see that He was serious about His promise to save us. Now if we believe His promise we have nothing to fear. We have heaven to look forward to.
Where did Lazarus find himself? He was carried to heaven by the angels because he believed in the Lord. Abraham wound up in heaven as well. Even though he had died some hundreds of years before Jesus told this parable, he was alive in heaven. This is what we have to look forward to.
I’m sure I’ve said nothing new. We’ve all been taught that heaven and hell are real places. We will end up in one of two places after we die. That’s not new to us. However, we need to be reminded of these places. Often times, we get caught up in the moment and live as if there is nothing beyond the end of our existence on earth. We need to stay focused on our spiritual destiny. Where we spend eternity will be a lot, lot longer than any time we spend on this earth. So it’s extremely important to get our act together now when it comes to our spiritual life.
May the Holy Spirit keep us steadfast in our faith in Jesus so that we will be able to enter heaven.