Do I Have To Believe That? Hell and Judgment

by | Jan 15, 2023


Jarrett McLaughlin
Do I Have To Believe That? Hell and Judgment
January 15, 2023
Luke 16:19-31
Revelation 21: Selections

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

He called out, ‘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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”


This week we continue our sermon series called “Do I Have to Believe That?” In some ways, we pick up right where we left off after Meg engaged Predestination last week. Today we take on the topic of Hell and Judgment.
Who’s Excited?!?

If I get to frame the question:
Is it true that some are climbing a stairway to heaven?
Is it also true that some are on a highway to hell?
(Where are my dueling guitar solos?)

It may be tempting to say “let’s just discard the whole Hell concept,” but there are far too many places in Scripture that refer to some kind of judgment

Jesus painted pictures of a place of darkness where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

The Rich Man and Lazarus are separated by some fiery chasm that cannot be crossed.

Our second reading today comes from Revelation, chapter 21. Before we do let us pray.

God, your word is a lamp and a light, and sometimes it illuminates some unsettling things. We know you to be perfect justice and perfect mercy. Help us strike the proper balance. Amen.

Revelation 21: 7-12, 22-27

Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites…

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

This is the Word of the Lord.


“I just want to know if I ruined my chance,” he asked me, his emotions running close to the surface “I love my wife, I love my daughter more than anything…but what if all the things I’ve done will keep me away from them for eternity? Will I be shut out on the other side of the door forever?”

It was approaching 11:00 pm at the end of a very long day – probably not the best time to start this conversation – but his tone on the voicemail had sounded sufficiently despondent.

The voice belonged to Jason. He was a student in the youth group I led many years ago. I still remember him as the rambunctious, spiky-haired 7th grader who would jump up in the middle of a serious conversation and belt out “I Tell you what I want, what I really, really want – tell me what you want, want you really, really want…” So Yeah – the Spice Girls should tell you how long it had been.

But as I pressed the “call” button on my phone I wondered what would make that kid – now a grown man – sound so weary when he said that he needed to talk. It didn’t take long to realize that Jason was having something of a crisis of faith. It’s not that he was losing his faith, though. The problem was more that his faith terrified him.

You see, a friend of his had suddenly died the week before – massive heart attack while fixing breakfast one morning – just like that he was gone. And on the one hand Jason was sad about losing his friend, but the whole episode got him thinking about his own mortality. One thing led to another and before he knew it, Jason was face to face with his own sense of shame, his regret over a past that he could not change.

“Jarrett,” he said, “I just can’t tell you how shallow I was – I was the most selfish person I’ve ever known. And I’d love to tell you it’s because my parents didn’t hug me enough or they hugged me too much, but my parents are great, my family is great, I can’t explain how, but for a while there I was living for nobody but myself. Tell me that it’s not too late to undo that?”

It was an intense conversation – and quite a knot to untie. He was visibly and viscerally afraid of what might happen to him if he died – scared that his mistakes were beyond repair; scared that he was beyond repair.

Now I doubt many of us are paralyzed by this question on a daily basis. I’m pretty sure Jason is not paralyzed by this question on a daily basis. But for whatever reason, he was paralyzed by it at that moment.

And after pulling on several of the strings in this theological knot, trying to get at where this was all coming from, I finally asked him the question – “Jason, what do you do with this guilt and with this shame…biblically, spiritually?”

And even as I asked that question – I found myself thinking about the story in the Gospel of Luke about rich man and Lazarus.

The two men both die and find their roles quite reversed in the afterlife – poor, penniless Lazarus finds comfort in the presence of Abraham; the self-centered rich man finds himself in fiery torment.

“…between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” Abraham says, “so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so…”

With stories like this forming our idea of the afterlife – it’s no wonder Jason was having trouble sleeping. Which side of the chasm do I belong on? Have I already reached the point of no return? Can I come back from the person I once was?

I confess, listening to Jason agonize about this over the phone stirred within me a certain feeling of revulsion.
Here’s a young man – who was an exceptionally wonderful adolescent that I loved dearly; here is a young man who is now a devoted husband and father – and because he had a few years of self-centered living – he’s up at night worrying about his eternal soul!

The idea of God condemning some poor soul to an eternity of torment affronts our sense of compassion.
If God cannot be merciful, then what hope is there?

And though I remained calm and receptive on the phone, inside I was screaming “C’mon – Faith is supposed to set you free, not cripple you with guilt and shame!”

But I cannot argue with the fact that God does indeed judge – it’s written all over the pages of scripture and we cannot reach for the scissors just because we find certain parts distasteful.

Our calling is not to remove that which we find revolting. Our calling is to wrestle with any and every part of Scripture until it yields blessing, because in the end I believe that this is a book that is meant to bless us, not beat us up.

Rob Bell was an emerging evangelical superstar. He helmed a megachurch in Michigan that attracted 10,000 worshippers each weekend. Some hailed him as “the next Billy Graham.” All of that changed when he published the book Love Wins in 2015 where he wondered aloud whether a loving God would actually condemn billions of souls to eternal torment. The Evangelical church labelled him a heretic and much of that prestige evaporated overnight.

In one chapter of his book, Bell asks his readers to take a good, long look at this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
It’s easy to read this parable as a simple tale of moral reversal – of the tables turning in favor of the poor, of the rich getting exactly what they deserve. But if the judgment does nothing but turn the tables than I say that is far too small a vision for the life of the world to come. That’s not good news – that’s just revenge pure and simple.

Take a closer look and the problem with the rich man is not that he’s rich – it’s that he had Lazarus sitting right outside his gate every day and he never saw him. He never truly saw him…not as a human being at least. Lazarus was always something less – fit for nothing but table scraps, no more worthy of attention than the stray dogs that would lick his sores. The rich man is blind to poor Lazarus.

And in the afterlife – in spite of the dramatic reversal of fates, in spite of the fact that he is in torment and in spite of the fact that he can look right over and see Lazarus cradled like a beloved child in the arms of Father Abraham – in spite of all that – this rich man is still blind…even now he cannot see Lazarus as an equal. Apart from the flames, nothing seems to have changed for this rich man.

What would lead us to assume as much about the rich man? By the way he issues orders for Lazarus to do this and for Lazarus to do that. Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue. Send Lazarus to my brothers – the ones who are my equals – with a message of warning. Come here – Go there – Serve me.

Even in fiery torment, the man still sees himself as better than Lazarus. Would that this rich man could see himself as we, the readers, can see him…well, to borrow the words from my friend Jason, he might say “I was the most selfish person I’ve ever known.”

So – is there a great chasm set between the rich man and Lazarus – one that cannot be crossed? You bet there is…but the chasm is not of God’s design. The chasm exists in the heart of that nameless rich man.

Call it a failure of imagination on his part, but he will not be able to build a bridge to cross that chasm until he understands that Lazarus is his equal – if not in this world, then most certainly in the world to come.

Bell suggests that the chasm CAN always be crossed, anybody is welcome, but not until the one being judged can leave behind the baggage of this world – the assumptions, the prejudices, the categories of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ – that blind us to a common humanity. Those things simply will not fit in the Kingdom of Heaven.

And that is something our reading from Revelation chapter 21 picks up on – amidst all that talk about the glittering jewels of the New Jerusalem – which is to say, Heaven – amidst all of that beauty and finery there’s this troubling detail about those who are cast into the lake of fire that is the second death – the cowards, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers (sorry Dumbledore), the idolaters, and all the liars…wow – that is quite a list…and if you’re having a moment like my friend Jason, it’s the kind of list that might keep you up at night wondering if they’re talking about you.

But I have to wonder – maybe it’s not those people who aren’t allowed into the kingdom of heaven. Maybe it’s just that those behaviors cannot survive in Heaven. The behaviors are what will be consumed in the lake of fire.

I wonder if it’s not unlike our crawling tube with the children earlier – if you wish to come in, by all means you are welcome, but you cannot bring that baggage with you.

You cannot take all the lies and artifice we employ to feel superior to others; you cannot take the unfaithfulness that erodes all of our relationships;
you cannot take that urge to see another person destroyed;
you cannot take the prejudice that fuels hatred.
You’ll have to check all of that at the door.

Tucked away in this image of final judgment – right there in Revelation 21:25 – it’s easy to miss, but it says of the new Jerusalem, of the kingdom of heaven – “Its gates will never be shut.”
You are free to enter whenever you like – just remember that you have some baggage that you must check at the door. No liquids, gels or aerosol sprays beyond this point. If you can live with that – or perhaps when you can live with that – then you are free to enter.

Maybe that is Judgment. A forceful reminder of what you can and cannot bring with you – and before you accuse me of being soft, let us remember that some of that baggage will be very hard to leave behind.

I know that all of this flies in the face of the typical binary – sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell…and that it’s all riding on what you do today. Will you live for the Kingdom of Heaven today?

It’s interesting, though, to wonder “what if we always have the choice?” Both now and in the life to come. That at any point we could decide to leave behind the baggage of this world and start living for the Kingdom – yes, in the life to come, but also while we’re here in this world.

At the end of the day, I think that’s what Jesus hoped we’d do when he told that parable about the rich man and Lazarus; so that we might decide to live today like we’re already in Heaven. Sure we’ll fumble and fail, but we can get up tomorrow and try again.

“I just want to know if I ruined my chance,” Jason asked me, “Will I be shut out on the other side of the door forever?”

There’s never an easy time to have that conversation – and Lord knows I’m just as much in the dark as the next person. But here’s what I’m holding on to – a promise that “the doors to that city will never be shut.”

I’ll hold on to that promise – for myself, for Jason, for you.
Now, the way may be narrow.
Some of our baggage may not fit through the door.
It might be really difficult to put that baggage down.

But for now it is enough to know that God’s grace is deep and wide enough for You; that the door is always open.
That is enough for today. Amen.